Debbie Wosskow is CEO and Founder of Love Home Swap, a club she set up in 2009 where homeowners can swap, rent or use points to stay in over 55,000 properties in 160 countries worldwide. Debbie has co-founded several other ventures including ‘Collaborative Consumption Europe’, Maidthorn Partners and Mantra Public Relations. She studied Philosophy and Theology at the University of Oxford, is a Board Trustee of Hampstead Theatre and is a working mum.
“…The thing that creates success is just getting up every day and doing it. Nothing beats stamina…”
Debbie, you’ve been described as a serial entrepreneur. Please can you tell us about your ventures to date?
I left university and worked as management consultant and then in 1999 when I was 25 I set up my first business, which was an agency called Mantra and we did online communications and online marketing for media, entertainment and creative industries businesses. I grew that business from 1999 to 2007, at which point it was a big business and I sold it to the Loewy group and worked there for a couple of years doing an earnout*.
During that time I did a lot of angel investing in different businesses and non exec’d a couple of businesses. At the end of 2010 I had the idea for what became Love Home Swap, which is the business that I run now.
That was driven by the fact that I have always travelled a lot for work and life. Suddenly I had my children and staying in hotels was a complete nightmare and what I really wanted to do was just take my home and put it elsewhere in the world. So a combination of that very real need to travel in a cost effective but also truly local and different way, plus having watched the film, ‘The Holiday’, which was part of the inspiration that led me to set up Love Home Swap and that is the business which I now run.
Is entrepreneurship something you can learn or is it something you are born with?
I think it’s a bit of both. I think exposure really helps. I’m from a family of entrepreneurs – strong women who have run their own businesses and that’s a big part of the inspiration. I think it makes a big difference if you grow up around parents where they’re not going to do jobs and work for someone else.
I think if you see them working for themselves it normalises the process of starting your own business and thinking how you’re going to earn your own money and build something, rather than being employed.
I think it’s the kind of thing that’s easier to do earlier in your life. Setting up my first business at 25 was really helpful because you have nothing to lose. If it goes wrong it doesn’t matter. You don’t have any responsibility. It’s a great time to take risk, but I suspect alongside that the process or the innate sense of being happy to take risk is something that is just part of your personality type or not. It’s not for everybody.
You’ve co-founded several businesses. What makes for a successful partnership in a start up?
I guess I’d say two things. The first is rightly or wrongly I’ve always partnered with men and I think there is something in that in terms of a male / female business partnership. But also the thing that I’ve learnt over time is your business partner has to have a completely different skillset to you and that is the way in which you truly respect them, need them and you become a great team.
It also helps if they have a slightly different personality type, so I like to just get things crossed off the list, and move down the list quickly, so it’s good to have a business partner who takes a bit longer and can be a bit more considered. If I’m always rushing to the finishing line, it’s good to have a bit of balance.
Choose wisely. It’s a bigger relationship than your marriage. It’s harder to get out of so it’s really important that you pick the right person!
You’ve been successful in raising finance for your ventures. How can start-ups make themselves appealing to investors?
I think it’s about really building a business case and doing as much as you can to build that business case before you start talking to investors. They really want more than just, “Here’s an idea.” They want a proper proof of concept and some commercial metrics which show that if you had more money available you would be able to build something that was very attractive and would generate them a return on investment, so don’t go to them too early.
Beg, borrow or steal the funds that you need to get a business off the ground. Go to them at a later stage and you’re more likely to be successful and get a better deal.
How is access to finance from other sources such as crowdfunding changing the market?
It’s not just crowdfunding, but I think what has made a really significant change is the tax breaks available to personal investors in businesses SEIS and EIS, which mean that the risk to an individual writing a cheque to a small business is significantly lowered by the fact that it is a very tax efficient way of them putting their funds at risk. That’s made a huge difference to the culture of private investing in the UK.
You’ve got particular expertise in internet and tech related start-ups. How has collaborative consumption disrupted traditional markets to date?
Some of it is as old as the hills, this sense of a share or barter economy. Over the last five years, and there have been some big businesses that have driven awareness of this like Airbnb, Uber and Lyst and some of these US businesses, people are starting to think about the assets that they own and how they can make them work harder for them. In other words, what do I own that can make me money or save money? That is becoming more and more mainstream.
We benefit from the afterglow of that and participate in this sense in which real people, people like us, people we know are thinking about swapping their homes or thinking about sharing their car, or they’re thinking about the white goods that they own and how they might make a bit more money from them.
Or the skills that they have. They’re a lawyer and they need a plumber to come and sort something out in their house. Is there a way of doing that without paying?
It was the perfect storm of 2008 and the economic impact of that plus people just really being driven by a desire to do things either locally or in a more authentic way.
What new business models impress you?
I’m interested in new marketplace businesses; because that’s what I run I understand the economics of them. The businesses that are turning up to the collaborative consumption events I organise are new and are looking at different ways of innovating and in things that I understand. So things like fashion; you know I’m a girl so it’s something I’m interested in, but also asset ownership and finance and there’s a lot of innovation taking place in the way that we save, invest and insure. I think there’s a lot more that’s going to happen in those markets.
How are platforms like Esty, Taskrabbit and Fiverr providing access to new markets for entrepreneurs?
It has developed as a consequence of this whole culture of microentrepreneurship and Ebay was the granddaddy of that, wasn’t it? Because suddenly you could have a shop within a shop, which was your own business and you were in charge of that. There’s been some huge successes that have spun out of that and Etsy is the next generation. There will be more and more.
I think that going back to your original question of are entrepreneurs born or made, what we’re just seeing is a new generation of people who want to make their own money and plough their own furrow. Technology and particularly marketplaces are allowing them the opportunity to do that.
What business support networks do you value?
Some of them formal and some of them informal. I have a sort of power girls collective I suppose of other CEOs in tech and that’s helpful. People like Bec Astley Clarke who runs a jewellery business, Astley Clarke, and other people that I know socially.
It’s a funny world being an entrepreneur because actually, most of your friends are not having shared experiences, because they’re all about promotions and payrises and job interviews and headhunters and you’re not doing any of that at all. So it’s important along the way to pick people up who are having similar experiences because you’ve got more of a peer group to share your highs and lows with.
How are women led tech businesses different to those led by men? Is there a difference?
I don’t think so. I don’t know, because I’ve always done it my way. I guess you’d have to ask my team. I’m not sure that really splits along gender lines. I think if you’re the boss and you can deliver results for your team and for investors and protect your team and build a business then I’m not sure that’s very gender specific.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt as you’ve founded / co-founded several businesses?
Most of it isn’t very exciting. The thing that creates success is just getting up every day and doing it. Nothing beats stamina.
What is next for you?
Well, Love Home Swap continues to go from strength to strength and we’re at a really interesting point in the growth of the business. Globally in terms of what we do with it, how we scale it, how it’s four times as big by the end of next year. I’ve still got a big itch to scratch with this business, so until that has happened I’m really heads down on this one, which is great.
*Earnout – a provision written into some financial transactions whereby the seller of a business will receve additional payments based on the future performance of the business sold.