Dr Samantha Decombel - CSO and Cofounder of FitnessGenes

Dr Samantha Decombel is the Co-Founder and CSO of FitnessGenes Limited, which is fast becoming the world's leading fitness genetic testing and interpretation company. Using the combination of their customer's DNA and lifestyle data such as weight and activity levels, they provide their customers with proactive lifestyle recommendations to help them achieve their fitness goals.
Having learnt the pitfalls of starting up a business in her first company PlayDNA, which included an eventful trip into the BBC2 Dragons Den, she was well prepared for the challenges of her second business venture. Formed in 2013, FitnessGenes was an outstanding success from the start, and continues to go from strength to strength after securing a total of £6.5M of angel and Series A funding to develop the FitnessGenes concept further, recently expanding its operations to west coast USA, setting up a branch in Beverley Hills, California. Samantha has a PhD in Genetics from the University of Birmingham and a never-ending supply of cheerful optimism!

Q: What is your background?  Why are you doing this?
A:  I studied genetics at uni, but knew I didn’t want to carry on in research beyond my PhD. I did really enjoy science though, and wanted a job that would expose me to science and enable me to use my research skills in another way. During an event on student enterprise I learnt about technology transfer; a role that supports academics in commercialising their research, which seemed ideal. Having spent several years working as a Technology Transfer Officer in several universities, I decided to take the plunge and use my new acquired knowledge to start my own business back in 2008. The decisive moment came when I lost my dad to oesophageal cancer. Before he died, he inspired me to be brave, take any opportunities that came my way and go at life head on. I lost my fear of failing, as in comparison to losing a loved one the risk of losing some of my hard-earned cash paled into insignificance. 

Q: What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
A: Someone once told me that entrepreneurship is jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down! While I don’t entirely support that particular notion, as I believe you should approach any new entrepreneurial venture in a rational and well-researched manner, there will be that ‘here goes’ moment when you make the decision to take things seriously. This might be when you quit your full-time job, or when you sink your life savings into stock for the new business. Feeling that fear of ‘what happens if it doesn’t work out’, and then doing it anyway is what I believe makes someone truly entrepreneurial.

Q: What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
A:  Having helped many others to spin out new businesses I was inspired to give it a go for myself!

Q: So what would you say are the top skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
A: You have to be willing to get your hands dirty and be a bit of a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ as when you start out you are the CEO, the salesperson, the brand manager, the book-keeper, even the office cleaner! As the business grows you need to have the ability to recognise your strengths and find additional support in areas that you are perhaps less adept at, and this ‘letting go’ can also be a challenge when you’ve spent the last 12 months nursing your business from the ground up. Being a good networker is also a key skill to ensure you find the right people to get involved in your business, and it’s a big plus if you have the ability to inspire them with your story. Finally, it helps to be a bit cheeky! Being a good negotiator can get you through those initial tight months.

Q: What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
A:  The freedom to make decisions on what is best for our company on a day-to-day basis. Having worked in many a large institution with multiple layers of bureaucracy, it is refreshing to be able to make snap judgments on a day-to-day basis and run with it. It certainly keeps things interesting!

Q: What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
A: Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. As well as being a very talented business leader, she has also leveraged her success to pursue multiple philanthropic ventures, including her ‘Lean In’ campaign, which encourages women to take on leadership roles and break down the traditional workplace barriers that are still so prevalent in society.

Q: If you could have 5 minutes with Sheryl what would you want to ask or discuss?
A: I’d tell her how she had inspired me to take my outreach and mentoring responsibilities seriously and encourage others to lean in. I’d also use the opportunity to pitch FitnessGenes to her as just the sort of business she would enjoy investing in!

Q: What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
A: There have been so many it is difficult to pick a single one out. Every day brings a new challenge and the excitement of overcoming it. Having said that, pitching FitnessGenes to our first group of Business Angel investors, and finding out we had secured the funding, was a particularly magic moment.

Q: What would you say have been some of your mistakes as an entrepreneur?
A:  I have made so many mistakes in the process of starting my own business, but every one I have learnt from and most importantly not repeated. That is the mark of a really successful entrepreneur in my eyes, as every one of us will experience failure and disappointment, but it is how you pick yourself up from that which counts. Failing to make any allowance for a marketing budget in my first business venture was one such big mistake. I was so focused on getting the product perfect that I overlooked the need to make others aware it existed! A harsh lesson after poor sales in the initial 12 months of launch corrected in business number two, when we made sure we had a channel to market before even beginning the development of the product.

Q: What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire?  Bad?
A:  Oxfordshire is a fantastic place to be an entrepreneur. You have the benefit of two world-renowned universities and the skilled and enthusiastic graduate labour that results, fantastic support from local organisations such as Oxford Innovation that make it affordable to rent lab and office space here and good transport links to major cities such as London, where many of the VCs and business angels hang out. I moved from Birmingham to Oxford to start up my first business for these reasons and more – it’s just the most beautiful part of the country to live in! If I could change anything, it would be the property prices, as with an expanding team, the rent is certainly a lot higher than in other areas of the country. That is the tradeoff though I guess!

Q: If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship information or resources in Oxfordshire, where would you send them?
A:  I’d definitely point them towards the Launchpad! It’s a great place to start with freely available advice and great networking opportunities. Oxford Geek Nights are also a great place to meet designers and developers if you have any such requirements for your business.

Q: Any last words of advice?
A:  Don’t let the fear of failure discourage you from taking on a difficult challenge. Even if you do not ultimately succeed, consider the time and energy expended a learning opportunity that boosts your CV and puts you way ahead of most in terms of practical experience.