The day we interviewed Laura Tenison MBE, Founder of JoJo Maman Bébé

At TechHub, we are incredibly lucky to be able to chat to and learn from our community of inspirational entrepreneurs every single day.

It's not every day though, that we get the opportunity to interview serial entrepreneur Laura Tenison MBE, Founder and MD of hugely successful maternity and baby chain JoJo Maman Bébé.

When I first got this opportunity, I wondered what we should ask Laura. Do we ask about how she scaled her business from £50k initial investment to have £65m turnover and over 80 stores? One of our focuses is on helping our members scale so this seemed a good starting point. Do we ask how she grew into so many new markets? (Jojo has customers in 50 countries across the globe, a busy website, and a wholly owned US subsidiary.) Again, it seemed a good question as we want to help our Founders grow internationally, especially with the opening of TechHub NYC. Then I thought...why am I thinking of topics our Founders might want to know about when I can just let them ask what they want for themselves, so without further ado, and with a HUGE THANK YOU to Laura for her time, our first Founder AMA is below...

Q. John Bentley, Founder, elbo
What was the vision for JoJo at the start of your journey and why?

A. I was 26 years old and had been scraping a living whilst running small businesses for 10 years. My vision was to make great designs, sell at reasonable price points and offer great customer service and a fun work environment.

Q. Chris Wallis, Founder, Intruder
Why did you decided to grow JoJo organically? Was that a proactive choice not to go for more funding, or was the organic growth so stellar that you didn't need more funding?

A. To be honest I was just being bloody minded! In the early years of my business life I was desperately underfunded and the banks refused to help much. When we were no longer in need they became keen to lend – by then we took perverse pleasure in refusing the offer!

Q. Ben Curwen, BDM, NearSt
At the early stage of growth, did you face a particular pivot point/major watershed moment and how did you handle it?

A. Yes! In our early years we were selling in £ and buying mostly in Francs (pre-Euro). Stirling devalued dramatically and I was left insolvent having set my price points for the next 6 months and committed to my purchase prices. I had to re-mortgage my house or close the business down. I decided to put the house on the line. Our margin was wiped out overnight! Since then we have hedged or optioned our currency buying – it’s quite fun, like having a large flutter and means that watching world markets and political news has an extra dimension.

Q. Sarah Jane, Business Development, PlanSnap
From an operations point, how did you find the growth and expansion? What people and procedures did you put into place to assist with this?

A. This is an ongoing issue. We have grown on average 20% a year for 25 years; operational constraints are cyclical. We expand, we grow into the new facilities, we outgrow them. It appears to be exceptionally hard to find individuals who are good at strategic planning for this pretty standard problem, and we have struggle this past year to cope with demand. But we are getting there … I would suggest that everything should start with having good data and good analysts. It’s easy to see what is going wrong, just very hard to put it right when you are frantically busy. The solution is to plan and be prepared for the growth spurt when it comes.

Q. Sarah Jane, Business Development, PlanSnap
How did you keep your values and your culture as your scaled?

A. We are still growing fast and it gets harder everyday but we have become a Certified B Corporation which now underpins our ethos via our Company Statutes. We have to pass a stringent audit to gain this hard to achieve status which evaluates our remit to put people and the planet above profit.

Q. Ben Curwen, BDM, NearSt
The role of initial Founder to running a £65 million international business are quite different. How have you found the transition to a large company personally, and how did you manage choices over delegation. Was it hard to let go of control of certain areas?

A. We are not a large company yet! We do our best to maintain our values and keep our feet firmly on the ground. I micromanage too much and work round the clock, so I’m probably not the right CEO for the brand as we grow. My board are amazing, they run their teams and I try to let them get on with their jobs, only jumping in to help when needed. I’m really Jack of all trades – the board are Masters of theirs.

Q. Ravi, Founder, PoochPlay
What are the top three challenges you face as a brand?

A. Growing pains, design and IP protection & IT infrastructure.

Q. Ben Curwen, BDM, NearSt
How did you/the company approach branching out into other geographic regions and how did you assess product and location for different cultures? (.e.g France is very different to USA)

A. We set up 10 landing pages in 10 languages in 10 territories. We invested £10k in PPC for each one, subsidising our P&P charges as we were dispatching from the UK. We tested, we reviewed, we re-acted and rolled out. Market research is essential.

Q. Ben Curwen, BDM, NearSt
Where do you see technology creating the greatest opportunities for your business?

A. Personalisation is very exciting. With great data a retailer can target their customers, offering them what they need when they need it. Its unbelievably exciting how many possibilities there are to grow a business these days.

Q. Jack Dow, Founder, Grapevine
What would your advice be to founders re: raising money, giving away equity and the 'give as little as you can away' vs 'get enough for a decent run rate so you aren't always raising' dilemma?

A. This question is not really relevant to JoJo since we have mostly grown organically. But we have had a fantastic minority investor who left us to run the business whilst being on hand if we wanted help or advice. We chose this partner not because they offered the highest valuation, but because they were the best fit. We traded votes on the board for cash and it proved invaluable to us. We grew the business the way we felt we wanted to. I would suggest that it is better to grow slowly and safely then have a large investment to burn. Growing organically comes with the obvious discipline of having to be efficient and find a good ROI.

Q. Ben Curwen, BDM, NearSt
Given the mixed fortunes of high streets, what advice would you give to founders that are at least in part reliant on bricks and mortar?

A. Omni channel is the only way forwards. Know your customers, learn their shopping trends and offer them the right format to suit – which may mean a very complicated business. Life used to be easy: Design a great product put it on a shelf and open the door. Sadly, us retailers have moved into a high tech world where the consumer (and by default we) never sleep!

Q. John Bentley, Founder, elbo
What is the most important business advice you received / experience you have gained from your journey and would like to pass on?

A. Never sell to Amazon!

Q. Sarah Jane, Business Development, PlanSnap
What's the best piece of advice you can give to entrepreneurs going into business?

A. Stay true to your brand and don’t sell your soul. If you don’t have faith in your product how can you market it?

Q. Dan Chorlton, Founder, GOA Marketing
If you started your business again now, what would you do differently?

A. I would never choose a niche market! Whilst we are lucky to have so few competitors we are also in a difficult market sector. Strange though it sounds, I think women’s fashion is probably the best market; it may appear overcrowded, but so few people offer a point of difference.

Q. John Bentley, Founder, elbo
Do you recall any heart vs head moments. If so what were they, did you follow heart or head and do you feel it was right to do so?

Lots and lots - and the heart always wins! But you can do well whilst doing good so having a big heart is no bad thing. Running your business as a force for good pays good dividends.

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