Seven years ago two fashion students started a watch company from their kitchen table, using up every last penny of their £15,000 savings. Last year, the same two women sold that watch company to a major luxury accessories conglomerate for a cool £60 million.
Best friends Jemma Fennings and Lesa Bennett tapped into the affordable watch market at a time when it was becoming hugely competitive. There was a race to get to a neglected demographic looking for reasonably priced watches that – crucially – didn’t compromise on design or aesthetic and it’s fair to say that Olivia Burton got a slice of that pie. Working with your best friend, creating a world-leading brand, and making millions? That’s the holy trinity, surely. We sat down with them and asked them how they did it.
Hi Jemma, Lesa. Let's start off with you telling us a bit about how the idea for the company came about?
Jemma: When we were at uni we had lots of different ideas, but we knew that we had to go out into the industry and get some experience first, so we both started careers in fashion buying. It was once we'd been in the industry for about seven years that we then regrouped and revisited some of our ideas. We still had this burning desire to start our own business and do our own thing, but we obviously had a lot more experience and lessons learned having worked for other companies, including major high street brands.
Lesa: Yes, like Jemma said, we knew that we wanted to start a business, so really we were just looking for the right thing for us to do. One of my first jobs was working for an online retailer buying women's watches. From seeing what's going on in the watches market and talking to Jemma we really felt like there was a gap in the market for a new watch brand.
You’ve both worked for some very successful brands. What was it about setting up your own business that appealed to each of you?
Jemma: We'd worked really, really hard for other people, and felt that we were making significant contributions to businesses that we were working in. And I think we are both individuals who have that entrepreneurial spirit and a real desire to go it alone. We just desperately wanted something that we could grow and that we could nurture.
Running your own business, is it important to keep a clear distinction between work and home life?
Jemma: A lot of the companies that we'd worked in were typical 9-6 organisations and we recognised that the world was changing, and flexible working was something that we were keen to have for ourselves. Being able to pick our hours, and also the hours to grow a family while also growing a business, was something that was really attractive for us.
Are your approaches to work different?
Lesa: Yes, purely because of having different roles in the company. I would say that I'm actually quite good at separating work and life, and I enjoy being able to switch off so that I can build my work around the hours that I want to do and that works for me.
Jemma: I think because I look after the creative, and the product and the marketing side of things, my hours are probably a bit strange, in the sense that I'm always on social media in the evenings, and scrolling through Instagram for inspiration.
You must have so much going on all the time...
Jemma: Definitely! My fiancé and I share everything including childcare which means we have a really balanced work-life dynamic. It's really nice to be able to do both things; I think when you work you have your own sense of identity, and that's really important to me.
And what are the challenges of working with your best friend?
Jemma: I suppose it's a little bit like working with your family, that you really expect more from each other. So I think if you're going into business with your friend, then you need to be prepared that your friendship might change.
How do you think your personalities contribute to your success?
Lesa: So we do have quite similar backgrounds, and a lot of similar skills. But we've naturally taken slightly different paths within the company, to just follow our strengths. So I've taken more of the commercial side of the business, growing the sales and leading some of the business strategy while Jemma is leading more of the creative side, the marketing and the product. Although we have similar skill sets, we're diversifying to benefit the business.
And do you think there've been any particular challenges you've faced, being women?
Jemma: I think sometimes we found when we had to go and meet bank managers in order to open up a business account, and actually start having conversations about setting up all those practical things that you have to do when you start a company, we did sometimes feel patronised. And a lot of professional men that we encountered were quite condescending in the sense that they'd be dismissive of two young girls with an idea for a fashion business.
They couldn’t have been more wrong. So, what are your plans for the future?
Jemma: Our mission is to become the world's number one accessories brand for women. We would love to become a lifestyle brand, and explore other product areas. Because at the moment we have watches and jewellery, but there's so much more we can do in terms of product extensions, so we'd really love to put the Olivia Burton stamp on everything from homeware to stationery.