The New IT Girls

By at home

These web-wise women changed career and knuckled down to set up sought-after services on the Internet.

Maxine Benson, 43, and Karen Gill, 44, from London, launched www.everywoman.co.uk in 1999, which gives advice to women in business. Maxine is married to Terry, 42, a currency broker. They have no children.

Karen is married to David, 44, a finance broker and they have a son, Declan, six.

Karen and I met 20 years ago in Australia and we always talked about working together,’ says Maxine. ‘Karen was vice president of Inter Continental Hotels, a high-powered job that meant a lot of travelling abroad, and when she got pregnant she realised it wasn’t going to work with a small baby.

I was working in New York in the film industry and liked the idea of coming back but didn’t know what to do. We wanted to set up in business together but it was so hard to get started, so we looked at the barriers we were facing and realised we weren’t meeting other people. We needed legal and financial advice but we could offer skills and advice on other things. We thought maybe we could trade the skills we had for the advice we needed – an hour of our time for an hour of theirs.

We brainstormed the idea, then asked other people. They thought it was good and the concept grew and grew. We each put in a few thousand pounds from our savings and didn’t take any money out for two years because we knew it would be a tough slog, although we did have support from our husbands.

We found a partner who could build the website in return for equity in our limited company and got ourselves some founding sponsors – IBM, who are still with us, and Avon.

Everywoman was born in September 1999, just before the dot.com bubble burst, when there were a lot of women’s websites launching. We got great PR and grew by word of mouth. We held a one-day conference for businesswomen which was a huge success and more than 200 turned up, so we started to hold more seminars and networking events.

Karen and I now take a small salary and have a six figure turnover. Our first office was in Karen’s top room, and now we have offices in Fulham, south west London, and a team of five salaried staff. We freelance out a lot of our technical work and PR because it’s important to keep overheads down.

In 2002 we went through a rough patch and had a large overdraft, so we rolled up our sleeves, worked long hours and were totally focussed. We delivered what women wanted, and developed other products and services such as training programmes and more conferences.

It was tough but our sense of humour has kept us going. We’re very busy. Two or three nights a week we’re both out networking or at functions. It’s tough for Karen in particular to find a balance between work and home. It certainly hasn’t given us our ideal scenario of working 10am-4pm three days a week!

In December 2003 we launched the NatWest Everywoman Awards for women business owners with a reception at 11 Downing Street. That made it very clear where five years of work had gone and our husbands were very proud of us. It was a high point for Karen and I, too.

My advice to women thinking of going into business is, don’t under-estimate how long it will take and how hard it will be initially. Surround yourself with support and join something like everywoman, which is free and enables you to use our bulletin boards to network on-line.’

Nikki Tinto, 39, and Laila Ram, 40, ditched well-paid jobs to set up www.i-escape.com, specialising in secret hotel hideaways. Nikki is married to Aidan, 38, a manager at BAe Systems, and has no children. Laila lives in London, is married to Rom, 39, a banker, and has two children, Kallon, six, and Dex, three.

Laila and I became friends at Exeter University and when I went to South America in the early 90s for a year, Laila came out to join me. I got a feel for travel then that has never gone away,’ says Nikki.

‘I spent 10 years in corporate intelligence, looking into things like hostile takeover bids in the City. I also investigated Saddam Hussein when I went to Kuwait during the first Gulf War to look at human rights’ abuses. Aidan and I had married in 1998 but we didn’t live together for the first two years because he’d moved to Bristol with his job. To see him I had to commute to London which on top of a demanding job with long hours was exhausting.

Laila was working as a management consultant before she had her children and needed a new challenge workwise that was flexible, so in 1999 we decided to set up a business. We went to South Africa together for the Millennium wanting to stay in exciting places, and ended up reading about eight guide books to find out about the really interesting, small hotels. Then we thought, ‘That could be our Internet business!’

On our return we were fired up to start. I continued in my job for the first year and worked at weekends and at night on the website, which cost about £150,000 of our savings to set up.

Because our site is so content-rich, it took two years before we launched. We check out every single hotel and send a photographer and writer to review each one, and that costs money. We did most of the web design ourselves although we were technically illiterate, and only gave it to a computer programmer at the end.

We launched in November 2001. We’d meant to launch two months earlier but the Internet boom had bust and then September 11 happened and the whole travel industry went into decline.

We didn’t take a salary for two years but I’ve had the most fantastic holidays. With i-escape you can get a beach hut in Goa for £5 a night or a room in a mansion in Majorca at £1,000 a night, although most of our rooms are between £75-£150. The hotels pay us a commission on bookings and the client frequently gets a special offer at the hotel. We’ve anything from tree houses to rice boats to palaces.

Now we’re at last drawing a salary and soon I hope to be getting what I was in my last job – about £50,000. We’ve more than doubled the size of the business in the last year through “pay per click” marketing. You put “Moroccan holidays”, say, into a search engine like Google. Down the side you’ll get adverts for people searching on those words. You pay about 10p every time someone clicks through to you on those ads and it’s incredibly successful. Over 2,000 people a day are using the site and in the last year we’ve generated nearly £2m worth of business for our hotels.

We’re taking on extra admin staff – there are four of us full time and three part time, plus our team of writers and two technical support guys doing the web – and we hope to double the business again in 2005 by setting up an affiliate scheme.

I work at home, have no stress at all and spend more time with Aidan. Laila works from around 9am to 3pm and picks the children up from school. We’ve learned that everything takes longer than you think but we’ve created something we both enjoy doing.’

Jane Spencer-Rolfe, 45, worked in the probation service before having Max, 12, and Laurence, 10. In October 2000 she launched the online dating service nomorefrogs.co.uk. Jane is married to Mick, 52, who works in academic publishing. They live in Suffolk.

For 12 years I worked in the probation service, dealing with offenders in the community but when I became pregnant with Max, Mick and I felt strongly that one of us should be at home full-time until he went to school. Two years later Laurence was born and it wasn’t until the late 1990s, when listening to a radio programme about how unhelpful it was for parents to live their lives for their children, that I thought, “I’ve focussed on them for five years but now I need to focus elsewhere.”

I was in my late 30s with no qualifications. I couldn’t easily have got back into the probation service, and I didn’t want to study. My mother had been a businesswoman, in the wholesale news trade, and it felt right for me. It was just a matter of finding the right business.

Around that time there was a TV programme about a dating agency called The Executive Club. I was stunned at the self-importance of the obnoxious little man who ran it, yet both men and women seemed to think paying his company a huge amount of money would bring them the person of their dreams. I thought if he could do that, I could do it 10 times better.

It occurred to me that when people are looking for the right job or career they turn to psychometric testing, which is about assessing compatibility. Why couldn’t it be used to match one person with another?

So in the summer of 1999, I contacted a company in Oxford who have the sole rights to the Myers Briggs test, which assesses personality types. They had a psychologist who was interested in my idea who had carried out extensive research in dating agency data.

My then business partner and I commissioned him to create a psychometric test to look at personality and tease out the issues that are important for a long-term relationship. There are 28 questions and it’s very difficult for people to skew the results. In some areas people need to be similar but in others they should be complementary. It’s a magic recipe, really!

Then I found an extremely clever software designer and programmer to make our unique LiveMatch process work over the Internet.

We also match people on things like smoking, which they can feel strongly about. Interestingly, women tend to obsess about their weight but men are laidback about it. But women usually don’t want to be matched with short men, even those in the same height band as themselves.

My business partner and I put together a business plan and persuaded a mix of friends, family and business contacts that this was a great idea. We raised £190,000 through private investment including a considerable amount of our own money.

The name nomorefrogs was the brainchild of a marketing company we worked with. We wanted to get away from the schmaltzy, pink hearts-and-flowers image many dating agencies have. Nomorefrogs said it all – it’s fun, descriptive and it’s about matching people appropriately and weeding out the frogs.

We launched in October 2000 in Leeds, from a standing start with no database of singles to draw on. We needed e-mail addresses, so we had a group of people handing out chocolate frogs and came away with several hundred e-mail addresses.

We now have thousands of members throughout the UK. It is free to register, and it costs £38 for two months full membership, which is very competitive. I know of eight weddings so far, although unlike Cilla Black I’ve never been invited!

Turnover is looking like exceeding the £50,000 mark next year, and while I still choose to plough money back into the business to grow and develop it, I do plan to pay myself a salary one day! 

I’m a single-minded person and I’ve put a huge amount of time and effort into this business over the last five years. Mick and the boys have been very tolerant and their co-operation has been fantastic because running a website is 24/7 and I work from home.

I’m delighted with the way things are going. Nomorefrogs is a fun brand with integrity in a competitive marketplace. We have a business formula which we have proved makes money, with the potential to scale up massively. I’d say if you have a burning desire to set something up, go with your gut feeling and don’t get defeated when the going gets tough.’

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