You don’t have to appeal to everyone. When I launched my first business, the wedding stationery company, Betty Lou Design I created stationery suites for every type of bride because I thought that I would limit my chances of securing orders if I was too niche. Now I know that’s the opposite of what we need to do, and niching is a massive part of what I talk about on a daily basis.
As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicki Louise James. Nicki is a Brand and Business coach, helping ambitious female entrepreneurs become visible and their businesses skyrocket because their visual messaging is aligned with who they are. As an expert in brand storytelling and strategy, Nicki has transformed the fortunes of many women. But to get to where she is today, Nicki has had to overcome bullying throughout her life. She also had a tough childhood, which could have so easily taken her down a different path.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve not had the easiest upbringing and I’ve certainly never been one of those people where everything has been handed to me on a plate. From a young age, I had many battles to overcome but I am a firm believer that everything that’s happened in your past makes you stronger.
I was the first in my family to go to university and it’s safe to say I worked my ….. off. I always knew I wanted to be a Graphic Designer, but I never really knew in what area. I was really lucky when I left as I got my first job starting in September. I remember having to take the day off for my graduation. I was earning £14k a year but at the time I didn’t care. I thought I was so lucky.
I still do, I guess as many people go to university and take months or even years to land a job. However, it wasn’t always that easy. In the space of four years, I was made redundant four times; it meant I was never in a job for an entire year.
It was always “last one in, first one out”. But every time this happened, I decided to dig deep and keep going. I was always determined to pick myself back up and get something better. Fast forward a few years to my last job as Art Editor at Olive Magazine. I had my own team, I was on £30k a year and I was doing really well. But I just didn’t feel challenged. I always knew I wanted more.
I started my own wedding stationery business Betty Lou Design (named after my Grandma) and within seven months I left my 9–5. I was earning more than my monthly income and I just couldn’t keep up with juggling both. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done but I’ve never looked back.
But even then, I still didn’t feel I was giving enough. From a young age, I’ve always wanted to help people. It’s like it’s been instilled in me. I knew I wanted to help entrepreneurs to really push themselves; to really show up and get where they wanted to be. That’s when I launched Branding by Nicki (as it was called then). I now help female entrepreneurs to brand their businesses. Within nine months, I made over £100k and I quickly realized I was really good at being an entrepreneur. It meant I could also help more people. I’m intuitive and I spend a lot of time thinking of what others need so I expanded my services further and rebranded as B by Nicki. Now? Well, I’ll never leave brand-building behind and it’s a key part of my messaging but I also coach and help women to really embrace showing up as their true selves. Why? Because I know it’s the secret ingredient to a successful business and if I can share that with a handful of entrepreneurs and empower them, then I’ve done my job! I am only just getting started — three years in business and there is so much more to give.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I don’t even realize how much I help people and I’m still so humble to it. It’s not until I get
testimonials from my clients that I realize how by me being me, I have helped to transform their lives. This is for me, the most interesting thing that has happened to me since I started my business. The fact that I have been able to impact other women’s lives in this way and I just show up every day as me. I’ll share the mistakes I’ve made and the successes too. I’m also not going to pretend everything is sunshine and roses all the time because it just isn’t. And I think that’s what people relate to. There are too many coaches and entrepreneurs out there portraying the perfect life. What about reality? It doesn’t make you unsuccessful if everything that happens in your business journey isn’t perfect. It makes you real and real is what builds a connection with people.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It’s not necessarily a mistake, but back in the day, when I first started using Live video as part of my content, I used to get so nervous. And out of nowhere, I gave myself a nervous blink. I never had it before, and suddenly there it was. Every time I watched a Live back on Facebook, I hated it. But I kept going. I became more confident, and the more confident I became, the less I blinked. Now, I go live all the time. I host masterclasses, I speak at events, and that blink is nowhere to be seen.
But what I do now is use that story of my nervous blink to empower others, because there are so many entrepreneurs out there who are scared to show up. Women who might feel terrified to hit that Live button because they think they might make a fool out of themselves. I’m proof that you can overcome those feelings. That you shouldn’t let anything hold you back and that you should just go for it.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?
I never really set out to be a CEO. It just happened, I guess. I was in my 9–5 and I knew that I could do more. That I could put my talents and expertise to better use, helping people who needed it. So, I set out to design a life I would love. To create something for me if you will. And that led me on the journey to where I am now. I always knew that I loved to help people and that feeling when you help someone and the impact, you’re then able to have on their life, is really special to me. I love being able to truly listen to what people need and give it to them.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I think for me the difference is that I’m in charge of everything. I have to spin all the plates and wear all the different hats every single day. But you can position yourself to really listen to what your audience needs and then deliver it. CEOs are in charge of their life. They can choose what they want to do and what they don’t. And they know when to spend time working in their business and on their business, and to find the balance that works best for them, whilst playing to their strengths.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I’m on a mission to help people. That’s why I’m here, and it’s why I’ll always go above and beyond for my clients. For me, there is no feeling like it. And when I hear that my clients have enjoyed successes, that their businesses and their lives are changing, it inspires me to keep going — and to help more people. I just want to add value and make a positive contribution to women’s futures in particular. This always was and always will be the thing I enjoy the most.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
I wouldn’t say there are many downsides, to be honest, I wouldn’t change my career choice for the world.
However there a few challenges. For me particularly, time is huge. It’s something I am definitely working on. Creating the balance between work and enjoying the rewards can be tricky, especially for someone like me, who finds it difficult to switch off.
Another thing is learning to embrace “failure” and understanding that there is no such thing. Everything is a process, and there are always learnings to take from every negative so that you can come back stronger the next time.
Finally, as an entrepreneur, at the end of the day, it’s all on you. There’s no one else to come in and make it all OK because even if you employ people, it is YOUR name on the line and your reputation at stake.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO? Can you explain what you mean?
There are a few myths that I want to dispel. I want to change the myth that the first year of business always has to be a really tight, low earning year. It’s not true. It wasn’t true for me, and I can do it, I know there are so many other people out there who can do the same thing. Secondly, it’s the fact that many people think if you don’t come from money, or you don’t have a major at the start, you won’t get anywhere. I came from nothing and worked my way up to where I am now. Anything is possible if you want it enough.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think there are some very old school attitudes around when it comes to women in business. But I’m on a mission to change that. I want to empower women to create the lives they want, by being themselves. However, I know that when you do that as a strong, independent businesswoman you can often be judged for it and told not to act a certain way. We are equal.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The amount of time you have to spend on the business, rather than in the business. By that I mean not just doing client work, and nailing the orders that come in, but the time you have to spend on social media, marketing, strategy, being visible — everything you have to do to be successful and keep growing.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
I think there are a few specific traits that you need if you want to make a success out of being an entrepreneur. You need fire in your belly. You need passion, determination, and dedication because it isn’t always going to be easy.
I think if you are someone who likes consistency and routine, you might struggle as an entrepreneur. There is always a curveball. You always have to be prepared for what might happen and be able to react quickly. That can be hard for some to cope with. I’m not saying I’ve found it easy, but I think the natural fighter in me puts tactics into place to deal with any surprises or challenges that come my way.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Trust in them. Don’t micro-manage. Delegate properly and give them the responsibility to own and do actual jobs. Hire experts — people who can do the job better than you can. Encourage them to push themselves, grow and be the best they can be.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are two people who I am so grateful in terms of where I am now. Firstly, my Gran, Betty, who told me way back in the day that I was destined for more than a 9–5 and inspired me to become an entrepreneur in the first place. Secondly, my business coach and friend, Lisa Johnson who pushes me to take everything I do to the next level. It hasn’t always been easy, but she knows how to make me carry on.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I use it to inspire others. I don’t view my success in terms of what I earn. It’s about how I’ve helped others and impacted their lives. I want them to achieve the same success. In fact, I want them to do even better than me.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
5 things I wish someone told me before I started are…
- You don’t have to appeal to everyone. When I launched my first business, the wedding stationery company, Betty Lou Design I created stationery suites for every type of bride because I thought that I would limit my chances of securing orders if I was too niche. Now I know that’s the opposite of what we need to do, and niching is a massive part of what I talk about on a daily basis.
- Done is better than perfect. As an entrepreneur, you have to embrace failure. Pick yourself up and learn from it, because otherwise, how will you grow? Sometimes you just need to test the waters to see what works. If it comes off, amazing, if not work out why, and how you can do it better next time.
- It’s not all a race. This is a journey, and everyone is moving at different speeds. Not everything has to happen instantly or immediately. Some of the best things take time to get right, time to refine, and by doing that work, they will be 10, 20, 50 times better than if you just rush them and try to do everything at once.
- You have to feel the fear and do it anyway. When I first launched my business, I heard a lot about how important it was to be visible. To do Facebook Lives and engage with your audience. At the time, the thought of that scared me. I would put it off and off, find excuses for why it wasn’t the right day or the right time. Then when I did go for it, I gave myself the nervous blink that I spoke about previously. Out of nowhere. But the more I did it and the more confident I became, the more it worked. Now, I’ve just launched a group program all about being Truly Visible, because it’s probably been the single biggest game-changer in my business, and if I can conquer my fears and confidence issues I want to help and inspire others to do the same.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. When I first started, I looked around at ‘the competition’ a lot. Established people who were in the industry and had been for a while. They had audiences already — people following them, listening to them and engaging with them. But now I know that all of that doesn’t really matter. Because they are not you, and if you put your twist on the things you say, there will always be people out there who connect with you, who want to hear from you and who need to hear from you. You have to focus your energy on what you are doing, how you can help, rather than worrying about what everyone else is up to.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to inspire young people that haven’t had the easiest upbringing to take an entrepreneurial path and realize their potential. They might not fit into a cookie-cutter 9–5 but could be hugely successful in running their own business. We have to choose the path we go down and we all have the potential and the power to choose the right one that will create the life we want.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Be you. It’s really simple, but it’s what I’m all about. I even have it tattooed on my arm. I believe it’s your superpower. It’s the thing that no-one else has. It’s what gets you more clients, makes you stand out and makes you a good entrepreneur.
We are very 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Amy Porterfield or Michelle Obama. Amy has been my inspiration from the get-go. I love her journey. I think where she has come from and what she stands for is brilliant so I would love to find out more about what makes her tick and what fuels her fire over breakfast or lunch. And Michelle, well come on, do I even need to answer that?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.