Ann Summers CEO Jacqueline Gold: From the bedroom to the boardroom
The lingerie mogul shares her business advice and thoughts on leadership, female empowerment, and the importance of networking “like mad”…
The CEO of an international lingerie and sex toy empire with revenues of £140m, Ann Summers’ Jacqueline Gold has come a long way from the days of having to pitch her ideas to the “raincoat brigade” as a “naïve, shy, 21 year old”.
Allegedly Britain’s 16th richest woman, Gold joined Ann Summers initially as an intern but quickly found her feet launching her party innovation in 1981, a franchise model which offered women across the country the opportunity to host their own “underwear and sex toy parties”. Having met with hostility when the idea was first introduced; a board member at the time stated “it wouldn’t work because women aren’t even interested in sex”, fast forward 33 years and Gold’s idea, combined with over 140 UK stores, has put 300,000 women in work and contributed over £1.2bn to the economy.
The brand, which combines Ann Summers and Knickerbox, continues to evolve: its website is now one of its fastest growing arms, it has a presence in the US, Australia and Russia, and it continues to add new partnerships to bolster its offering. Gold tells me that they’re just about to announce major new partnerships which will follow on from the company’s recent partnerships with ShopDirect and Superdrug.
The franchise business has also followed the same route; growing by 20% annually, along with its parties which now “attract more women each year than the number of Manchester United fans who go to visit Old Trafford each season”.
Despite her phenomenal success, Gold remains modest about her achievements; “it’s been a fantastic journey”, and is now fiercely passionate about helping to empower other women to realise their potential:
“Women have an enormous amount to contribute which is why it’s frustrating that so many talented women are choosing not to [start a business].
“We need to own it. I want to remove the glass ceiling – more women are leaving their jobs because of the glass ceiling. I have a five year old daughter and I want her to be able to negotiate salary, I want there to be gender equality.”
Having scaled to become the “largest retailer of mind blowing orgasms”, we met up with Gold at the Virgin StartUp Ignition event for Global Entrepreneurship Week to find out her key tips to starting and growing a business, and why female entrepreneurship is so important to her…
Learn from your mistakes
“Know your expertise, don’t go into something completely new. I don’t regret starting Bite [Gold previously launched women's magazine Bite but had to close it after 12 months, losing £1m investment], trying new ventures can be a great experience but know what you’re good at.
“When we start new projects, we’re so passionate about it that you end up spending more and more time focusing on it and often you need to take a step back.
“I think Bite failed mainly because retailers were confused about where to place it – because it was from Ann Summers many thought it was something that should go on to the top shelf, which it wasn’t and many women can’t even reach the top shelf, whereas others thought it was an IT/tech magazine as it was called Bite!”
Get to grip with the business basics
“It’s very easy to make the numbers work and factor in what you want to see but you need to be honest with yourself.
“You also need to get a good mentor – they’re invaluable.”
Utilise social media
“I find it strange that there aren’t more CEO’s on Twitter engaging with their customers. You really have to embrace social media to work towards growing your brand. If you don’t use it then do so at your peril! You really will be miss-selling your business. ”
Know your customers
“At the start of the recession I invested heavily in research. I felt everyone was doing sexy and sexy wasn’t really sexy anymore. On the back of the research, we listened and we acted. Are you asking and are you acting?”
Follow the five leadership “rules”
“To be a successful leader you need to have:
“It can be uncomfortable to challenge the status quo but you need to be uncomfortable at times if you’re going to fulfil your potential.
“I’ve shown tenacity in my career; tell me I can’t do something I will prove you wrong, take me to court; I’ve been to court a fair few times, and I will win. You need to have passion for what you believe in.”
Get a good team around you
“Having the right people on board is critical to your business, I only employ people that I trust and like spending time with. Ultimately you spend more time with the people you work with than your family members.”
Realise the power of networking
“I regret that I didn’t network more in the early days. I didn’t really know about networking back then but I would have networked like mad if I could go back in time! Making connections is so important, I think a lot of women are nervous about networking, which is natural, but it’s so valuable.”
Get your business noticed via the #WoW Twitter campaign
“I started WoW (Women on Wednesday) because I believe we should be encouraging women. Each Wednesday we select the top three business stories that have been tweeted to us and then at the end of each year we pick the top three overall. The businesses are then invited to a mentoring lunch at the Ivy and are then invited to our headquarters where they can meet our executive team and gain advice and mentoring.
“I look for businesses that are interesting, have strong brand values, a well designed website, and that know what their customers want.
“There’s too many mixed messages out there that to be successful in business you either need to be a man or you need to be aggressive, this needs to be changed.”
Finally, a message to women in business: Believe in yourself
“I’m a strong advocate for women in business. You need to believe you can be whatever you want to be regardless of your background. There’s a great story about Michelle and Barack Obama that I love:
“The Obama’s often visit local businesses in their area to show their support. One day they went to eat at a local pizza restaurant, the owner comes over and says hello, I think his name was Pedro. Pedro goes away and Michelle is acting awkward and embarrassed, Barack asks her ‘what’s the matter’, she replies ‘I can’t believe it, I used to go out with him at high school!’
“Barack pauses and says ‘well just think, if you hadn’t of met me you would have been the co-owner of a very nice pizza restaurant with Pedro’, Michelle replies ‘no, if I hadn’t of met you Pedro would have been the president of the United States!”