Co-founder Sophie Cornish on defying the naysayers
Every time Sophie Cornish and Holly Tucker got rejections for their business Notonthehighstreet.com, they would write names of the naysayers on a chit and put it in a “You’ll be sorry” box.
But did the uninterested lot have a lot to be sorry for? Yes they did.
When it launched in April 2006, Notonthehighstreet.com – a marketplace for independent craft businesses – got some 16,000 visitors in its first day alone. Today, the Richmond-based business employs 100 people and 3,000 businesses list on the site.
Log on to the site and you come across everything cute and quirky including an ‘I found you’ keychain, a ‘My side Your Side’ pillow case or a light-bulb shaped vase.
Starting the business from a kitchen table wasn’t easy for the duo. They pooled together £70,000 before launching, by “begging, borrowing and raiding their savings”.
The business got its first wave of institutional investment from Spark Ventures in 2007 – an undisclosed amount. Then in 2010, it raised another £7.5m from ASOS and NET-A-PORTER investors Index Ventures and US-based Greylock Partners, which also boasts investments in Facebook and LinkedIn.
Carrying on their funding extravaganza, the site secured £10m in a funding round led by Fidelity Growth Partners Europe and supported by Index Ventures and Greylock Partners last year.
When I speak to Sophie Cornish, she doesn’t reveal her personal stake or the turnover of the company, but she tells me that the business has “cumulatively turned over £100m since 2006”. But can it ever become a £100m-turnover company? I aim to find out.
Q. Hi Sophie! First up, how did you come up with the idea of launching Notonthehighstreet.com?
My business partner Holly Tucker and I worked together in advertising 16 years ago, we made a great team but went separate ways. Holly went on to set up a shopping events business in upmarket areas in the capital and I became a freelance consumer journalist working for various magazines. I also spent some time running an events-styling business and writing a book about weddings. Doing these different things made me very conscious of the consumer and media appetite for small creative businesses.
So in 2003, when Holly and I spoke about a gap in the market to represent small businesses, things naturally fell into place. There was never a ‘Hey! Let’s set up a business’ moment for us, it was more the understanding and passion for small businesses that brought us together.
Q. So, 16,000 visitors on the first day, how did you manage that?
We were blown away by the initial response and saw our inbox full of thousands of emails in just one day. There are few factors that made it big, some people were generally interested and prior to launch, we built up interest through email marketing and a lot of press coverage. We got a lot of love for small businesses and saw at least 100 firms coming in every day.
Q. But with you running out of funds in the first year, it’s been a bit of a bumpy ride hasn’t it ?
(laughs) It’s been a bit of a white knuckle ride, I’d say. You see, whenever I’m asked for business tips, the first thing I say is ‘However much money you think you need, double it’. That’s what we learnt in our first few months. What we didn’t realise is what the initial crackling response would cost us. We started with 100 businesses and ended up with several 100 businesses on the site. I think we were the victims of our own success and got so many businesses interested in the site but we just didn’t have the funds to invest in marketing for them in the early days.
So sadly, we saw the fans run out and there were days where we couldn’t see what could save us. We were already employing a lot of people and felt incredibly committed to the business. We didn’t get a lot of sleep for quite a long time and went around London giving repeatedly what we thought was a presentation of our lives to various potential investors.
The day we met Tom Teichman, chairman of Spark Ventures, was when things turned around. Tom, who was one of the first investors of Lastminute.com, saw a ‘spark’ in us and put in that first bit of important funding.
Q. As suggested in various media reports, is Notonthehighstreet actually worth £100m?
We never ever came up with that figure, I don’t know where the media got that from. What we say is, our all-time turnover since we started is cumulatively £100m. So, one way or the other we can call ourselves a £100m company.
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Q. What’s your business model?
We are a marketplace and we don’t fulfil orders, sell or transact on our own behalf. We get a commission on a sale made by businesses listed with us. Also, there’s a joining fee for the site which includes getting businesses trained up to use our system.
Q. How does your partnership work, who’s more bossy of the two?
Holly and I always got on really well. Life’s too short to fret and sweat and minor annoyances are there today and will be gone tomorrow. The reason why our working relationship works is because we have huge amount of respect for each other. We have very complimentary skills and know each other’s areas of expertise. Also, we share this insanely obsessive commitment to the business that really bonds us together.
We’ve never compartmentalised work, we play on our strengths. Holly brought the small business perspective and both of us felt passionately about them. My history in developing customer brands made me lean towards identifying what the customer really wants and I think I get out of bed every day for that.
Q. Are ASOS and NET-A-PORTER competition?
I think they are awesome businesses and taught lots of us in e-commerce but we’re very different in just about every possible way. I feel we are naturally companions.
Q. You’ve been banging the drum for women in business, what annoys you most about the perception of working women today?
I think, dare I say, a little conspiracy theory is going on where working women can be portrayed as the role model of a super human who’s always happy and has struck the most amazing balance. I don’t think it works like that. Only a few days back, I was invited to speak at a major conference which is very exciting. Attending the conference would mean that I would be away a day before my son takes his GCSEs. It’s an opportunity to be a role model and to share my experience as opposed to staying at home and asking my son ‘Will you be alright? Do you have pens and paper?’ I know for sure that even if I was home all day that day, my son wouldn’t even notice.
With the best will in the world, there’s no optimal balance you can achieve.
Women in business need to stop beating themselves up. This idea of us looking really beautiful, dressing immaculately, be doing Yoga 5 o clock every and then running a multimillion company is very unfair.
Q. There’s this general perception that women don’t understand finance, what do you think?
Well, we understand finances and the bits we don’t understand at the beginning of the day, we make sure we understand them by the end of the day. Of course, we’ve met people who were intimidating but you’ve just got to let that roll off your back. For people who don’t think women understand finance, it’s their loss really.
Also, I think even in a financial presentation, you need to show inve
stors you understand the customer and that you know what’s going to make them buy – that’s just as important.
Q. What are your future plans? Is international expansion on the cards?
We already do a percentage of our transactions globally and have naturally picked up some international traffic. We are working on serious plans but don’t want to rush it. Having said that, the potential of this business is without bounds and there never feels a limit of what we can do.
This year, we’re looking at another successful year and are expecting a pretty exponential growth.
Thanks for you time Sophie!
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