The Entrepreneur: Michelle Clothier, Livity

The co-founder of leading youth-engagement agency on balancing purpose and profit, making mistakes "almost every day" and 'imposter gremlins'

Founder: Michelle Clothier
Company: Livity
Description in one line: We exist to benefit the lives of young people through a marketing agency and publishing business model
Previous companies: KHWS in London, Brushstroke Design in Hong Kong, The Evening Argus in Brighton
Turnover: £4.1m 2013
12 month target: £5m

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

  • We start with the ‘why?’ which is benefitting the lives of young people. We are purpose first, grown and sustained through a profit business model.
  • Our ‘how’ makes us unique, we put young people at the heart of what we do through our own methodology of Youth Centered Design.
  • Our ‘why’ and ‘how’ ensures our ‘what’ (marketing and publishing services) is more effective and more meaningful. Our youth insight and understanding is all the more rich and authentic because of it.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

We will be 13 years old on May 1 and I think we can truly say that we have proved that you can achieve both purpose and profit in a business model. That's the challenge we set ourselves when we set up the company in 2001, and it’s been a long and challenging journey, but the world is catching up and we have stuck to our guiding principles and fought to balance purpose and profit. It’s a set of scales that we are constantly trying to balance equally and something that might always be a work in progress.

Have we proven that it’s possible to create a sustainable and profitable business model that has purpose as its very heart? Yes I believe so. Can our model be an inspiration and influence to other entrepreneurs and businesses? I really hope so.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

I look at different sets of numbers everyday, but they’re all related to one another. Finances on a Monday, business development on a Tuesday, resourcing on a Wednesday, young people contact numbers on a monthly basis, performance of projects and campaigns throughout the week. At Livity, we appreciate the value in being close to the numbers and reading and responding to the stories they present to us.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

We launched Livity Africa nearly three years ago and have offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg led by our colleague Gavin Weale. We were curious and excited to see whether we could take our business model into other territories where young people, communities and businesses have similar challenges, issues and opportunities. Funded initially by The Shuttleworth Foundation, we are heading confidently towards self-sustainability.

We’re also really proud to have taken somewhereto_, our UK-wide London 2012 legacy campaign by Anna Hamilos that accesses free space for young people, to Venezuela and Brazil over the last 18 months, as well as taking our Youth Centered Design methodology to Spain recently. We also have projects in Poland and Nigeria in our sights. It’s great to get the chance to travel and share our work and ways!

Describe your growth funding path:

My business partner Sam Conniff (a 2010 Young Gun) and I launched Livity with a small amount of our own money that we’d cobbled together along with a small business loan from HSBC, backed by the government’s Small Firms Loan Guarantee Scheme. We took out another small loan in 2005.

We have mostly funded our own growth organically year on year, with the last three years seeing us consistently achieve a 30% annual growth. We are in the midst of some major five-year planning and exploring how we’ll fund our next growth ambitions.

What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

The rise in all things ‘digital’ has been game changing for our business. In particular, the evolution and use of mobile handsets and video content has had a huge impact on our business, our purpose, and the solutions we create for our clients and our audiences. So much so that we’ve formed a brilliant in-house production team headed up by Matthew Peltier (ex BBC) and built a studio!

We’re youth audience focused and our audience are the first generation of digital natives. The internet isn’t new for them ‘it just is’ so it’s essential that we understand how best to use digital to reach and engage with our audience. The bulk of our income is generated from solutions that have a digital ‘something’ at the heart of them and our future depends on continuing to embrace and use digital seamlessly, innovatively and effectively.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

We want to grow our purpose through our business success. Profit and purpose will continue to be inextricably linked, whilst protecting what made it innovative in the first place. Livity was built on fun, friendship and faith. Sam and I had faith in a big idea, faith in one another and faith in our team to make it happen. We also had faith that ‘our way’ was what the world needed and would eventually want.

There’s no stopping the growth of Livity but we’ll work hard to keep and protect the things that gave us the freedom to do things differently in the first place. I can’t believe how far we’ve come, but the truth is, at 13 years, it feels like we’re only at the tip of the iceberg.

Growth challenges

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

Making people redundant. That is by far the hardest thing we’ve ever had to go through and it’s far worse losing someone you think is doing a brilliant job than having to let someone go and find their ‘what next’ when they’re not able to perform well enough in our business or their role – although that is extremely hard too. To have to let go of brilliant people in response to the story the numbers are telling us, like we have twice in Livity’s lifetime, is heartbreaking.

What was your biggest business mistake?

There are truly too many mistakes that I’ve made to pin point the biggest. Life is too short to try and categorise, dwell upon and carry around the weight of past mistakes. I honestly make mistakes pretty much every day. However, I’m at a stage in life where I’ve built in a way to reflect on the day, what went well, what could and should have gone better and to try not to beat myself up. I try and work out how I should have handled something and take the view that tomorrow is a new day.

If pushed though, taking our eye off the numbers and foot off the new business pedal are two of the bigger lessons we have had to learn.

Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most:

We don’t experience very much red tape hampering our growth but recruitment and finding the best people is the thing that seems to take up far too much time. It’s really slow and annoyingly expensive and it feels like it often has us on the back foot.

What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Who am I to judge? I do wonder though whether entrepreneurs should watch out for overloading themselves at the expense of having a balanced, fully rounded and joyful life. Starting up and growing your own business comes with great responsibility and takes effort and commitment. Even in a purpose first business like ours it’s essential to acknowledge that there’s more to life than just working.

How will your market look in three years?

We’re in a range of markets; marketing and communications, government, public sector, social enterprise, publishing and broadcast, and they’re all changing. We have to focus on designing and maintaining a strong enough structure and culture that supports our growth, protects our principles and purpose and that gives us the freedom to remain flexible, adaptable, and curious enough to have the courage of our convictions.

We’ll work it out along the way. I can’t tell you what any of the markets will look like, but we’ll be there!

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Understand the numbers side of your business. Whether you like it or not, if you don’t get your head around the key numbers it will be a long uphill struggle at the very least, and catastrophic at worst. Understand the numbers as best you can and get someone in to look after the numbers as soon as you can.

Personal growth

Biggest luxury:

I got married last summer to Remi, my partner of 12 years, he has been by my side for so much of the Livity journey; I couldn’t have given my all without his support. It was wonderfully indulgent and a luxury to be able to celebrate our relationship with our daughter Liliana, family and friends and to make a promise for the future whilst having a big old do. Life is so short but we will have the memory of that joyful day forever.

Executive education or learn it on the job?

I got chucked out of college so didn’t have a chance of making it to university. So I guess I learnt on the job via lots of terrible and great jobs (the wilderness years!). We’ve often wondered if we were successful with Livity in the earlier years because we didn’t really know what we were doing at all!

In the later years of Livity however, we had two stints at Cranfield Business School, participating in their Business Growth Programme and these were invaluable. To be able to apply business theory and techniques to our own business was really exciting and motivating and it definitely propelled us to the next phase in our business life.

What would make you a better leader?

Not allowing the ‘imposter gremlins’ into my head ever again. So much wasted time generated from one’s own self-doubt and lack of confidence. They still sneak in, but I boot them out pretty quickly these days.

Business book:

From Good to Great by Jim Collins. Sam and I were both so excited to read this study of brilliant performing businesses and we feel like we recognised and agreed with so many elements of what Collins was describing. In particular, learning about ‘Level 5 leadership’ was inspiring and something to aim for in my own leadership.


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