In the last installment of our interview with our Co-Founder Dolores Sanders we focus on the challenges and opportunites of being an Entrepreneur.
“When I first started out it was very much that you were either an entrepreneur or those in a career. I had friend who worked in the city and still have no idea what goes on in inside some of those large corporate buildings. Whereas, I was raised by entrepreneurs so the role of a a serial entrepreneur who takes on everything, and makes changes rapidly was easy to grow into.
I think now, that that’s much less the case. Even inside a career on the corporate ladder, you have to bring agility, fast response and innovation to the role and become an intrapreneur. Those that we see succeed will be those that bring something different, see something different and have a way to implement that either in their own business or inside a corporation.”
Even if you’re a teacher for example teaching STEM subjects, you’ve got to bring something new to bringing those subjects to life to generate interest in more young people.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Through the Women in Innovation programme I have met so many young girls starting STEM careers and they’ve often asked me “what did I want to be?”
And the answer is… I wanted to be a paediatrician. So it has absolutely nothing to do with what I do now. I learned quite quickly that I didn’t like seeing people in distress, so children in distress was definitely not what I wanted to see so I went on to study psychology. Whilst studying psychology my passion inside of that was child psychology and developmental psychology but also something called connectionism and neural networks.
While I was studying that I had no idea that I would come 360 degrees back around 25 years later and be studying neural networks from the concepts of AI. Although it didn’t have any bearing at the time, I definitely used a lot of the things I studied and was passionate about when I was younger, to apply now in the business that I’m running.
3 Top Tips for Entrepreneurs
So my three top tips would be, first of all: stay curious. Always be curious. There are no stupid questions, ask “what is that? How does that work? Why does that do that? How was that there?”. I was probably the most irritating two year old, “why Mummy? How? Why was that? Why are we doing that?”. But stay curious. The more curious you are, the more chances you are going to find your way inside of the very rapid and changing world of making a difference and carving your position out as to where you want to go and what you want to do.
The second is stay current, we might have just learned and completed our GCSEs or A Levels or started our university course, but the minute we start a course, the course we’re learning is already obsolete. It’s a really depressing thought in one sense. But in to order to create a course, something has to have already been done. And we are in such a rapidly changing world that’s being updated all the time. So staying current is: what have I studied? What do I know to be so? What is so now? What’s likely to be so in the future? Staying current with what’s going on is absolutely key. Think about those that said: “No, I’m never going to do these virtual conversations or virtual events.”. I know it took a little while for us to get some of our family onto zoom calls, but now that’s it. That’s the standard. We’ve taken people who didn’t think they’d ever do it, into a completely new way of communicating due to circumstances, but that is now current. And staying current with that and what’s going to be possible is absolutely key.
My third top tip is to collaborate. I share this in schools with people who are about to take exams, and it’s a Shock! We’re not taught to collaborate in schools. Yes, we do teamwork activities, but how many people have done some kind of team exercise and then said: “well, I did all the work and they only did half of it, and now they’ve got the same grade.”. I think in our education process we need to encourage and nurture collaboration more. Inside our business environment we need to collaborate. Real innovation comes from finding new ways of doing things to solve real problems, not a problem we make up. Most problems have been solved in some way in most industries. But we haven’t carried those into our own industries. I’m talking about collaboration internally. If you’re working for an organisation, collaborate with other teams, find out what they’re doing. Don’t have work repeated but share it so that the sum of those parts can be more. If you’re inside your own business, look at who you can collaborate with to take your idea further and expand it out, reach it out and have it grow more. And if you’re in an industry, look at the other industries you can collaborate with. We are bringing the the concepts of Financial Technology and the health tech environment into manufacturing technology. The irony is they make technology in manufacturing but they don’t necessarily use it. It’s a matter of finding where things have happened before and what problems have been solved before, but bringing those kinds of ideas into what you’re doing.
Stay curious, stay current, and collaborate to find ways to carve out the best possible future for yourselves.
The Challenges of being a female entrepreneur
It’s an interesting question. I could go on quite a long time on this matter, but I think I could probably bring them down to the challenges that have been around me being a woman. challenges that have been around being an entrepreneur, and challenges that have been around the marketplace and environment in which we’ve done business.
No business can operate independently of any of those things. We’re always a factor of our market conditions, our personal skills, our set up and how we choose to do business. I think the key is that I’ve always wanted to work for myself. I described myself as a serial entrepreneur. I started my first business when I was 18 years old, just to build up income to go travelling around the world. I went on to study at university and I had my first job from University studying sales. But I was in that job for 18 months before I met my then business partner now husband, and we set up our first multimedia production house. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. A lot of the challenges have been around funding and cashflow. When all your friends are out having a job and having fun, they work nine to five and then they go out and party and you are stuck working 24/7 to get a business up off the ground. All of that stuff is about entrepreneurialism and you overcome it. The best way is get a coach, read some books, keep your mental capacity in place, keep going and learn from your failures fast. Then go ahead and expect to fail because you’re going to again and again.
In addition to that journey, I was also a young mother. I had my first child was when I was 21 and my second when I was 28. I wanted to be present, to be there for my children. However before my daughter was born, I was three months pregnant when I went to the interactive society creativity awards, that was my first award back at 27 years old. And we were given, again, a large award from the government to develop some products, the first phase of integrated data enriched media and because of the constraints and the requirements of that at the time, I played the: “I’m not going to let being a mother get in my way” card. Which put incredible constraints on me. I was giving birth and was back in the office within a couple of weeks. Yes, I was working for myself, so I could have my baby with me. But I was also in some extent putting the pressure on myself to hide that, we are talking here about the late 90s and the visibility of women in the workplace with their children was much less. So that put both physical and mental strain on me, which meant I had some health challenges as well with building our business. I think overcoming that now is easier, there is much more availability for women to have children and life balanced in a much better way. I also think I could have stood up for myself more and my words to anyone starting businesses now who are also having children is to stand up for yourself.
Make the requirements that you need. If you need to take more time to do a project, then say: “I’m going to need more time on that”, if you need certain things in place so you can do your job and be a mother then make those demands, especially as an entrepreneur, it’s got to be one of the benefits you can choose.
That was definitely a challenge. But we also had the marketplace challenges. Our first business was going very well, we had good investors, we were part of the “.com boom” and we had some solid technology underneath us that survived, and it survived long after the business did. We had a major client in the hospitality industry, however we had the conditions of 9/11 where there was a massive market shut down. And it coincided with a couple of other things in place at a point in which we were about to change shareholders and it was a perfect storm which created a fairly disastrous environment.
Those are things that can happen, circumstances can happen. In that situation, I actually failed and didn’t fail fast. I failed and lost a lot of confidence. I also lost a lot of desire to really go out and build things for myself. And it took me a couple of years to pick myself back up and say: “right what is it I do want to do?”. That’s why the women Innovation Award was so key for me because I had suffered a lack of confidence. I had suffered a career setback in the sense that I stopped driving forward the way I had done before. I learned a lot of things. And I learned a lot of balance and I did a lot of coaching and supporting of other people building businesses, which gave me some perspective and the confidence to go and do it again, for myself. Obviously I did. We started TotalControlPro, and we were going forward with it. But my personal confidence was really, really bolstered by the Innovation Award.
Having the motivation to fail, then fail faster
I suppose for me, when we talk about motivation it’s a matter of: “What’s your goal and what action are you taking towards it?”, sometimes if you have a key focus, you can get straight there. We have a drive with TotalControlPro, we’re about empowering manufacturers and changing the way technology is considered and adopted in manufacturing. It is a key focus goal and we keep taking actions towards it. During my other career as I said at the beginning, my passion has always been about making a difference with people. Whether that’s the direct people around me in my community and in my family or whether that’s the people I employ, being able to bring new team members. We’ve got a great basis of apprenticeships in our business. Making a difference and having a growth mentality inside of our team is absolutely key. That was always present, whatever the other constraints and challenges were that came up. How can I make a difference? What can I do next that will make a difference with people? Sometimes that led to some commercial gains, other times it led to some personal gains. Every one taught me and kept me moving forward and opened up the conversations. In fact, the basis of TotalControlPro came because we were at another event, a conference. We were chatting to two lovely people, talking about what could be possible in a very innovative conversation. What are all the dots and how could this be joined up? The opportunity for total control pro came out of that conversation. So I suppose it comes down to my fundamental beliefs, which are: always stay curious, always stay current and always collaborate. Asking, being interested in people and what’s possible. That keeps me going and it always has always kept me going.
How to maintain a work-life balance in a family-run business
It’s a funny phrase, work life balance. As an entrepreneur there are times when all you do is work and other times when you haven’t got work, you’re trying to find work and you’re trying to make it work. The promise of entrepreneurism, innovation and running your own businesses is freedom. And I keep that concept of freedom fairly powerful. But the phrase that I learned very early in my development was: “Be a slave to your diary and your diary will set you free.”. It’s important that things get scheduled. My team know if you want it done, put it in my diary and if it’s not in my diary, it doesn’t happen. My family have also worked out that we have family time and we have a family structure. Early on, we tried the whole “absolutely no work during family time.”, but that doesn’t work because it’s your passion. It’s some of the things you want to share. However, you share it differently when you’re inside your family environment compared to when you’re in your work environment.
One of the interesting things for me is I work with my husband, I have worked with my son and I also work with my daughter inside a much larger team. We’ve learned to adapt, to adopt a certain way of being which is who we are and what we’re responsible for inside of our work environment and then who we are and what we’re responsible for inside of our family environment. That took a bit of practice, especially with my husband. At work he’s my CEO. He is the boss. We are partners, we are founders and we always develop with our other founders in the company. But at the end of the day, Dorian is the CEO and he has that responsibility.
However, when we get to home, that’s not the case. There’s another balance that’s in play. It’s a much more collaborative, much more sharing side of things. So I think you can definitely learn how to not silo who you are and not be a different person inside and outside of work. Just be aware of your responsibilities and your promises.
I definitely do have a life. With the young award winners I could see that early all-encompassing: “everything is work, no real time to date, no time to do anything.”. In fact, one of the other award winners actually became pregnant just at the end of the awards. We had some conversations about what that would mean, this just brought me back to my early days, I have learned that there’s time to work and time to play and that I am so much better, especially in innovation, when I am stimulated by lots of other things. That might be: the theatre, getting out for walks, great food, great company; which is albeit slightly more difficult these days with lockdown.
But you never know what the next stimulating idea inside of your innovation is going to come from. I think it’s very important that you keep that balance because ultimately it’s an enrichment. It’s one of the core values of TotalControlPro: enrichment of people’s lives is why we do what we do.