Michelle Mone OBE is the creator of Ultimo, the range of lingerie made famous by Julia Roberts in the film Erin Brockovich, and modelled by a plethora of famous women from Mel B to Penny Lancaster. Her success earned her an OBE in 2010, as well as first place in Glamour magazine’s list of the most influential businesswoman in the UK.
In this exclusive interview, Mone gives Startups her tips for reaching the top in business.
What are the most relevant lessons you have learned from starting and growing your own business?
As the years go on, you learn from your mistakes and you make sure you never repeat them. For example, I’ve learned you need to put procedures into place so you have a plan B. Early on in my business life, a distributor ran away with £1.6m of my money – that wouldn’t happen now, because I have procedures in place.
What was your biggest challenge early on?
The biggest challenge I found was securing finance until you reach critical mass, which is the same for every business.
I gave everything I had from the start, I wasn’t kidding on with it. I put my redundancy money in, mortgaged against my house – I did everything I could. It does take a lot of risk, it doesn’t happen overnight. I’d say it took me 10 years to build Ultimo.
Do you have any regrets about the way you grew the business?
No, I don’t have regrets. Even the distributor who ran away with £1.6m – you only live once and these things make you stronger. Every day is a school day; every day you learn.
You’ve managed to secure a number of famous names, most recently Michel Buble’s wife, to wear your bras. How have you achieved this and what lessons have you learned through it?
Well it comes back to a simple truth – you should never sit and wait. If you don’t send your product to people, pitch it to well-known names, you won’t get the exposure. We sent our product to Julia Robert’s stylist, for example, and she wore it Erin Brockovich. That was huge for us.
Another key factor in Ultimo’s success has been its ability to secure blue-chip retailers such as Debenhams and Selfridges. What advice can you offer on this subject?
You’ve got to decide why each retail partner would want your product. We don’t give every partner the same things. It has to be individual and give them a unique selling point (USP). You have to treat each retailer individually, and listen to their needs.
How have you used your gender to help you in business?
I’m not the typical businesswoman in a pin-stripe suit; I dress the way I want to dress. If you want to be glamorous, then why not! Walking into a meeting well groomed, with your lipstick on and high heels, makes you feel good. I use my femininity to its full effect.
What more can the government do to help small businesses?
I sit on the board of the Prince’s Trust, and a key issue that comes up over and over again is mentoring. Starting a business is not easy, and mentoring is key. Perhaps the government can do more to provide mentoring schemes. They could also help more with corporation tax, VAT etc, to businesses on the ladder.
Ultimately, the government shouldn’t just think in percentage targets for start-up businesses. It’s not about how many businesses that start; it’s about how many you start AND how many keep going.
Can you let us in on your new business venture?
I’m launching Ultimo Beauty and U-tan over the next few weeks, which is really exciting because it’s a different industry. It’s taken three long years of investment, but we’re there now. You’ll see it in 100 branches of Debenhams, plus Harrods and Selfridges.
Turn to page two for our quick-fire round