Sugargroup: Geraldine Brooks
The founder of the women's networking group on time management and working with Sir Richard Branson
ell us what your business doesSugargroup organises events for women to successfully combine business with pleasure.
Where did the idea for your business come from?I went to a networking event and no one spoke to me for five minutes! I was also amazed at the number of men at the event and so few women. I decided to set something up that all the women I knew would want to come to.
How did you know there was a market for it? We researched and asked a lot of women why they weren’t attending conventional networking events. Our USP is that we take women by the hand – literally! We pride ourselves on making them feel welcome, comfortable and introduce them to women we know they would like to meet and have something in common with. Our guest speakers inspire and we are always encouraging our members to go for it. Our events are held in great places; the same hotel conference room every month gets boring. We also strive to offer different things. Our members can listen to financial advice from one speaker and then learn the art of Burlesque from another.
What were you doing before starting up? I was extremely lucky to get my foot in the door at Virgin. I worked my way up to become a managing director within the Virgin Group. I worked directly for Sir Richard Branson running his private island, Necker. I also started a new company from my own business idea; Virgin Ultimate, that’s known today as Limited Edition. As I am always looking for a challenge, I relocated to New York for 6 months and didn’t return to the UK until 12 years later. I learnt so much at Virgin and have fantastic connections that are vital in what I do today.
Have you always wanted to run your own business? Yes. I have never been one to fit in and am quite unconventional. I always like to try something new, even if it’s not going to work out. There is great flexibility and I don’t like to work 9 – 5, more like 6am till 1am! I don’t go into the office everyday but now with my BlackBerry I can stay on top of work wherever I am. This is something I’ve learnt after taking part in the T-Mobile business challenge, where I’ve had to run the business for a week using nothing but mobile technology.
What planning did you do before you started up? I did market research by asking lots of ladies what they did and didn’t like about the networking groups around. I have a business plan although it changes frequently. There is lots of advice out there but sometimes it is difficult to get hold of and I think there needs to be more women mentors available.
How did you raise the money? I haven’t raised any money, but I did get a small training grant of £500 from another company. It is so difficult to raise funds, especially in the current economic market, which is another aspect of SME culture that needs to be addressed in the UK.
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What challenges have you faced how have you overcome them? Cash flow is a constant challenge for every small business. Certain projects have to be put on hold due to cash, for example, sugargroup doesn’t currently advertise, but we rely on PR and doing things differently like using social media channels to market the business. Having a great relationship with a bank that listens certainly helps. The staff are all self employed contractors, although when we grow I would love them to become part of a core team. Finding new customers is something we never stop doing; every lady in the street is a potential sugarlady.
How have you promoted your business? Postcards, e-shots, blog, social marketing, website, and word of mouth. They all work and have all been successful. I held a joint event with a local Chamber of Commerce, although they prefer to “network” the old fashioned way.
How much do you charge? Membership to the sugarclub is only £50 per year. Events range from £20 – £45 depending on what and where they are.
What has your growth been like? Sugargroup is expanding rapidly. We started in Hastings, East Sussex, and launched in Rye, Bexhill, London. Next it’s Tunbridge Wells, Brighton and more London events. If all goes to plan, we expect turnover to be just under £50,000 for our first year. It’s making a little, enough for me to operate as we are, but I do need a cash injection to take it to where I want it to be. I try to stay on track and regularly refer to the business plan, sometime I stick with it, and often I don’t.
What’s the impact on your home life been like?It has changed considerably as many events are in the evenings. Fortunately, I have a very understanding husband and Mum who have supported me from the beginning. I am very lucky, but it is a constant juggle and occasionally I feel I am not doing either job well.
What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up? Time management. There is never enough time and I find that as a start-up, you are doing everything. I often feel I am running around trying to fit it all in. Also staying focused. I have so many things to do with sugargroup and ideas for its growth but I have to learn to do one thing at a time. I am also becoming less of a technophobe now, which means I can embrace the technology, which enables me to work quickly and more efficiently.
What was your first big breakthrough? Getting Jo Fairley (founder of Green & Black’s) to sponsor the group. I invited her to an event and she loved it, despite being cynical about women’s groups! In addition, taking part in the T-Mobile Challenge has opened so many doors for me and has certainly spread the word and given me great exposure.
What would you do differently? I wouldn’t change a thing; I never once doubted sugargroup. When I see a boutique hotel or art gallery full of my ladies, all laughing, talking about their work, their mistakes, giving advice or just chatting about the latest Chanel nail colour, I am happy I made the decision to start sugargroup.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs? If you are passionate about something and really feel it’s going to work, then do everything you can to make it happen. You will be criticised along the way and you cannot please everyone all of the time, but stick with it and it will come to fruition. You have to enjoy what you are doing, as initially, it probably won’t make money. Many people said to me “Why are you doing this? How does it make money?” It’s a dream I want to make happen. Where do you want to be in five years’ time? In five years’ time, I would love to see sugargroups all over the country, the States, Australia, wherever. I also want a sugarclub in London – a haven for women (and men if invited!) with great facilities; meeting rooms, lounges, bar, restaurant, spa and hair salon. A stylist on hand, a crèche; for days when the babysitter doesn’t show up, regular workshops on various topics ranging from writing a business plan to where to get financial help and of course, great rooms with fabulous products. After supper, the guests can finish off a busy work day with a massage or pedicure before bed or head to the bar in PJ’s if they wish!