Karen Birch

karenbirchbw-245x300I’m often asked to speak at meetings and conferences about my entrepreneurial journey; partly as it hasn’t been a straightforward career path, more crazy paving as a colleague once observed, and partly as the lessons I have learned serve as inspiration and warnings to other entrepreneurs.

The journey can be separated into 8 Lessons from Life which will show how to take advantage of opportunities, to embrace change and to create success.

  • Lesson 1: A problem became an opportunity and the money was an added bonus!

I often hear entrepreneurs telling stories of how they knew they were going to be entrepreneurs; you know the kind of thing – they sold sweets to their pals in the playground or charged them to listen to their record collection. I too can demonstrate early entrepreneurship, although I don’t really view it quite like that. When I was growing up I wanted a guinea pig, and so that she wasn’t lonely, I persuaded my parents to buy another.

I had two happy little girl guinea pigs until one day I discovered a third, much smaller guinea pig in the hutch and realised that one of my girls must be a boy! They continued to breed, producing 4-8 little piglets every couple of months. Naturally I wasn’t allowed to keep them, so I sold them to the local pet shop for 50p each! Early entrepreneurship? Maybe, but I prefer to look at it as early problem solving. If I wasn’t to be swamped by guinea pigs, like the tribbles that overran The USS Enterprise in Star Trek, I had to do something.

  • Lesson 2: There’s a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune. (Shakespeare)

My schooling is a book in itself but ended conventionally enough with me heading to university to study Zoology. I worked as a medical microbiologist, water treatment engineer, marketing manager and became a board member of a multi-national pharmaceutical company by the time I was 29. While working I studied for an MBA – two nights a week for three years. Hard work but, if asked, I always recommend that people study management while they are doing management rather than tacking a post graduate management degree onto the end of their student life.

People often say to me. “I couldn’t do what you have done” and I always disagree. Most of us don’t court change. Most of us like security and avoid change and I wasn’t any different. However, aged 29 I split from my husband and decided that “now was as good a time as any” to start my own business. I’d an idea that at some point I might like to work for myself and at this stage of my life, there was no good reason not to take that chance.

  • Lesson 3: “Life is all about timing … the unreachable becomes reachable, the unavailable become available, the unattainable… attainable.” (Stacey Charter)

As a marketing manager in a medical company I’d commissioned advertising and promotional material from a number of large agencies. What I’d found is that I ended up doing most of the work and paying them! They didn’t understand the medical terms. They were good at selling bread or beer or bathrooms but were clueless when it came to medical equipment. So, I established a highly successful marketing agency to cater for the needs of the emerging biotechnology sector; most notably being involved from the first with PPL Therapeutics of Dolly The Sheep fame. Yes, I’d had a good idea which would always have made a good business, but biotechnology was booming at that time and the combination of right idea at the right time made it a great business.

  • Lesson 4: Get yourself out there! Be visible, be useful!

As the companies I had helped to grow grew I was faced with the dilemma of growing with them, taking on extra staff in order to handle larger and more complex tasks, or concentrating on start ups. While pondering this issue I was head-hunted to lead the biotechnology industry association in Scotland, a role I combined with helping new companies to bring technologies from university to market. “That was a lucky break, dropping into that job” a number of people said at the time…hmmmm? I was already on the board as a non-exec and gave advice and support, free of charge, to help the organisation present a professional image to its members. It’s as Gary Player says “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” In other words; Get yourself out there! Be visible, be useful!

  • Lesson 5: Don’t flog a dead horse.

While I was with the association I was also working with my partner developing CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software and small business accounts packages. The applications were fantastic, the market was just starting to develop, so the timing was right, BUT there was no way we had the resources to launch these products into a market dominated by large companies, like Kalamazoo and Sage. Sometimes even the right idea at the right time isn’t enough. My dad always reckons that he invented the hovercraft. He didn’t, of course. He had an idea about transport on an air cushion and as a chemist/physicist a good idea about how this could be achieved. He didn’t, though, have the resources to build a prototype, never mind build a hovercraft. So despite having a good product, we stopped, or rather we changed direction.

  • Lesson 6: Be clear about your goal but be flexible about how you go about achieving it.

There was a new and exciting technology emerging at that time which allowed small companies, like ours, to reach a global market, cheaply and efficiently. It was called the internet. I was still working with the industry association but following a trip to Florida, where even Shamu the killer whale at sea world had a website, I decided to join my partner in the internet adventure full-time. The idea was to develop shopping cart software which would allow companies to design their own website and sell their goods safely and securely on the internet. I can almost hear you saying, “Big Deal”.

This was 1995. Only Amazon was really selling on line. There was only one other piece of software that did what we wanted to do; and that was from a US based company and it was really difficult to adapt to UK commerce. We developed an absolutely fantastic piece of software which had built in templates for bespoke web design, remote and secure access to orders and order processing, currency exchangers, mailing list manager, built in affiliates programme…you name it, the software could do it. We spoke at conferences alongside the guys from Amazon explaining how this technology would change the way we shopped, we advised the Scottish Parliament on the strategy it would adopt in this new market…..and we sold hardly any software packages.

Did I mention that this was 1995? Yes. Companies in Scotland hardly had e-mail let alone the abilty to sell their products on-line. So once again we switched track and set up a retail company to prove the principle to potential software buyers that you could sell goods on line. Very quickly the company grew to become Scotland’s leading Internet retailer, selling Scottish goods world-wide and winning many awards along the way!

  • Lesson 7: Make an Impression

I retired from e-commerce in 2006 to concentrate on my artwork and now sell my work in galleries across the country. With this very different business I learned another, vital lesson, the importance of making an impact in a new market.
I make sculptures out of clay that look like lizards emerging from driftwood.

As you can see they are very distinctive! I quickly became known as “The Lizard Lady!”

  • Lesson 8: Always be prepared to start again!

I’ve always maintained that the key skill for an entrepreneur was ‘bounciness‘! Like Tigger, we are always up and enthusiastic for new adventures and if you knock us down we get right back up again!

So, a new venture was suggested ( by my brother Phil actually, who apart from being a fantastic business consultant writes under Ethiconomics here ), and I was coaxed from my semi-retirement to launch the3rdi magazine.

I am also a co-operative business development consultant, working with community projects, particular women-led co-operatives.  I am an Advisory Board Member at Co-Operative Development Scotland and Chair at Glasgow Women’s Library. I am also on the steering committee for Fair Trade Perth and Kinross and for Changing the Chemistry, a peer-to-peer support network aimed at increasing board diversity.

My in-box is always open to new ideas, new connections and new collaborations and I am on twitter and LinkedIn so please do contact me if you feel that I can help you in your journey.

Karen x

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