Running a business can be challenging at the best of times but throw in a global pandemic, a new baby and four house moves and its literally unchartered territory. Despite that though, The Hustle House is celebrating its fourth birthday and one of their Associates, Lindsey sat down with Co-Founders, Carolyn and Fiona to find out how it all started, what they’ve learnt and what they love about running a people development business.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say ‘four years in business’?
Fiona: So many things – it certainly hasn’t been your typical four years. We set up the business at the end of 2019 and we all know what came next. We had to pivot quickly. Then in 2022 I took a year out to have my daughter. But in that time I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved, it’s cool to think two friends can get together and create something that didn’t exist four years ago.
Carolyn: When you say four years – my brain is like ‘that is nuts’. It does feel like a long time ha-ha, but it’s been different. It’s harder work than I ever thought it would be.
F: If someone had shown me what the path to setting up and running your own business would be like, I'd probably have said ‘nah’, it’s a lot tougher than you think.
C: Yeah but as hard as it is, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. There's such a sense of everything we do is about this business working. There’s never a sense of ‘this is pointless’ - it’s all about driving something for the business. The rollercoaster – highs and lows within a day – but there’s also the challenge that comes with two individuals coming together. It’s like a marriage.
F: Oh yeah 100%. We went away and did a day with a business mentor, and I felt like we were a marriage counselling day. But for this business to work, our partnership must work. We were friends first and colleagues and THEN became co-founders. It’s a novelty at the moment if we go out ‘as friends’ - we always end up talking about work, like when a couple goes out for dinner without the kids and then just end up talking about the kids all night!
So, you decided to start a business. How did that come about?
F: We met at a financial technology firm almost ten years ago. Carolyn was the Global Head of Talent, and I was on the relationship/client side and then moved into an operational role but gravitated towards people management. We did a lot of different projects together over those years around leadership, engagement and culture and knew we worked well together. Eventually we both left, Carolyn went onto Sainsburys’ and I was trying to find my next role but there was a niggle in me to potentially start a business. I slowly chiselled away at Carolyn to convince her that we could do something together.
C: ha-ha don’t forget the PowerPoint presentation!
F: How could I!? So my husband has his own business and wanted to do a development day for his team – I asked if Carolyn would be interested in doing a day session for them, but I had an ulterior motive and wanted to test the waters to see if this was something that could actually work and it did. After that we were out for dinner at Cote and I pulled out a PowerPoint presentation on how we could make this work.
C: I was two G&T’s down and thinking ‘what’s going on here’? You did a whole SWOT analysis, what our market would be and I found it scary because my family does NOT come from an entrepreneurial background. I knew coming into my 40’s that I would do something a little different, I might become a coach, or work more specifically in learning and development, but I was very nervous about it all.
F: And then I made a mock website. I was showing her and saying ‘this could be us’ and that was it! We both have very different skillsets, but I knew that it could be something that could work for us. We ‘launched’ with a post on LinkedIn not long after.
What as that like when you decided to do it and launch? What was the reaction?
C: From a personal perspective the reaction overall was good. What I do remember was that I was unhappy in the job that I was in. Professionally, I think it was a little bit of a surprise because it was a shift away from corporate work I'd spent the last 20 years doing. But it felt right.
F: I felt a real sense of vulnerability. I was so nervous – what if people don’t like it? What if we fail? Then about a week after the LinkedIn post, one of Carolyn’s contacts reached out – and then we thought – SHIT – we actually have to do this now. Then it felt very real!
C: Those PPT skills came in handy!
What do you think have been the ‘pinch me moments’ in business:
C: We were asked to go and do a talk at the Human Resources Masters Course at Edinburgh University, and we talked about people managers. We were on a train to Edinburgh and practicing a talk that we gave in a lecture theatre, and we were like “what the hell?”. Then we were asked to go to an investment bank to talk on International Women’s Day. We were also featured in Startups magazine – and to see that in print – our pictures and what we said was right there.
F: I have a very strong memory of our first big manager programme pitch, I remember presenting the proposal together face-to-face and it went well. Carolyn went to get the train but I decided to walk to the Hoxton hotel and sat at the bar with a glass of prosecco doing my work and I thought ‘this is cool, this is what I want’. This kind of freedom and flexibility I had craved and being able to do some great work with my best friend.
What have been the key learnings?
C: A lot.
F: When we started the business, we were both trying to do everything. We were trying to do 50/50 in every sense, and I think over time we realised that just wasn’t possible. Carolyn doesn’t need to be good at the things that I'm good at and vice versa. Since I came back from maternity leave, we’ve had to work hard to carve out those roles.
C: The need to ask for help and not try to do everything just the two of us. We’ve really started to grow and be stretched when we’ve looked to others for help on things, rather than feeling like we’re failing if we can’t do it all. We don’t need to carry everything. That is exhausting. But the more we’ve actively sought help or let others in to help us, our business has matured and grown. We’re still wrestling with our vision – how will we know when we’re doing a great job. But the thing we keep coming back to is our values. We continue to try to do too much – and we keep coming back to – let's keep it smart and simple.
F: We’ve always prided ourselves on being open and honest with each other, but we sometimes hold back on what we really want to say to protect the other person. That has led to heavy, but good conversations. The lesson within that is that we need to have a delineation between business partners and friends, and lean into the friendship a bit more and have some fun! Spending face-to-face time together has been imperative for us too.
C: Without sounding like an arsehole, we both have the ability to light other people up and light each other up and that’s what we need to remember.
F: yeah, I wouldn’t want to do this alone.
C: Oh and taking more holidays – that's something I'm learning to do too!
What do you want to do more of in 2024, both business and personal?
C: Having a permanent member of staff!
F: Spending more time together and more time with our team! Celebrating wins more. Becoming more grown-up, ha-ha and putting the new brand out there – stay tuned for that one!
C: I would love to do more stuff like this! I love talking to new people and discussing what we do as a business. I could spend all day doing it! From a personal perspective, I am still struggling with this transition into business owner and I’m so resistant to routine because I had 20 years of it – so I haven't got a routine and I'm suffering as a result. The plan in 2024 is to find a routine that works for me so that The Hustle House can get the best of me.
F: Along the theme of balance but being a new mum – having a 16month old has been difficult. Balancing being a Mum and then coming back into work when it’s not a corporate job and feeling my way back into the role again has been hard. I want to continue to get the balance right between business owner and mum. Asking for help – especially on the mental side as well. Does anyone get the balance right? It’s always a work in progress, right?
What do you see more of for the HH in the future:
C: At the moment the focus is streamlining what we do as a business. This means we can work with more businesses in a more efficient and effective way and bring the Hustle House ‘zing’ to more people.
F: Yes, we want to scale our business slowly and in the right way. Given our name, we often look at our strategy in terms of the “house” – how can we more clearly define our core offering, the heart of the home (our leadership and management programmes) and then what does that mean for the other rooms (like offsites, coaching, consultancy)? We want to build a kick-ass ‘house’ that creates real value to clients and delivers on their people development needs!