R. A. Williams’ background in Finance and Strategy Consulting, combined with a role coaching leaders through a non-profit, trust led her to found her Business Coaching practice, RWilliamsCoaching. She specialises in working with entrepreneurially minded clients – including other founders and those who invest in them – and works with both individuals and organisations to deliver improved results through more effective clarity, agency and action.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I come from an entrepreneurial family. I’m an English graduate and my professional background is mostly in Finance and Strategy Consulting as well as a working for a non-profit Trust. Working with clients of all shapes and sizes, I’ve become increasingly convinced of the value of a coaching approach and learnt that almost every problem is a people problem which led to me launching a Business Coaching practice for entrepreneurial clients. I work with a lot of founders and investors, as well as a range of other individuals and organisations, and what connects them all is an entrepreneurial mindset.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
The desire to build something, the drive to execute on that desire and the determination to keep going even when things get hard and to bring other people along for the ride.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I think, as for many founders, the answer is both gradually and suddenly. A lot of things gradually came together into the idea which then translated into a business but the key is the moment you start which always feels sudden. I’ve written an article on this but it’s only when you actually make a start and put your idea out there into the real world that you realise whether it is working or not.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that are needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I think it’s worth saying that there are many interpretations of success from building a multibillion pound empire to being able to earn a living on your own terms and spend time with the people you love and everything in between. One of the benefits of building and running your own business is that you get to set some of those metrics yourself.
I would say resourcefulness is the top skill for a founder of entrepreneur. To quote Jeff Taylor, founder of Courier Media, being an entrepreneur often feels like constantly having to sit exams for which you cannot revise, so you have to be able to keep coming up with solutions to challenges as they arise. The second skill that’s worth cultivating is a sense of perspective. The entrepreneurial journey can feel like a bumpy emotional rollercoaster where the highs are higher and the lows are lower than working for others, therefore, if you’re going to keep going, a sense of perspective is vital. Last, but not least, a good skill or quality for entrepreneurship is what I call flexiverence (a word I’ve coined which combines flexibility and perseverance) which is to know when to stick to your ideas doggedly despite what others are saying and when to be able to change or even stop doing something .
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
It requires constant creativity and curiosity, so you just keep learning. Besides that, broadly speaking, you have far more choice over who you work with and what you work on which feels like a huge privilege. Almost without exception, I really like and admire my clients and collaborators.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There are so many! Firstly – and maybe everyone says this – I would mention my mother who is hands down the most smart, creative and resourceful person I know. Then, I’m constantly blown away by Portobello Business Centre, a grant-funded organisation which has been doing an amazing job of incubating, accelerating and resourcing London-based founders, businesses and social enterprises for over 20 years. Alex, Maria, Stuart and the rest of the team at PBC are phenomenal. Then there’s Alisa Cohn, one the world’s best-known Founder Coaches, herself an accomplished entrepreneur but also great at helping founders and founding teams to grow. I would also highlight Rob Staruch and Tom Kirk, two Magdalen postgrads, who last year invented and brought to market a pioneering ventilator in rapid response to Covid-19 and have since developed VaxiMap to aid with the vaccine rollout. I also have a lot of admiration for Jeff Taylor, who has built his own successful business – Courier Media – while passionately and effectively equipping other founders. And finally, Becky Okell and Huw Thomas who have grown Paynter Jacket from conception into an exceptional brand with a lot of integrity.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would ask them how they kept going and where they get the energy from to do that. It would also be interesting to know in each case what growth looks like for them in the next 5 years.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Every time a client makes a significant impact or measurable progress is a satisfying moment. Many of my clients are in the process of building something and it feels like a privilege to help them in that process. I have also recently launched a proprietary coaching tool – ONION – to help people achieve greater professional clarity. I’ve used it for a while with my own clients but it’s very encouraging to see it being used more widely. Finally, in the last couple of years, I’ve conceived and built Magdalen Means Business, an enterprise and innovation network and digital platform, along with the brilliant Dr Shelley Meagher (also featured on Wonder Women). It was rewarding to not only have the idea but build it into a reality and I am interested to see what Magdalen does with it in the long run.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I was told very early on by my own coach, Kristen Walker, who is a very successful entrepreneur herself, to remember that when you’re building a business, everything takes longer than you initially think. I am naturally super impatient so I have to keep learning and re-learning this lesson!
How have you funded your ideas?
I have been able to bootstrap with very little money borrowed along the way. I learnt to do a lot of things by myself, for example when I could not find a graphic designer, I learnt to use Adobe illustrator myself. So part of sustainable funding has been finding cost-effective way of doing things at every point.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Not yet although I definitely find them interesting and I am starting to look into them.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
I’m not based in Oxfordshire but I have some experience from building Magdalen Means Business, which is Oxford-based, and also from sitting on the odd panel on entrepreneurship and speaking to people in the Oxfordshire entrepreneurial ecosystem. It seems that Oxfordshire has a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem which includes Enterprising Oxford. There appears to be a lot going on at every level including various events and networks. I’m currently working on a White Paper on Founder Support and it’s been useful to call upon the Enterprising Oxford network of founders and investors. Both Oxford University and Oxford Brookes seem invested in entrepreneurship in very practical and outward-looking ways which benefit the whole of Oxfordshire and the cross-disciplinary nature of the collegiate system at Oxford University provides really fertile ground for innovation.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
The first place I would send them to is the Enterprising Oxford network, because it’s not only rich in resources but good at signposting and sending people to the most appropriate places and resources. I’m forever recommending Courier Media, which is a treasure trove of resources – both digital and hard copy – for those looking to set up on their own. To be a bit geeky, as I love books, there are a few I’d recommend. Alisa Cohn, who I mentioned earlier, is soon to publish her book, From Start-up to Grown-Up, in which she summarises over 20 years of experience in the field and I think it will be excellent. For those who are interested in VC funding (which is not for everyone!), I would recommend The Founder’s Dilemma by Noam Wasserman and Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson. Finally, you might think that I would say this but, when you are a founder/ entrepreneur, you have to wear a lot of different hats at the same time and so it’s invaluable to have on board someone who brings an ‘onside-but-outside’ perspective like a professional Business Coach. It doesn’t have to be a coach but having people who you trust but who are not investors or family and who are therefore external to the business but who understand what you’re doing, and can provide the right kind of encouragement, challenge and accountability, helps enormously.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
You find that a few people can be a bit patronising and underestimate you but being patronised is generally easily dealt with and being underestimated can sometimes be quite helpful!
What resources would you recommend for other women?
As I have mentioned before, it is helpful to have a business coach or mentor – somebody outside-but-onside you can talk to about some of the challenges and opportunities you face. There are some good female networks for founders which do excellent work and being a member of one of those can be helpful. Conversely, it’s worth avoiding some other networks whose sole focus appears to be how hard it is to be a female entrepreneur and which therefore ironically tend to dishearten and disincentivise female founders as opposed to encouraging and equipping them.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think they are doing a pretty good job at the moment. Obviously, raising visibility is an obvious answer to this challenge but I think they are trying to do this.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I’m not sure I’m in a position to be giving advice but I guess it would be the same as for all entrepreneurs which is to keep being curious and to listen and then to learn from and act on what you hear. The truth is that starting, sustaining and growing a business will be hard in parts regardless of whether you’re a woman or not and, if you keep that perspective, I think it’s easier to persevere and not to be disheartened when things are not straightforward.
Any last words of advice?
There are a few big differences between being in a job and being an entrepreneur, but one of the biggest is that, broadly speaking, when you work for other people, the work comes to you; even if you’re pitching for work it’s on behalf of the company. However, I always say to my clients, if you‘re running your own thing, getting the work is part of the work. Especially when you’re starting, you have to find your customers and clients and help them to find you. And, even when you build a reasonable amount of success, this aspect never completely goes away. Just like if you’re thinking of becoming an actor, it’s good to see auditions as a key part of your job, if you are about to start your own thing, you need to see getting the work as part of your work and so it’s worth being aware of this and even considering how this aspect of entrepreneurship fits your personality and temperament.