When you’re starting a business, the best advice comes from entrepreneurs who’ve been, done that, and made a success of it too. Entrepreneurs like the AXA Startup Angels.

AXA have created the AXA Startup Angel competition to give two worthy businesses the funding and support they need to get the best possible start in their new business ventures.

Alongside £25,000 funding to get their business off the ground and business insurance in their first year from AXA, the two winners will receive mentoring and support from the AXA Startup Angels: Holly Tucker MBE of Not On The High Street and Holly & Co; Raphael Sofoluke of the UK Black Business Show and UK Black Business Week; and Ian Theasby and Henry Firth, co-founders of BOSH!

Here, AXA speaks to all three Angels to get an insight into starting up, imposter syndrome, and passing on the best business advice they’ve ever received.


Starting up

Is there a right way or a wrong way to start a business?

[HOLLY] I think the wrong way is to never start it. I think we all know many people in our lives that end up talking about it in the pub or at home on the sofa, but never quite get to it. And so I think there is no wrong way to start it, the wrong way is to never start it.

And I do believe that anyone can start a business doing what they love. One of the most wonderful things we have is that we all can start a business. And when you think of the likelihood of you being born is one in 400 trillion, I personally absolutely know that everyone is on this planet for a reason and if you want to start a business then, my goodness, that’s going to be one of the most unbelievable ways for you to change the world or do good in the world.

[RAPHAEL] I wouldn’t say there’s a right or a wrong way to start a business, but I think there’s a few key things anyone starting a business should have in mind. So first of all research. Knowing your industry and your competitors. Knowing exactly what you need to do to make it a success. Secondly strategy, so how are you going to make the sales, how are you going to reach your audience. And then finally it’s that execution part, how will you execute this idea to make it unique and make it stand out.

[HENRY] Is there a right way or a wrong way to do it? Speaking personally, we’ve done it right once and wrong once. The wrong time, the wrong way was when it was a business that wasn’t based on something we believed in with our heart. And the time when we made a success of it was when we were absolutely 100% driven and committed and we were building something that we believed needed to exist. We believe that the world will be better if more people eat plant-based food. We believe that climate change is something humanity should fix. So that gives us proper motivation to get up in the morning, go to work and hustle. And I think the right way to start a business is when you believe in the deepest darkest parts of your soul that this thing should exist and it will work. If you’re just hoping for an easier job and no boss, that might not be enough to make it a success. The right way is with purpose.

Do you think anyone can start a business?

[HENRY] In theory, anybody could do it, but someone with a low tolerance for risk probably shouldn’t do it. When building a business, you develop comfort with discomfort. You develop a discomfort zone that you live in. Whether that’s ‘when am I going to be able to pay myself, or pay my staff’. Worrying about bills, taxes, customers, marketing. It’s quite disconcerting at times. So I think if someone wants an easy life, it might not be for them. Because it is tough but the rewards make it worth it.

People who have the real hunger and desire to do it can absolutely do it. No qualifications needed. But you do have to have real conviction and real desire to make it a success.


Startup business challenges

What do you think are the biggest challenges new entrepreneurs face when they’re first starting out?

[HOLLY] I would say money first of all. Lack of funds is one of the issues, and that can be from invoices not being paid. I read some crazy statistic about how many businesses close as a result of lack of invoices being paid on time. And I liken money and cash to the blood that flows within a small business. You absolutely have to have it to survive. And so it’s all about planning, understanding timings of when cash is coming in and when it’s going out. And that’s very difficult to do when essentially every other job is being done by you too. You’re the head of marketing, head of operations, head of security, head of the canteen, head of childcare. It’s very challenging to also be able to look at that.

But the other point I would say is one of the biggest challenges is being able to focus on the focus. When you have so much to do, when everything rests on you, it’s difficult to make sure you’re keeping your customer top of mind, the direction you’re travelling in top of mind, and what you should say yes to and most importantly what you should say no to.

[RAPHAEL] I think access to finance is one big problem for entrepreneurs. Being able to access the right amount of capital allows you to accelerate your business quicker than others. And that’s an issue that all entrepreneurs face. And if you look at black entrepreneurs in the UK I think they are around two to four times less likely to be accepted for finance when they apply, compared to their white counterparts. So that’s a big problem.

Other challenges would be creating a presence for yourself, creating a strong brand. Marketing. As well as getting other people onside to help you realise your vision.

What advice would you give for businesses operating in a crowded market where there’s loads of similar businesses doing the same thing, like a plumber or a gardener or example. How can they stand out from their competitors?

[HENRY] One of the first rules that we tend to follow when thinking about business is how to stand out and be unique. And potentially to find a non-crowded market. There’s an amazing book called Blue Ocean Theory, which is about trying to find a ‘blue ocean’, an ocean without fish. You find a blue ocean, you find a new industry, a new category to operate in, and that way you can have a real first mover advantage. A great example would be Southwest Airlines who really owned low-cost travel. They did away with meals, first class seats, all these extra things that they thought added complexity to their business and instead they just focused on a few routes and doing them cheaply.

If you’re in a business that can’t operate in a blue ocean, and you have lots of other competitors, there are still ways to find uniqueness and distinction. It might be through trust and referrals, being the most trusted tradesperson in your industry, that goes the extra mile, always does an incredible job, always leaves things way better than expected. You might also choose to compete on price, people can make a success of being cheaper and more affordable. You might choose to go down the other route and raise your prices, to offer a more premium or luxury experience. You might do it through branding and having a really clear sense of self, or you might set yourself apart through your use of technology, and having things like online booking systems, cashless payments, amazing customer supporting and using that to set yourself apart.

But I think having one thing that sets you apart from anyone else, that’s clear in your brand, clear in people’s experience in working with you is really crucial to stand out from the noise.

What do you think was the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your own career?

[RAPHAEL] Initially for me it was getting some of the corporates involved. Now we’ve got a lot of sponsors like American Express and JP Morgan, HSBC, but at the beginning it was about proving your value. And I think not only do you have to prove your value to potential sponsors and exhibitors, you have to also prove that to attendees. So for those who are turning up to a show like this for the first time, you have to make sure you’re executing it as well as you’re promoting it. So it’s not about them coming and seeing an amazing website and amazing promotion, and then the experience falls short of that. So that was my main challenge at the start. Letting people see that this was going to be an excellent event and that they don’t have to be worried about that.

[HOLLY] I think that it’s your mindset that’s a really important thing. You have to be your biggest cheerleader. Founders are the Duracell batteries of their business. And you need to make sure that you keep your confidence up, that you fake it till you make it. And that you’re not shy in coming forward. And I think that’s very difficult when you start your business because you’re full of the imposter syndrome. You’ve not done this before, you’re not yet an expert. And so it’s that challenge between those two sides fighting each other.

[IAN] Straight off the bat for us it was the financial implications. We needed to dedicate an awful lot of time to the growth of this, and we needed financial back up for ourselves. We needed to be able to put a roof over our heads and food on the plate while giving all the time needed to get this thing going. So initially it was about hustling some meagre amount of money together to get this off the ground and give us the runway to give us enough focus and enough work that it needed. And also another challenge, which is very specific to BOSH!, is that neither of us are professionally trained chefs. So we had to overcome that imposter syndrome of showing the world how to cook vegan food without this prior education in cooking. But that’s also one of the reasons it did really well, because the sort of food we were cooking wasn’t particularly ‘cheffy’. So other people could make the recipes we were putting out. So wrestling with imposter syndrome and winning really benefitted us and benefitted our audience greatly.


Imposter syndrome

What would you say to people who might have an idea for a business or might have thought about starting their own business, but they think ‘that’s not for me’. People who might be having “imposter syndrome”.

[RAPHAEL] Firstly, imposter syndrome is very normal. Someone once said to me that imposter syndrome is like a headache. Everyone gets it, but it’s how you learn how to deal with it. So I would say that if you’ve got a great idea that you’ve been thinking about, just get started. It doesn’t have to be the finished article on day one. But realise that it’s natural to have that sense of fear. And once you break through that fear, that’s when you start to reap the rewards.

[HOLLY] Every single person that’s ever started a business – unless you’re a bit of an egomaniac – has had that imposter syndrome. There’s not one person who sits down and says ‘you know what? I am absolutely unbelievably amazing and I’m giving a gift to the world by starting this business’. Every single person has imposter syndrome. I like to think of it as my superpower. It actually fuels me to be better, to be prepared, to be the best that I can be. I actually think it’s a fantastic thing to have. But at the same time the imposter syndrome can stop people, and that’s when I think it’s negative.

[HENRY] Something we’ve learned along the way is that your gut is a really good guide. Imposter syndrome is your gut talking to you and telling you that you’re nervous. I think imposter syndrome is something you should listen to and inspect. You should look analytically at it. ‘My gut is telling me I’m nervous about this I’m not sure I’m in the right business, I’m not sure I have the skills to make it a success’. You should listen to that, do some research into those questions. If you look at it and you still believe this looks like a success on paper, you still believe you can win the business of this major client, you still believe you’re in a good position to raise investment, you still believe your skills are better than anyone else’s and you can sell them as a self-employed contractor, if you have the conviction after doing that analysis, that means your imposter syndrome is just nerves. And nerves are something you can fight through and push past.


Small business advice

What’s the best business advice you’ve received?

[RAPHAEL] It’s a really short line that you can apply to yourself and your business: Be yourself, everyone else is taken. It’s simple and sweet but you can apply it to yourself and every day life as well as your business. Create that unique business. Not every business is completely unique. Everyone takes something away from other successful businesses, and we’re all built up from the people around us, but at the end of the day there is still only one you, and you should utilise that when you’re creating your business.

[HOLLY] I’ve received quite a lot, but one that does really resonate is back to that word: enthusiasm. Some one once told me that my enthusiasm for what I do and what I’ve built is almost addictive. And that’s what drew them to my businesses. But I believed so much in what I did, so how could others not? And this really helped me understand the power that I had that would draw so many opportunities to me. And over 20 years it really has.

[IAN] “Tough decision, easy life. Easy decision, tough life.” Sometimes you have to approach a pretty serious problem head on and you have to be prepared to get your hands dirty and have sleepless nights and have the bad stuff happen, in order for the net result of that is that good stuff happens. If you’re truly going to put the work in, then the tough decision will reward you with a better, more rewarding outcome. And another piece of advice is ‘just do it’. Just go for it.

If it’s itching at you and you’re wrestling with it, then it’s better to be laying on your deathbed regretting something than regretting not having done it.


Business funding made easier with AXA Startup Angel

At AXA, we're committed to helping small businesses achieve their full potential. That's why we created the AXA Startup Angel competition, which helps support two new businesses every year with £25,000 funding, mentoring from business experts and business insurance too, so we can help set you up for success.


AXA brings you Startup Angel in partnership with Heart. Hear from the other AXA Startup Angels here: