With an aggressive international expansion on the cards for Notonthehighstreet.com, Holly Tucker's energy shows no sign of waning
The first thing you notice about Holly Tucker is her unfaltering enthusiasm. Despite having a cold and cough that’s left the Notonthehighstreet.com founder sounding like a 40-a-day smoker, she smiles broadly and bounds from room to room, giving the photographer and I a tour of her home.
She moved into the house in St Margarets, south-west London, three years ago with long-term partner Frank and their nine-year old son, Harry. Since then, it’s undergone a huge transformation. “We’ve ripped it apart. It was not like this when we moved in,” Tucker says emphatically. She’s done a stunning job. From the grand chandelier that hangs in the lounge to the faux-grass soapdish in the downstairs bathroom, there is much to be said for her attention to detail. If Tucker runs her business with the same love and precision as she builds her home, it’s no wonder Notonthehighstreet.com has been such a smash hit.
It’s no coincidence that Tucker set up a business with an artistic leaning: she has always been right-brained. Having been born in Chiswick, she lived in Holland between the ages of seven and 15, before returning to the UK to complete her education. In her A-levels, she gained A grades in art and creative design and technology – and, somewhat ironically, a D in business studies.
At 17, a multitude of options presented themselves: would Tucker go to study for an art degree or would she pursue a career in advertising, having worked a summer job at ad agency Publicis since she was 15? “When it came to the day of my A-level results, in the morning I had an interview with Rick Bendel [the former CEO of Publicis in Europe who went on to become chief marketing officer at Walmart].” Her mum and sister were waiting in the car to drive her to her Ascot school to collect her exam results. Not that it mattered. Bendel had offered her a job as a junior account executive. “Basically, I was going to be the tea girl,” laughs Tucker.
If she really was making the brews initially, it wasn’t for long. Quickly promoted to account manager and entrusted with clients including L’Oréal, Coca Cola and Renault, Tucker’s talents were plain to see and she was eventually poached to go and work at Brides magazine. She had a vested interest in the business of matrimony: she was getting married at the age of 21. After it became clear Condé Nast wasn’t quite her “cup of tea”, Tucker got a new job at coolwhite.com, one of the first wedding portals to curate a collection of venues, planners and other assorted wedding-related services.
A spell as a freelance consultant followed, but while Tucker was making a decent living she felt her creative instincts were being suppressed. “Don’t forget, originally I was going to go and do a career in art,” Tucker points out. She began designing sculptures made from plants. “I would buy really weird pieces of wood and then I would pot up all these sucker plants and things and I started creating wreaths that were less ordinary; they were made out of chilli and tangerines and artichokes,” explains Tucker, who was divorced from her husband at 24.
While working out of her one-bedroom flat in Chiswick in the evenings, it occurred to Tucker that she was unlikely to be the only budding artist in the neighbourhood. “Chiswick is all 2.4 children so I assumed there must be a Christmas fair.” There wasn’t. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll set up the fair and then I can get the best stand to sell my products. So I spent every evening setting up this fair with 240 stalls under one roof where I hand-picked each incredible business,” says Tucker. “The feedback afterwards was that the businesses that were selling loved standing next to another quality business.”
Realising she was on to a winner, Tucker ditched wreaths and created Your Local Fair, which staged fairs in affluent areas including Hampstead, Fulham, Notting Hill and Henley. She was on a roll – until the great British weather put paid to a fair she had co-ordinated in Chelsea. “I had 190 stands in Chelsea town hall – which, by the way, costs a lot of money to hire out – when this huge storm came over. I’ll never forget that moment; it was so stressful. The issue was, if it pissed with rain, however much advertising you’d done, you were stuffed,” says Tucker.
She had the basis of a spectacular business – people were snapping up the unique, hand-crafted bounty – but the medium was wrong. She’d have to take it online. In the meantime, Tucker had met her now partner, Frank, and become pregnant with their son.
“I had Harry on January 28, 2005, and then six weeks later I had to pay the rent,” she explains. She began freelancing to make ends meet but couldn’t shake the idea of an online marketplace. Having decided she didn’t fancy being a sole founder, she contacted Sophie Cornish, her former boss at Publicis, to ask her if she would like to help her launch the business.
“I sent her this famous email where there’s a line that says, ‘To sum it all up, it’s just everything that’s not on the high street,’” recalls Tucker. Within 24 hours, Cornish had jacked in the small florist that she was running to join Tucker in her pursuit of entrepreneurial superstardom. “I’d take Harry, with all the palava you’ve got to take with a three-month old, while we sat creating the business plan,” Tucker muses. In January 2006, they moved into their offices in Sheen – “the shit end of Richmond”.
Tucker’s sister, Carrie, became employee number three as the co-founders spent three months trying to build the technology platform that would enable consumers to buy from multiple small businesses but pay in just one transaction. “The one-basket technology didn’t really exist,” says Tucker. “Amazon and eBay were the only marketplaces out there, so when talking to our small business partners we had to educate them on what a marketplace was.”
The one-basket system caused other problems too: although Tucker and Cornish had commissioned a company to build the site for them for the princely sum of £30,000, it became evident that the developers were incapable of doing what was asked of them. “Two nights before we launched, we realised we weren’t going to have a checkout,” says Tucker. This was particularly problematic as the eyes of the world were watching. “We wish we’d known the word beta. What we did know is PR,” she laughs. They had done such a excellent job of promoting the new company that on the day of launch, 16,000 people visited the site.
“We didn’t have any choice but to launch it as a preview. Then someone came into our mix who was originally supposed to do something small but ended up rebuilding the site in three weeks. We switched it over at midnight one night and sacked the web development company. That was Notonthehighstreet version one,” muses Tucker.
Sales trickled through. Though the team was growing, there were only a couple of sales a day and the company was only charging 10% commission, so its share of the proceeds was tiny. It was also charging small business partners a £99 joining fee, which has since been revised upwards to £199 and commission now stands at 20%. But still, this wasn’t enough to cover the costs of keeping the lights on. “We knew we had to build better technology, we knew we needed a back-end system, but we had just started to run out of money. My father remortgaged; Sophie’s parents wrote another cheque.”
Though gratefully received, their parents’ handouts barely touched the sides. Attempts at fundraising in the City fell on deaf ears. “Two blonde women going around the City talking about their little shopping website? Men were telling us that their wives did all the shopping. It was cringeworthy. Every stereotypical story you can think of – that’s what we were experiencing.”
A chance meeting between the fledgling company’s PR representative and a man in a church in the south of France secured an introduction to Tom Teichman, chairman of VC firm Spark. Teichman signed a cheque for £300,000. “Finally, we were on our way,” smiles Tucker.
But it didn’t take long before the cash dried up again. As the business grew rapidly, so too did overheads. In the first year the business turned over £199,000; the next it was £900,000. Then it hit £2.3m in 2008. Although they were operating on a shoestring, the founders knew that they could not afford to cut corners in the quality of suppliers. “We knew we had to be curated so we turned away, and still do, 80% of applicants who come to the site. Those days where we weren’t paying ourselves a salary and I had a young child; not paying yourself a salary is not a joke. We were turning away £1m of joining fees in the first year because we knew the brand had to really stand for something and it was about quality and about the best British small businesses.”
As the business went through growth spurts, it had to find partners to help ease its growing pains. Notonthehighstreet has five venture capital investors on board to-date.
As the company swelled, so too did the earnings of its partners. “Our partner base did not grow as much as our customer base did. Even today in 2014, we’ve only got 5,000 partners and we had 200 when we joined, so actually that growth has not been huge. It’s always been about the quality of the partner,” says Tucker. Last year, six of those partners made £1m through selling their goods on Notonthehighstreet. “It was the proudest moment of my career. We’ll probably make 20 this year.”
That is why she does it all, she says. “How privileged am I to watch people live their dreams? We’re helping create British businesses, which is just amazing.”
The financial rewards haven’t hurt either. Last year, Notonthehighstreet turned over £83m. It was a landmark year for another reason too: Tucker became the sole leader of the business after Cornish stepped back from the day-to-day running of the business. Tucker says the decision was just part of the company’s evolution. “It’s quite a natural thing when you have a partnership: when it comes to the hundred millions it starts to become a situation where you need one person who’s leading,” says Tucker carefully. She stresses that the pair’s relationship is still in tact. “I’m meeting her for lunch after this. We’re still very close. She’s a director on the board and she co-wrote this,” Tucker says, pointing to a copy of Shape Up Your Business, on the kitchen table.
Tucker will be glad she no longer needs to put pen to paper for she has other pressing matters at hand. In the next couple of months, Notonthehighstreet will launch its German website. “We’ve got a few hundred partners and we’ve got a team out in Berlin,” says Tucker. She doesn’t expect it to be a walk in the park. “International is a challenge. I bought the URLs in 2007 when we couldn’t afford the heating. I’ve always known that we have to go international, but actually being able to do it is another matter.” The plan is to adapt slightly for the German market but to apply all of the learnings from the UK, so the same early mistakes aren’t made twice, she explains.
And the expansion isn’t all that’s keeping Tucker busy. She and partner Frank, a former Scotland Yard detective, are launching a charity called Happy Bricks Foundation, which will help underprivileged children in Tanzania. Frank also harbours fantasies of starting his own business, in which he can indulge his passion for food. Unsurprisingly, Tucker is his biggest cheerleader.
“Most of our conversations in the evenings are about building something,” she smiles. “And the more wine you drink, the more you build.”
Shape Up Your Business, written by Sophie Cornish and Holly Tucker, is published by Simon & Schuster, is out on July 3 and is priced at £14.99.