The dot-com bubble was a hard time for businesses, a lot of companies especially start-ups went from overnight success to bankruptcy, a few survived while others were left hanging to what was left of their companies.
Even though, millions or perhaps billions were lost during the dot-com bubble, a lot of entrepreneurs also made their name during this time.
One of those entrepreneurs is Nina Hampson, Nina was the founder of Myla, an international luxury lingerie brand founded in 2000 during the dot.com bubble and after 6 years of building the startup into a multi-million pound business decided it was time move on and sold the business.
I recently caught up with Nina as she shares her entrepreneurial story with me and also the story behind her latest startup, Zinc.
Hi Nina, thanks for doing this with me, how are you doing?
I’m well, thanks. Currently in Dusseldorf and I’ve just discovered that it has the highest Japanese population of any city in Germany – which explains why the sushi’s so good.
Can you give us some background information on yourself? How did you get into business?
I wanted to be a wildlife photographer but can’t sit still, so I started out as a management consultant and quickly became interested in customer (rather than animal) behaviour analytics. I moved to a customer intelligence consultancy, a (then) small outfit called dunnhumby and worked as an analyst on the Tesco account. It was the late-90s and we trialled and implemented ground-breaking insight work (such as customer segmented pricing) which had a dramatic effect on Tesco’s business (and on dunnhumby!). It was there that I caught the retail bug, and met both my first, and my current business partner, Charlotte and Susan.
Who was your inspiration growing up and why?
My dad. He ran his own business from the age of 20 and taught me that it’s possible to achieve your dreams, with hard work, some luck and a dose of imagination.
You started Myla in 2000 and sold it in 2006, tell me about that period in your life and your experience running the business? It was during the dot-com bubble, things must have been crazy then?
It was a rollercoaster! Typically, the dot.com bubble burst at the time we were raising money for Myla. Not surprisingly it was a tough market. But Charlotte and I were very focused on what we wanted to achieve- Armani meets Ann Summers - and it took off very quickly. A steep learning curve would have been an understatement! We taught ourselves product development, sourcing, buying & merchandising and retail/mail-order/web management. Inevitably we made a few mistakes on the way, but we worked well as a team and had a shared vision, which was key to Myla’s success.
Why did you decide to sell the company in 2006?
Myla had become a very strong brand. We had great product and had a good UK business, but cash flow is critical in retail. We’d opened our first store in the USA and realised that we were over-stretched. We needed investment from an experienced partner to help us roll out distribution. The plan was to stay and grow Myla with them, but that didn’t pan out….!
What would you say were some of the key things you learnt from that experience?
It’s really obvious but focus on getting the basics right. It’s not always the most exciting aspect of business but it’s easy to get distracted by exciting things that cost you money, rather than make you money.
Invest in your best people. Recruiting good people is hard so when you find a star then develop them. Once you’ve gained their trust, don’t let them down and if you make a recruitment mistake (easily done!) then end the relationship quickly.
Love your customers. They pay your salary! If you work in retail then the best way to learn about your customers is by serving them in-store, if you think you’re above working in a shop then you’re in the wrong job.
Looking back and comparing it to now, what are some of the things that have changed in running a business or in building a successful company?
On the upside, you don’t have to have grey hair and wear a suit to be taken. But, on the downside, I do think we suffer from ‘always-on’ syndrome! So, we insist on retro-meeting etiquette – you know - where everyone actually listens to what’s being said and contributes, rather than looking at emails on their phone or tapping away on their laptop….
Let’s talk about Zinc, tell me how the idea came about?
I was working with my business partners, Susan and Stephen Rose who co-founded the customer intelligence company, 5one. When they sold 5one, we decided to start afresh and launch Zinc with Stephen Jones who is an expert in Change Management.
So many companies collect data yet don’t necessarily have the systems, experience or culture to turn this into customer knowledge and profitable actions. Most consultancies specialise in providing a solution to one of these challenges. We recognise that many businesses struggle to identify what solutions they need (and would make them money!) in the first place, and this is where Zinc’s strength and value lies.
What were you doing before you founded Zinc?
Having a nap on a beach in Devon!
What is Zinc and how does it work?
We’re an advisory firm with a difference, as we believe that all businesses should be built on a strong foundation of customer knowledge. We help companies understand how they can translate their data into customer knowledge, turn this knowledge into real actions and support them through the cultural change needed to sustain this in the long term.
So in non-technical speak, we look at client’s data, show them what they can do with it, tell them what it means and how they make money from it. Then help them change their business processes and culture.
What is your business model?
Staying focused and happy – anything else is boring!
What makes Zinc different from any service out there?
We are world-class experts in our field who provide jargon-feel practical advice that drives bottom-line profitability. A rarity in consulting.
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
Developing our client relationships and delivering top quality work to them so that they continue to work with us, and refer us to others. We get a lot of word of mouth referral, so we must be doing something right!
Would you say the business has changed from the first initial idea?
Our initial idea of what Zinc would be remains the same, but we are constantly evolving the business. We like to stay ahead of the game so we put a lot of effort into enriching our methodologies and finding new, smarter ways of approaching our clients’ issues.
How have you been able to fund the business?
Our start-up costs were minimal (laptops and phones). We worked from home for the first year and paid ourselves when we had money, so Zinc has funded itself from inception. Having a client from day one also helped!
What has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far
So many highlights. Opening our first Myla store, winning various business awards (doing the photo-shoot for Vogue’s Superwomen of Fashion in 2005 always sticks in my mind) and more recently, Zinc winning projects over the big management consultancies – a great feeling!
What can we be expecting from your company in 2012?
More of the same. We’ll continue to build our client base, grow our team and get a bigger office. We also have a few exciting new projects in the pipeline but I’ll have to tell you about these in the future!
What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
1. Be focused. Write a business plan with financials – then double the costs and halve the revenues and see if you are still making money
2. Work smarter, not harder. Running a business is hard work, so understanding when you are at your most productive is key. The same task can take me 15mins or 1.5hours depending on my mood. Knowing this helps me plan my day more effectively and now I don’t waste time staring at my Mac when I know I’d be better off in the gym…
3. Have the courage of your convictions. You know your business the best. Know your market. Know your customers. There will still be times when you feel like you’re winging it, this is all part of being an Entrepreneur so enjoy the ride!