Name of Business: Tots To Travel www.totstotravel.co.uk
Your Name and Age: Wendy Shand, 39
Tell us about your family: I am a mum of three (Barnaby 11, Maisy 9 and Monty 4) and am married to Rob who used to be in the RAF. He and I now work together in our business Tots To Travel and have an incredibly synergetic relationship.
What did you do before coming up with your business idea and how was it making the transition?
I’ve done so many things from bread-crumbing pigs’ trotters in a bistro as a student to selling aerial photos door to door in America and a summer season in Greece. Then when I ‘grew up’ and had to think about a getting a proper job I worked for Sport UK, in marketing and PR, specialising in developing the World Class Performance Programme for our Olympic level athletes.
When Rob came on the scene I realised that a big London-based career in marketing wasn’t going to be any good as fast jets don’t operate out of London City Airport. So I did my PGCE and spent five years teaching in a primary school.
Funnily enough, I think this diversity of experience has been crucial and dovetailed into what is now www.totstotravel.co.uk. I’m currently interested in what contributes towards high performanceamong business owners which, I think, is a legacy from my days of working with elite athletes.
I took a bit of time out after having our second child so actually the transition to starting my own business was fairly easy. I was hungry for something interesting to do and felt that I had nothing to lose and plenty to gain.
When did you launch?
I realised that there was a massive gap in the market for genuinely family-friendly holiday accommodation in 2005, after a near catastrophic holiday in France where my then two year old, Barnaby, fell into an unenclosed swimming pool.
Aside from the obvious dangers of swimming pools, I realised that being on holiday with tots was a mission in itself, fraught with questions, worries, concerns and that families like mine have a very special set of requirements. I could see that there were plenty of ways to improve this situation. It seemed so obvious I was stunned nobody had done anything about it.
I launched in April 2006 with nine family friendly villas and cottages in France, which I had visited and vetted to ensure quality control, child safety and the provision of all the kit that families with small children need.
How did you get started?
I recognise now that we actually launched in a really ‘lean’ way, testing the business at every stage before investing in the next step.
We are in a two-sided marketplace (like Ebay or Amazon) so we essentially have customers on both sides, Hosts (owners of the properties) and Families who trust us with their precious holiday; it’s a bit like balancing a see-saw.
I did quite a bit of research into whether there was actually demand for Hosts to cater for the family market and, in particular, for families with pre-school children. My hypothesis was that property owners struggled to fill their empty weeks outside the peak season and that if we niche-marketed our concept to families there would be a natural synergy. Thankfully I was right and owners got the concept straight away and requested my help to make their properties über-suitable for families like mine.
What’s your favourite thing about running your own business?
I love the fact that my success or failure is entirely in my hands. I can’t blame anyone else and it is a responsibility that I take very seriously. I can be as creative and innovative as I like and the team and I can make something that we passionately believe in, happen quickly.
The holiday lettings market is an old-fashioned industry, suffering from the legacy of basic (even sometimes shoddy) accommodation with a culture of bringing your own sheets and then mopping your way out backwards. That’s not what families want. Our approach is fresh and unique and we are passionate about what we do. It makes for a highly exciting environment.
Having covered off the basics like pool safety, child safety and other practicalities in our Tots Essential Kit Guarantee we are now focusing on ditching the legacy of ‘self catering’ and heralding in a new era of ‘crafting perfect family holidays’. It’s amazing to be able to drive such a change.
What’s the thing you least enjoy about running your own business
I’m not good at lots of aspects of the business and those are the ones I enjoy least. The list is long and probably very similar to any entrepreneur’s reading this. I am not an ops person, so repetitive tasks, systems, IT and accounts do not float my boat.
I think, the quicker you can get somebody else who loves to do the things that you don’t like, or are not good at, the quicker you will have a greater impact on your business.
What has worked well about your business?
Having a distinct niche is incredibly empowering. When you stop trying to appeal to everybody and identify a small segment of the market then magic begins to happen. Your audience realise that they are talking to somebody who truly understands their needs, you speak the same language and there is a resonance that is unstoppable.
What’s been your biggest business mistake? How did you deal with it?
Another long list I’m afraid but I am fairly pragmatic about this. I see every mistake as an education. I think the biggest learning is that your business (and indeed life) is an experiment. Success comes when you learn to see your decisions in this way and if something isn’t working then, in the language of Eric Ries’ Lean Startup (required reading in my opinion), then you pivot, and you pivot quickly. So my biggest mistakes have come when we have not pivoted fast enough and we’ve kept doing something that isn’t working.
How do you fit in work with the family? Is your partner supportive of your business?
The beauty of Rob and I working together is that we have a shared vision and our lives work together for the benefit of the whole. I depend greatly on school and childcare to help me out and I have learnt a pragmatic approach to this that gets me over the guilt that I had in the early days.
Our children see more of Rob and I than any other couple I know and have a security and stability that I think is incredibly special. If Rob had carried on in the RAF, they would to all intents and purposes have had an absentee father and an unhappy mother. We trade off slightly longer hours at school and nursery for complete control over our family life.
Are you working towards a financial goal for your business?
Yes, we are ambitious for our business. I was fairly altruistic in the early days but then realised what extremely hard work running a business is, how relentless it is and how incredibly high the risks. Few business owners talk about personal risk and the financial strain of it all. I think the quid pro quo is that the rewards need to match or else we should go back to working for someone else.
Would you ever give up your business to do something else?
Professionally, I would like to run a team that invests in other businesses. I think that would be very interesting and exciting. I am passionate about building businesses, really delivering something outstanding and creative and in spotting the opportunities that are out there.
Do you have an exit strategy?
As the owner of a business I have to consider my options, which includes selling if the time is right. We have built the business in a sensible, professional and grown-up way, to give us choices in the future.
Have you had your ‘I’ve made it’ moment? Tell us about it. If not when do you think it will come?
No, but I have lots of ‘I’m getting closer’ moments! I have regular ‘aha’ moments, when a synapse links up or I get a deeper level of understanding or a new idea. The learning curve is still almost vertical.
Where do you hope to be in five years’ time?
I hope that I am still as happy and professionally and creatively fulfilled as I am now and happily married with three happy, healthy children.
Your website link: www.totstotravel.co.uk
If you can offer a discount or special promotion for Family Friendly Working readers, please write it here: I have written a book called “The Mother Of Invention” that talks more about my journey and the story so far. Family Friendly Working readers can download a free copy here.