CEO Secrets: ‘You’re selling a new version of yourself’

Business

“I wish that someone had told me how hard it was going to be,” says Sara McCorquodale, 37.

Sara forged a successful career as a journalist for over a decade, working for titles such as Tatler and Huffington Post.

Then in 2017 she spotted a gap in the market and decided to set up her own business.

Her digital agency is called CORQ and it provides intelligence about social media influencers to help brands with their marketing.

It has eight employees and serves large clients including Deliveroo, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer.

But though the company grew fairly rapidly, things have not necessarily been a smooth ride.

“I had read a lot of success stories, mainly about other entrepreneurs who were much further ahead than me in their journey. They kind of said: ‘This is going to be great, this is going to be the best thing that you’ve ever done, you’re going to smash it.’

“And I sort of wish that someone had told me that it takes maybe two to three years before anything starts to happen. It takes a long time to find the team that’s right for your business,” says Sara.

“Regardless of the experience you’ve had before, even if you’ve worked at incredible companies, when you start your own company, you’re starting from scratch.

“You’re selling a new product, a new version of yourself and you have to get people to trust that and I wish I’d understood that from day one.”

Then there is the issue of family.

Sara started the business with a three-year-old son in tow, who was joined by a brother in 2019.

Maternity leave was not really possible running her own small business, she says.

“Even three years into the business, I would struggle to step away. You can’t hit pause on a growing business and you can’t predict when the window [for growth] will come. You have to roll with how the market is responding to your business.

“When you have a new baby you’re not sleeping, they need you 24/7. My reality was working while the baby sleeps, going to bed at midnight, getting up at 3am.”

Sara’s advice is to have a conversation with your partner before the baby arrives, to see how flexible their workplace can be.

She was able to attend some crucial meetings for the business while her husband looked after the baby, during the first four months after birth.

She also recommends “roping family in”, if possible, during the first year.

Despite the challenges, she doesn’t want to put off parents, and parents-to-be, from starting a business.

“I had a baby [in 2019], scaled the business and made it international, all within 12 months. While that’s been difficult, I feel incredibly proud of myself.

“Starting your own business can be one of the better options for people with children, because traditional workplaces aren’t necessarily geared towards people with children. If you own your own business you can determine the hours that you work.

“The world needs to catch up with the fact that most parents can’t revolve around a 9-5. We’ll have a much stronger economy when businesses recognise they have to support employees with young children.”

The Covid-19 pandemic may be a catalyst for that change, she thinks. CORQ has performed well despite the upheaval and Sara didn’t need to furlough or lose any staff. She lost some international opportunities, but her UK business grew by more than a third, she says.

“Colleagues without children kept things going during regular working hours while those [like me] who have children worked in the evenings or in snatched hours throughout the day.

“Everyone has to be more flexible now – whether you’re a start-up or a big corporate – and more than ever people have to understand how to operate as a team and support each other.”