Social enterprises are leading the trend in startup business, so is the number of women leaders. Olivia Knight, founder of Patchwork Present, a community tech startup that promotes environmental and socialist concepts, is happy to share her experience and opinions in this area. The following is her conversation with our journalist Vicki Cheng.
Cheng: What is your business about and how long have you been running it?
Knight: My company is called Patchwork Present. It’s a website that lets people share an idea for one much-wanted gift and then invite friends to come together to fund it – piece by piece.
Cheng: How does it work?
Knight: The site allows you to break down one big gift down into its component parts so friends can choose which piece they want to fund. The gift can be an item or an experience. Say a child wants a bike for their birthday, their parents will create or customise one of our existing bike patchworks and then the child’s friends and family will buy the bell for £2, a wheel for a tenner or the frame for fifty quid.
Contributions from friends go straight to the parents’ PayPal account so they can then buy the bike when they like – from eBay and local shop or wherever.
We don’t sell bikes. We just sell a platform that enables you to share an idea that you want to collectively fund. The principle is simple: everyone contributes a little and together they give a lot.
I guess it’s like Kickstarter but for gift giving.
Cheng: What do people use it to fund?
Knight: The site can be used by anyone to collect cash towards any gift – as long as it’s legal!
But the majority of our users are couples getting married who don’t want a traditional department store gift-list and instead want their families to help their honeymoon. They get to show their guests the experience they are dreaming of and their friends and family get to choose which part of the trip they want to treat them to – a night in a hotel for £100, a diving trip for £50 or a couple of beers on the beach for £5.
Cheng: This concept sounds impressive and new to me. Where does this idea come from?
Knight: I suppose the idea is a natural one to me because I enjoy collaboration. It’s about sharing and coming together to help each other to achieve the things we want and need.
But I had the specific idea when I was getting married myself. I had lived with my partner for 10 years. We had 2 children already, we had a flat, we had stuff. So when we were getting married we knew we didn’t want a traditional gift list. So I put together a little website full of pictures of the honeymoon we were dreaming of and all the things we wanted to do and then people clicked on to buy us each thing. And it worked! When we went on the honeymoon, we took photos of us enjoying the trip and sent personalised thank you cards to the people who funded each piece. This site was sort of the prototype I guess and we’ll developed Patchwork Present from that. The important thing is that it’s not just about the cash it’s a way for friends and family to share the experience and feel the joy that the gift brings.
Cheng: This brings me to wonder if there’s anything of your current business to do with your previous job.
Knight: I worked in branding and marketing for over 10 years. Whilst I really enjoyed it I have have a sort of fundamental trying to sell people stuff! I always felt uncomfortable about that. I’m quite green. I don’t like overconsumption. I think the world is in really big trouble, and we shouldn’t be persuading people to consume more stuff. And when I had this idea, what I really loved was that it wasn’t about selling anyone anything. We just give you a platform to let you do whatever you want with it.
Our purpose is simple: to help people get the things they really want and need – and at the same time keep unwanted gifts out of landfill.
[quote]”I think the night I decided to quit my job and start my business – I think that was the best night’s sleep I’d had in two years.”[/quote]
Cheng: Do you find starting the business difficult especially as a woman?
Knight: I built the business in a collaborative way. I just use the skills I already had and found people to help with the skills I didn’t. From the beginning I’ve tried to bring as many people in to help, which has made it much less stressful. I couldn’t have done it on my own.
I think the most difficult thing about starting a business as a woman is the whole work-life balance thing. I’ve got two kids, and being their Mum is always going to be a priority. I’m lucky because my husband, my friends and my mum and dad I very supportive, I couldn’t have started the business without them.
It helps that my children are older. They’re at school all day and my studio is near to where we live so I can take my children to school in the morning and then come to work. My partner and I have also shared equal responsibility raising our children so that helps. The idea of being a “mumpreneur” sitting in the kitchen, starting a business on your own while raising young children alone – I think it’s almost impossible. Any woman who does it amazes me.
I think the hardest thing about starting a business is making the decision to do it! My business idea was in my head for two years before I plucked up the courage to do anything about it. Giving up a well-paid job is hard. Having young children is really hard. I knew starting a business would take over my whole life and it does. It’s like raising another child! So it’s a scary decision to make. I think in the end I decided to go for it out of boredom. I was just really bored of hearing myself saying ‘I should do it, I should do it…’ and then one day my husband said, “you need to do it, because you’re gonna drive us both mad if you don’t. You won’t regret it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t.” I think the night I decided to quit my job and start my business – I think that was the best night’s sleep I’d had in two years. Indecision is agonising. But as soon as you make the decision everything becomes much easier. At least then you’ve got a plan.
Cheng: Some researches show women take up a larger number of leading roles in community social enterprise businesses’ in proportion than that in mainstream commercial business. What is your remark on that?
Knight: I absolutely agree. I know a lot of women who’ve started social enterprises or their own businesses that are driven by a fundamental social principle. The ambition isn’t always about attaining wealth. The women I know give a range of reasons for starting a business and a lot of them are social – how could starting a business help me to balance my own work and family? How could it help the community I live in? In my case, it was the question of; how does this business help the environment? Women are naturally less competitive and more collaborative I think. They are less goal orientated and more holistic in their approach to what constitutes a rewarding job.
The reason there are fewer women in positions of power in big organizations is because they are not structured to support women. Not because women can’t do those jobs. They are perfectly capable, but the environment very rarely enables them. For women to compete, they have to sacrifice a lot, and I think most women are smart enough to think, it’s not worth it. I have pure admiration for those women who can ‘succeed’ it that kind of corporate environment. But it’s really, really hard. Maternity leave and having children…all those things are very difficult to manage. I think women tend to succeed where they can create an environment that supports them rather having to fight all the time to make it work.
Cheng: Knowing that finance is always the embarrassing part to deal with when starting up a business, how did you source your capital in the beginning? Where do they mostly come from?
Knight: I have a patchwork of 25 investors. Some are people I know. Some are total strangers. Some are people who’ve invested before, some not. What they all share is my own creative, collective, resourceful principles. They’re excited to be part of something with an environmental and social purpose. Obviously they hope to make some money too.
I had some good advice when I was looking for investment:
1) If you can avoid getting investment and you have money, avoid it.
2) If you do need investment and you are lucky to get it, you should be grateful.
3) But don’t give away too much equity too soon to any single individual or company.
It’s such a hard journey building your business. If you give away power or control to somebody else too early on, you’ve already sold your dream. You need to feel ownership, you need to believe it’s your thing, because that’s what keeps you going when things get tough.
This advice definitely helped me. It means a pool of people invested a little to have a small stake and I retain control. That’s really important.
Cheng: So you mentioned a lot about your relative advantage in communications and making connections. For others who have are less people-oriented, would you recommend any supplementary organizational support to them?
Knight: For women in particular I’m part of a Google group called Ada’s List. It’s a women in-tech group and I’ve found it a really good resource. It’s just women who are prepared to share their ideas and anxieties and come together to help each other out. I’m not good at going to formal badge-wearing networking events.
My version of networking is just being open to other people’s ideas, listening and being prepared to share.
Cheng: What advice would you like young women who are thinking of starting a social enterprise or any form of community business to hear from you?
Knight: It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s been hard so far in lots of ways, but I definitely don’t regret it. If you have an idea and you want to make it happen and you’ve got the energy, then you should do it.
It’s important that there’s an idea that you believe in much more than just the fact that it might make you some money. Money is not enough of a motivator 24 hours a day. I think you have to believe in what you’re doing – that gives you huge strength!
It sounds really obvious, but you don’t have to have a full set of skills to start a business. Just don’t try to start a business absolutely on your own. I’ve never met anybody who has every single skill you need. Collaboration makes it much easier.
What really helps is your own personal experience. If your idea is built on something you personally understand, a problem you need to solve yourself, at least if you are your own target market – that really helps! But I also think sometimes when you start a business, your own naivety can be an asset. Because you can question things industry people just take for granted. You ask different questions. Why it has to be like that? Why can’t we try it this way? You don’t necessarily need tons of experience in the sector you want to start your business in. But strike a balance. Both naivety and experience matter.
Building relationships is a real key. It’s the same in business as in life. If you enjoy meeting people, helping people, and you are not afraid to ask for help when you need it, I think the world kind of conspires to help you out.
Patchwork Present is an online gift-funding platform serving across the UK. Its office is currently based in Brockley, London. For more information, visit their website: https://www.patchworkpresent.com/