Katy Brown is the co-founder and Managing Director of Skylark Works, an Oxford University spin-out and social venture that helps “businesses do good and charities do business.” Skylark offers philanthropy and social impact advice for businesses and HNWIs, alongside strategic planning, delivery support and coaching for charities and social ventures.
Katy has over 10 years of diverse, global experience in management consulting and financial services, coupled with a passion for, and commitment to, meaningful purpose and social impact.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I spent 10 years in financial services, largely by happenstance. I was a management consultant for eight years and then I worked for an investment manager for a couple of years as well. I was Head of Strategic Delivery there, which is a wonderfully woolly job title that tells you nothing at all. Essentially I was responsible for delivering their growth strategy, so growing new areas of the business, whether it was a new product or a completely new business line. I think it’s fair to say that my roles were always intellectually stimulating and challenging but not particularly meaningful or fulfilling. I studied English Literature at University for no better reason than I liked reading books and I found myself in financial services by accident and, as is often the way with these things, a series of fortunate events. Following that time, I really felt that I needed to do something with greater purpose, as clichéd as that sounds. I needed to make more of a positive impact, to do something that was actually going to have social purpose and as a result, be much more fulfilling.
I didn’t make a conscious decision to become an entrepreneur. The background to Skylark is that one of my co-founders was a colleague from my investment management days and we wanted to find a way of harnessing a lot of the goodwill in the community that he’d built during his time there. He was Head of Social Purpose, a totally different job to me, doing all of the good stuff: charitable giving, building community impact etc. We wanted to find a new home for all of that work. So, it wasn’t a conscious decision, more an organic evolution. I didn’t ever think of myself as a social entrepreneur, even when we started Skylark. Then I was asked to do a podcast one day and someone said “because you’re a social entrepreneur, we’d love to talk to you…” It wasn’t something that I’d ever considered, I didn’t see myself I that way. Becoming a social entrepreneur isn’t a job you pick either, it’s something you grow into over time. It’s something you become. You definitely need a certain personality. You’ve got to have an ability to lean into uncertainty and embrace a level of risk. I think it’s amazing and I’m learning so much, but it’s not for everyone.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
It’s a mindset. The ability to lean into uncertainty, the ability to think creatively and critically, to challenge the status quo and come up with innovative solutions that really make a positive impact. I think it’s about treading a different path and having the courage to do that – in full knowledge that you may well fail and as long as you’ve done your best, that’s okay, because that’s how we learn.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
In May of last year, the idea for Skylark was born, though we didn’t really know what it was at the time. It was down to our desire to find a home for a lot of existing goodwill and a wonderful community and legacy. We just knew we wanted to do something with purpose. We decided to test our idea with people we trusted, who were experienced across sectors: the private sector, the charity sector, social venture, etc. We took on seed investment at the end of November last year. That was really the defining moment. We always said we’d put in sweat equity (which is the glamourous term for working for free) until the end of the year, and if we hadn’t got traction by then, we would go and get “normal” jobs. Getting that initial investment was the key turning point for us. It was a real milestone.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Grit, i.e. resilience in the face of challenges. I think it takes courage to be an entrepreneur, it’s not easy. When you launch a business, people will tell you how happy and excited they are for you. No one will tell you how difficult it is, how many ups and downs there are. You need that grit because there are a lot of inevitable challenges.
The second thing I’d say is drive, the ability to get things done and turn an idea into a reality, with all the passion and energy and grit that that takes. It’s all well and good dreaming up 100 ideas before breakfast. It’s irrelevant if you’re not actually going to deliver on them.
The third thing I’d say is agility. You have to be flexible in your approach and in your idea. We take a very agile approach at Skylark. We’re very incremental and iterative in how we work. We test ideas, we listen to feedback, we refine our proposition as we go. That’s really, really key. I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned is the importance of listening to the credible, trustworthy people that give you feedback and taking that onboard, then adjusting or even pivoting as necessary.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
You control your own narrative, you own your story completely. That gives you a level of freedom and scope to discover new opportunities that you don’t always find when you’re working in a large organisation. I think it’s that ability to bring your whole self to work, which we all want to be able to do, but aren’t always able to.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I’d choose Naval Ravikant, who is an Indian-American entrepreneur and investor. But perhaps more importantly, he’s also a philosopher and an incredibly deep thinker who really challenges the status quo. I learn so much from him. Less about actually running a business, more about life. I really recommend a podcast he did with Shane Parrish and the Knowledge Project, which is called The Angel Philosopher. It’s certainly worth an hour and a half of your time. I think it’s one of those podcasts that I’ve taken the most away from. I’ve listened to it over and over again. He’s my go-to.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Definitely turning the idea into reality. As I said before, ideas are great, but you have to actually make them happen. For me, that’s always the most satisfying, seeing something come to fruition. So I’d say launching Skylark was the most satisfying part so far.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
You will have lots of ideas, but you have to focus. You have to have discipline, focus and clarity around your proposition and your plan. That focus really has to be around what’s going to create the most value or deliver the most impact. You also need to balance that with the flexibility and scope to be able to respond to opportunities. We’ve found that clarifying and simplifying our offering has been really helpful – it’s vital that people, particularly in a services business, understand who you are and what you do without having to have a one-hour conversation. Having that discipline and not getting distracted by the 100 other great ideas is really important.
I also had to learn to embrace the uncertainty, making peace with the fact that it may not work out, and as long as you’ve done your best, that’s okay. It’s a very good thing to do for your mental health. I like to be in control and I like certainty. We all like certainty. I think actually leaning into the uncertainty is really important because otherwise being an entrepreneur can be anxiety-fuelling.
How have you funded your ideas?
The first year was primarily sweat equity. I was able to do that because I’m not a spender. I live a fairly simple life so I was in a very fortunate and privileged position in that I could fund myself for a year. We were also incredibly fortunate to find a seed investor who believed in us and what we are trying to do. As a social venture, trying to find investment can be really difficult. Social finance can be inaccessible and quite mysterious, so it’s really challenging. You’re an early-stage business, you don’t have a track record. Accessing investment can be an uphill struggle. There’s more that needs to get done in that space to help support new businesses doing good.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Social Enterprise UK is always a good place to start, they have lots of helpful resources. The British Council also has a really comprehensive list of resources for aspiring social entrepreneurs. Then there’s the School for Social Entrepreneurs, which offers training courses and grants for people that have really great ideas and are going to make a positive social impact. A more general resource is the Antler Launch Academy. Antler is an early-stage VC and they support pre-launch entrepreneurs to help their business get going. They have fantastic resources available for free online.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I get asked these kinds of questions a lot, particularly because I’ve worked in financial services which is typically a white male-dominated environment. Fortunately, I don’t feel that I’ve faced challenges specifically because I’m a woman. I always try not to let my gender define me. It’s actually more about my values, my story and my ability to do my job. Is my gender intrinsically linked with my identity? Yes, because it’s a fundamental part of who I am. But I don’t think it’s presented too many challenges and I realise I’m very fortune in that respect.
Any last words of advice?
Create your own definition of success. So often we just accept society’s stereotypical definitions of what success looks like. Personally, that might involve getting a top-class degree and then a great job, before being promoted and buying a house. Then we need to buy a bigger house, a better car and go on ever more extravagant holidays. As a consumer-driven society it always seems to be about getting more. I think what I realised from 10 years of working in the private sector was that I adopted society’s expectations of what success looks like without really questioning whether that worked for me. That was driving my life, but it wasn’t making me happy and it wasn’t fulfilling, because they were someone else’s values. We need to know who we are. We need to know what matters to us, otherwise it is easy to pursue goals that do not nourish who we truly are. I think similarly, as an organisation, there’s this automatic assumption that you’re going to rapidly increase revenue year on year. It’s always about scale and growth. Actually, I think sometimes it’s perhaps about better over bigger, and sustainability over scale and, importantly, business goals that are aligned with life goals. I think it’s really important for people to consider what success looks like for them. It’s not a metric. And then don’t be afraid to swim against the tide because all too often we do what is expected of us. I think that can work for some people, but it’s not fulfilling for others.
My next piece of advice is to just do your best and set that as the benchmark. Then you can rest easy knowing that, although it may not have worked out, you did everything you could. That way there’s less regret. For me, regret is what we always want to avoid. Failure and rejection are answers. You know where you stand. Yes, it’s a bit rubbish for a while, but you know the outcome. But regret is a question that you never have the answer to.
My third piece of advice is to always look after your wellbeing and your health. Don’t sacrifice it. It’s never worth it. As I said before, being an entrepreneur can become all-consuming. Find ways for that not to lead to stress. Your wellbeing and your health are really easy things to give away and they’re much more difficult to get back. I’m speaking from experience.
The final thing I’d say is stay true to your values in everything you do. If you haven’t got integrity, personally and in business, then what have you got? Whenever someone’s struggling with a challenge or unsure of a decision, I encourage them to look to their values. While there isn’t a map, there is a compass. I believe integrity is the only path where you will never get lost – so trust your compass.