Shaper: Debbie Wosskow

Show aired on 10th January 2015

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was I Heard It Through The Grapevine from Marvin Gaye. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday morning here on Jazz FM you get to hear me talking to a brilliant shaper from the world of business and play some fantastic tracks from the shapers of jazz, soul and blues. My Business Shaper today is Debbie Wosskow; she is the CEO and co-founder of Love Home Swap as well as an entrepreneur beyond that lovely business. We will be talking lots to her about that and all sorts of other things that she is involved in. In addition to hearing from Debbie, you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mischon De Reya some words of advice for your business and on top of all of that of course some brilliant music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul, including Abbie Lincoln, Albert King, new music from Mauritius and this from Gregory Porter and Ben L’oncle Soul.

The sound of Gregory Porter and Ben L’oncle Soul with Grandma’s Hands, originally of course from Bill Withers. This is Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss and my Business Shaper today as I promised earlier is Debbie Wosskow; she is the founder or co-founder actually of Love Home Swap, she has done lots of other businesses before which we are going to talk about and she has even, she is really important you should know by the way, she is even in charge of the review which recently was published that the Government produced on the sharing economy, a bit of a star. Debbie thank you for joining me.

Debbie Wosskow
Hi Elliot.

Elliott Moss
Debbie tell me about Love Home Swap before we go back in time a little bit. What is Love Home Swap and what gave you the idea to come up with this? It is an on-line business isn’t it?

Debbie Wosskow
It is, so it is a site for home owners who want to swap their home with someone like them around the world. So I don’t know if you have seen the film, The Holiday?

Elliot Moss
I have.

Debbie Wosskow
And so if you remember Kate Winslet swaps homes with Cameron Diaz who lives in a very bling pad in LA and actually that was part of the inspiration for me; I was sitting on a plane, I watched that film and thought ‘does that even exist as a business’ and actually for someone like me who had spent all the money that I’d earnt on my gracious home in London, what I didn’t like doing was going on holiday with my kids and staying in hotels because it is a pain and its expensive and really what I wanted was my home but just in another city or on the beach somewhere else in the world and so when I started to look at it from a personal perspective which was ‘how can I have a better holiday with my children’ I realised as an entrepreneur that there was a real opportunity there to develop a business for people like me, for families, for empty nesters, for people around the world who want to stay in homes and who feel comfortable doing it in a club of like-minded people in a couple of hundred countries around the world and that’s the business that I’ve built over the last three years.

Elliot Moss
And in fact you launched the business a little earlier than that didn’t you because you have been full-time Chief Exec of that for the last three years but I believe the business kind of was created around ’09. Is that right?

Debbie Wosskow
That’s right. It was an idea and at the time in ’09 I had exited my previous business and come out of that. I had come up for air and was looking around for the next big thing or the next idea and as your listeners will know when you are going through that process you try quite a few things and some of them stick and some of them don’t and the idea for Love Home Swap was borne around that time. Actually the journey there was that I am from a very big family and my youngest brother who was very industrious and had had lots of proper jobs which I have never had, and was about to go and do an MBA and I dissuaded him from doing that and said to him ‘I’ve had this idea, come and work with me for six months and I’ll salary you because you are my impoverish little brother and let’s try and put together a prototype to see if we can get this off the ground’. So when the site proper launched which was the 1 January 2010 we had two hundred and fifty homes on it which were our friends and our parents and their friends and the site then scaled very quickly so the journey with that business was I then realised that there was a real opportunity and it needed deeper pockets than just my own and so I took the idea out to the venture capital community across Europe and raised some proper finance for that in 2011. At the time when businesses that your listeners may have heard of in fact sharing economy businesses as they have become known like Airbnb were starting to get really big and there was this sense that within Europe people were willing to invest in scaling a business that was a bit like Airbnb i.e. you stayed in homes but a bit more upmarket and dealing with a slightly older audience. So one of the ways that I described the business is it’s a bit like Airbnb for grown-ups.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to hear more from my great Business Shaper, Debbie Wosskow. Time for some music, this is Afro Blue from Abbie Lincoln.

That was Afro Blue from Abbie Lincoln, a bit of a throw-back to around the late 1950’s and jolly nice too. Debbie Wosskow is my Business Shaper today, she has been telling us how she was worst in class at the management consultancy firm Oliver Wyman, a bit academic, knew she was going to be the boss on day two and all things that have happened since. She is the co-found and CEO of Love Home Swap which is a very brilliant idea about sort of Airbnb as she said, for grown-ups. Now we got the back story where you said you were the worst in class. Its one thing knowing you are going to be your own boss and you said your environment really shaped that because that was the model that you knew. It’s another thing then deciding what you are going to go and do. Your first business I believe was called Mantra Public Relations. Why did you alight on that particular idea at that particular time? We are now in the late 90’s aren’t we?

Debbie Wosskow
Yeah. So after my unsuccessful team management consultancy years.

Elliot Moss
I like the sound of the monkey doing the spreadsheet though in a horrible car park in Berlin.

Debbie Wosskow
That was how it was.

Elliot Moss
Nothing wrong with that.

Debbie Wosskow
I then went to work for a PR business called Brunswick which is now a vast business but at the time was about forty or fifty people in central London with a very charismatic boss and I spent a couple of years there learning the dark art of communications and what then morphed into, on-line communications because this is the advent of dotcom1 if you like – so ‘98/’99. When actually I think it was a very unusual time because it was a virtue to be young, people who were founding those early venture capital backed businesses in the UK like Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hayden and others were all mates of mine and it seemed like to use the slightly overused analogy of ‘gold rush and picks and shovels’ that was an opportunity with quite limited experience, quite a lot of confidence and drive to set up an advisory business that would advise that new wave of entrepreneurs who were people like me, much like the, the thinking behind how home swapping works and so when I set up Mantra I was twenty five in ’99. I didn’t know anything about anything really but I had a phone and a reasonably good address book and in terms of the first business to found and run it was just a completely amazing experience because you had exposure to incredible and charismatic entrepreneurs, loads of businesses that worked, loads of businesses that didn’t work at all, the media and learning about how to help people build their brand and awareness of their business. So it was a brilliant apprenticeship whilst also learning about how to run an agency business that ended up turning over millions of pounds and how to run a P&L on the team and to build that from nothing so it was fantastic on the job learning.

Elliot Moss
And in terms of client spread. Big client, small clients and all those in between too?

Debbie Wosskow
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
I mean how did you – people will be listening going how did you get those first clients if they weren’t established?

Debbie Wosskow
Yeah I think what I really learnt about that time is that people will back entrepreneurs with balls and you’ve got to get lucky with the first couple of clients and I can remember who they were actually slightly from the legal world but we started to work for a law firm called Olswang because they had an entrepreneurial founder who thought ‘okay well we’ll give her a bit of work and see how she does’ and at the time they were the law firm advising the media and technology sector so off the back of that all of our early work was word of mouth and then we got some really big clients like the BBC and some of the really big Internet businesses at the time like Yahoo. So…

Elliot Moss
So you got…

Debbie Wosskow
…this came from word of mouth.

Elliot Moss
…I mean big scalps and scaling up really fast. I mean you have obviously…

Debbie Wosskow
And way too fast. You know in that first eighteen months we went from, we got up to sort of sixty people in terms of size without really much of an idea about how to run it or manage it and the sort of secret shame of those early years was whilst turnover scaled very very quickly, profitability did not so you know, you learn a lot about hiring and client services and how to make money from that whilst keeping the quality of the work really high and that was very iterative and then by the time we got to 2002 the market was very different, there wasn’t the same amount of financing being put into early stage technology businesses and we really had to develop additional products and services in order to survive and scale the business so again there was sort of you know, learnings all the time about how to do it.

Elliot Moss
And we are going to hear lots more about those learnings and how that led to a sale actually in 2007 of that very business. Stay with me too hear more from my great Business Shaper, Debbie Wosskow. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some choice words of wisdom for your business from our program partners at Mishcon De Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss every Saturday morning 9.00am sharp here on Jazz FM you can catch me talking to a fantastic and interesting shaper from the world of business. If you have missed any and you would like to go back then pop in to iTunes, put in the words Jazz and Shapers and you will find a whole host of fantastic people over there. Debbie Wosskow is my Business Shaper today; she is the co-founder and CEO of Love Home Swap. As you have been hearing earlier she founded her first business at the tender age of twenty five, sold it by the time she was thirty three and set up the next business and another one and we’ll come to all the other things that you are doing. We were in 2002, without going right the way through you basically were painting a picture that said of your first real business of Mantra, it was a learning curve on every single metric that you could possibly imagine.

Debbie Wosskow
Absolutely.

Elliot Moss
Every single spectrum of, parts of the spectrum in terms of growing a business. When you came to sell?

Debbie Wosskow
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Did you want to sell? Was it – why was it right then and what advice would you give to people who are thinking about you know, they are at a point in their business or evolution of their business. How did you know that that was the moment?

Debbie Wosskow
I think there were a few different factors. The first was that personally I felt ready to do something more than just be an advisor and the bit that I really loved about Mantra was the running of the business and the bit that I started to love less about it was the giving of advice so it felt like I was ready for the next challenge and I had grown as a baby when I started this business and I had grown up within it so it felt like intellectually I wanted to do something different and I wanted to have ownership of a brand that had consumers that had a different set of business challenges and second was environment. At that time in 2006/2007 marketing services was very hot, there were an awful lot of marketing services roll-ups like Lowie who I eventually sold to, Engine obviously WPP were the big ones that people will have heard of. So it felt that there was a moment and I think you learn in life that those moments don’t last forever.

Elliot Moss
So you grasped the moment. You sold at a price you were happy with I imagine.

Debbie Wosskow
Yep.

Elliot Moss
On terms that was good.

Debbie Wosskow
It was good.

Elliot Moss
Good. That’s a good thing. A big tick over there.

Debbie Wosskow
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
You then almost within the next couple of years you geared up for your next venture as it were. You created a vehicle.

Debbie Wosskow
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Maidthorn Partners.

Debbie Wosskow
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Essentially doing what?

Debbie Wosskow
So I think the thing for me was when I sold and I left Lowie I had had my first child and in my mind I was going to have this pleural life where I did some non-execing and some investing and I did that for about two months and it was really boring and I am not very good at being at home with babies so it was time to get out and do the next thing and the way that I went about that was I had a very old friend from college and consulting days who was a smart guy and a friend who had also just recently had an exit and we set up Maidthorn strategically named because he lived on Maid Avenue and I lived on Thornton Place and that is how we came up with the name.

Elliot Moss
I see what you did there.

Debbie Wosskow
See what we did there, it’s clever. And really the stated object of Maidthorn is that we would have fun and make some money and it would be our vehicle to make some money through working on deals and advisory work and to plough the proceeds of that above and beyond what we needed to keep us honest back into businesses that we would invest in in order through the lessons learnt through Mantra to take that first mile of looking for investment or angel investment or proceeding with an idea away from any external third party innkeeper within the two of us so it was a very equal partnership, like a marriage, everything split fifty/fifty in terms of what we did and what we invested and it was great, very successful in terms of those two objectives; having fun and making some money and out of that structure is how Love Home Swap was born.

Elliot Moss
Find out what happened next here on Jazz Shapers with Debbie Wosskow my Business Shaper. Time for some music this is Dodo Bubba from that Mauritian I promised you, Gerry Leonidas.

The calming sound of Dodo Bubba from my Mauritian new friend, Gerry Leonidas. Debbie Wosskow is my Business Shaper; we have been talking about her amazing ability to fit in stuff and to be ambitious Debbie, you were talking about this new venture that you created, the vehicle with your co-founder I believe Simon Walker is his name

Debbie Wosskow
That’s right Mr Walker.

Elliot Moss
Maidthorn Partners brilliantly and originally named from the two streets they lived on – wow. But, but the serious side of that is unbelievably ambitious, very almost precocious in a way. Young person, you’ve sold your first business, you then got this notion that well actually I want to go on the other side of it, I want to start building not an empire but building interesting things with money behind that can then succeed and out of it as you said came Love Home Swap. When it came out of it, did you go, that’s a winner? Did you know that that potentially was going to be the thing that you would then focus your time on or was it, well here’s one of a few things that might work?

Debbie Wosskow
I think Love Home Swap is definitely a goose bump business for me when I first thought about it and we first mocked up the prototype. I got goose bumps and thought this could really be big. The thing that I love about it is, it’s real people and real people’s lives and that you get a real kick out of the fact that we’ve got tens of thousands of people who are travelling this way each year and it is something that I had the idea on a flight after having watched a film, and to me that’s very satisfying.

Elliot Moss
The film makes you cry. I always cry on planes I don’t know about you but Jude Law, you just fancied Jude Law didn’t you?

Debbie Wosskow
Well you know.

Elliot Moss
Yes a little bit.

Debbie Wosskow
Everyone loves a single dad so yeah. It was a good, a good moment to realise that you’ve turned something from an idea to a reality and for me that’s part of the reason to keep on doing this stuff and why I feel like there will be more businesses for me in different ways because I get a real kick out of that.

Elliot Moss
Is that the biggest kick? I was going to ask you, you talked earlier you said, I really preferred running the business to you know, at some point the advising became enough, I want to create my own brand.

Debbie Wosskow
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
I imagine there is a real, there is an element of the idea becoming the reality. Is that the primary thing or are there other things that buzz you as much?

Debbie Wosskow
I think I am just very goal driven, I have always been like that and I like to feel like I am being the best I can be that’s my mantra to my children I suppose and that if you feel like every day you have tried to be the best you can be then that’s a reason to bounce out of bed the next morning and I am a bounce out of bed at half past five in the morning type of person so I like to feel like I’ve achieved something every day and when you are dealing with a business that is complicated because it is about homes and travel and people booking long-haul flights for families and complexity in matching and technology there is always something that doesn’t work at the beginning of the day that hopefully you can get to work by the end of the day.

Elliot Moss
So you like the intellectual challenge but then on top of that you decided well it’s not really enough to have Maidthorn Partners and I’ve kind of got Love Home Swap but actually while I am going I am going to create this thing called Collaborative Consumption Europe.

Debbie Wosskow
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Because I need an on-line place for news and events and jobs and opportunities within the collaborative consumption industry. I mean the serious side again, you went and did another thing. You’ve done another thing and its there. You are driven and you are goal orientated but some people listening will go, where does she find the time?

Debbie Wosskow
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Or is it easier at this point because you’ve just…

Debbie Wosskow
I think the trick is to get up early. That’s the trick to everything in life. I think if you can train yourself to be an early riser then you can fit it all in. I am very structured. I have two small children and you know, it’s the three of us and we live together and there is a lot to get through each day and getting up early means you can get on with it. I am also one of these people who if I have nothing to do I am hopeless and I can’t do anything. If I have lots and lots and lots of things to do I am madly efficient so I am a shirker when there’s not much going on and if I am really under the cosh then I am you know, brilliant and I need to create that kind of life situation in order to be efficient.

Elliot Moss
We will have our final chat with Debbie plus play a track from blues great, Albert King – that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

Albert King and Born Under A Bad Sign. Debbie Wosskow is my Business Shaper and we have been talking about all sorts of things. Getting up early.

Debbie Wosskow
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Primarily. Being structured and I think a lot of people listening will hear that in themselves as well. The secret to being successful in what you do which is essentially structured unstructuredness I guess. You’ve got to be fluid, you’ve got to see opportunities but what you have done is created this surround which ensures that actually as you have said, you can be productive and control your urge to be a shirker which is in all of us. What other tips would you give to people who are thinking about or are in the middle of running either one business or want to set one up or multiple businesses as you are? What are the other things that have worked for you?

Debbie Wosskow
The thing that works for me is layering for want of a better word. So with everything that I am doing at the moment, my day job is being a CEO of Love Home Swap, I set up the industry group for the sharing economy so that is the capsule term to refer to businesses which are driven by people sharing the assets that they own and the skills that they have so that’s things like Airbnb but also Uber, Bla Bla Car, TaskRabbit, some of these new sites that sit in sharing so the reason to do that was to get to know other people who were operating and starting businesses in my world but also it is a positioning point to be at the front of this new movement within the UK and then the final piece of work that I have had on in recent months which has been very busy is doing this independent report for the Government on the sharing economy so that was different. Completely different team, working with Government, something I had never done before but again I could make sense of it with my day job so for me, because I like variety and I have a very short attention span, I need that variety but it doesn’t work for me to jump around between lots of different things, it all has to – I have to have some sense of it fitting together for the whole.

Elliot Moss
But you get time to relax right? I mean because a lot of people I meet are very driven. I remember talking to Sarah Murray and she said she spent a day in the sun in Majorca and she was bored. Are you, I mean can you, have you got the ability to just switch off?

Debbie Wosskow
Not great at that and holidays at the moment tend to be working holidays but I think having small children means that you need to give them your time and attention and I have a four year old and a six year old so what I have got disciplined at because they make me, they hate me being on my phone when I am with them, particularly if I am putting them to bed or doing a story so there is this kind of enforced moments of having to have down time which I am thankful for but it tends to be enforced.

Elliot Moss
It’s been great talking to you, I just want to mention the sharing economy review that you have led, I think it is a must read…

Debbie Wosskow
Yes.

Elliot Moss
…I have heard.

Debbie Wosskow
It is quite long.

Elliot Moss
It’s quite long but there is some pithy stuff in there I am sure.

Debbie Wosskow
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Thank you so much for being my guest today. What is your song choice just before I let you go and why have you chosen it?

Debbie Wosskow
That’s a difficult one isn’t it, it’s Don’t Go To Strangers by Amy Winehouse and Jools Holland. I feel like everyone needs a bit of Amy for the voice and its also a bit of a tear jerker back to your point on the holiday, that we all like a big cry so sometimes I listen to it on planes.

Elliot Moss
Debbie thank you so much, here it is, Amy Winehouse and Jools Holland.

That was Don’t Go To Strangers from Amy Winehouse and Jools Holland. The song choice of my Business Shaper today, Debbie Wosskow. What an articulate person, unbelievably intelligent, super structured and tonnes of energy behind the things that she really wants to do and achieve and boy has she achieved some stuff. Join me again, same time, same place, for another edition of Jazz Shapers here on Jazz FM, that’s 9.00am next Saturday morning. In the meantime though stay with us, because coming up next, you know who it is, it’s Nigel Williams.

Debbie Wosskow

Debbie Wosskow is an entrepreneur, investor and Sharing Economy expert.  CEO of leading peer-to-peer travel club, Love Home Swap, Debbie is also the Founder of the influential Collaborative Consumption Europe network and is currently leading the UK government’s review into the Sharing Economy.

A former management consultant, she launched her first business, marketing and communications consultancy Mantra, at the age of just 25. Building Mantra over a decade, Debbie sold to the Loewy Group.

Debbie is a regular commentator on travel, collaborative consumption and entrepreneurship on TV and in print and sits on a number of advisory boards, as well as being a trustee of Hampstead Theatre.  She graduated with an MA in Philosophy and Theology from New College, Oxford University and lives in London with her two children.

Follow Debbie on Twitter @debbiewossk

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“One of the ways that I described the business is it’s a bit like a B&B for grown-ups”

“I have never been around people who went to work every day for someone else. Everyone in my family runs businesses.”

“…in that intake at Oliver Wyman of twenty or so people, I was the only girl, I was the only arts graduate and I wasn’t very good at the job relative to my peers. In fact, I was the worst.”

“I think what I really learnt about that time is that people will back entrepreneurs with balls…”

“I didn’t know anything about anything really, but I had a phone and a reasonably good address book.”

“I think if you can train yourself to be an early riser then you can fit it all in.”

“…the sort of secret shame of those early years was that whilst turnover scaled very very quickly, profitability did not…”

“…it is something that I had the idea for on a flight, after having watched a film, and to me that’s very satisfying.”

“It was quite good experience to spend a few years being quite rubbish at something.”

“If you feel like every day you have tried to be the best you can be, then that’s a reason to bounce out of bed the next morning.”