The life of an entrepreneur: Interview with Gemma Clarke

Gemma Clarke, Chief Business Development Officer at Tangle Teezer joined the Small Business Charter Management Board when it first began in 2013. She has played a crucial role in providing a business perspective on the Board which aims to help businesses grow through the recognition of the work of business schools in providing local business support. Gemma will be stepping down from the board this September, so we interviewed her to get an insight into her life as an entrepreneur, what it has been like working with the Small Business Charter and any advice she has for other budding entrepreneurs.

How did you become an entrepreneur? Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I worked in the corporate beauty world until 26 but then my favourite shampoo brand was discontinued. I was so upset that I decided that I would create my own. I approached some famous hairdressers, asked if I could license their name and began launching designer hair care ranges sold through major retailers.

Things just snowballed and I started licensing other ‘personality’ brands and bringing them into the beauty world and things went well. However, after about 10 years I wanted to do something different – I was bored. I was in my mid-30s and wanted to explore what was happening in China and enrolled on an MBA at Manchester Business School which also gave me the opportunity to spend 6 months in China. That was in 2006. When I finished the course, I came back and was determined to create British beauty brands exclusively for the Chinese market. I could see this growing demand for British brands there.

However, this got waylaid by a friend of mine who knew of someone about to go on Dragon’s Den with a quirky product called Tangle Teezer and asked if I could help. I met with Shaun P who had just invented the hairbrush. Basically, we were working from home as the company was launched in October 2007 and for the next two years – constantly meeting suppliers in hotel lobby’s instead of our ‘office.’ After six to seven months of struggle it slowly took off. 10 years later it’s sold in 70 countries worldwide and has created a whole new category in haircare.

So was getting involved with Tangle Teezer a natural step for you with your background in Beauty?

Yes absolutely. The lesson I’ve always learnt - an old lesson - is to stick to what you know. As I already knew the market I could hit the ground running. Many entrepreneurs fail and it’s not because they don’t have a good idea or their product isn’t good but because it always seems to cost twice as much and take twice as long than you hope. So, if you have that knowledge and contacts in place before you launch it just makes it quicker. Speed to market is even more critical these days as product life cycles become shorter and shorter. The hot thing right now could be selling in a £1 store in 2 years.

You mentioned that the first 6-7 months with Tangle Teezer were very difficult. How did you overcome that and what advice would you give others in your situation?

The problem that nearly all entrepreneurs or new businesses face is that potential customers often do not want to be the first to try. They want to see that your business idea is proven and tested before they try it. It can be very difficult to get that breakthrough, that first customer.

My advice is to build awareness and demand before approaching a major target customer. We used ecommerce and social media - simply listing the product on Amazon and Ebay - and sending samples out to bloggers and hairdressers. Slowly we started to build awareness. Then consumers started seeing the word Tangle Teezer and it got picked up by the beauty press. This got onto the radar of Boots back in 2008 and they called us in. It took about 9 months – and often it’s just something you have to go through, that survival time. So our recommendation is to use social media and e-commerce to build awareness even if customers aren’t answering the phone.

It is also a perfect opportunity to research whether you have the right product, the right pricing, even things like colours. There is so little cost associated with putting something out on social media and on Amazon or Ebay and you get feedback in real-time.

What were the changes you made to the Tangle Teezer after the initial customer feedback?

The one thing we did do was think about colour. When TangleTeezer was launched, we had one product and it was black. We thought it was going to be used in hair salons by hairdressers on their clients at the backwash. What we didn’t anticipate was the clients then asking the hairdresser where they could buy one for themselves. We didn’t realise that we had a consumer line, and it prompted us to introduce colour which has become so synonymous with Tangle Teezer hairbrushes.

The other feedback we got was that our clients were not confined to young women aged from 18-26. It was also young parents under the age of 37 who kept writing in and saying that this ‘Magic Brush’ had changed their life - no more screaming in the morning! What we had also created was a wonderful solution for young parents of children – and we’d never thought about that.

So, that first 6-7 months as an entrepreneur, it is really important to listen to feedback to help point you in the right direction, and tweak and refine as you go. You shouldn’t see it as a failure if you end up changing your original idea.

As an entrepreneur, what is it that motivates and drives you?

I think a lot of entrepreneurs will say the same. It is not about the money. I don’t know if it’s a lack of confidence or a surfeit of confidence but you always want to prove yourself, you’re never quite satisfied – and that might express itself in being very competitive. You just want to do your own thing and are prepared to take huge risks to do it.

In one word, describe your life as an entrepreneur.

Struggle - it feels like a constant struggle. You are never quite satisfied, always trying to push the boundaries, and then moving onto the next thing – which inevitably takes you back to starting over again.

What do you put your success down to?

I think it is being able to take several leaps ahead in your mind. It’s like a Rubiks cube - you see something and it is all jumbled up – but you know there’s some clarity in there somewhere. And it’s being able to visualise what can result from that clutter that makes the difference.

What would you say are the key elements for starting and running a successful business?

Knowledge, contacts and experience. These things are priceless.

Most successful businesses evolve from knowledge of the industry that you’ve been working in before – and how successful you were in your previous career. You might not have an idea today – but get the most qualifications you can and work as hard as you can in your career – because that will help in the future

I’m told that in Silicon Valley, the average age of starting a business is 38 years old. They’ve done their time and they really know their stuff.

Who inspires you?

An Antarctic explorer called Ernest Shackleton. I read a book about him when I was quite young, I think I was about 16. It was about his epic journey to save his men and it was just his determination never to give up and his struggle that was truly inspiring.

How did you get involved with the Small Business Charter? Why?

Over the last 20 years, what I realised is that I never knew exactly where to find advice or knowledge and even if I found it, had no real idea how good it was going to be.

When I first engaged with a business school in 2004, it was a revelation to me. I had assumed it would be academics in Ivory towers but actually what I met was some very passionate people with a huge knowledge of the real world of business, across both multinationals and also entrepreneurship and enterprise.

So, when I finished the MBA in 2007 I became a passionate advocate for the benefits of smaller businesses working with business schools. It was through an advertisement that I was introduced to Stuart Miller, Chair of the SBC, and as I read Lord Young’s Government report about Enterprise in 2014, there was a part which talked about business schools becoming the hub for business support in the UK and I thought ‘that’s exactly what we need to do’. As my background was in raising awareness, I hoped I could help build awareness of the Small Business Charter and of the benefits of businesses using business schools as a hub.

What has been the most rewarding part of your role with the Small Business Charter?

The most rewarding part is seeing the way it has evolved over the years. When I talk to colleagues in the small business world, I would say that 4 years ago 1 in 10 might say that they engage with their local business school or that they put some of their colleagues through a course. However, now I would say it is the majority that say they do. That is fantastic to see.

What’s really encouraging from business schools is having got to know some of the Deans and seeing some of the great work they’re doing, I think they’ve also become much more enthusiastic about engaging with small businesses and enterprise as well. You can really see it evolving.

What do you hope to see happen in the near future for small businesses in the UK?

Within 3-5 years, I would hope that business schools will become the hub for enterprise and entrepreneurship in the UK, in the same way as they are in the US. I would like to see us evolve along the US model.

What is the US small business model?

In the US, if you are a budding entrepreneur, by default you would go to a local business school or to a business school that specialises in your area of interest. You probably would not think to go to a government department or the local council, you would go to a business school and that’s the way I hope we are headed.

How do you generate new ideas?

I don’t think you generate them in a Eureka moment, it is more about being open to ideas and acting upon them. The world is full of ideas - everyone has got an idea at some time – but not everyone knows how to act upon them. Business schools can really help in that respect. I wouldn’t say I learnt which are good ideas – but I certainly learnt which are definitely not.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are starting out?

Do it with a colleague, a partner or an associate - someone who shares your vision. The most successful start-ups that survive the first 2 to 5 years tend to be a team. That’s important because you need your ideas to be challenged. Partnerships tend to be more robust than single entrepreneurs.

What are your future plans?

Over the last 12 months, I’ve become absolutely fascinated by the pet industry and the dynamics of what is happening in the world of pets. I’m talking about the humanisation of pets and the implications this has for the products we will buying for our pets in the future.

I am moving to the US in beginning of October to start a new venture and joining loosely with 2 associates that I have known for some time. You’ll hear this a lot about entrepreneurs and the way they sustain strong loose ties with associates over many years – dipping in and out of projects together. I really love that dynamic.

Growing mobile phone ownership, the rise in single households, the growth in commuting time, and pets no longer being seen as just pets means people are starting to see them more as little humans. What this means is that pet products are going to become more humanised.

In 2-3 years’ time, the grooming area of a pet store will look more like the shelves in Boots.

I am really excited about this new venture. I love the start, the ideas and the risks. I don’t like just managing things, I want to see them grow, fast.


Best of luck with your new venture Gemma! A huge thank you for all your work with the Small Business Charter.