BEST-Known for her recent stint on BBC’s Dragons’ Den, Sarah Willingham started her career waitressing – and is now a multimillionaire
Sarah, 43, is currently in Australia’s Botany Bay in the middle of a round-
the-world year-long trip she has taken with her husband, Michael Toxvaerd, and their four children: Minnie, Monti, Nelly and Marly, aged between five and 10.
‘I’m very lucky,’ she tells me in her distinctive Stoke accent, ‘but to me, it’s vital to choose a career that fits in with what’s important to you.’
After a hectic career, Sarah’s taken a route that means she still earns money via investments but will always be around for her children. Here are her tips on making your career work for you…
You’ve always worked in the restaurant business – what attracted you to it in the first place and how did you know that’s what you wanted to do?
I love food and I wanted to combine my passion for that with my love for business. From the age of 12 I wanted to know about brands and why was it that when we opened our fridge, we all had the same stuff in it. Why did everyone want Nike trainers: what did that mean? I wanted to work for Coca Cola because I thought it would be great to learn how they got that brand into everybody’s cupboard.
The second thing I loved was the buzz of a cool restaurant or bar, the people in the industry and the instant gratification. As a waitress, you can see straight away if the customer is not happy and you can fix it then and there. There aren’t many businesses where you can make or break somebody’s day in a moment.
I started off as a waitress at 13, and all through university, where I studied business at Oxford Brookes University, I continued to work in bars or restaurants. I loved it then and still do; it’s a great industry.
What would your advice be to someone who isn’t so sure as you were about what their own career path should be?
Try different things. It’s okay to spend time eliminating things so you eventually find what you are looking for. Ask yourself what type of person you are, too. I am outgoing, an extrovert. I like people and get bored quickly, so the restaurant industry really suited me. It’s always changing. It is very dynamic and you can solve problems very quickly; you don’t have to wait. It’s a B to C (business to consumer) business, you are always in front of the consumer and it’s very social. There is a great vibe with both the staff and the customers.
But if you are very introverted, you like planning and are more methodical, that would lead you to work in a B to B business.
Look at what type of person you are, and ask people who are similar to you what they do – and get experience in different industries from as young an age as you can.
The average person will have nine different jobs and one complete career change. What tips do you have for someone looking to find their dream job?
The way I’ve always started is by looking at me as an individual and working out what sort of life I want. Then I go about finding the job that will allow me to have that life.
If work detracts from that life rather than adds to it, it’s a battle you are never going to win. That’s when it ends in tears and you become bitter towards your job.
Start by asking yourself: Is this fitting in? Say for example, it’s your dream job but it’s a two-hour commute and you are never going to see your kids and the thought of that breaks your heart. My advice is don’t pursue that job because it’s taking too much away that’s important to you.
In my 20s, I didn’t have a gap year because my dad didn’t want me to, so instead I went after a role that involved travel as that was important to me.
Looking after international development at Pizza Express meant I was on a plane every week, so it fulfilled that aspect I felt I needed in my life. And it meant I was much better at my job because I loved what I was doing.
I became an entrepreneur because I had no choice. I got to my late 20s and knew that if I was to have the life I wanted for my 30s, which meant hopefully meeting somebody and having lots of children, I wasn’t going to achieve it if I continued to do what I was doing.
This was 15 years ago when flexible hours and women working through maternity was much less developed. So to be my 30s person, I was going to have
to have my own business and be entirely in control of my own diary. I hadn’t even met Michael then, but that’s when I made the leap. The kids came much later.
The Bombay Bicycle Club was the first company I ran and then Natural Health.
Now I have changed again and have focused on not running anything. Though I love business and being involved, I couldn’t be in a position when anyone apart from my kids was reliant on me getting up in the morning. I tried that and
it was just too big a compromise. So I began creating a career to fit around my life.
That’s why I started to invest. I’m finally doing something I want to do for the rest of my life because it fits in with now and anything I foresee in the future. It means I can work and live anywhere, which is my ultimate dream.
What could be done about attracting mums back into careers and not just settling for low-paid jobs to make money?
We have made some progress but are nowhere near there yet. At least the stigma of men versus women is disappearing and that helps.
You can’t fight nature: so if a mum has had a baby, feels maternal and needs to do the school pick-up sometimes – maybe twice a week – employers have to allow her to do that. Companies are making presumptions about how their female staff will manage, but they don’t know about the partner or childcare situation.
Bosses need to be much more flexible because, if you go with nature, you are going to get the happiest, most productive and driven mum because you are allowing her to be who she wants to be. You are allowing her to be that dynamic, focussed, intelligent individual – which doesn’t change just because she’s had a baby.
But the problem remains that, though women are allowed back into the workplace, they are not getting senior jobs. They are still not being promoted to the board.
On the FTSE board there are women listed, but it’s nonsense. These are often part-time, non-executive roles and it is just ticking boxes on a lot of occasions.
Some of the larger organisations are genuinely promoting women, which I welcome, but I would like to see more in very senior positions. And it has been proven through research that companies with 30% of women on boards are seeing a 15% increase in profitability. It works yet not enough companies are doing it.
What are your tips on starting your first job when you want to make a good impression and progress?
I hate the word networking – it sounds so contrived – but you do need to build relationships with people to understand the different dynamics of the business. Be interested in all aspects – for example, what are other people doing around you?
Get a more holistic understanding of how the whole business works because the more you learn, the quicker you will progress. If you understand only one part of the business, its difficult to move on. So ask questions and learn as much as you can. Be seen; make yourself visible.
You’ve been earning your living for more than two decades. What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
The chief executive of Pizza Express with whom I worked closely when I was involved in international development for the chain, told me to surround myself with brilliant people, and I’ve always followed this. It has worked for me.
You were in the 13th and 14th series of the BBC’s Dragons’ Den programme – how did you find it?
I loved it and did two series, and made friends for life. But I’m not doing another one because it is very time-consuming, taking me away from the children, and because we are on our year-long trip. It was a huge privilege, but good things have to come to an end.
I couldn’t say who my favourite Dragon is – I loved them all in an individual way; but I have good personal relationships with Deborah Meaden and Nick Jenkins and I do see them outside the Den. I also see Peter Jones and have spoken to him on the phone. We had a very good year as we all really liked one another, which doesn’t happen very often. It was a happy place.
Turning to the subject of money, when did you know you were financially secure for the first time?
After I bought The Bombay Bicycle Club. I’d spotted an opportunity to create a chain of Indian restaurants, so I raised finance and turned this company into the largest, most successful Indian restaurant chain in the country.
Having my own business appealed to me – I loved the diversity of my role. One minute I was chief executive and the next I was cleaning the toilet – a jack of all trades. You really have to muck in and understand everything, and I loved the accountability of having your own business, because every failure was my failure and every success was my success.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge you have managed to overcome in your career?
That would be when westarted Letssavemoney.com (a money-saving website Sarah co-founded with her husband Michael) as it took a long time to find the business model that worked – much longer than I expected it to. It’s not outstanding but it’s profitable, and it works well now.
Looking back over the years, what do you regard as your finest career achievement to date?
One, going out on my own and, secondly, selling the Bombay Bicycle Club and then starting investing. Both were totally the right things to do at those times in my life.
Although you’re very busy, when you do have some spare time, what is your biggest indulgence?
Travel is certainly the biggest one. Michael and I have always spent time doing that, and to see the world with my kids is by far the most special and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
You’ve talked about past and current experiences, but what about the future? What are your plans for next year?
I think this is the first time I’ve ever said this, but I love my life right now and I want to carry on doing what I do: running a business portfolio alongside Michael, investing in business ventures from start-ups to more established and growing brands.
We will be carrying on with our world trip, going to South East Asia including Bali, Singapore, Malaysia and, hopefully, the Philippines, with the children having a mixture of home schooling and actual schooling. That will take us to August, when we come home to England again. That’s the plan for now!
Did you plan your career?
To a large extent I did, although my first job at Planet Hollywood happened by chance when I was at university. It was the first Planet Hollywood in Europe – in the Champs-Élysées – and I was put forward because I spoke fluent French. My next job move to Pizza Express looking at international development was very planned. I targeted them, phoning and asking if I could come in for a chat. Since then, every job I’ve gone for I’ve set up a phone call to the right person to make it happen.
What motivates you the most?
I am naturally self-motivated and everything I do, I want to do really well.
I love to learn – it doesn’t matter what it is or who I’m learning from. It motivates me doing something different. I loved being on Dragons’ Den because it was that constant challenge of someone new walking through the door and you don’t know anything about them and their business, and very quickly you have to unpick what they are offering. So I’m motivated by learning, by working with great people and doing new stuff.