Female tech founder Ali Beaven is next in our Women Who Win series, giving us some insight into how tough you have to be to hack it as a woman in the tech industry...
Ali Beaven fell upon her million pound business idea, Prezola Limited, on her 30th birthday after noticing a gap in the market two bottles of wine down, and she has never looked back.
Starting as a hazy dream, the wedding gift list company is now the highest rated of them all, allowing millennials to create aspirational online shopping lists. Like we needed to tell you that – you probably use it.
But it all came as a surprise to Ali, who insisted ‘I certainly never imagined that I would be running Prezola’.
‘I thought of the concept on my birthday in 2008 after being asked what I wanted from friends and family,’ she recalled. ‘”I would love a beautiful online list of gifts from all my favourite shops,” I explained to my husband Dom. We discussed the idea over 1 (maybe 2) bottles of wine and registered the name that night. Prezola and I share a birthday.’
But as Ali found out, finding a gap in the market and registering a name is only the beginning, with the couple not actually launching Prezola until Valentine’s Day 2012.
Next came the hard slog – something that only the toughest can handle.
‘It took years to muster up the courage to ditch our jobs,’ she explained, ‘and another two to build the site and get our first 100 brand partnerships. But Dom and I have always been entrepreneurial at heart and knew we’d launch a business together one day, so we had to take the risk. And having just turned 40, we both felt the time was right to do our own thing.’
But as a female founder in the tech industry, Ali has had an uphill journey, with gender inequality being an issue that she hopes her daughter won’t have to face when she grows up.
‘Women should never be underestimated, particularly by themselves,’ Ali enthused.
Our Women Who Win interview series celebrates strong and inspirational female trailblazers, shaping the future for us all, and Ali Beaven and her refusal to let anyone or anything stand in her way is that in a nutshell.
Jenny Proudfoot sat down with Ali to find out how tough you have to be to survive as a female tech founder nowadays and how to ask for more…
When were you bravest?
Launching Prezola and going big from day one. We just knew it would work and were ready to throw everything at it. Dom sold my beloved Landcover while I was at a school meeting with the kids, to pay for our first ad campaign in a huge magazine. Then, after the first million through the tills we decided to sell the family home to fund the next stage of our growth. I’m not actually sure if that was bold of mad but we’ve never looked back.
What decision changed your life?
Having children and giving myself ten years to be a full-time mum. I spent the whole of my thirties off the career ladder, but used that time to retrain as an Interior Designer and gain some perspective on the world. The kids were 11 and 9 when we began work on Prezola and they’ve been behind us every step of the way – even weekends unpacking deliveries at the warehouse during those early years! When I left work to have Harry in 1999 I didn’t even have a mobile phone, let alone an email account. It was a terrifying prospect going back to work when so much had changed, so starting my own business seemed almost easier.
Have you been discriminated against?
Early in the business we were considering raising investment and I came across a guy at a big VC firm who shall remain nameless. He refused to look at me and only spoke to Dom throughout the entire meeting. He referred to another female entrepreneur in his portfolio as “hot”. Needless to say we didn’t pursue that relationship any further. Generally though, I’ve not have come across too much discrimination in my career. Prezola is quite a female dominated company but only by chance, not by choice. Half of the operational board is female, which I love.
What has stopped you progressing further?
Nothing stops us, but cash is always a constraint in any startup and Prezola was no different. From selling my car, to the house to a £3 million investment from BGF last year there is always a way forward. Sometimes you need to be brave and sometimes smart. Ultimately every penny counts and I’m glad we’ve struggled on the money front. You respect cash-flow and remain prudent.
What is your superpower?
Gut instinct. I have learnt that if something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. Whether it’s a new employee, service policy, Prezola ad campaign or new product line, you have to finely hone your instincts and learn to listen to them.
What do you refuse to compromise on?
Our culture. Prezola is a family business and very much a team effort, from the early days when it was just the two of us, to today with our team of 50 employees. Our culture is critical to me and we do a great deal to motivate the teams and keep everyone happy. We hold a regular company forum and also ‘Prezolafest’ our annual summer party where everyone can let their hair down. Prezolafest started as a team barbecue in our garden, but these day is a full on affair. This summer we’ve hired Bath Cricket Club and are hosting a Roman Empire banquet, including togas of course. Happy teams that love what they do translates into happy customers.
What is one thing you would change for women if you could?
The need to ask this question. I hope that by the time my daughter is my age, gender equality simply won’t have relevance any more; something women used to have to fight for but don’t any more. I do think we’re making progress. The women at Prezola are passionate, confident and self-assured. But the guys are too. I’m very proud of them all.
When were you proudest?
Winning Best Gift List at both the British and UK Wedding Awards have been very proud moments for myself and the whole Prezola team. These awards are voted for by consumers, so to win one is a real accolade. Five in six years is really something. It’s also incredible to hear Prezola talked about by customers. That name we dreamt up, slightly sizzled in 2008, now sells hundreds of thousands of wedding gifts every year. When I was through our distribution centre and consider how it started out as a cupboard in my boot room it can all feel a little bit surreal
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
‘Know your audience and keep relevant’. We have had to adapt and evolve the Prezola service offering over the past six years. As consumers needs have changed, we have remained agile. Couples often already live together and don’t just want kettles and toasters. We offer experience days, charity donations and honeymoon funds alongside products from traditional, high street and boutique brands.
What was your biggest mistake?
We were a little naive in those early years and assumed that everyone was as nice as Prezola. We could have protected our IP and international trademarks better. In the UK we’ve seen a number of copycat businesses come and go while in the US we’re in a trademark dispute to regain control of our brand. Not prioritising spend on good lawyers and advisors in the early days is something we need to unpick now.
How do you celebrate success?
Little and often. Life is long and you have to celebrate the little successes along the way, not just hold out for the big stuff. A good board meeting at Prezola might mean tapas and wine on the way home. A good set of annual results might mean a far-flung holiday. I think it’s really important to treat yourself and those around you for the everyday little successes. It gives you a really positive outlook.
How can women ask for more?
Be worth what you’re asking for and confident in asking for it. Whether it’s a small pay rise or a multi-million pound investment, you’re conducting a transaction. Know what you want and why the other party should give it to you. What are they getting? If possible, leave emotion out of it. Know the facts and stick to them.
Leave us with a statement:
Women should never be underestimated, particularly by themselves.