Rosie Jacobs and Anna Munday set Independent Oxford up in 2015 and showcase the best indie businesses in Oxford from hidden cafés to local produce shops to beautifully handmade products. It was two years into the company’s journey when they realised its true potential to challenge the status quo and make a real impact in Oxfordshire both for business owners and consumers. Their vision for the future is a society where everybody values local.
What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
A: I think it kind of just happened! Ever since I can remember I always wanted to run my own business. I just thought that was part of what you did when you grew up.
R: I always knew that I wanted to run my own thing. I did Young Enterprise at school so from an early age I was interested in doing something different. I’ve always questioned the status quo so going along that traditional career path seemed like it didn’t quite fit with my values and what I wanted to do. I’m very much an ideas person –
A: Yes, yes she is!
R: So I always felt like I could never reach my potential through a traditional career path. Both Anna and I have worked for big businesses. I think it’s important to have worked in a corporate setting to have the foundations of best practice and knowing how the cogs work so that when you do launch a business of your own, you have an awareness of the structuring and how products and services work.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
A: Someone who is willing and determined enough to carve their own path. And, like Rosie said, challenging the status quo: questioning if you can make a difference with what you’re doing and if it’s possible to change something or develop something that makes an impact on whatever it is that you strongly are passionate about.
R: There’s a difference between being an Instagram crafter and really developing a business in terms of a business plan and structuring, and core vision. The definition for me is really thinking outside the box about how we can do things better.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
R: Two years ago we started Independent Oxford as a side project to our other work. It was something we felt we needed as independent businesses, a support structure, but also the marketing and promotional side because there wasn’t anything out there for independent businesses.
It started and grew as an organic process from 2015. By 2017 we decided it was really growing legs and becoming its own entity so we made it a limited company and focused more time on it. It was fulfilling a need and I think that’s really important when you’re testing a business idea; that you can prove you’re filling a gap in the market.
A: And I think, as well, there’s the element that we really enjoyed it! It brought in some income, but that’s by the by – we actually really had a passion for it. Over those first 2 years we definitely did see the impact it made and I think that really spurred us on. We got a kick out of it too because we got to meet new people every week, chat to them, and find out their stories.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
R: Resilience (they laugh) slash stubbornness
A: Adaptability. You could take Covid as an example, we’ve seen so many different small businesses, often 1 to 5 man bands, and generally they are the ones that have been able to adapt the quickest, and have been most successful at this time. Being adaptable, though not losing your vision at the same time, is crucial. To know you’re not stuck in the mud, if you have to change you can, and that sometimes it’s for the better.
We heard a story about a business that was going to open a cafe but because of Covid it didn’t quite happen. They changed to be a greengrocer and have actually really loved it and are going to keep it that way. Being adaptable can also spring up new things that you might not have explored in the first place.
R: On a fundamental level if you run a business you have to be able to do all the different bits. You have to do your finances and accounting while being the sales person, marketeer and CEO. You’ve got to be adaptable from that point of view as well and self aware enough to know your own strengths and weaknesses.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
A: I love the fact that we are constantly meeting new people and listening to people’s indie stories and their journeys. I find it really fascinating hearing into people’s lives – being a bit nosey really!
I also like meeting people from all walks of life that you wouldn’t normally if you worked in a bigger, more linear business. Because what we do is so varied we get to meet some really interesting people and work with really interesting organisations. That, for me, really makes it.
A: You’ve used the word there: the variety – in the people, in the projects. From time to time the council approaches us and suggest projects. Rosie has an idea and we run with it. It’s that freedom to be able to give anything a go.
What individual, company, or organization inspires you most? Why?
R: I’ve always had female managers or worked with female directors and they’ve been really inspiring. Actually, one of the female directors I worked for when I was working as a buyer, my previous career, is now one of our members. Penny Tunnel is a business consultant and she was very instrumental in developing my career confidence to go down a more entrepreneurial path.
Her bit of advice that stays with me is that you always need to be raising your profile. That’s the most important thing you can do as an entrepreneur: making sure that people know who you are and what you do. It’s really built into the core of what we do at Independent Oxford.
A: I started out at the Old Fire Station when it opened in 2011. After a brief stint at Oxford Castle, I spent my first 3 or 4 years out of university there learning most of the things I know now. It was like being a part of a wonderful, supportive family, which is quite unusual to find in a workplace and I was lucky to have that straight out of University. It was a really inspiring place to be – the work they do is incredible.
There’s a lady who I used to work with at the University of Oxford, who was one of our clients – Priscilla. She was in her 80s and still running ginormous conferences for seven, eight, nine hundred people. One of the first things she said to me was ‘Anna. Remember: running an event is like cooking a roast dinner; you’ve just got to make sure all the things are ready at the same time’. For some reason that’s always stuck with me because she’s perfectly right and, actually, there’s lots of things that are like cooking a roast dinner if you apply that analogy.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/company/organsation, what would you want to ask or discuss?
A: I’d just give Priscilla a big hug.
R: I’m always very aware that Penny’s a great source of wisdom when it comes to anything to do with business. I would probably talk about where we’re going, what our vision is – just having someone you can check in with on those things.
It’s really important that you surround yourself with people who can be unofficial mentors or peers that you can be checking in with. You don’t always do what you think is best all the time – obviously that’s a big part of what you do but having that network of people to support you is the core of what we do.
If you’re a solo entrepreneur that’s even more important – to make sure you’ve got someone you’re accountable to as well as being able to receive support and have a network to keep you focussed.
A: I think that’s right. Having someone to bounce ideas off particularly if you’re on your own. Rosie and I are very lucky that we get on exceptionally well, have become brilliant friends as a result of this, and can also bounce things off each other. That’s been vital.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures, or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
A: Accept that you can’t do it all and that’s okay.
R: Leading on from that, it’s just being aware of your time and not doing too much. Running a membership organisation is quite tricky in that respect because you can add on lots of different parts. Actually, it’s a complete false economy and you tie yourself up in knots by offering too much. What you really need to realise is the core value of what you’re offering.
That’s something that Covid has helped us realise. It’s taken us back to the roots of why we started the business four years ago and that’s been eye-opening. Seeing that people want to join us a membership organisation because we have a great network, ties with the community and stakeholders in Oxford and not overburdening ourselves with extra fluff.
That’s also really important from a sales and marketing point of view. It just makes you burn out and fall over. Valuing your time is really important.
A: Also understanding your own value: that of yourself, what you do and what you can offer. Being a woman particularly, the imposter syndrome element kicks in every now and again. It’s about learning to manage that when it creeps in – the person that doesn’t have it is a miracle worker!
How have you funded your ideas?
R: It’s completely bootstraps. The only thing we funded is our market pop-up shop at Christmas for our members that have product companies. We did a crowd funder for the pop-up shop last year and raised £5000 to kit out the shop and employ a shop manager for six months too.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
R: Apart from the crowd-funder we haven’t had any grants. However, we did get support from the Oxford city council. The pop up shop was done in conjunction with them, sharing units and getting a special rent and rates on those, which is very helpful.
We’ve also had quite a lot of business support from OXLEP. We’ve gone to quite a few business seminars; Oxford does have a supportive business community. There’s a lot on offer here.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
R: The cost. We would really like to be able to have a permanent office, even if it was just a space we could work together. It would be great to get a small Independent Oxford base in the city centre where we could hold events or even have a year-round shop, but at the moment financially we would struggle to find somewhere. That’s probably the biggest hurdle.
A: Oxford is a bit tricky in terms of finding space. Oxford is also quite an odd city. It’s quite a hard city to bed yourself into initially but once you’re in it it’s very rewarding and people are very willing to give support.
R: I think it will be interesting to see the effect of the lockdown on rents in the city and available units. There’s definitely more cohesiveness between organisations and I think the lockdown has played a part in that and that’s an interesting positive outcome.
If a new entrepreneur or start-up came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
R: To us! We have a monthly networking event. We’ve done about 16 meet-ups since April. We’ve really boosted our output in terms of networking, just providing a space for people to come together and get that support. A space where they can feel like they’re not alone, where everyone’s going through this crazy ride together. That’s really invaluable.
We also do lots of sign-posting: putting businesses in touch with each other, or if businesses are looking for units or to have some kind of presence in Oxford we often put them in touch with the council. There are lots of spaces that can be matched up with start-ups. There’s also the marketing and promotional side of Independent Oxford.
Places like OXLEP are great for business support and there’s a ring of grants that can be provided through programs like Escalate.
Any last words of advice?
R: For female entrepreneurs it’s all about having confidence. You find that through having supportive peers and seeking out mentors that can really help you on your journey. For a lot of young women coming into business it’s also about not looking on Instagram and finding people that you think are inspiring – that’s often an unattainable level of business.
Find people that will not only give you the inspiration and spur you on but also give you the support and that accountability. Without that it can be really difficult, isolating and lonely. Surrounding yourself with people that really want you to do well is totally invaluable.
A: One of the reasons that Rosie and I set up Independent Oxford is because we kept going to business events that were all middle class white men in suits! We wanted to change that and create a space to allow people to think that you didn’t have to wear a particular thing or stand around a very conventional room and swap business cards to be a businessperson.
Because, actually, that’s not what business is for us – business is a collaborative thing, where you work in partnership with people not against people. One of the things Rosie and I always say is ‘the bigger the pie the bigger the slice’ – if you’re working together, you can get more out of it!
R: I think there still is this feeling that it’s a bit of a boys club. You still see that in certain sectors, often sectors where you wouldn’t necessarily think would be like that. There’s still an uphill climb to get to more equality and be treated on a more even playing field as a woman. I don’t think we’re there yet.