Startup life: how an idea becomes a business

In a revealing and encouraging panel discussion at this year’s SohoCreate festival, four creative business-owners discussed the highs and lows of startup life and offered some words of wisdom and warning for aspiring entrepreneurs

Alice Mayor

Alice Mayor founded alternative souvenir shop We Built This City in October 2014. Based on Carnaby Street, it sells prints, homeware, gifts and accessories by local artists and designers and hosts events including live drawing sessions and jewellery-making workshops

Bayode Oduwole

Designer Bayode Oduwole founded clothing and accessories brand Pokit with Claire Pringle in 1999. The pair run a physical store in Soho and an online shop, stocking leather bags and accessories as well as men and womenswear. Pokit also creates bespoke suits

Pip Jamieson

Pip Jamieson is founder of The Dots – described as a “LinkedIn for the creative industries”, it allows users to showcase work, network, find job opportunities and recruit both permanent and freelance staff.

James Elliott 

James Elliott co-founded Pizza Pilgrims with his brother Thom after travelling around Italy to learn the art of pizza making. The pair published a recipe book in 2013 and now run five pizzerias in London

Alice Mayor at We Built This City who spoke at soho create offering advice for startups
Alice Mayor at We Built This City, her alternative souvenir shop on London’s Carnaby Street. Mayor founded the store after working in PR for the Arts Council and art and design retailer Culture Label,

Don’t let fear of mistakes hold you back

After pitching her idea for an alternative souvenir shop to Carnaby Street in 2014, Alice Mayor was offered a retail space but given just three weeks to stock it. Still awaiting a start-up loan from the government, she borrowed money from friends and family to buy enough products to open with and recruited friends to help decorate the store using real London bricks and tongue-in-cheek props (plastic pigeons have now become a bestseller). The pop-up was a success and Mayor says being forced to make decisions quickly helped her overcome a fear of getting it wrong.

“The decisions I made were only able to be based on instinct, because I didn’t have time [to do anything else]. Pre that process, I worried for months, thinking, ‘What if I do this or that wrong?’ ‘What if someone says something awful about me on social media and I never get over it?’ … but what I’m trying to do now is harness that lesson of making decisions really quickly,” she says. “I think if your idea is solid enough, you can’t go that wrong – all the mistakes you make are just a process of refining and improving and getting better.”

All the mistakes you make are just a process of refining and improving and getting better.

James Elliott, who now runs five pizzerias in London with his brother Thom, agrees. “There are very few mistakes that are purely mistakes,” he says. And provided you have a good product or idea, the odd error in judgment is unlikely to be catastrophic. As Oduwole points out, every business owner will have horror stories to share, but it’s how you deal with problems and mistakes that matters. “The skill is adapting,” he says. “Everything you do prepares you for the next decision. It won’t be exactly the same scenario, but you’ll have that experience.”

Pokit founder Bayode Oduwole, who spoke at sohocreate offering advice to startups
Pokit founder Bayode Oduwole (

Be prepared to change your model

One of the greatest things about launching a business is having creative control: being able to create and set the culture of a business in line with your own vision. But as Elliott points out, it’s important to be flexible and recognise when this vision might need to change or adapt. He and his brother originally planned to supply pizza ovens, he says, but abandoned the concept in favour of running pizzerias after a famous chef beat them to it.

“Usually, [when people set up a food business], by the time they get to the point when they’re ready to start the business, they’re not willing to let go of it at all. They’ve picked the tiles, the wall colours, they know everything about it but they can’t flex or change or react to situations,” he explains. “The important thing is to be able to morph your idea, without losing the passion for it.”

Jamieson describes building The Dots and predecessor The Loop as “a very iterative process” – “it took four and a half years to work out what we were doing,” she says – while Mayor says her store has changed “massively” since it opened. Up to 30% of stock changes each quarter and new collections are partly based on analysing what did and didn’t perform well in previous seasons. “There is kind of a science to retail, but I also don’t believe it’s a science at all. It’s a massive gamble … you just hope the thing you’re choosing is the thing that people want,” Mayor says.

All of the panellists spoke about the importance of integrity: staying true to your vision, whether by offering artists and designers fair prices, making great quality products or providing a professional network created with users’ needs in mind. But when it comes to business models, Oduwole says it’s equally important to make sure your idea is sustainable. If not, you might need to make some changes.

The important thing is to be able to morph your idea, without losing the passion for it.

“As nice as anything is, if you’re not making enough to keep yourself sustained, it’s not really a business, and you always have to apply that principle,” he says. “At times, you’ll think, ‘well I can fund it for a bit, and take the shortfall for a while, but you have to make ends meet.”

Recipes by James and Thom Elliot

Be aware of the competition, but don’t let it stifle you

When launching any business, identifying the competition is key. But just because an idea exists already, doesn’t mean you can’t find success doing the same thing. Elliot describes fear of competition as “the biggest killer of people starting food businesses. They’ll think, I really want to do something, and then they’ll Google it and someone else has done it and they’ll say, ‘I can’t do that’. [But] it should be the opposite. If someone else is doing it, there’s a market there, there’s interest in that, so do it, but do it better.”

Oduwole highlights the importance of market research. “The best way to look at any business model is to see where everyone else is failing and where their products are deficient,” he says, but adds: “There comes a point when you just have to say, screw them, and go with your gut…. Originality is the key to success [for example, making something new and unique], otherwise you analyse and you see where there are gaps in the market.”

Jamieson, meanwhile, said she prefers not to spend too much time looking at tech rivals. “My team do, but I found it really stifling creatively so I don’t look. I do what we think is best – we listen a lot to our users, we look at a lot of data, we do a lot of purpose based things around diversity – things that I’m passionate about, and I prefer going that route than checking out what LinkedIn is doing,” she adds.

James spinning Pizza
James spinning Pizza

Know your strengths—and your weaknesses

Startups often start out as a solo operation but as a business grows, it’s important to take on people who can complement your skillset and fill any gaps in your expertise. “You have to be quite honest with yourself from day one about what you’re actually good at,” says Mayor, who has employed a specialist art buyer, a product buyer and a financial adviser at WBTC. She has also hired someone to do PR and marketing (her background before setting up the store), which she says allows her to focus on expanding the business. “I want to make the business go as far as possible in the quickest amount of time, so I’m trying to not get stuck behind the till and build something that’s viable financially, but can free me up to make other things happen, like opening other sites, and creating big partnerships with people.”

Jamieson says she would often try and do everything herself, until a 360 review (a report which identified her strengths and weaknesses based on feedback from colleagues, investors and clients) changed her mind. She describes reading the report as “horrific” but says “it really did teach me what I was good at, and what I wasn’t so good at and I became really good at putting people around me who could fill my empty spots. And I have a lot of advisers now across the industry.” On finding mentors, she says: “It was never a process of just walking up to people and saying, ‘can you be my mentor?’ It was much more of an organic process, meeting people at an event, asking them to go for a coffee and building a relationship.”

Elliott says he and his brother also have different skillsets. “He’s the numbers man and I get to do the fun stuff,” he explains. Both take care of different responsibilities, and Elliott says the experience has taught him that whatever job you hate, “someone else loves”.

Pokit bags
Pokit bags

Investors are good—but treat them with caution

Investment in Pizza Pilgrims comes from a group of investors with different skillsets, who have each parted with a small amount of money. Elliott and his brother meet with them once a month and can call on them for advice – but as no-one has invested a vast sum of money, Elliott says, “there is no-one breathing down our necks”.

Oduwole has never taken investment, and says he preferred to grow his business organically (he started it in 1999 with just £500). He says it’s important to remember that investors will want to see a return on their money, which can put a great deal of pressure on a small business, especially a creative venture. “I have yet to meet anyone who says, ‘I’m going to put my money in and don’t want anything back’,” he says.

Pip Jameson of the dots has useful advice for startups
Pip Jamieson

In the tech industry, however, Jamieson says building things organically is not an option. “It’d be more risky because someone could come in and copy what we do, so there’s a lot of money we have to invest in technology,” she says. The business raised £1.5 million in an investment round led by Sir John Hegarty at the end of last year and currently receives funding from 34 angel investors from three investment syndicates. “They’ve been a joy … they’re there if we need them and not if we don’t,” adds Jamieson.

While tech companies often turn to VCs (venture capitalists), Jamieson says she is wary of doing so because of their focus on short term returns. “The way venture capitalists work is they have money, and they have to get a return on that money within three to five years. I don’t want to do that, I want to add value – but if we’re going to expand [The Dots] globally, angel investors don’t have that kind of money, so I’m trying to work out how we do that without getting into bed with VCs. My dream would be to do a community fundraise if we can, so our business and community’s interests are completely in line,” she adds.

Jamieson, Mayor, Oduwole and Elliott were speaking at Soho Create,

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