Olivia Durand and Paula Larsson are co-founders of Uncomfortable Oxford, a social enterprise that runs tours, workshops and events focused around exploring Oxford’s ‘uncomfortable’ history.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Olivia: We do the same type of degree, […] we’re both doctoral students in history, […] and in some ways we both have an interest in colonial history and the legacies of colonial policies. And for quite a long time, this interest was circumscribed to our own academic work. […] I think eventually, especially with wider discourses happening outside of the university, in the UK, but also in other countries, we felt some kind of frustration about how our own expertise felt separate from concrete discourses and action, purely locked in the academic world. So we decided separately – we didn’t know each other before starting Uncomfortable Oxford – we decided to enroll in a training to do public engagement in research. And that’s kind of how we met.
And we came up with this idea of doing a walking tour of Oxford, that would combine some of our expertise with our teaching abilities. The idea was to design a walk through Oxford that would touch upon legacies of [the] Empire, but also other uncomfortable questions, which is why we chose the name ‘uncomfortable,’ because it was also about gender inequalities, wealth, prejudice, access, and other power dynamics existing in the past and present within the city and university Oxford. It was going to be discussion-based, we wanted the tours to create a space to facilitate discussions in the manner of an Oxford tutorial, and it was going to be happening on the streets, in public spaces, which meant it removed the academic threshold: it was going to be accessible not just to students, but to anyone who would come on the tour.
And what we wanted was essentially […] to create complex and nuanced conversations between different social groups who would normally not necessarily interact. So academic students, town people, people from Oxfordshire, and also tourists who were in Oxford for just one day.
We didn’t have a business model in mind at the start, it was at the start a very academic-y project that we did for a local festival in October 2018. The festival lasted 10 days, and we ran the tour once a day for 10 days straight. And it really blew up. We started with 15 people on the first day, and through word of mouth, we had over 80 who came on the last day for the tour. And so we realised that there was an appetite for this kind of tour, it was not just a niche conversation, so […] this was something that needed to keep going. But the model we had initially used, of kind of public engagement with research, this academic model, wouldn’t work in the long term. We were exhausted. And it’s also free labour. […] And this was something that we needed to think outside of the box to keep going – and move away from institutional methods.
Paula: I had already been previously working as a tour guide in the city. So I knew a lot about the tourism industry already. […] If we wanted to keep on going, we’d have to come up with a model that could pay the guides so that their time isn’t just constantly exploited, and kind of keep it going even if we graduated and left Oxford. And so the only way to do that was to have an income to pay the guides and sustain itself, so it needed to be sustainable. And so we decided to create a website and start running the tours on a donation basis to begin with, and then as a paid-for activity. And then they started running 3 or 4 times a week, to up to 5 times a week for a while. Before the pandemic, when there were tourists around, we had quite a great uptake. We had almost 3000 people come on our activities in our first year of being an enterprise, and it was enough to create a structure that allowed for us to have a full time financial person, […] someone who organises our guides, us two as directors, we have a secretary as well. And now we have a team of about 30 people and we’re able to financially support them. And we don’t make lots of money, […] but we make enough to be sustainable. And that really matters to us, that the business itself can stick around. […] It’s here and will be a systemic intervention in the city that people can access no matter where they’re from.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Paula: I find it both thrilling and intimidating. It’s very exciting, because you feel like you’re pushing forward and you’re growing something big, and there’s all this excitement and passion behind it, and you see a really great impact. And then it’s also terrifying, because you see how much impact you’re having, you realise how much responsibility is on your shoulders suddenly. And that you’ve put yourself in a world that maybe you don’t quite understand, and you haven’t quite wrapped your whole head around.
Olivia: It puts me out of my comfort zone. […] It is very eye-opening, [and] I’ve grown so much from doing that, and I’ve grown a lot more rapidly. And I’ve done things I didn’t know how to do, for instance public speaking, managing a team of 30 people, working with business partners and suppliers, and things like this, that have become not scary at all for me. So I’ve replaced […] old fears with new fears, but it is a growth pattern.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
Paula: I think we knew as soon as we started doing the tours, to be honest. So when Olivia and I met, it was in July of 2018. And we kind of met at this summer school for public engagement. And then we came up with the plan, and then we left and I went back to Canada, she went to Ukraine to do her doctoral research. So that whole summer we didn’t really talk, but at the summer school we’d been offered by the Ideas festival to run our project. So we put together this really quick submission […] that I think I submitted 5 minutes before it was due in July. […] But in September, we started talking more about putting it together, and we put lots of work and research into it. […] And as soon as we started running the tour, it was very obvious how much people wanted to have something like that, and just how much fun and enjoyment we got out of doing it. And so we started talking about it on almost day 1 or 2, how we could continue it past the festival, because even though we were exhausted, it was just so incredibly rewarding to do, because you get such great perspectives from the community.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Paula: Leadership has been really helpful for us, because the reason why we were able to gain such a great team was because people saw us in the roles of being leaders and they wanted to work with us. […] We, as entrepreneurs, don’t know very much of entrepreneurship, we’re historians by trade, we know very little about business. But more people reach out to us directly, because they see us in the position we’re doing, the work we’re doing, and being confident and being present and trying to make change.
Olivia: Really showing initiative and being in the action. […] If we want something to happen, it’s about prodding a little more or just being quite proactive. […] My second one would be, and I think that this is also because of how it started with the two of us, being able to do teamwork. Because Uncomfortable Oxford didn’t start with just me or just Paula individually, it started with the two of us. […] Being able to divide tasks and being really good at completing them and not relying on the other one to do the work.
Paula: Organisation is really key, we have a lot of really good organisation strategies that we put together. So we have systems in place for how our email goes through, we have systems in place for how our bookings come in, we have 1000 spreadsheets on everything that we need. […] We keep all of our stuff quite central and shared, so that’s really helpful, having it all in a system.
Olivia: If I had to add a third one, it would be perspective. I always kind of try to ask myself: what am I doing wrong? Or what are the things that we’re not noticing, what are our own blind corners? Especially with the kind of work we are doing and the kind of topics we are covering. How can we do it better? What are the angles we’re not considering? And we always question how we can better learn from the feedback we get from participants in our activities. We don’t want to always have this one model and [just] continue with it, but we’re always trying to improve it.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Olivia: This is a role which is still rather new to me; for most of my working life, I have been an academic, and worked in academic or institutional settings. Becoming an entrepreneur was both something very scary, with a strong imposteur feeling, but also really thrilling, because the range of activities and the pace differed so much from what I was used to. As a historian, who spends extended amounts of time working on my own research, with the responsibility to organise my own work and schedule, entrepreneurship has put me in touch with a much wider and diverse network of people. I think I just really love following a project from start to end, and see its completion and impact – it’s something that’s really inspiring and keeps me going.
Paula: The Freedom. It’s wonderful to be able to pursue an idea on your own, without having to worry about the red tape and bureaucracy involved with academic projects. It means we can come up with our own ideas and find ways to make them work within a time-frame that is efficient and quite thrilling. Entrepreneurship has enabled me to break out of the chains of a traditional academic life in a way that has felt far more meaningful and fulfilling than I knew was possible when it came to historical research.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Paula: As far as an individual goes, Shaista Aziz, who’s a Labour councillor in Oxford. […] We were on a panel with her and we were both starstruck. She is really spectacular.
Olivia: We were really inspired by the work of Alice Procter, who is more in the world of art and museums. She has a project called The Exhibitionist, and gives uncomfortable tours of major London museums. […] She started, I think, maybe a year or so before we did, with a decolonial focus; she works as a freelance curator in a way.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Olivia: We would love to get a chance to chat more with Shaista Aziz, and embed better our activities with Oxford’s local context, and with the different community initiatives already in existence, which are doing tremendous work. We chatted in the past with Alice Procter, but more about content and public reactions, never from the entrepreneurship side of things. And that might be something we look into in the future. But then again, in her case, it’s one individual doing it all, which is also super inspiring. Whereas for us, we have quite a large team, and we don’t all commit the same amount of time, so we try to […] split the workload.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Paula: It was a mistake to think that we could handle all of the finances and also understand all the legal requirements. […] It was quite a learning curve for us, we realised just how much we hadn’t considered until we talked to someone who’s an expert in business legality.
Olivia: It’s about […] not assuming we know everything, and kind of acknowledging the things we don’t know. And knowing it’s ok to ask for advice.
Paula: At the very beginning, we took on a lot of people who were enthusiastic, who were volunteers, who wanted to work with us. And we learned quite quickly that we need to poke people, because lots of people joined in, and that just disappeared completely. And so we learned that good management is really key to doing something like this with a team. Even though we’re used to working on our own, […] we have the big vision, […] our team doesn’t always have the same vision. And we need to be really good managers to make sure that the team is still functioning and doing the things we need to do as a whole.
How have you funded your ideas?
Paula: When we decided to go down the social enterprise route, we applied for a graduate project funding grant, which was £500 from TORCH. […] It more or less gave us enough to buy the initial signs we needed, and to pay for our website fees. It wasn’t much, but it got us started. And then after that we applied and were awarded a Social Enterprise Award from the Oxford Hub, which is £2500. And that was enough, again, to get a lot of the initial investment stuff out of the way. So we had an office space that we rented for a while, so it was paying for office space, pay for insurance, and a few equipment purchases that needed to happen for us to have, like a laminator and a few other things that we needed around the office space.
[…] Other than that, we got another £500 grant from TORCH again to launch the podcast, so that covered our podcast equipment. But everything else is just income from the booking of the tours. And so the income is really, really important for us, it’s what keeps us afloat. It’s the only thing that keeps us going.
Olivia: The other thing that we’re starting to do is very slowly, and hopefully in 2021 [this] will become a bigger part of our income, is to do commissions for different institutions. So for instance, this year we worked with Modern Art Oxford, and they commissioned us to [do] a tour of their exhibition, which was about women anthropologists. […] We’ve been working with the Ashmolean Museum as well, doing tours of their collections. So we did those in person before, and we’re talking right now about doing a virtual version as well, because they’ve been suffering a lot from the pandemic.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Paula: When we had an office space, Turl Street Kitchen, […] a wonderful local organisation, they reached out to us to offer us the desk space. They really wanted us to be part of their community of social entrepreneurs […], so we all had desk spaces upstairs. […] More than organisations, a lot of people have reached out to us with their own expertise.
Olivia: A lot of people who have this kind of specific knowledge, and they agreed to each have a one hour meeting, and gave us advice on best practices.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Olivia: I think Oxford offers quite a few opportunities in terms of how much there is in such a small space. […] Other social enterprises like the Hub were very supportive, and […] really helped us grow at the start. There are things that are more based on academic research and academic institutions such as TORCH. There’s the Oxford Foundry, we talked a lot with them. We talked with quite a few different groups that are based in Oxford and all know of each other, and they were very helpful at referring to each other as well. […] I guess the limits of it are, […] are we limiting ourselves a little bit being in Oxford? And I guess the pandemic has helped with this in a way because we are [able] to have those conversations with people who are outside, and a lot more easily than before.
Paula: It’s just a really well-connected city, that has been such a benefit for us. But then the drawback is that you feel like you’re stuck in the same norm, you do feel like a lot of things you are critiquing, a lot of things that we are doing, are very Oxford-specific, and we want us to be accessible to everywhere. […] So we do feel a little bit stuck in that Oxford mindset sometimes.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Paula: We got involved with the Institute of Directors, […] they’ve been really helpful, at least when we first started hiring people, I consulted a few of them. A few of their legal advice teams as well. The Institute of Directors […] is pretty cheap for the year, and then you can ask them questions about going into business and what it means. And then we were involved with a few of the different business school communities for networking events, which has been really helpful. So getting involved in local networking as much as possible. […] And then, using the government websites. There’s a lot of really, really clear information about how you can start on a business just on the government websites in the UK.
Olivia: In general, ask for help, and use the networks you know, and build your own from that.
Any last words of advice?
Olivia: If you have an idea – try it! Talk to someone about it, see if it is feasible, and think through the practical aspects first: how much time it will take, how many resources it needs, who is the intended public of or user, what novelty do you bring, and is it sustainable. Think about your values too, and maybe draft a mission statement. And of course, find like-minded business partners: it is energizing, creates a more dynamic approach to your business idea, even through different points of view, and of course, it is a lot more fun!
Paula: Have confidence, do your homework, and be flexible. entrepreneurship is tough but it can also be incredible – so go into it knowing that you will have to work hard and be ready to adapt to the market you find yourself in. Flexibility and confidence will enable you to overcome the unexpected and help give you a boost when you need it most. It will also keep things exciting as you grow – both in business and as a person.