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Tara Benson, CEO of tech company Here & Now on finding out how awesome it feels to achieve super-human start-up stuff and bash down the barriers for women

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Tara Benson is the CEO and co-founder of Here & Now, a geo-based app which allows parents and carers to make the most of their time with the kids by offering a comprehensive list of family activities in the UK. In the past Tara has worked for brands like PayPal and Gumtree, but her experience is predominantly in publishing, including stints at Harper Collins, Harlequin and Kingfisher books. In the tech start-up world she now spends her time making decisions on product development, product design, content research, human resources, investor and partner relations, and speaking to parents and careers to find out how Here & Now can help them. 

Tara Benson
Tara Benson

“…We were very lucky to meet Patsy Seddon, the founder of Phase Eight… She did a huge amount of diligence on our sector, our business plan and on us. Patsy has a mind that works like a calculator and thankfully we passed the test…” 

From a career in marketing to the decision to take the leap and set up my own tech business

I really found my feet in marketing in 2003 when I co-founded a drinks business. The great thing about start-ups is that the rate-determining factor – the thing that makes you either accelerate or fizzle out – is the team and how cleverly and quickly you perform. In a start-up you’re better off pushing yourself as high and as fast and as far as you can because doing so makes commercial success more certain.

Wide brand awareness and wild customer advocacy

In our drinks start-up we had a very low marketing budget. You’ve got to use your judgement, energy, creativity, guile and persuasive charm to achieve wide brand awareness and wild customer advocacy.

For example, I got the Blackwood’s Gin TV ad campaign shot, edited and broadcast in over 20 primetime slots for under £8,000. And I secured a joint venture with what was then Fosters Group in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific within six months of starting trading in the UK.

Finding out how awesome it feels to achieve super-human start-up stuff

Publishing is a fabulous industry. I’m a book addict, and my publishing and content knowledge is really helping out at Here & Now. But a regular job can be frustrating and limiting once you find out how awesome it feels to achieve super-human start-up stuff. I knew we had another business in us as a team and that we should do something different.

Here & Now was one of three concepts I developed quite far, and has been through several pivots. I know everyone thinks of content and platform-based businesses as tech, but I don’t think we worry too much about categorising at this stage. (Although when we exit, the multiples for a tech business are far greater).

We think of ourselves as a branded business that solves two big problems. One solved for consumers who get frustrated with the time-consuming and uninspiring process of finding and booking awesome family activities, especially on mobile. And one solved for venues and merchants who cannot afford to reach their consumers in such a targeted and just-in-time way as we do for them.

Male dominated sectors: Pleased to bash down those barriers in drinks, and happy to bash them down in tech

Funnily enough, the tech business now and the drinks business in 2003 did have two big things in common. The drinks sector then, as the tech sector now, was heavily male-dominated. We were pleased to bash down those barriers in drinks, and we’re happy to bash them down here in tech. And the other thing was that we spotted a niche opportunity at just the right moment to exploit it commercially.

At the time we launched Blackwood’s Gin, we were told, “The world doesn’t need another gin, there’s Gordon’s and the blue one, who needs another?” Well, just look how gin has proliferated since then, and we were at the forefront of that innovation.

Now we hear, “The world doesn’t need another search product, when there’s Google and Bing. “Well, guess what? Our consumers are telling us they’re fed up of googling what to do with the kids, they want Here & Now’s fun, fast and simple app.

How my business partnership with my Here & Now co-founder, Antonia Jamison came about

One word: gin! I co-founded the drinks business with Antonia Jamison, our finance director, Joanna Dennis and one other who brought us all together. We’ve worked together over many years now, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Best of all, when there is a problem – and of course we do have them – we know because we’ve worked together for so long that we’ll get through it in one piece. I’ve been working with our product manager at Here & Now, Jo H, for 20 years and with Jo Dennis for 13. We’ve had feedback that our long-standing commercial relationships that have stood the tests of time and trauma are part of what makes us appealing as an investment.

The idea for the app

Right at the start of our story is our shared love of Random Acts of Tourism™. RATS (not the most evocative acronym, agreed) came about in 2004. I was doing international sales, which sounds more exciting than it is! It was hard, hard work.

Because we were a growing company I travelled the world in economy class. This saved a fortune, meant I could manage our antipodean joint ventures in Australia and New Zealand, and is absolutely fine for going on holiday. But the six-month-long sales trips became quite wearing, even for enthusiastic and energetic me.

Squeezing more joy into each trip

So I decided to squeeze more joy into each trip, be more present (as the mindfulness folk say now). So in between visits with customers, and even if there was only 45 minutes spare, I’d find something awesome, local and unusual to do and, well, I’d go for it. The Random Act of Tourism, which became the inspiration for Here & Now, was born!

In this way, I have met the amazing artist, Christo, watched an Australia-Scotland rugby match, paraglided off The Remarkables between meetings in New Zealand, and quickly popped into the Tower of London to ask a Beefeater to show me Anne Boleyn’s brother George’s hidden graffiti (he did – it was behind some burgundy velvet drapes).

The childlike delight in finding amazing things to do right on your doorstep is life-enhancing. In early 2014, embracing the ubiquity of mobile, even for non-techies, we decided to have a go at making Random Acts of Tourism possible for families everywhere. We did our research, talked to customers, and decided to go for it. Here & Now was born. 

Here & Now logo

The process for developing and market testing

We’ve been through a year of pivots, developments, market tests and pilots, culminating in the launch of our app. As long ago as July 2014 we had stands at summer fairs and fetes so we could talk to our potential customers, find out which demographic was most likely to use our products, what marketing lines stopped them in their tracks as they marched past our stand.

I’ve spent days stopping people in high streets all around, asking people for less than one minute to answer some questions to help me hone my business idea. (I’m pretty shameless and I get cross when I see business owners and marketers who hide behind the anonymity of their computer screen all day.)

The biggest clue was getting the app out into the hands of the people who had told us they were interested in using it. Just being able to see how frequently people search, how many minutes they spend on the app each session, how many bookings per search, etc. is fascinating and tells me we’re heading in the right direction. You can sign up to receive my monthly emails on our website. I’m told my emails are ‘unique’, so I’m just going to take that as a compliment.

Beating the odds and finding that notoriously illusive venture capital for women led start-ups

It’s very illusive, and we’re in the process of finding another £255,000 seed funding. We were very lucky to meet Patsy Seddon, the founder of Phase Eight. As Antonia put it, people in fashion can look at a first cut and see that although the collar might not be right, the colour needs tweaking and the shaping is off, there’s potential. That’s what Patsy saw in Here & Now – a first cut with massive potential.

She did a huge amount of diligence on our sector, our business plan and on us. Patsy has a mind that works like a calculator and thankfully we passed the test.

It makes no difference whether your investors are male or female

It makes no difference at all to me or our business. We operate on principles that include fully embracing and facilitating diversity. I think both male and female investors start from a position of ‘don’t lose the money’ and 99% of it is down to far subtler variations than gender.

Dragon’s Den: Any similarity to real life?

The Dragons take a lot of equity, but in return they share their experience, contacts and publicity. We’ve been in similar quick-pitch situations, and they can be enjoyable if you’re up for them. But in my experience, we haven’t walked out of a pitch like that with money in our pockets! What we hope is that we’ll find enough chemistry with one or two potential investors to agree to meet up afterwards and get down to detail then.

Advice for female entrepreneurs in tech

Every morning ask yourself: which one thing on your to-do list will deliver the best return. Then do that thing. Use every bit of experience and energy you’ve got. Use your judgement and act on your inner voice (unless your inner voice is having a bad day. Then just get your head down and tick off some of the non-urgent things on your to-do list that have been bugging you instead.)

What’s next after launch

We are building a content platform to disrupt, own and monetise the fragmented family activities space. Our next stop is a little counter-intuitive… We’re launching our telephone team soon, for customers who prefer to talk to a human. We’re working on attracting more customers to our brand. We’re hiring some amazing new people to help us do this. There’s quite a long list of things to do! Stay tuned!