I get knocked down, but I get up again
People speak about the ups and downs of life as an entrepreneur, but Rachel Lowe's experience has been a real rollercoaster, encompassing towering highs like creating the best-selling board game at Hamleys and absolute lows such as having her home repossessed.
She spoke to Workingmums.co.uk in the hope that her story will inspire other women since it shows how even in dire straits you can pick yourself up and start again.
In her twenties, Rachel was driving cabs after having dropped out of college twice. The first time she was just 18 and pregnant with her daughter Hannah. The second time she had taken a job just before her final exams which seemed to have good potential, but it was an offer which was too good to be true. The job didn't last. She thought her chances of ever finishing university were over.
Rachel got the cab job after doing a series of “random jobs”, including delivery driving in Southsea. The cafe where she used to stop for coffee was opposite a cab rank and she started talking to the drivers and realised she could earn more doing cab driving than doing deliveries.
After doing some day shifts on the cabs, she soon switched to nights because the money was better. In fact, she went back to work two weeks after giving birth to her second child as she needed the money.
One day, Rachel was driving a lecturer from Portsmouth University. They got to talking and he mentioned that the university was just launching a new law degree. He advised her that she could apply as a mature student, even though she didn't finish college. She won an unconditional offer.
“That lecturer will never know that he changed my life,” she says. That was in 2002. While she was at the University she saw a poster for an enterprise competition. When she was driving her cab she had had an idea for a board game called Destination Portsmouth which could be adapted to any location.
“The appeal is that it is about a city that players will know and about places you recognise in that city,” she says.
The University had a business incubation unit which helped with all aspects of setting up a business. A lecturer who knew she was raising money for the business told her about Dragon's Den.
“I had no idea what the show was about,” she says, “except that you had to pitch an idea to investors. Had I known, I would not have been brave enough to enter.”
When she did her pitch the dragons were fairly hostile and tore into her projected figures. “In a normal business situation you would have all your papers with you, but you were not allowed them on the programme and I got flustered,” she says. She felt humiliated and took a while to recover.
She had by then raised enough money by herself, though, and both the Portsmouth and London editions of the boardgame were soon in production. “I worked really hard on it and Destination London ended up being the best selling board game at Hamleys,” she says. “So when the episode of Dragon's Den was screened in 2005 I could hold my head up high.”
The business, however, suffered a huge setback when a version linked to a big film was delayed. Rachel had borrowed money for the special edition and couldn't afford to pay the loan repayments.
It was 2009 and the height of the recession. The company went into administration, Rachel's car was taken, her house was repossessed and the family had to move into a council house. She had also recently split up from her partner. The whole experience tipped her into a nervous breakdown.
She felt anxious all the time and as if everyone “was taking chunks out of me”. “When you are doing well everyone wants to be your friend, but you soon realise who your friends are when things go badly,” she says.
“My anxiety was purely based on fear. Once the company went into administration it was no longer my responsibility. A point came where I realised I had now lost everything, so I therefore had nothing left to lose, and so nothing left to fear. Only at this point to I begin my road to recovery."
Then her life took another turn due, once more, to a tv programme. Her story was featured in a Panorama programme called Banks Behaving Badly and through that she met her current business partner, Simon Dolan.
Work life balance
After meeting Simon she managed to get the Destination brand back from administration and created a new company. Since then, she has produced a range of new editions, including a new Harry Potter edition and two Olympic editions. She has also just started up a new lifestyle brand, She Who Dares which is just about to launch [www.rachellowe.co.uk].
It includes perfume and handbags. She says the range is “classy and timeless... giving She Who Dares is an acknowledgement of every woman's achievements and there is meaning and emotion behind the brand”. She knows she is in a very competitive market, particularly with the Eminence fragrance, but says that with Destination she was up against Monopoly. “People said we could not compete, but we won,” she says.
Her children, now aged 16 and 11, were affected by her breakdown, but are now totally settled and Rachel says she now feels she has “nailed” her work life balance.
“Before I put way too much energy into the company and then when I got ill I felt it was all in vain and I felt a lot of guilt. I have since vowed never to put work before the children and I pick them up and drop them off at school every day. I do not allow work to interfere with my home life now. I have learnt the art of delegation and have an amazing PA,” she says.
Nevertheless, she acknowledges that it has taken her a while to trust people again. She credits a lot of that trust building to her business partner who gave her the time and space to get better. Rachel speaks very highly of Simon Dolan. "He has so much integrity and I would trust Simon with my life. He helped me to believe in people again, and also to believe in myself again," she says.
Rachel, who has an MBE for services to business, says she hopes her story will act as an inspiration for other women entrepreneurs. “I know what it's like to fall and I know how to get back up again, even if at first you can't see any way forward. You can turn things around.”