It’s never too soon to get a mentor. Find someone who has been there and done it. They help you grow, they offer invaluable support, and share advice on how to deal with every stage of your business journey.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Victoria Peppiatt.Victoria is the co-founder and the COO of Phrasee, which empowers brands with the most advanced AI-Powered Copywriting technology. She leads global operations and is responsible for the success of Phrasee’s global customers, which include eBay, Domino’s, Groupon, JOANN, and Virgin Atlantic. Recently named Management Today’s Tech Entrepreneur of the Year at the Inspiring Women in Business Awards, Victoria brings an impressive 20-year track record in marketing, technology, and business management to Phrasee. Under her stewardship, Phrasee grew 75% year-on-year in 2019 and in four years has become a multi-million dollars technology company. Victoria is a passionate supporter of women in technology and devotes her time to mentoring young entrepreneurs.
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?
Before I launched Phrasee, I was running a successful creative agency, The Pink Group. When we first started Phrasee, I was running both companies side by side for the first year. It was a monumental decision for me to close the agency to focus solely on Phrasee. Even though I knew Phrasee was going to be a success, I was extremely hesitant to close what I’d lovingly built for the past 10 years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I love sharing the story about when we first started working with eBay. In Phrasee’s first year of business, eBay got in touch through our website ‘book a demo’ form which was incredibly exciting in those early days and blew our minds! Within three months, the contract was signed — it came through 24 minutes into our second year of business. That’s when we knew for sure, our one-year-old business had legs.
After Virgin Holidays, eBay is our second most long-standing customer, and we optimize its marketing language across multiple products, marketing channels, and territories.
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?
We founded Phrasee in February 2015 and signed our first contract within two months. It was a very different product back then, and this contract was for a whopping 65 dollars. We were beside ourselves with excitement, so we went out to celebrate and managed to spend several times that on Mexican. The lesson? Celebrate the wins, no matter how small. Just maybe budget your celebrations in proportion to the win!
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
One of my strengths is people. I absolutely love building and motivating teams and creating a culture within the business. This all leads to the amazing successes of our customers which I can never hear enough about.
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?
As much as the ‘doing’ is still a vital element, there is a lot more of a focus on leadership. It’s up to executives to guide their teams to make sure everyone within the business is aligned, empowered, and heading towards the same business goals.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
One of the things that I enjoy most about being an executive definitely has to be seeing and hearing the successes within each team and watching what that brings to the business as a whole. Having a really awesome product that genuinely makes our customers more revenue and makes them look awesome, in turn, makes us awesome! Making our customers successful — at a brand and individual level — motivates everyone in the business every day.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
Running your own business comes with highs and lows! It takes an unwavering belief in the product you are creating to get it off the ground. Back in 2015, when Phrasee launched, the AI-in-marketing field was a different story. No-one was really talking about AI except in Hollywood blockbusters, but even beyond that, it would have taken a lot of imagination to embrace the idea that robots would be able to write like humans, let alone write better than them. We were winning over enterprise global brands, such as eBay and Virgin Holidays, in the early stages of our business and that validated our product and vision.
There’s a lot of pressure on a leader’s shoulders. You will always worry about the happiness and success of your team and business, but that’s also what powers you forward and motivates you to be the best you can be.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
- You have to be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes and that’s ok. It’s a valuable skill to learn to recognize when you do and apologize if required. Then you can move forward armed with the knowledge from before.
- Your role is to tell everyone ‘what to do’. My role is to bring and guide a group of experts together to ensure we’re getting the results we need. They’re the experts and they know what to do.
- You can succeed and hit targets with a bad team. Your team is everything in business. If you have one bad egg that doesn’t fit, it can throw everything off track.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I’d love for there not to be an element of surprise when people find out you’re an entrepreneur. I just don’t think it’s ever something people would question with men. Somehow it feels like we’ve exceeded expectations versus being the norm.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Well, five years ago, I can honestly say I didn’t think I’d work in the world of advanced AI for the marketing industry. And in truth, my ‘pinch me’ moments are still regularly speaking to the CMOs of global household brands about how they are using our tech to transform marketing performance.
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?
To be successful you need resilience, grit, determination, and positivity. Being an executive is definitely not for everyone, (if it was easy, everyone would do it!) but these are the vital skills you need that I’ve seen in my experience. I think the types of people who struggle to stay optimistic in the face of difficult situations, or who lack the ability to be proactive and problem solve are probably best suited to different roles within the business.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I have three pieces of advice for other female leaders:
- Get a mentor. It makes all the difference — both personally and for your career.
- Practice being resilient. Resilience isn’t a trait that people either have or do not have — it’s a learned behavior and is vital to help you bounce back and cope when things don’t go to plan.
- Don’t be rude. You don’t need to be a difficult person to get on in business. It’s widely acknowledged that women who support women are more successful. Bring positive energy to everything you say and do!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My first mentor when I was running my creative agency, The Pink Group. I was matched by the Design Business Association with an awesome woman called Felicity Kelly and can credit her with getting me to where I am today. With her help, not only did we double our turnover at the agency by the next year, but she really helped me grow as a businesswoman.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am a passionate supporter of women in technology and devote much of my spare time to mentoring the next generation of female entrepreneurs. I recently started working as a mentor with BelEve, working on its new Pathway to Success scheme, which matches young women (16–21) with mentors to support and guide them through the next stage of their educational or career journey.
I’m also a big advocate for ethical AI. Since founding Phrasee we’ve shared the belief with customers, partners, and our people that AI should be used for good. We took a leap of faith translating our belief into one of the industry’s first AI ethics policies and it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done as a business.
The focus was on creating a policy that was practical, specific, and explicit, and which set the standard for the industry. AI often gets a bad rap, not least because it can be used for good and evil, but Phrasee is determined to be a force for good and believe reputationally this unusual level of transparency has been significant in building the global business we are today.
Recent campaigns that support our ethical AI policy include The Phrasee Pledge 2020 — a commitment to train 500 marketers to help them better understand AI and what it can do for their business; and Emotions Matter — an initiative to change the conversation in marketing and end the use of fear, uncertainty and doubt to sell, thus ensuring marketing measures up for mental health.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It’s never too soon to get a mentor. Find someone who has been there and done it. They help you grow, they offer invaluable support, and share advice on how to deal with every stage of your business journey.
- Find your tribe. A sense of community is empowering and I recommend joining 2–3 networking groups; one that reflects your own industry and one or two that support you as an entrepreneur. They will be there to help you celebrate the ups and support you in the downs.
- Go with your gut. There is a reason your gut instinct is there, don’t ignore it! Especially when it comes to hiring, it’s not worth the disruption to your team that can be caused by bad hiring the wrong person.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You will only grow as a person and as a business. You will learn just as much from making the mistake, as you would if you hadn’t.
- Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not hard. Getting investment is a tough journey. But maintaining motivation, careful planning, and relationship building will help you move forward.
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.
Honestly, it’s a lofty societal and technological goal, but I would love for everyone to get behind the notion of ethical AI given the tech is going to play such a significant role in our daily lives at home and at work in the future. I really feel our industry could better collaborate on what good looks like and a common set of ethical standards to stop people fearing what AI can do and instead embrace the opportunity in a positive way.
A softer goal (but no less lofty) aligned to this, is that I’d love to remove the use of fear, uncertainty, and doubt in marketing campaigns so we lift people up with positive messages, as opposed to making them fear what they’re missing out on. We know consumers are increasingly put off by the FUD approach in marketing — it’s not good for our mental health and it’s truly time for a shift in the industry.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Staying positive doesn’t mean you have to be happy all the time. It means that even on hard days you know that there are better ones coming.”
People often say I’m overly positive and optimistic, but that has stood me well in my experience as a founder and executive. This quote helps me keep the right mindset, always look forward, and stay motivated.
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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
It has to be Sheryl Sandberg. I loved her book, Lean In: Women, Work and Will to Lead, it was so inspiring and I loved reading about her views on getting women a seat at the table. She would be at my table!
Thank you for spending time with us on this today.