Connie is the founder and CEO of taxforward, a start-up disrupting the world of tax in the UK to help creatives, entrepreneurs and the self-employed file their tax return in a way which is straightforward and stress-free. The platform launched earlier this month and this is her first company.
In August 2016, Connie completed her MBA with Distinction from the Saïd Business School where she was a member of St Benet’s Hall and a Dean’s List Scholar.
Q: What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
A: I love watching people’s foreheads wrinkle with confusion when I explain my path to starting this company.
I first trained as an actress at the Guildhall School of Acting & Music in London. It was an intense, beautiful three years spent with the most emotionally brave people I’ve ever met and I really treasure those years. I worked as an actress after graduating but early on had the realisation that I wanted to find something that was more ‘me’.
So I made a giant leap into the unknown: I joined Deloitte to train as an accountant. I know?! The biggest difference in the two worlds is the sense of humour. Audit humour wins hands down, every time. Deloitte gave me hard skills and my love for spreadsheets.
Coming to Oxford for my MBA was a dream. I became friends with people whose stories, work ethic and ambition inspired me; they were the spark for me to think seriously about the impact I want to make in the world. It was the most personally challenging and rewarding year of my life.
Distilling the idea down: my friends who are actors, musicians, theatre technicians to this day ask for help with their taxes; irrespective of whether they already pay several hundreds of pounds to an accountant. I thought that there must be a way of removing the information asymmetry which doesn’t cost the earth?!?
Q: What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
A: My definition draws on the “ensemble” from the theatre: it is the harnessed energy of a diverse group of people which creates a balanced, high-functioning team. When you have that team everything becomes possible. I also love Elon Musk’s definition: “being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death...” I suppose I love the drama of that statement!
Q: How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
A: During the MBA Entrepreneurship Project I explored the idea with colleagues who had experience in corporate finance, consulting, the law and computer science. Having their input on the kernel of the idea was fantastic. Benefiting from the scrutiny of experts like Jonathan Reynolds and Thomas Hellman was also invaluable. After the project finished, I continued to work on the taxforward proposition and presented it at the Oxford Saïd Entrepreneurship Forum in June 2016. Hearing Phil Libin and Biz Stone’s feedback on the idea was encouraging and heartening.
But overall, it was my growing obsession with taxforward that really did it. Every time I got in a taxi or an Uber in London, I couldn’t help myself from asking the driver about their self-employment and how they managed their finances and their taxes. They probably thought I was the rudest/nosiest person ever but thankfully my Uber rating hasn’t suffered! When every response I received was that tax was a nightmare for them, I felt that it was a problem worth solving and I could be the person to do it.
Q: So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
A: Skills I juggle daily and try hard to balance are those of a parachutist, an ostrich and an empath.
The ability to be a parachutist; to look at the landscape, see broad forces at work and make assumptions of how your business might fit into that landscape, and at the same time, to be an ostrich: getting stuck into the detail, looking at the intricacies and complexities of the problem and testing your assumptions.
I also think to survive as an entrepreneur you need to develop and nurture strong personal relationships. It’s easy for entrepreneurs to think they are the centre of the universe but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Paying attention to loved ones and staying open and available to what they need from you is so important.
Q: What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
A: For me, the best part of being an entrepreneur has been the opportunity to choose who I work with. Specifically: working with my brother, Richard. His skills are diametrically opposed to my own. He’s a pleasure to work with as well as my harshest critic and the person whose opinion I trust the most. I once read that a functional team thrives on honest feedback. I get a lot of honest feedback and I love that.
More generally, seeking opportunities to work with people who have more experience than you, is fantastic. These people illuminate aspects of your business that you have less experience in and burst the echo chamber.
Q: What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
A: Judi Dench: she’s used her fierce intelligence and adaptability to build a reputation for being a formidable and committed professional whilst working well and earning the respect of her peers.
Q: If you could have 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?
A: I would definitely have to ask her what she’d be doing in a parallel universe and how far she has actively built her reputation for excellence. I think she’d have a great perspective on work life balance too.
Q: What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
A: I am no politician so I’d readily admit that I’ve made a heap of mistakes as an entrepreneur. I can be too trusting of other people and insufficiently scrupulous in my assessment of people’s intentions. I tend to think the best of everyone and sometimes that can backfire if I ignore the gut instinct I had. I think a sixth sense in business is a muscle which needs a lot of exercise. I’m learning.
Q: How have you funded your ideas? Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
A: So far, we’ve done an F&F (family and a very good friend and colleague from the MBA) round. This has funded the current progress of taxforward and we’ll be raising our next round of finance early next year.
Q: If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? (Anything Oxfordshire especially!)
A: I’d recommend the Launchpad and the Entrepreneurship Centre at the Saïd Business School for their ability to draw a host of inspirational, highly successful entrepreneurs through their doors to share their stories. I cannot wait to see The Oxford Foundry, an expanded space for entrepreneurship for the university in 2017: I know the hub will be an amazing asset for Oxford University as a whole.
Q: Any last words of advice?
A: Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen”: it reminds me to laugh at all the things I might ever worry about.