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Thursday, December 1, 2022

An Invitation to Meet… Holly Tucker MBE

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H

olly Tucker has a problem with time.

“I used to forget what year I was in,” she confides while talking about the hectic early days of founding Not on the High Street, one of the world’s first online marketplaces. “I basically had myself firmly planted in the future.”

She says “used to” but later in the interview, while talking about how she’s going to work until the age of 90, she tells me she’s still got “another 35 years to go!”. Shortly after the recording, she sends me an email correcting it to 45.

“Was obviously feeling older than I am this morning!” she adds, but you are left wondering if her mind isn’t making plans somewhere ten years ahead of the rest of her.

This is the woman who, 16 years ago, sat with co-founder Sophie Cornish at the kitchen table and sketched out the concept for a web-based trading site for artisan sellers when Amazon was still flogging books and Etsy didn’t exist.

“People didn’t really still like putting their credit card details into a shopping portal. It was before Instagram, before social media,” she says. “When we first spoke to banks, they’d never heard of an online marketplace.”

Living in the future, and describing it to those of us who can’t, is something Holly’s been doing for a very long time. She credits her storytelling skills to the success of Not on the High Street and her small business advice company Holly & Co, founded in 2017.

“Let’s remember the power of a story,” she says. “It’s how we as humans connect, it’s what allows information to travel. What part of a story gets someone going? Is it emotional? Has it got its highs and lows? And that’s something that over the last 20 years, I have definitely worked as a skill.”

We’re talking for the Evening Standard’s business podcast, “An Invitation to Meet…” and Holly’s bubbling over with tales to tell. Standing in front of a huge world map that covers the wall behind her, she switches between earnest tones and full-throated laughter throughout, ably demonstrating that “storytelling muscle”.

She’s great fun but there’s one tiny moment in the conversation when I wonder if I get just a hint of what it’s like to get in her way. We’re talking about her book, ‘Do What You Love, Love What You Do’, and she’s explaining why she told her publisher it had to be in colour.

“Oh, that’s expensive,” I say

“Yeah, it is expensive!” she says with a sudden insistent voice. “But it had to be done.”

We’re both laughing, but it does feel like the echo of a real debate somewhere down the line. One Holly had no intention of losing (and clearly didn’t).

Her own story is among the great SME legends: married, divorced and diagnosed with a brain tumour before she was 25, she graduated from making vegetable wreaths to setting up local fairs, and then teaming up with Cornish to build the Not on the High Street site with £70,000 each of loans, home re-mortgages, and cash from friends and family. 16,000 people descended on the first day. It broke.

That journey is well documented in the many interviews Holly has given over the years, but what I’m interested in isn’t so much the A-Z of start-up to success, it’s the bit in the middle: why didn’t she walk away?

“There is not one founder who has not literally been brought to their knees by their business,” she admits. What got her through was a sense of responsibility to those people using Not on the High Street for their own business. It’s estimated around 200 companies trading on the site have £1 million turnovers. She’s made a lot of people rich.

“When you do something like that, you really work for them. You have an obligation to them,” she says. “You are creating something that they now need in order to succeed in their lives and their dreams. The purpose of your organisation needs to be far greater than yourself. That’s what gets you out of bed.”

She speaks about the Not on the High Street “community” almost like they were all in a small town, working together to make something bigger. If that site’s the local market, then her most recent venture Holly & Co would be the café. It’s even got one for real in Twickenham.

The Work/Shop, as they call it, serves tea and cake with its small business advice. The frontage harks back to the glory days of the real High Street, with its bright blue paintwork and vintage-style lettering in gold. No two visits are the same because every month they overhaul the décor to match whatever issue they’re campaigning on. When we recorded in January, the windows were decked out with “Take a Break to Create” messaging. The previous month, they’d been filled with multi-coloured bunting to promote the diversity that independent traders bring to the streets.

She says the company’s a way of addressing the issues she faced 16 years ago when looking for help to start a business. It was inspired, she says, by George Cadbury who, with his brother Richard, built the Bourneville model village near Birmingham for their chocolate factory staff to live in.

“If I needed to build a village that this person, virtually, would live in, what would it be?” she asks. “So, I knew that you had to be able to listen to proper soulful business stories, like Desert Island Discs but for business. You needed to hear from me, probably, every single day about the highs and lows of building Holly & Co. I knew that you needed to be able to go to events, not in a hotel room with a beer, but events in churches. Have Gospel choirs!”

It wasn’t designed to be specifically for women, but Holly says the majority of people using the platform are female entrepreneurs. That’s fine with her. Just one percent of venture capital funding goes into companies run by women and she asks me to “imagine what it was like 16 years ago when Sophie and I were raising our first round?” She talks about the 2019 report into female entrepreneurship by NatWest boss Alison Rose (the first woman to lead one of the big four banks), which says up to £250 billion would be added to the UK economy if women started businesses at the same rate as men.

Holly’s frustrated at the persistent blockages that women face when looking for funding. But she also recognises that while lots of women might want advice from a female entrepreneur who built a multi-million pound business, not all of them want to be the next Holly Tucker. Some are quite happy at the smaller scale. And that’s fine with her, too.

“There’s a lot of women that I’m working with, building brilliant businesses… but potentially are not looking to go and float that company,” she says. “We will have a surge of hard-working women who are building micro-businesses or small businesses that are highly ambitious but also, they get to spend time with their children and actually they have carved out a life that maybe they want to lead.”

You can’t really say the woman nicknamed “Hurricane Holly” is slowing down herself, but she’s clearly made some lifestyle changes. In 2017, she stayed on the board of Not on the High Street but stepped away from the 13-hour days that being CEO of a company of that scale brings. She’s their “Chief Inspirator” now. The Holly & Co Work/Shop is based near her home at St Margarets, where she lives with her husband, Frank, and teenage son, Harry. She could probably hang up the sparkly trainers she reportedly bought after deciding to ditch the high heels at work. But that’s not the future Holly Tucker sees.

“Some would say I’ve been in this long enough,” she says. “Actually, I’ve just begun. I’m interested in what are the other bits of business that we haven’t tapped into ever, which would then stimulate women and men to start businesses. To go for it. To understand that we have 29,000 days on this planet and we deserve to be happy.”

That’s why she’s going to work until she’s 90. Don’t be too surprised if when she gets there, she’s got plans for 100.

You can hear Holly’s entire interview in “An Invitation to Meet…”, available in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also see Holly yourself when she appears at our SME EXPO event. It’s being held at Olympia London on May 25th and 26th, with lots more speakers… some of whom will be featured in future episodes of the podcast. Get more details and free tickets here.

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