Lara’s passionate desire to help women in business led her to accept with enthusiasm the invitation to be the first female entrepreneur to be interviewed by Helen Bailey of Aviatrix.
Aviatrix: What was the catalyst for Pacific Direct? Was there a big idea?
Lara: It was the last recession. I didn’t have a job and someone asked me to sell some stuff for them, which I did, and that was the start of Pacific Direct. My father had his own company so I was brought up in an environment where it was perfectly acceptable to have your own business – my father’s business went bankrupt.
Aviatrix: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in those early days?
Lara: My biggest obstacle was not starting the business, but keeping it going, and the main obstacle was the bank. My accountant and I presented the most phenomenal set of results and forecasts and the banker just did not believe them, because I was a rarity in their mind. This was 1992, twenty-one years ago, and I was young and female!
I would suggest that banks now are desperate to hear from women because they have learnt how bloody good and honest women are. I am sure that if there were stats available it would be the case that women are more honest and conscientious in business than men. Perhaps the problem does not exist in the same way anymore, as times have moved on and there are of course women in banks as well. That maybe is the lesson – play the game and find the right banker whom relates to you and your product or service. Women might find this uncomfortable, even dishonest but you need to play the game, business still performs in some arenas as an old boys club.
Women create obstacles by joining fatuous organisations that only have women on them – business isn’t made up of just women! It is ok if you want a shoulder to cry on you can go and have a lunch once a quarter and have a gossip with the girls, when you have met a target that allows you to have a pointless lunch. Women groups are okay for emotional support on a as and when needed basis but women need to be part of the real world working and networking with men as well.
Aviatrix: What or who was the biggest help to you in your business?
Lara: The biggest help was my female accountant because she held my hand. People respected me and took me seriously because I worked bloody hard. I was willing to learn and dedicate time to learning and to the business. I also did not allow myself to be so self conscious that I couldn’t ask difficult questions and ask for help. Too many people are too slow to ask and get help.
Aviatrix: At what point did you know your business was going to be a success?
Lara: When we were a £4.5 million company, I got the Sofitel worldwide French deal. It had been a very brave decision to go for the deal, because my then board was against me going for it. When we got it I knew we were going global. It was brave and bloody scary but I knew that we were going to be a very serious company.
I never thought a £4.5 million turnover was very good until I went to Cranfield and found out that I was the 57th fastest growing company in Britain and that really surprised me. Genuinely I had been in the business for nine years and I was just doing my best and had no idea.
Aviatrix: Did you suspect that you might be successful before then?
Lara: There are so many moments in the running of a business where you say ‘Great, that is another line I’ve crossed’, such as winning Forte Hotels, but my biggest turning point was going global. You’ve got to have these small triumphs along the way or what is going to keep you going? I would celebrate all the small triumphs even if it was in my head or I’d have my legs waxed and that was the height of celebrating, whilst making sales calls. Keeping running and taking half an hour out was a celebration!
Aviatrix: What was the one thing that made your business a success?
Lara: There are two things – customer service and the culture. The culture has to be real – you don’t just say it. You have to walk the talk and live, breathe and die it, keeping the customer at the heart of it.
Aviatrix: Did you seek out your customers and ask them what they wanted?
Lara: You must never become detached from the customer – that is suicidal! As the leader of a business if you have lost touch with the customer you have given up the ghost! Markets change! I just talk to the customer and listen to what they say.
I learnt to say no if they asked me to do something that did not fit the criteria of my expertise – that is really smart, otherwise you are making promises that you are not going to be able to keep. I would never make a promise to a customer for a product or service that I am not going to be able to follow through. It is a hard thing to learn to say no, especially for a woman. If you can learn to say my product and service do this and it costs this but if you want x or y than I suggest you go to this other place then you keep your customer happy.
Aviatrix: What was the key to scaling your business?
Lara: Understanding the strategy and the marketplace of my business and the competitors. I only created a plan after nine years, as it was only then that I realised I needed to have one – the value of it was priceless and it was regularly revised and I placed extreme attention on it. I learnt lots of lessons that I could be meaner, leaner and stronger that I could have learnt earlier perhaps. Company Shortcuts has been created for exactly that reason to pass on the lessons for free at the start up stage.
Aviatrix: As a result of running your own business, what unexpected things have you learnt about yourself?
Lara: That I will sweat the small stuff when I need to, that I have an incredible gut feel and every time I disobey it I fail. That I have learnt from my mother an ability to read people which is fail safe and the majority of human beings in this world are trust worthy and are capable of far more than they themselves believe. You can surprise people with a challenge that no one would have previously trusted them to do and then they are off and running and they never look back.
Aviatrix: What do you love about having your own business?
Lara: Freedom and choice. Shit days are still shit but I can choose to have a shit day or make it better and work harder!
Aviatrix: Is your ‘cure all’ to work harder?
Lara: To work smarter and harder. Always use a shortcut if there is one. If all things are equal – for example, two businesses both have the same great product – then the difference between you and the other one is the passion about what you do and your ability to deliver the promise. That is what will make the difference. Passion and belief is infectious – someone will always buy from the person they believe in most.
Aviatrix: What don’t you like about having your own business?
Lara: I still never like going through the numbers and I will never get used to the emotional turmoil that comes with dealing with people. For me becoming blasé about the care of your people is when you should stop being in business. I get emotionally attached to making sure people are engaged, happy, rewarded, looked after, motivated and are fairly treated.
Aviatrix: After selling your business, why have you chosen to start other businesses?
Lara: Because I get bored! I like product invention and product development and actually my skillset is start up phase. I am very very passionate about getting people to sell to the best of their ability.
Aviatrix: If there was one piece of advice you could pass on to a new female entrepreneur what would it be?
Lara: I would say to them, first see if there are any aspects of the work that other people have already done or are doing. If you can get 80% of the work provided by someone that is out there on Google then don’t be proud to use them if they are there. If you are not taking advantage of what is already out there, then someone else will beat you to it!
Aviatrix: What are examples of this working in practice?
Lara: Just beg and borrow templates, frameworks. I set up Company Shortcuts to share with others what I have learnt. https://www.companyshortcuts.com/ is going to change Britain in terms of its sales competency. Also on Company Shortcuts there are a series of frameworks and templates that are so straightforward. There are some mind boggling simple questions on the website that you should just work through to help make your business a success.
Aviatrix: If you had to identify any particular female traits or aptitudes that make you a great business owner what would they be?
Aviatrix: What do you feel female-owned businesses contribute to society? How is this different from male-owned businesses?
Lara: Women are perhaps better at educating and engaging with others. I think perhaps men are thinking that they have missed a trick by treating people like numbers and missing out on the innovation that people can contribute. People will not bring you extra value and ideas if they are not treated right.
Aviatrix: What makes you feel successful?
Lara: I set out to buy an education for my children – that was my driver. In effect, my measure of success was cash in the bank. But having made a life-changing sum of cash – which is a measure of success – I realise it is irrelevant and it was by no means the driver. I describe my driver as security for my family and I. Success is about the health, wellbeing and happiness of my family and I can only say that now that I have made enough money never to look at another price tag again. I don’t consider myself to be successful – I am just doing the best I can.
Aviatrix: If there was one thing you could change that would make women more successful in business what would it be?
Lara: Blag it like the boys. If we learnt to blag it like the boys and did not just do 90% of the work we would change the balance.
Aviatrix: How do you feel your approach is different from other business owners?
Lara: I am very down to earth, direct, if I am asked a question I will give you a straight answer – you might not always like the way it is but I will always be honest. I have thirty years experience of business and I think I can add value without being arrogant. I will only talk from experience. Nine times out of ten I wouldn’t do it the way I did because it probably went wrong.
Aviatrix: To be a success, do you need to be true to yourself?
Lara: Why be anyone else other than yourself?
Aviatrix: How do you deal with situations when you are not sure what to do?
Lara: I think there is something very endearing about being an incompetent fool. 99% of people will help the incompetent fool. I often find myself in that position and I will phone someone up and say ‘I understand you are the expert can you help me with this?’ and in all cases, they will help.
Aviatrix: How do you keep yourself sane?
Lara: Exercise and chocolate.
Aviatrix: In your opinion, why don’t more women own businesses?
Lara: They don’t pick the right life partner and so they don’t have the support at home. I could not do what I do without my husband, Charlie.
At Gate8, Lara is developing a piece of luggage specifically designed with women in mind. She is looking for women to take part in a luggage trial, so if you are one or know one, please get in touch!