From the top · 6 August 2015

Ann Summers CEO Jacqueline Gold: Every business has a story – make sure you’re part of it

Gold feels it is important to innovate not imitate
Gold feels it is important to innovate not imitate

Jacqueline Gold knows a thing or two about business longevity. She has, after all, been at the helm of lingerie retailer Ann Summers for twenty odd years and despite a challenging 2014 the latest forecast had the company on track for a healthy profit of £1.5m.

Gold had never intended to stay at the company – after time spent there for work experience she didn’t revel in the fact it was a “very male-dominated environment at the time”, catering for men too. After coming up with the idea for the now renowned female-only parties, Gold quickly saw an opportunity to turn the company around – making it very much a business for women.

So, where would she advise placing your focus as a business founder today? “You’ve got to identify your USP early on. Whatever it is that sets you apart – whether it’s service or price point, something that makes people want to spend with you and not somebody else,” she said.

The untapped USP of Ann Summers was clear to her from the beginning. She had a chance to “empower women in the bedroom” when others hadn’t, and it’s this saying which became something of a mantra for Gold and the company itself.

“It is though, really important to innovate not imitate if you want to succeed,” she emphasised. “And creating a strong brand identity is key,” she added – reflecting on the best approach for small businesses to take.

“Any media attention is hugely expensive, so you need to work out how you go about cultivating that – like establishing an online presence through web partnerships,” Gold explained. “I always sent press releases to local press to help establish that visible presence from an early stage.”

She also reflects on the value of having a story tell from a personal perspective. “Every business has a story and it’s about making sure you’re part of it. People are interested in how the mum at the school gates ended up selling her product to Ocado,” she said. “They want to engage with the person behind the business.”

Gold contemplated her own ability to withstand the ups and downs that come with any business. “When I think about why Ann Summers is still here, well we’re selling an incredible product, but more than that, why am I still here after all these years? I have always engaged with the customer and my colleagues as much as possible,” she revealed. “It’s the backbone of building trust and before anything else, you have to build a trusted brand first and foremost.”

Ann Summers

Where she has seen an improvement in the climate for small businesses is the support networks available these days. At the beginning of her career, there just weren’t these options out there. “People weren’t as willing to share business impact, I think there was quite a negative image of entrepreneurs.”

Gold remembered going to a conference in San Diego and was surprised at how supportive everyone seemed to be. “I wished we could bottle it up and bring it back to the UK. Especially for me, I was already in a controversial space so it was a lot more hostile and took a while to educate people on what they’d be receiving from our products and what we could deliver for them.”

She was effusive about the increased coverage entrepreneurs are getting nowadays, praising TV programmes like The Apprentice, Dragons’ Den and Tycoon as ways to reach wider awareness. “I think they’re all brilliant. They engage the public and provide insight into what being an entrepreneur is actually about,” she said.

Gold also feels that business founders are more engaged with the public too, as well as being more tuned into their staff. “I think entrepreneurs want to be supportive and be supported.” She’s involved with mentoring project and holds her own Women on Wednesday (WOW) session on Twitter to celebrate women in business and giving them the benefit of her wider reach.

“There are also so many government grants and mentoring packages out there. Research all the available options and get as many mentors on board as you can. They don’t have to be big names or high profile, just those who have been there, done that and can provide insight.”

Stratford store

At the beginning of a business career, you may be unaware of just how far you can push for something and where the line is, but Gold believes this can work to your detriment if you sell yourself as too under confident. “Be forward in striving for deals you want, whether it’s with landlords or whatever, there are always deals to be had.”

“You can be nervous when starting out, but you’ve got to remember there can be room to manoeuvre. This is where mentors can be particularly helpful, so they can provide guidance on where to push back and negotiate a better deal,” she said. “Suppliers might say payment terms are 90 days but negotiate it and say we can’t survive doing this, how can we rearrange the terms into something that works for both of us?”

Gold is constantly looking at how best to improve Ann Summers for her customers, but is there anything she knows now that she would’ve liked to have been aware of at the beginning of her business career?

“You don’t have to do everything yourself. Sometimes when you’re young or at the beginning of a career you can’t see the word for the trees and you bury yourself in work. I think it can make you very serious,” she explained. When you have the means to, “delegating frees you up and actually enables you to focus on tasks that perhaps only you can do – the more entrepreneurial things”. It also helps to “empower the people below you, which is hugely important”.

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Rebecca is a reporter for Business Advice. Prior to this, she worked with a range of tech, advertising, media and digital clients at Propeller PR and did freelance work for The Telegraph.