Emma Little has grown ExecSpace, her venue booking business, through one of the worst recessions Britain has ever seen, as Peter Ranscombe discovers.
Successful businesses can begin in the strangest of places – for Emma Little, chief executive at Leith-based venue finder ExecSpace, that place was a vending machine cupboard. “It really was where they used to keep the vending machines,” laughs Little. “I couldn’t afford to rent a whole office when I first started out and so I convinced the building manager to move the vending machines into a different room so I could rent the cupboard that they used to be kept in. The room was only big enough to take two desks.”
But, as the old saying goes, from tiny acorns grow mighty oaks. ExecSpace has now expanded to employ 15 staff and is on course to turn over £7.2m this year. Little has presided over double-digit revenue growth each year since she founded the business in 2008, steering her company through the worst recession in living memory and collecting some big-name blue-chip clients along the way, including temporary power supplier Aggreko, oil and gas explorer Cairn Energy, and financial services giant Standard Life. Her website is littered with testimonials from other satisfied customers.
Late last year, ExecSpace picked up a contract that has the potential to transform the business. The firm won a place on the Scottish Government’s procurement framework, displacing FTSE100 outsourcing giant Capita.
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Winning a space on the framework means that government departments, non-departmental public bodies, local councils and some education institutions can use Little’s company. Since ExecSpace took over the contract in January, the firm has been four-times busier than it expected. “We’ve had 36 organisations using us so far since January,” says Little. “They’ve been very positive about their experiences and they’ve commented that the service is ‘night and day’ compared with other agents and going direct.
ExecSpace’s services will be unfamiliar to the chief executives, managing directors and other senior figures who simply turn-up at meetings or other events without a second thought of how they were organised; but to the personal assistants (PAs), event planners and other companies, ExecSpace will have saved their bacon on more than one occasion.
The agency finds venues for conferences and other events, promising to give its clients three quotes within 24 hours. Little cut her teeth in business by selling £1,500 vacuum cleaners door-to-door, she spent nearly five years with mobile phone giant Vodafone, culminating in being the corporate account manager for its relationship with Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).
“I was doing well at Vodafone and I spoke to my boss about the next step,” explains Little. “That would have involved moving down to Vodafone’s head office in Newbury, but I didn’t want to leave Scotland. So I started looking at big companies that were based in Scotland, like RBS and HBOS, but back then there were rumours that perhaps even these big banks would be bought by American rivals and so I could end up moving down south or overseas.
“I knew that if I wanted to stay in Scotland but still be in charge of a large company then I needed to start my own business. I had lunch in Leeds with Simon Pollard, a telecoms entrepreneur who left BT and has built up his own business over about ten years to have £10m of turnover. I liked the look of his lifestyle and so, on the drive back up to Edinburgh, I deliberately put my thinking cap on about what kind of business I could start.
“While I was driving, I came up with the idea for ExecSpace. I’d seen the trouble that my PA had experienced in booking venues for meetings and other events. I genuinely thought I’d invented the concept. That was on the Friday night and so on the Saturday morning I got up at 4am and started doing my research. I soon realised that the market was already saturated, but none of the companies were receiving good feedback from their customers or the venues.”
Little knew she’d spotted a gap in the market. She handed in her notice at Vodafone and drew up a list of all the things she would need to do. “My list was 120 rows long on a spreadsheet,” Little smiles. “When you sit down and type it all out like that then it looks like a mountain to climb and you’d always be putting it off because there’d be something good to watch on the telly.
“There was a lot to do and I still wanted to do a good job at Vodafone because that was important to me and I still wanted to see my family and friends. I had to give six months’ notice, so I broke it down and did five things from the list each week.”
Little started her business with £45,000 – her entire life savings. She admits freely to knowing nothing about the events market when she began her company. “Lindsay, my partner, says my best quality is that I’m not too proud to ask questions – if I don’t know how to do something then I’ve got no problem in asking someone who does,” says Little.
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The first client on the phone was Glasgow-based temporary power supplier Aggreko, the generator provider run for 11 years until 2014 by the colourful Rupert Soames, one of Sir Winston Churchill’s grandsons. Aggreko needed a venue for a financial conference and Little set to work.
But she had a wee bit of help along the way. “My mum was approaching retirement and so I asked her to come and answer the phone for me,” Little laughs. “I got her to use her maiden name, Ann Scott, so that no-one would know she was my mum. I knew that if we were to get a ‘foot in the door’ with some of those large corporates then, despite having zero reputation, we’d need to create the impression we were bigger than we were.”
Family is important to Little. Even during her busiest periods, when she has worked 16-hour days for six days a week, she’s always prioritised seeing her family on a Sunday. She describes her parents as her best friends and loves being an auntie to her ten-year-old niece and her nephews, who are six years old and four months old. She’s also excited at being a godparent for the first time after her best friend – who she’s known since they were teenagers – had a baby just a few weeks back. Photographs of family gatherings line the wall next to Little’s desk in her office in Leith, providing inspiration and a smile on the tougher days at work.
“This is more than a business for me,” admits Little. “This is what I believe I was built to do – build a bloody big business. But, at the end of the day, if it all ended tomorrow then my family would still be there for me. Business is business, but family trumps everything.”
The importance of maintaining family life is clearly one of the biggest lessons Little has learned while she’s been scaling-up the size of her business, but it’s not the only one. “Getting the right team around you is so important,” she says. “In the past I’ve hired too quickly and sacked too slowly. Now, it’s the other way around. If someone resigns or goes then instead of immediately picking up the phone to the recruitment agency I’ll stop and ask ‘They were expensive – is there a smarter way of getting a better result?’
“Hiring the right staff is one of the hardest parts of running a business. You get people who walk through the door and think they’re hard workers and ambitious, but they’re really not. In a large company, they can gloss over that, but not in a small business. It’s important to recruit staff based on their attitude and their values. That’s always been how I’ve recruited junior staff, but it’s just as important for senior staff too.
“We have our ‘ten commandments’ at ExecSpace and the first commandment is that if you’re not growing the bottom line or you’re not doing something to make a customer happy then you’re just fannying around and you should stop it”. Those ‘ten commandments’ will make for interesting reading for any entrepreneur. They consist of: listen to what your clients want and deliver it; always deliver what you promise; go the extra mile; be thoughtful; have manners; make sure you’re doing your best work; be punctual and well prepared; don’t take advantage of the venues; and a salutary lesson for a recruit to any business – ‘half-arsed is crap’.
Finding the right staff might be tough, but Little rewards those who work hard. “Paying well and frequently above industry average has always been important to me for rewarding good people,” she says. “I’ve given pay rises during the recession that were far above what staff would have got in other companies in our sector. It’s important to look after your good guys. I see things like that as being very black and white – if you do right by me and my business then I’ll do right by you.”
Scaling-up the business has also meant bringing on board investment. In 2013, ExecSpace secured a six-figure investment from Bradenham Partners, the Buckinghamshire-based private equity firm founded by Keith Wilson, Ian Morrison and David Robb. Bradenham also holds investments in Edinburgh-based recyclable packaging maker Vegware and Dumbarton-based Advanced Display Solutions (ADS) Interactive.
Little – who had previously turned down an investment from a business angel in 2011 – was introduced to Wilson by Paul Mason, founder of corporate finance firm Lomond Advisory and a former financier at Brewin Dolphin, Deutsche Bank and Quayle Munro.
Last March, Little also brought on board £700,000 of growth funding from the Scottish Loan Fund, one of former First Minister Alex Salmond’s flagship ventures, which is managed by Maven Capital Partners in Glasgow.
“Raising investment is hard work,” admits Little. “You read about deals in the newspaper and you think it’s all really straight forward, but I know a lot of those deals would have been on their knees eight or nine times before they were finally signed. But if you’re going to grow your business then you need investment – I don’t know of any company with ambitions to grow that has managed it without finance.”
When Little founded ExecSpace, her dream was to build a FTSE100 company in Scotland. After eight years in business, that dream has quite naturally evolved. “I know that I’m not good enough yet but, when the time comes, I don’t think I could put up with the politics of running a PLC anyway,” she admits. “But I still want to grow a bloody big business here in Scotland.”
While recruiting the right staff and raising investment are among the growing pains for almost all growing businesses, there have been a few lighter lessons that Little has learned along the way too. “If you’ve only got £45,000 to start a business then don’t spend £17,000 on a launch party at Harvey Nichols,” she laughs.
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