It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle choice
Jess Butcher, a co-founder at Blippar and Tick, admits that at one point she had worked with so many start-up internet businesses that she worried her CV looked a mess. However, when it came to building her own business, it was just the grounding she needed. She talks to Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame about how she has built her career.
Jess grew up in an entrepreneurial household. Although her father was a politician by day, he enjoyed a ‘side hustle’ – investing in a rock opera, sitting on the board of media companies.
In this spirit, after university (where she got a history degree) she set up an ezine. She had watched the emerging culture in dotcom with interest. She saw plenty of others setting up technology businesses without a viable business model and admits she was no exception: “There was no monetisation plan in place. I persisted for no more than three to four months before I realised it was a waste of time.”
However, this early experience encouraged her to look at ways of creating new businesses. She moved to an internet consultancy, which gave her an invaluable insight into concepts such as the ‘burn rate’. Having lived and breathed a start-up business for two years, she emerged with real insight into running a business of that kind.
Jess continued to be fascinated with the disruption Internet businesses could achieve. She spent almost a decade moving from start-up to start-up, learning more at every place: “I would do the marketing and communications for fast-growing, start-up businesses. The only consistency was that I was on the front-end. I addressed the consumer behaviour and adoption challenge. It was a ‘messy’ CV, moving on every eighteen months to two years. I was quite embarrassed! Nevertheless, it made me a good generalist. I knew a little bit about a lot of things.”
She continued to wait for the ‘thunderbolt’ idea. In the end, it came when she took time out of work rather than when she was sitting at a desk. She started her first business in Kenya on a year out. It was a responsible tourism company, taking people to the tea plantations and fishing villages, rather than the conventional tourism routes of safaris and beaches. She used her marketing and sales skills to repackage African holidays. “It was an MBA in kind,” she says.
When she came back, a former colleague approached her about a start-up, focusing on augmented reality. Finally, it was the thunderbolt moment. The pair, along with two others, launched Blippar and built it over the next five years, opening eight different offices and raising £100m of funding. She left the business after five years: “I had three children in four years and 100-hour working weeks were no longer feasible. Also, I don’t see myself as a scale-up entrepreneur. I like business-building and creating something from nothing. There were better people than me to take the business forward, with greater depth of knowledge. I wanted to be the rainmaker for companies, rather than the day to day stresses of fund-raising and management.”
Jess had planned to build a portfolio career and spent time as an angel investor, mentoring, consulting and public-speaking, advocating for women in technology and entrepreneurship. But it didn’t quite work out as she‘d planned - during the course of her mentoring commitments, she met two entrepreneurs and had another thunderbolt moment. She is now nine months into her latest venture, Tick. Tick is a micro-video platform on a mission to empower a billion people with a million new skills, by cutting through the vastness of the internet. It wants to inspire us without overwhelming us with adverts, information and click-bait.
“Things are different this time around with a young family. I simply don’t have the time to give the business the 100-hour work weeks and the single-minded focus I had ten years ago. I need to work a more standard nine-to-five timetable, focus more on the macro, bigger-picture issues and weave family commitments into my working day and vice versa... it’s messier but it’s working. I’m incredibly thankful for business partners who have the time and energy to support me and manage the micro details!”
She has worked with a lot of entrepreneurs over the years. She believes the best ones tend to be self-aware, understanding their own strengths and weaknesses and what is achievable: “They tend to be good, generalist thinkers. Once they have their vision, they can work out how to do it. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle choice. It’s poorly paid, with no work/life balance, so you need to be passionate about what you do and the problem you are trying to solve. Most importantly, she says, they need to be focused on the problem and not the solution: “Good entrepreneurs pivot the solution to meet the problem, rather than believing their own hype.”
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