Tricia Fox knows how to take a brand new business idea and turn it into a highly successful business.
A true serial entrepreneur, Tricia has done this not once, but several times.
And with risk comes reward but also the possibility of disappointment. Tricia is candid about all aspects of her business life the good times and the downturns.
It is refreshing to hear a successful businesswoman acknowledging that life is not always a bed of roses, that business is not always just an upward path.
The key feature of such entrepreneurs is that they always bounce back and Tricia continues to do this in style.
We enjoyed a coffee in rural Perthshire while Tricia told her story.
So take me back to your University days
I studied English at Aberdeen University because I enjoyed reading! At that stage I had no real idea of what career I wanted to follow and was studying for enjoyment rather than as a means to an end. Marketing started to take a hold during my undergraduate life and I became heavily involved in the public relations operation of the university theatre company, Centre Stage. Having caught the marketing bug I headed off to study a Masters in Marketing at Strathclyde University. By this time my ideas were starting to crystallize and went on to take a Phd in Branding at Bradford University.
I didn’t complete my Phd I’ve always been a worker and have rarely held just one job at a time! Through university I had three jobs in order to earn money! While I was studying branding I was also working on a business idea. It was 1999/2000, the height of the dot com boom in the UK and I had what was a brilliant idea. I had developed an on-line marketplace specifically for students. It was a fabulous idea, I even had some great domains registered. The only problem was that Richard Branson launched virginstudent.com before I could get my idea to market. It was a disappointment but a clear indication that my interests were veering away from the academic so, after 9 months of the Phd I decided to leave.
What then? Did you start a business immediately?
No. The straightforward option for me at that time, with my level of academic expertise was to join a top flight management consultancy, which is what I did. As a consultant with CRM UK and later with SECOR I had access to the very top level. I was only 23 yet I was in the boardrooms of many Blue Chip companies advising senior directors on the best marketing strategies for their organisations. This introduction to the top at such an early stage of my career had a big influence on me. It allowed me to see that senior executives are human too and took away the fear that can sometimes affect new businesses when they approach larger ones.
Consultancy at that time was well-paid and prestigious. So why leave?
A couple of things really. First of all the hours were getting ridiculous. Catching planes to exotic places everyday sounds glamourous but it soon palls. And I had a boss, a female boss incidentally, who seem determined to undermine both my work and my confidence and so I decided to leave. While I was working my notice I was contacted by a former colleague from AMEC and offered a contract to help a new company, Petrotechnics, that he’d started working for, with their PR. It sounded like a great idea but I had no idea how to start a business and I had only three weeks to get up and running in order to be able to accept, and invoice for, the contract I’d been offered! Fortunately my grandmother had been in business and pointed me in the direction of her accountant and Thunder Communications was born. I was really happy with the way things were going, in addition to Petrothechnics I had some great clients like AMEC and THUS, and from my home base in Perth I started to network with other business people.
To begin with four of us, me, an event manager, a personal shopper and a theatre agent, meeting in a restaurant in the town once a month. I came up with the name ‘Bacon and Eggs Entrepreneurs‘, as a bit of a laugh as we met at 9.00am, after the school run, and it wasn’t long before group had grown to a stage where we were taking the full upper floor of a city centre restaurant for our networking events in Perth. We figured that if the idea worked in Perth it would probably work in the nearby city of Dundee. We organised an event, promoted solely by word of mouth, in Dundee and the room we had booked was jammed packed solid with people happily networking away before we had even arrived! We realised that we were on to a winning idea and quickly opened branches across Scotland.
And how were the meetings run/financed?
We had a membership model with people paying an annual fee to be part of the group. There were no speakers, no agenda, no tea and sandwiches. The events were just for networking. In this way everyone in the room was there for just one thing – to network! I think that this was the secret of their success. Quite often at events were there are speakers and refreshments some people are only there to meet the speaker and some there just for the food. At our events everyone was open to talk and share ideas and make connections with everyone else. I attended every meeting and in some senses I became the brand so I bought out my fellow directors and decided to expand throughout the UK. In order to do this I needed investment and approached a business angel. In hindsight this is where the problems started but I cannot say that it was a wrong decision. To grow there was no alternative to seeking finance and, as a result, losing some control.
The first problem was that the promised investment of cash didn’t come in quickly and so some of the debts that the company had built up as it grew, including thousands of pounds owed to me personally, remained unpaid. Instead the money was fed in gradually and spent on infrastructure, hiring full-time meeting organisers rather than using freelance event planners, and investment in growth seemed minimal. I was sure that this was not the right way to go but my new business partner was more experienced in this area and I decided to go along with these changes. As the company grew we decided to shop around for a better deal from the banks. What I hadn’t realised was that, since the company still owed me money and that the debt was against my credit cards, it was considered that I had personal debt and the new bankers would not advance funding if a director had personal debts at that level. I was the major shareholder and as a director I was obliged to put the company’s interests above my own, so I stepped down as a director in order to secure the finance. This was a very bad move. Be warned. Shareholders have minimal powers compared to directors. In a very short space of time my shareholding was marginalised and I found myself out of the company, taking no IP, no benefits and still with considerable personal debt. The company never repaid the money I had invested from the beginning.
What happened next?
A 3 month period of staying home, cooking meals and not knowing where to turn followed by a trip to Marks and Spencer. I had decided to buy a swiss roll, cheap chocolate at only £1 per roll, to cheer myself up. At the checkout I bumped into a former colleague who suggested I tender for the PR contract that was up for grabs at our local shopping mall. I did. While waiting for the outcome of that bid I was approached with opportunity to tender for the PR and marketing contracts for the Enchanted Forest, Scotland’s premier sound and light event that takes place each October in Highland Perthshire and, putting aside my antipathy towards local government tenders, I put in a bid for both contracts. I won all three contracts and Volpa was reborn.
It’s been two years since then and the economic conditions are pretty harsh right now. Don’t let anyone say that the banks are lending again because they are not! At least not round here. Business continues to be a challenge but I love it and as well as working to build my own business I work with the Princes Scottish Youth Business Trust to help inspire the entrepreneurs of the future.
And as a true serial entrepreneur what else would I do? I’m always looking for new ideas, new skills, new networks, new opportunities.