In this female founders interview at Huckletree, we sat down with Renée and Roberta to hear all about their journey to building bigger and bolder businesses. To follow-up on the tips they gave out at our PowerWomen Chat, check out the event recap here!
What did you want to be when you were a teenager?
Roberta: I had no clue. I didn’t have an ideal career when I was a teenager… I think technology always attracted me and this feeling that I could use technology to create something new. That’s why I based everything on tech.
Renée: I had no idea. I didn’t know until I was 28. I was absolutely a late bloomer. If you ask my sister, she would say that I had so little promise when I was young… There were things in the world that I didn’t understand. The face-value, the meat that my mom would bring home from the supermarket would look so pretty and tasted so good when she cooked it, but when I read about how beef farming actually happens in America I thought it was disgusting. I proudly became a vegetarian. I thought maybe convention isn’t always best. I really started to develop a questioning attitude, which has grown my entire life. This is why I started Planet Organic.
How did you get the idea for your business? How did you fund it?
Renée: So, I stole the idea from America… I was about 28, which is that age when a lot of people start to feel their true calling. I started hanging around this health foods store. What I liked about it was the people who were shopping there were looking for something different. They were looking for something better, they were questioning convention. I thought this really fits for me. Then I thought I went into the supermarket in Boston, which is where my family was, and I thought ‘I’m going to take this concept to the UK.’ I came back to England and got experience for a couple of years, but then raising the money was really hard… There was no ethical investment, where we invest in socially initiative business or there’s money for female entrepreneurs. There was nothing. The only reason we were able to raise the money was my business partner at the time was wealthy and it was his father’s friends who invested. It cost half a million to open a store and we raised half a million to open a store.
Did you and your business partner part ways?
Renée: Yep, it ended in tears after two years.
So did the investment go away as well?
Renée: Yeah… My partner came to me and pretty much said ‘You can go now. I don’t agree with everything you say.’ I believe you can work everything out through communication, and he said, ‘You have to go.’ I was so shocked. I said, ‘Well I don’t know what you mean. If it’s not working out, you go.’ I was still very naïve. He said, ‘If you don’t leave, I’ll sue you.’ I said, ‘On what grounds?’ Long story short, he brought charges against me, 14 months of litigation, two-month trial in the high courts, half a million pounds later, I would have been bankrupt. For me, it was make or break. I won, and in England, loser pays. So, his dad picked up his legal fees, my legal fees and then I had to raise investment to buy out him and all of the shareholders who owned the company, except for me and my best girlfriend who had put a little inheritance in at the time.
Roberta, can you talk about your businesses. You’ve started several. When you started them, did you have a very clear vision about what you wanted to do? Did that vision change over time or not?
Roberta: Each business started in a very different way. When you start multiple businesses, you don’t make money from only one. We had investors for all the companies.
Was it hard to raise the investment?
Roberta: It takes a while. It’s always longer than you think to raise investment. Gladly, for all the businesses, I was able to, myself and my cofounder, put some money into the company right in the beginning so we could start in a privileged position to raise off strong to a point. It was super tough to raise investment…. In terms of how to build a business, we started to create a vision, big problems were solved… We began making PC games, mobile games, etc. Our vision to disrupt the way that new genres of games operated was always with us since the beginning… Having a strong mission and vision is what makes you move forward.
Have you ever changed your vision?
Roberta: We voted on our vision. For Bossa, we’ve been comfortable for the last three years. We’ve been voting. To grow the company, to grow the culture, with the games we create, we had to vote. The kind of seat of where we all are is creating new genres, disrupting how people perceive games. These are things that are very close to our heart.
What were the biggest barriers in your businesses, and building that particular type of business? How did you deal with the consumer-side of things?
Renée: When we opened in November 1995, we thought it’s such a great concept. It’s a completely different way of talking about food. No one had any idea that we were there. I had just read Anita Roddick’s book about the Body Shop and she didn’t advertise. So, I said I’m not going to advertise. At the time, social media was not there so it just wasn’t an option for us. It was advertising or nothing. Because we didn’t advertise, no one knew we were in training. People just didn’t really get what we were about… We decided to hire a PR company because we knew we had a really good story to tell and we could get editorial. We had a mission to promote health in the community and we needed to get the word out and to try and inform people about the truths behind the way their food is produced… We did a lot of work getting editorial, getting the message out, trying to do in-store messaging, doing leaflets, to get people to start asking questions, looking at the label. We had really corny labels like, ‘We look at the labels so you don’t have to.’ I tasted every product and read every label. It was really good PR and word of mouth, which is still what we rely on today.
What about you Roberta, what were the biggest barriers in your business?
Roberta: By the nature of the products that we create, it’s a very lengthy process for you to make again. To make a game, it could take anywhere from three months to three years, depending on the levels of production. So for us, it was about how can we create a culture, create games in a short amount of time and be able to very cleverly engage with creative and gamers all over the world as soon as possible. Instead of just creating a game for a year, we would actually create something called Game Chat and get all of our teams together to create a game in two days... We tried different ways to make it work. The way that I found was every single month we actually stopped the whole company for two days. People needed to come up with an idea of a game… they need to share what they created with the world.
What has been the most unexpected income or outcome of running such a big-sized business—professional, personal, or both?
Renée: Everything is unexpected really when you’re starting a business. I knew so little about business, I was an English major. Everything is unexpected. For me, the unexpected point came from, and this doesn’t come for everyone, but I did eventually have three children… When I had the third, I thought ‘Oh my God, no one told me this.’ I came to a point to where I knew I’d have to hire someone to do the business or a person to raise my kids… I just never thought I could do both brilliantly, and I wasn’t. I’m not saying other women don’t, but I was brought up Catholic and I had a lot of guilt. I got rid of that now, but at the time I had a lot of guilt. You know, when you’re trying to be a good mom, but I wasn’t doing anything really well. So I hired a CEO to run Planet and I stepped away from the business in 2009.
Roberta, what has been the biggest unexpected outcome for you?
Roberta: I think being an entrepreneur is a 24/7 thing. It’s like having kids. It’s really hard work… I think being an entrepreneur is dealing with the unexpected every day. You have to have a love for the game. You need to be hyped and pumped by the ups and downs of the rollercoaster. There are no grounds. It’s just you, your team, your cofounders, your ideas, and talking to people and virtualizing as much as possible. Everything is unexpected.
Did you have to learn any professional skills or learn anything that was totally out of your element?
Roberta: So, I worked in an organization before Bossa. I worked at a company called Globo TV Brazil, which is the second largest TV broadcast in the world. I also, worked in marketing the year before I started Bossa… My experience with managing teams was very minimal at the time I started Bossa… I used to read a lot of books and watched a lot of videos, but at some point I thought I should spend some money and time with a professional coach. And I did. It was all very worthwhile. It really helped me to isolate this learning. Sometimes you think a book will take you where you want to be, but then you miss some very practical things that are essential to you. This was one of my inspirations to create BOLDR. For a really good coach you’re going to pay at least £300 per hour. I think that’s when you realize when you need to create your own rules from your own perspective.
As female founders, do you feel you have achieved success?
Renée: That’s such a weird question. How do you define success? For me, all I ever wanted was to be happy, and I’m happy. I suppose that’s success, but it doesn’t mean I stopped striving for it. There are so many things that I want to achieve. Even after this, there are just things I want to do. I’ve said to my husband, that if I die first my tombstone has to say, ‘I’m not done yet’ because I will never stop. I will just keep doing what I love.
Roberta: Success is a relative thing. If I feel a little bit better every day, then I’m more successful. I think it’s more of an emotional feeling than something you obtain. It’s internal. How do you find things that are important to you that you can more and more connect to you? I think that’s the meaning of success to me. So, if I achieve that then I don’t know… I’m just in the pursuit of being happier, making other people around me very happy as well. I can get a sense of how do I help other people to be in the same environment, positive thinking and ways to achieve that every day.
Renée: That’s a really good answer! My goal was to create a business that would change the world in some way, and to lead a life that would leave the world a better place. That’s what success is for me. I have done that with Planet to a degree, and I will continue to do that with the work I do. For me, it’s about spending your life in a meaningful way that creates a positive impact so that when I get to the end of my life I will look back and think it was a life well lived.
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