“We bought our first property too quickly…”

Defer to experts before you make big decisions, says Rachel Clacher, co-founder of multimillion-pound telephone-answering service Moneypenny.

In 2000, Rachel Clacher and her brother Ed Reeves founded Moneypenny, the world leader in telephone-answering services, not to mention one of The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For. Today, with a £30m turnover, their HQ is filled with staff-friendly features that would fit in at Google or Apple (treehouse meeting room and an onsite pub). Not bad, given that Rachel and Ed were pretty much winging it when they started out.

My brother and I have always been close. We hatched the business plan at the kitchen table and set up with £10,000 in savings and an overdraft. We knew nothing about getting a business up and running, so we just had to work everything out for ourselves – VAT, recruiting people, renting premises, the lot. It took so much time and was a steep, steep learning curve, but I think it was a really valuable experience as we really understood what makes the business tick and it allowed us to hone the product.

I let myself be dazzled by the CV of one of our first recruits. On paper, she was amazing, but what I hadn’t done was interview her over the phone. If I had, I would have heard the burps that she used to let fly! She would drink Diet Coke all day long and it would make itself very clear down the telephone line. She didn’t last long. Then I resolved to recruit people on attitude – those who want to go the extra mile to make their clients’ days better.

Before we started this business together, my brother used to run his own arts marketing business and I would keep an eye on things for him when he went away. One time, he was waiting for a huge new order to come through that would have transformed his business and I was tasked with keeping the fax machine stocked with paper, as that’s how orders came through back then. But I forgot. The client was desperately trying to place the order and then when they rang to find out what the problem was, the call was taken by someone at a telephone-answering service who basically said, “What do you expect me to do?” It was mortifying and it lost him the client.

I felt really bad about that, but it led us to question the system. Why, we wondered, couldn’t you hire someone to answer your calls who you could trust and really rely on? Someone who would get to know you and your business? We bashed our heads together to come up with an answer and the solution turned into the concept for Moneypenny.

We did have a bit of good fortune in that we were unable to buy the call-handling software we needed off the shelf. It forced us to commission someone to build a bespoke system and it’s been with us ever since, although it’s evolved radically over the years. It’s one of the things that sets our service apart and we call it Rita. She helps us look after 50,000 calls a day for 13,000 businesses.

You don’t know what you don’t know. Three years into our story, we needed a bigger office space, but we couldn’t afford to rent somewhere the size we required, so we looked into buying a place. It was an old printer’s building that needed doing up and the mortgage looked as if it would be cheaper than the rent. So, we did what we thought was the right thing: got a mortgage and bought it. It turned out our accountants thought differently – there were all sorts of ways we could have bought the property that would have been more efficient – so we had to restructure [the finances], then restructure again.

That said, we’ve never overreached ourselves. We’ve grown consistently over the past 18 years and haven’t really needed to borrow a penny (apart from for property). Startups today ask for all sorts of investment from the word go, but we’ve always worked with the money that we’ve had in the bank. When we’ve scaled up, we’ve done it in a considered manner.

Our company culture is pretty awesome. It’s the thing that we’re most proud of. In fact, sometimes we need to experience other work environments to realise how special our working lives are. I guess we figure that if we’re going to be at work for eight hours a day, then we ought to enjoy those eight hours. We appreciate everyone’s efforts, and encourage a culture where people smile at each other and are polite to one another.

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: http://www.ink-live.com/emagazines/easyjet-inflight