Ambition 24Hours: Penny Streeter
Overcoming a lack of funding and negative attitudes, Penny Streeter has built up a £60 million business
If you were to list the qualities needed to become a successful entrepreneur, determination and self-motivation would come pretty high up on the list. If you looked around for someone who embodies such virtues, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone to top Penny Streeter, founder of Ambition 24Hours.
Defying the odds, South African-born Penny, a single mother, has overcome lack of finance and negative attitudes to build up a company that, in less than 10 years, has an annual turnover of £60 million.
Having your bank manager writing the words ‘Pigs will fly’ on your business plan or experience clients looking over your shoulder as you enter a meeting, looking for a more senior male to talk to, would crush lesser people.
But for Penny Streeter, the adversity she faced, like these two examples, did not dent her belief that she could start up on her own and develop her idea into a world-class, multi-million pound business.
Streeter started up Ambition 24Hours, an employment agency for medical staff, in 1996. Initially, it was just Penny and her mother dealing with requests for locum doctors, nurses and care assistants. With the service offered 24 hours a day, as the company name suggests, Penny says she took calls at all times, often dealing with requests while in the supermarket.
This 24-hour service was necessary, as Streeter spotted a gap in the market that she felt she could exploit. She believed that there was a strong demand for agency staff during the weekend, when most agencies closed down.
However, with successive bank managers looking down their noses at her business plan, Streeter had to build up her firm without any funding at all. To make ends meet, she worked weekends as a children’s entertainer.
“Children’s entertainment was only used to provide some much-needed funding at the start,” she says. “Working at weekends, it provided cash for us to buy adverts to recruit medical staff to our books. I chose entertainment because it was an area in which I’d had some experience before, in South Africa.
“It was essential for our funding. We’ve never had any outside investment or loans for the business – initially because no-one was interested in financing us!”
Looking back at her early struggles, it seems slightly astonishing that Streeter has built up Ambition 24Hours into a business that has an annual turnover of over £60 million, around 13,500 healthcare staff on its books and 19 branch offices.
But when you learn that Penny still works 12-hour days, it becomes clear that adversity and knock-backs are mere irritations to this driven entrepreneur.
“I’ve always been very driven to succeed,” she explains. “When I started the business, I was divorced, with very young children to support, so I had to succeed!
“We had all the usual problems of any startup – no money, no time, no market awareness of the business. We overcame these by being absolutely focused and driven to succeed, with a ‘siege mentality’ to costs – we did not spend any money on anything that was not essential, with a very clear contribution on ROI.
“We relied very much on our own resources, with no outside help, so we made mistakes, but we never made the same ones twice.
“Ultimately, you have to rely on yourself; to be prepared to make the big decisions, although now we have an excellent management team.”
Another example of Streeter’s single-mindedness is revealed when she states that her business is not modelled on any other company and, beyond her mother, she has no inspirations in the business world. She gives the impression that she took on the world alone, and won.
“We stumbled on an opportunity and took it,” she says. “Success is all about taking your chances as a startup, rather than taking risks.
“We were absolutely driven to grow and expand – we still are. At any one time we have two or three new ventures at various stages of development. If you want to grow, you cannot settle into a comfort zone.”
Penny’s success has made her a popular figure in the media, prompting helpful coverage in newspapers and TV. She has also won awards, but characteristically, this has not quenched her thirst for further success.
“The awards have been great for the business, but the personal satisfaction from the awards is in knowing that the publicity may have encouraged someone to start a new business and really make a go of it – or to carry on when facing huge obstacles,” she says.
“It’s important that people – your readers – know that it really is possible to succeed.
“Keep at it and don’t give up! It has got increasingly hard to start up in business because of the growing mountain of regulation, and also employment legislation. However, there are always opportunities for the determined entrepreneur.
“The key is to find out what customers really want, identify a niche market where you can differentiate from your competitors, working harder and more intelligently than the competition, focus on growth and the bottom line, regard obstacles as learning opportunities and remember that if you are truly determined, you will succeed,” she adds.
It’s important that people – your readers – know that it really is possible to succeed.