Debbie Williamson is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer for online furniture retailer Swoon Editions. Founded in March 2012, Swoon Editions launches limited edition furniture designs every day to a growing community of Insiders. Designs are produced in limited quantities so that demand can be tested very quickly and only the most popular designs are put into regular production.
Williamson spent ten years building a successful career in digital marketing and product development with M&C Saatchi and the Telegraph Media Group, before becoming frustrated with the corporate world. When she reached her mid-thirties, she quit to take off on a grown-up gap year to South America and Asia. On her return she partnered with former colleague Brian Harrison and together they launched Swoon Editions.
In just three years, the business has secured funding from investment heavyweights Octopus Investments and Index Ventures, grown 300% year on year and now boasts a team of 58 working across offices in London, Vietnam, India and China.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I've always been extremely driven, which has resulted in me taking on a huge range of challenges and experiences over the course of my career and my life to date. I owe a lot to my parents, who created an environment that encouraged me to develop independence, ambition and resilience. I didn't receive any special favours and I learned early on that if I wanted something, I could go out and get it for myself.
I never had pocket money so I worked from the age of 14. I worked from nine until six every Saturday and Sunday in a hotel, so I learned at a young age the value of money.
I made the most of a standard education but I was always more interested in getting on and doing things. I realised pretty quickly that being street-smart is just as important to getting on in life. I'm fortunate to have inherited a great combination of traits from my parents. My dad is the creative brain of the family but mum is the executor, a real grafter. I do believe my upbringing has given me the ability to think creatively but also to apply a huge amount of energy to everything I do.
I'm lucky in that I have an extraordinary amount of stamina and resilience. Growing up I really did learn that if you want something, you absolutely can go out and get it. After graduating, I flew to Australia and got myself a job in a Sydney advertising agency the day I landed. I've never been too intimidated to ask for something I want. I'm also prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve something important. I've been known to view a flat, pay a deposit and purchase it in the space of two hours, fresh off a flight from a buying trip to India and between meetings with the UK team and our investors. My philosophy is to 'act fast' and I truly believe anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Swoon Editions?
I've worked in large organisations where it is tempting to keep to certain silos and hierarchies but I've always managed to carve out a niche for myself and develop something beyond my remit. I've been fortunate to have some great managers who have supported me and allowed me to develop my roles and responsibilities throughout my career.
During my time as an Account Director for M&C Saatchi, I worked across a wide variety of sectors, from hotels and airlines to the banking industry and even fashion. Having client and agency-side experience has enabled me to develop skills that are valuable in running a business, particularly from the creative side. I understand and appreciate the importance of a good brief, which is critical when I'm working with designers and producers every single day and trying to get the absolute best out of them.
Later, when I worked for the Telegraph Group, my role essentially involved creating things (ecommerce initiatives) out of nothing. This involved a large amount of creative thought as well as clear direction to execute the ideas and build something concrete out of them.
I'm definitely an all-rounder. I think if you can apply yourself across a range of different disciplines you can be a good entrepreneur. In the beginning I did everything from taking customer calls and filing tax returns to sourcing product, briefing out website design and creating a brand from scratch. I'm multi-skilled as opposed to being an absolute expert in just one area, and I think that's critical to being able to get a business off the ground.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Swoon Editions?
One of the biggest highlights was the day we bought our first shipping container of chairs. It was a Friday and we had put an offer into one of the national newspapers for the next day. Brian and I sat in the pub that evening feeling a mixture of nervousness, excitement and anticipation. We were about to find out whether or not this business was actually going to work.
The phone started ringing at 8am and didn't stop all day. I cancelled my dinner plans to continue taking calls into the evening. The container sold out in a day. It was an incredible buzz knowing that we were on to something and there was a real appetite for what we were offering. I also love overhearing complete strangers talking about Swoon Editions, and seeing our adverts around London and in the press. It makes me feel hugely proud of what we've achieved.
The challenges we face are fairly typical for this industry and for a business at this growth stage. Dealing with suppliers from different countries and cultures brings an array of challenges. Fortunately, I've done a lot of traveling over the years - I quit a successful corporate career to take a grown-up gap year before setting up Swoon Editions, and I spent six months in Vietnam during the very early days of the business - so I'm accustomed to the ways in which different cultures approach trading.
Keeping our business 'swoony' is an on-going challenge as we continue to grow at such a fast pace. I have to be conscious of letting go of the day-to-day as we scale the team. There's also so much we can and want to be doing, so managing our priorities is currently one of our biggest challenges.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
The advice I'd give is applicable to entrepreneurs in general - men and women. The first thing I'd say is choose the right partner. Running a business is hard; it helps to have someone who you can talk to when things get tough. I would recommend choosing someone with a slightly different skillset so that you not only compliment each other but can give each other the space to own and direct different sections of the business. If I'd launched the business on my own, I would only have been able to take it so far. It's a massive journey, full of highs and lows; it's nice to be able to share that with someone.
The second piece of advice I'd give is to just get on with it. Business plans aren't necessarily that important at the very beginning. You don't need one to be able to verify that you have a market. I'd suggest developing a prototype and using it to test the market. If there's an appetite for it, build the proposition from there. It doesn't have to be complicated.
What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
The main lesson I've learned is not to underestimate the importance of finding a work environment that's right for you. I recall a moment during my career where I took a role in a large finance corporation. It was hugely bureaucratic and I found it difficult to get anything done. Ultimately, it frustrated me to the point where I decided to leave after only a short time. I discovered I am much happier working in a more dynamic, nimble and fast-paced business where you can see the fruits of your labour really quickly and there are no limits to what you can achieve.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't really strive for a work/life balance. I love my work and I'm completely invested in it, so it's inevitably going to take up a lot of my time. I'm a big believer in taking responsibility for myself in terms of when I feel a need a break or some time away from work. I can work every day for weeks but when I feel I need a break, I'll take a few days out or have a holiday. We don't have a strict holiday policy at Swoon Editions; people are trusted to know when and for how long they need time off.
I also appreciate that different people view work and life in different ways and I've worked hard to achieve a culture that can flex to suit everyone. One of the members of our senior management team is a working mum. She takes her children to school every day before coming into the office and works from home sometimes during the week. She puts long hours in when she needs to but, likewise, she can leave to attend to family commitments when she needs to.
I also think technology brings big benefits. It underlines a lot of our business and we allow it to free us up to be more flexible about how we work.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
To be honest, at Swoon Editions we are fairly gender-blind because half our senior management is made up of women and half the office is female too. I appreciate this is unusual, particularly for a tech start-up. However, I really notice just how unusual it is when I attend industry events such as investor gatherings and UKTI conferences. I am often the only woman there.
The issue for me can be summarised as 'not enough.' There are not enough women in senior positions; there are not enough role models.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have a range of informal mentors - co-workers and peers who have added value to my experience and development over the years. One of these provided a valuable source of advice, support and sense checking during the early stages of Swoon Editions. We used to meet with him every month for a coffee. He went on to become an angel investor and is still involved with the business today.
I keep in touch with many people who've influenced me over the years. I think it's important to maintain those relationships. I've never thought that I can achieve everything all on my own so I'm a strong advocate of utilising those people who have the skills and knowledge to help me achieve what I want to.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire many women who are in leadership positions across a number of sectors, but I have most admiration for those who've started from very little and made a real success of their endeavours. Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, is a great example. She started out with very little money, even writing her own patent. The brand is now famous around the world and is worth $400million.
I also admire the actress and activist Joanna Lumley. She is intelligent, hugely talented and doesn't take herself too seriously. Her campaigning work for the Gurka Justice Campaign showed everyone a completely different side to her.
What do you want Swoon Editions to accomplish in the next year?
In terms of growth, our main goals include re-launching the brand, designing more of our own products and further expanding our range. We're constantly working to improve our website experience and the level of service we offer our customers - that will always be of the utmost importance. Beyond that, we have started working with some really exciting European makers on new categories and we plan to create a platform whereby designers can launch their designs to market quickly and be compensated fairly for them.