The online space is noisy. It’s full of people marketing their businesses, blogging, podcasting, creating reels, and stories, and doing lives. The worst thing you can do is recoil from that and do nothing. You have to do something. Whether it’s one live a week, one blog a week, a podcast…whatever. As noisy as it is out there, you have to participate
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashleigh Rennie.
Ashleigh runs The Story Team. She is a copywriter and speaker who helps women get comfortable with their no BS brand voice, so they can weave it into their business and their copy, and RISE. Boom. She lives in London, and works with incredible women all over the world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Growing up, I was always told that I talked too much; and that I was too loud. That’s because I love WORDS. One of the loves of my life is Shakespeare. So, I was always going to be in an industry where I could wordsmith. I actually started as a writer of radio dramas, and then my sister started a PR company and asked me to write her copy. That was ten years ago and I’ve been a copywriter ever since.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
When I started The Story Team, I was sending out really formal pitches. And absolutely no one was biting. Then I just decided to be myself, and write pitches in the same way I’d talk to people if we met for coffee. I brought me into my pitches as much as I could, and that’s when I started landing clients. That was a huge A-HA moment for me. I started to experiment with being as authentic as I dared to be, to see how it would impact my business, and it’s working for me. It’s basically what my business is based on: Being You. Always. Everywhere.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My husband, Kieran, is a huge source of support. He just had no doubt in his mind that I could do it, and I took so much comfort from that. He is my biggest champion.
I have two girlfriends who run very successful businesses, and I remember when I made the decision to do it, I sent them a long voice note on our WhatsApp group…basically justifying all the reasons it was possible, and why it wouldn’t fail. And they were both like, ‘Um…why are you telling us this? We know you’ll slam it.” They’ve been amazing with giving me general business advice that I needed, and the belief that I needed, too.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I am my business. I am inside my business with every force of my being. I work really hard every single day to make it as unapologetic as possible, in everything it stands for. It’s not just a copywriting business. It’s jam-packed with feminist belief and support, and it’s a space I’ve cultivated to make women feel seen and heard.
All the content I put out is as real and ugly-truthful as it gets. The hard stuff. The difficulties. The poverty mentality. I think it’s so important to share your own struggles with people, and show them that we all struggle sometimes. We’re all making our way through this life, and we need to help each other. If my business can do that for someone, then that makes me feel pretty damn rad.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Oh, I hope I have! I’m really specific about the clients I work with, and they’re all bringing goodness to the world, so it’s wonderful to be part of their work. Helping them in their mission is something I’m really proud of. My clients are totally kickass. They’re all women who are committed to helping other women to scale their businesses and find their voices. It is too exciting for words!
Every single woman out there is a volcano of potential waiting to erupt. She’s Beyonce at the Superbowl, whipping her hair back and forth while she owns her voice like a boss. That’s how I want to make women feel when they work with me.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The first is simply good old-fashioned hard work (and a ton of drive and commitment). I worked like a packhorse to get this business up and running, and profitable. I started my business from my car. I was working as a care worker during the day, and I started The Story Team as a side hustle. I was up at 5.30am every morning to go and see my first customer for my care job. Then I’d see two more customers, and then I’d drive up the road and park in a parking lot, and work on my business for two hours in my car, with the engine running and the heater on (it was the middle of British winter). From there, I’d go to another customer. Then, back to the parking lot for two hours. Then another customer. And then I’d go home at around 6.30pm, and I worked through until midnight some nights. Hard work will always pay off. You’ll be smashed with exhaustion for a while, but it will pay off.
Second — fearlessness. I try to be as fearless as possible. In everything. Fearless storytelling, fearless content creation, fearless copywriting…as much as my clients with allow me. That’s not to say that I don’t feel fear. I feel fear every single day. I’m working on my mindset all the time. I grew up poor, and I battle with poverty mentality. But you have to feel the fear, and do it anyway. That’s what makes people take notice.
And thirdly, resilience. I grew up the child of an alcoholic. We had no money. People were buying us groceries. My father was clinically depressed and in bed for most of my adolescence. I had to learn that only I could make things happen for myself. I had to be my own bestie. When you’re fighting for every single thing you want, and every single thing you end up having, you build huge resilience. The key is to hold onto that resilience as you grow older. Sometimes, when things are going really well, we can lose that sense of resilience. It’s important to never forget that things can change in a heartbeat (just look at what Covid has done to the world), and we have to always be prepared to ride that out.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Oh, THIS is a GREAT question. YES! When we’re at school, we’re taught that our business dealings have to look a certain way, right? You have to be ‘professional.’ So, when you write an email, apply for a job, go for an interview…you have to project an air of seriousness. You have to be formal. You have to start your letters with ‘To whom it may concern.’
Well, I mean, in the entrepreneurial space this just doesn’t work. Not for me, anyway. The more ‘professional’ and safe I tried to be, the less successful I was, because I ended up sounding beige. Where’s the personality? The fizz? You want to make people sit up and go, ‘Oh, HELLO, who is THIS?’ Even if they don’t like it. It’s better than making them feel nothing.
People crave connection. They want to see who you are. When you bring your real, total, flawed, complex self to your work, you stand out. So, if you’re too loud, or too introverted, or a bit quirky…whatever it is…own it. Own it like it’s YOUR JOB, as Amy Porterfield would say. That’s what excites people and that’s how you create conversion.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
As I’ve mentioned, I have an absolute poverty mentality. I’m convinced that I’m going to end up poor again one day. Obviously, this is my reptilian brain playing tricks on me, but we all have our stuff. As a result, when I started my journey, I took on any and all work I could get. No matter what it paid. So, I was smashed from exhaustion because I was working 16–18-hour days.
I was also too afraid to ask for a fee that was ‘too high.’ I’ve had to learn how to raise my rates, turn down work that doesn’t pay me what I’m worth, and take on clients that align with my beliefs and my values.
There are going to be people who can’t or won’t pay you what you’re worth; and there are going to be people who find you too much, not enough, too loud, too something. Those are not your people.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
There are INCREDIBLE businesswomen out there. They make my heart go boom. They have podcasts and vlogs and blogs, and they are unapologetic about two things: Setting rates that reflect value they offer; and working with people that are in alignment with their values. I’m hugely inspired by them.
They taught me that hourly rates were not serving me. Now I charge project rates based on the value my client is getting from me and my skillset. This has allowed me to up-level my clients, and also cut down my working hours so I’m not so tired.
The other thing that I’ve done is schedule exercise into my day. I do a hot yoga class every single morning at 9.30. I will not miss it. It has changed my life. I feel calmer, stronger, healthier. If you can get through 75 minutes of exercise in 38 (100) degree heat, you can do ANYTHING.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Rejection is really rough. I struggle with it like crazy. There are some days where I apply for copywriting positions and I don’t get the gig. And that hurts. But then I’ll apply for something and I’ll get it, and it will be completely right for me and for my business. Rejection is part of life and it often makes way for other things that are more in line with what you want, and with what your strengths are.
On the flip side of that, success is the bomb dot com, right? It makes you feel invincible and amazing. But, I am not invincible. So, I have to really stay grounded. Success is wonderful and it MUST be celebrated, but then I carry on working to grow my business.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
I think a founder should look at these factors:
Can you afford your startup costs? (Bootstrap ALL THE DAMN WAY)
Do you need to rent a space? Do you need a team? (You might need venture capital)
Do you have savings or a separate source of income to use for bootstrapping? (Yes? Then bootstrap, baby)
Do you want sole control over your business? (Yes? Bootstrap)
Do you have fundraising experience? (If you do, then VC won’t be rough)
Is your product unique and highly scalable? (Yes? A capital injection might be right for you)
Can your product take on the market aggressively? (If it can, then it’s a good candidate for VC)
The key indicator here, though, is revenue potential. If your revenue potential is high (and you can make money quickly), then it makes more sense to give equity over to external players. If not, I’d bootstrap.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- An authentic brand voice
I am OBSESSED with brand voice. Specifically, the power your business can have when your brand voice is authentic. And I’m not the only one.
HELLO REAL: 86% of consumers say that authenticity is a key factor when deciding what brands they like and support
THE TRUST FACTOR: 81% of consumers say that they need to be able to trust the brand in order to buy from them
CONSISTENCY IS KWEEN: In fact, consistent presentation of a brand has seen to increase revenue by 33%
GET NAKED: 66% of consumers think transparency is one of the most attractive qualities of a brand
ON THE FENCE? Most consumers want brands to take a stand on social or political issues. As a matter of fact, two-thirds (64%) of consumers around the world say that they would buy from a brand or boycott it solely because of its position on a social or political issue
THOSE dollars: 77% of consumers buy from brands who share the same values as they do
What do you want your business to be seen as? Known for? I want my business to be seen as a she-wolf of badassery, smashing the patriarchy, while it whips its hair back and forth and shows the world who’s boss.
You have to be YOU.
You can only create an authentic brand voice if you’re being who you are. This is hard, because often we’re told that who we are is either not enough, or it’s too much. The truth is, you’re always going to be too much for some and not enough for others. Those are not your people. Those are not your clients.
When you embrace everything that you are and own it, unapologetically, you start to find that you stand out. You attract attention, and you draw the right kind of clients to you.
I started a blog this year. I wanted to make sure I was putting out regular content, especially as a copywriter, so that I could add value to people, but also so that people could get to know me.
I wrote a blog about a nasty experience I had on a train. I was quite nervous to publish it — it was very emotional and personal. I wasn’t sure how it would be received. But it was real and honest, and I wanted to see how a totally story-driven piece of content would help to shape my business. It’s the single piece of content that has brought in the most visibility for me. I have been invited to do masterclasses, guest-blogging, and it has also driven huge amounts of traffic to my website. That piece of me that I put out into the world has done big things for my business. Don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there every once in a while. Magic will come from it.
2. Put out content regularly
The online space is noisy. It’s full of people marketing their businesses, blogging, podcasting, creating reels, and stories, and doing lives. The worst thing you can do is recoil from that and do nothing. You have to do something. Whether it’s one live a week, one blog a week, a podcast…whatever. As noisy as it is out there, you have to participate.
Here’s the thing: yes, there’s a lot of content out there. But no one has your voice. No one is creating the content that you will create, because you are you. There’s only one of you on the planet and that is pretty spectacular. That’s why being you is so important. It will infuse your content with originality. And that’s what will make it stand out.
3. A constant thirst for knowledge
There are VERY successful people out there. They have made all the mistakes. They have messed it up. They have come back from that. Most importantly, they have written about those mistakes. They’ve recorded podcasts and talked about the mistakes. They’ve given interviews. Find these people in your industry and follow them. Connect with them. Ask them questions. Consume their content. Make notes. Follow their advice. Implement their suggestions. I did this for six months and I scaled my business with a fair amount of success.
It does mean that you have to dedicate time every single day to business development. Finding that time over and above your actual work, your family, your exercise time can be tough. That’s why you need to…
4. Manage your time and productivity
When we run our own businesses, we are in full control of our time. This is AMAZING. It is truly the definition of freedom, and one of the things I love most about being a business owner. But it can be overwhelming because we have to manage that time properly.
This is what my day looks like. It’s not perfect and it’s not for everyone but it gives you an idea of the scheduling you can do to make time work for you:
05:45 — I wake up, have coffee, feed my animals
06:00–08:00 — Business development (content creation, job-searching, writing my weekly email, etc)
08:00–09:00 — Work and breakfast
09:30–10:45 — Hot yoga
11:15–13:00 — Work
13:00–13:30 — Lunch
14:00–17:00 — Work
17:00 — Feed the animals, walk my dog
17:45–19:00 — Listen to a podcast, interact on social media with people in my industry, post in Facebook networking groups
19:00 onwards — Downtime, Netflix bingeing, reading
It took me months to get this right. But it’s my routine now, and I love it.
5. Develop networking skills for 2021
This is a whole article on its own, but networking skills in 2021 look and feel utterly different from anything we’ve ever seen before. We are all online, zooming and Facebooking and Instagramming up a storm, and there’s a certain level of intimacy that has been established because of this. Networking is becoming much more about connection than anything else. The dreaded elevator pitch is slowly being replaced with honest conversations and a real effort to create value for the people we’re connecting with.
When you connect with someone, when you listen to them and chat to them, and offer help and advice, you show them who you are. This is an incredibly powerful way to market yourself and your business. The best salespeople are people who don’t sell. They simply connect.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think the most common mistake I’ve seen is lack of commitment, and lack of passion. I know we bandy that word (passion) around a LOT. But if your business doesn’t make you excited to get up in the morning, then you probably shouldn’t start it. I know some people who start a new business every year, and I’m just like…what are you doing, human-person? This is never going to work. It fizzles out and turns to nothing. And they stay in their 9–5, miserable.
Also, get rid of the idea that running a business is glamorous. It isn’t. It’s rough. Sometimes it’s going to make you cry. Starting a business is a long-term affair. It’s like having a kid. That business is going to go through dirty nappies, and tantrums, and it’s going to get sick. And then you’ll have to take it to the doctor and spend money to fix it. It’ll fall down and get scraped up and bleed. It’ll disappoint you. But it will also bring you more joy and happiness and satisfaction than you can imagine. But only if you really, really want it.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
When you start a company, you’re going to be at your laptop a LOT. Like…more than you even realise. It is VITAL that you spend time away from it. Create appointments in your diary for time off. Dedicate an hour a day to exercise and don’t miss it. Treat exercise time like you’d treat an appointment with a prospective client. Don’t move the appointment either. If work comes up, or someone wants a meeting at that time, you are not available. You have a very important meeting with yourself and your body.
This has been really hard for me, because I’ve been conditioned to believe that if I’m not on my laptop working every second of the day, then I’m being lazy. But honestly, I get some of my best ideas when I’m walking my dog in the park. We need time and space away from work so that our businesses can thrive. When you allow yourself to have time off, so you can play and rest, you become more productive than ever.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
1.5 million girls in South Africa miss a week of school every month because of their periods. It’s called period poverty, and it affects women and girls all over the world. Due to things like tampon tax, lack of sanitaryware, the expense of sanitaryware, and lack of water and basic sanitation, many women and girls have to use things like leaves, old cloth, cow dung and paper when they have their period. This leads to huge levels of anxiety and shame, and they miss school.
There are organizations all over the world fighting period poverty, and donating to these organizations would be a huge step to alleviate this situation. Women make up 51% of the world’s population. If we had more educated women, who could start businesses and provide for their families, the whole world would change for everyone. Economies would become stronger. Countries would flourish. Keeping girls out of school makes no sense to anyone. So, let’s do something about that. You can donate here:
If you can’t afford to donate, sign a petition. Write a letter to your MP. Raise awareness.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oprah Winfrey. Is there anyone else, really? I mean, obviously there are others. But I’ve been inspired by Oprah my whole life, basically. Her story, her fight, her feminism, her intelligence, her capacity for empathy…if I could chat to her about her life, her drive, her work, and everything she’s managed to overcome in her world, my brain would basically explode out of the back of my head.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I have a blog and I use it to inspire and have real conversations. I’d love you to check it out here.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!