Our Businesswoman of the Month is Rachel Flower who founded Serenwood in 2009, having identified a need for hands-on legal support. She is passionate about Serenwood growing as a resource pool of talented lawyers who love working closely with a business, and building trusted advisor relations.
Would you mind giving us a brief explanation of what your business is and when you launched it?
My business is Serenwood and I founded it in 2010. It’s a niche consultancy and we provide legal and commercial support to businesses to help them grow on strong foundations. We work with a range of clients from small start-ups to huge corporates and public sector bodies. I’m also a coach to business owners who want to grow their business. I love training and mentoring others and sharing my knowledge on the different ways to grow and strengthen businesses through solid commercial strategy, and I provide 1-to-1 coaching and group coaching rachelflower.co.uk
What made you want to start this particular business?
I’m a commercial lawyer and spent many years working in huge law firms and highly pressurised in-house legal roles. I saw so many women fall out of the legal profession due to being unable to create a genuine work/life balance, and I’d also seen too many women being forced to spend 80 hours a week in the office instead of getting home to their young children.
In 2009 I became pregnant with my first child and at that time I was in a senior role, working long hours with lots of responsibility and challenging work. I enjoyed my job but I intuitively knew that the role would not give me the time and space to be the type of parent I wanted to be. An opportunity came up for voluntary redundancy when I was 7 months pregnant and I put myself forward. People thought I was mad but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to give 100% to that same role after maternity leave and I’ve never been the sort of person to do things unless I’m fully committed.
So initially I founded my business simply as a way to keep using my skills and knowledge whilst being around my daughter. I employed a nanny for 2 days per week when my little girl was just a few months old, so I could work from home and have her nearby. Serenwood has grown and evolved massively since that time, but at my core I remain passionate about championing and role modelling new ways of working. I like challenging the status quo and supporting others to break out of conformity.
What do you think it takes to succeed in business?
Resilience, creativity, tenacity and self-belief. Together with a good dose of humility and the ability to make mistakes and laugh at yourself. It also depends on your definition of success.
There’s a lot of “noise” which suggests that a successful business has to grow to a certain size and revenue level, with celebration of huge deals and emphasis on the Hustle. Personally, I believe in empowering business owners to create impact and be motivated by a compelling cause to fuel them towards success. Particularly for a working parent, success can be as simple as earning a good healthy income to support their families whilst having the choice to be at the school gates and eliminate stress. I’m very driven by being a role model for my daughters, nieces and the next generation of young women – to take advantage of the amazing opportunities we have in the western world and live a full and love-filled life.
What is the most important lesson you have learnt so far?
I’m still learning this lesson, as it’s a continuous journey, but definitely to trust my intuition and to surround myself with people who support me and fill me with energy and purpose. Too often we find ourselves trapped in unhealthy situations or relationships, and the quicker we can tap into our intuition and get the hell out of there, the better. In business (as in life) you have to know yourself, your values and your boundaries and keep coming back home to your inner wisdom. I’m constantly learning new ways to trust my inner compass when it comes to important decision making.
What do you think it is about you that enabled you to turn an idea into a business?
I’ve had a number of difficult life experiences which have required me to learn resilience, deal with adversity and have a sense of perspective. I think this allows me on a daily basis to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and to find ways to laugh and smile even when things aren’t going quite how I’d like it. Growing a business is rarely straightforward so being able to look on the bright side and not dwell on mistakes is essential.
I have always had an entrepreneurial streak though. From a very young age, I was always looking for new challenges, willing to try new things, open to making mistakes. I grew up in a working class home where money was short and my parents struggled to make ends meet. That’s why they encouraged me to study hard and choose a well-paid profession so that I could have a “better” life. I’m always looking for new opportunities and I’m grateful to live in a time and a place with so much opportunity. We just have to be willing to step up, speak up and ask for what we want. Sitting back and waiting for things to happen has never been a palatable option for me.
If you were starting all over again tomorrow, what are the top 3 rules you would follow?
- Know myself, my values and my boundaries and use them to guide me at all times.
- Only work with people who light me up, who make me laugh and who share my values
- Say No to anything which doesn’t fit within my business model. I’ve wasted lots of time over the years saying Yes to opportunities which didn’t make my heart sing and I now know that this is a recipe for failure.
What difficulties did you experience setting up your business and what has got you through the tough times?
Growing a business is a constantly changing landscape, there’s new challenges emerging all the time. That’s the fun of it, as well as the pain of it. It’s really important to do regular reviews of your business vision, your strategic approach, your personal strengths and how that corresponds to what’s going on in your personal life. What works brilliantly one day suddenly stops working the next so we have to be quick to adapt and make the tough decisions. I’ve invested heavily in coaching and self-development year by year which has been invaluable in opening my mind and my horizons. I’m currently a member of Empress, a global collective for entrepreneurial women, and I joined this specifically to be inspired and to learn from women further along the journey than me. It can be intimidating to be a “beginner” when we’re already at expert status in our field, but this is how we learn – by staying hungry for self improvement and new challenge.
The last two years have been my most challenging, as in September 2015 my youngest daughter got diagnosed with leukaemia. My world fell apart overnight. My business took a nosedive because I had to cancel projects and I disappeared off the grid for a number of months. She has been on an intense treatment plan and I’ve learnt so much from her during that time about resilience, bravery, humour through the dark times and opening my heart to life. These are all lessons which are powering me forward in my business growth, because it’s certainly given me perspective when dealing with difficult things in the day to day. I’ve been so grateful to have my business during this time because I’ve been able to be with and support my daughter’s treatment and recovery on my terms.
Looking back now, would you have done anything differently?
I don’t believe in looking backwards, if we can help it. I’m sure there are loads of things which I would do differently but that’s only because I’ve now had the luxury of learning those lessons! If everything goes right and to plan, we never grow because we’re operating in our comfort zone. When things go wrong in my life and in my business, I try hard to take responsibility and look at myself and my actions before I look at others or external events. We can’t control external events but we can control how we react to them.
The key thing though would be to not take myself so seriously and laugh more. I’ve fallen into the trap of being a Very Serious Business Owner and it’s definitely more fun when you just chill out and remember to laugh at yourself.
Starting a business can be all-consuming. As a mum, what are your tips for dealing with the struggles of balancing work and family life?
I think one of the wonderful things about being an entrepreneur is that you can actually blend the work/family life elements beautifully and in ways which suit you and your lifestyle. When I was in employed roles I danced to the tune of the corporate environment, in terms of hours, culture, dress, processes, politics. I can’t imagine going back to that life now because I’ve become so used to creating my own balance and having control over my decisions. Its wonderful and liberating and I’ve learnt that Freedom and Equality are core values for me. My first tip would be to find the balance that works for you personally and be ready to change it as the kids grow and have different needs.
It’s not easy to find that balance though and it’s something I’m constantly tweaking and adapting. My best tip here would be to relax and go easy on yourself – Done is Better than Perfect. This was a tough one for me, as I’m a high-achiever and as a lawyer everything had to be perfect and polished. I’ve had to learn to be ok running important meetings without any make-up or forgiving myself if my daughter is the only one in school uniform on dress-down day. I’m not super human, so my best on any given day has to be enough.
Do you have (or did you have) a mentor and when you need advice, who do you talk to?
I’ve had a number of mentors over the years, I think it’s important to seek out new people who inspire and challenge you according to the stage you are at. I’ve been working with my business coach David Taylor for a number of years now, because he has a great mix of corporate experience aligned with laidback spiritual guidance. Something which has been difficult for me over the years was the lack of other entpreneurial friends. For a long time my closest friends were all in employed roles and they didn’t “get” what I was doing, and in particular had a different attitude to risk. In recent years I’ve widened my network to include more business owners and that’s helped me massively to be able to pick up the phone and talk things through. I’m ambitious and have a tendency for wild ideas, so I’ve recognised the need to have people to talk with who are supportive of risk but also have a foot in the practical reality of implementation. I have to admit though that I’m not good at asking for help or admitting that I don’t have the answers. I’ve had to learn to show my vulnerability and get comfortable with accepting and receiving help.
I’m very lucky to have a husband who supports me whole-heartedly and who shares much of the parenting and home responsibilities. I couldn’t have built my business in the same way without his support and his belief that women and men should be equal in the workplace. I’ve coached a number of women who don’t have supportive partners and it takes a lot of inner strength and belief to step into your power when your partner isn’t fully behind you.
What are your plans for the future?
Serenwood is in a steady-state now with strong foundations, processes and vision in place. I’ll continue to grow it slowly but only with the right people matched with the right clients. A professional services business can quickly become very stressful unless you have the right team and a clear niche. For me personally, I’m spending much more time coaching and supporting other women in business which I love. I’m working on two books at the moment and I enjoy the training and speaking side of my business because it gives me opportunity to reach more people and to have increased impact. My children are still young (4 and 7) so I love being able to be present for them and they remain my priority. I’m growing my online presence this year, as my business has been exclusively off-line since its inception, so I’m looking forward to having a much bigger pool of new people to explore. I’m a simple soul and I just love helping people and sharing my knowledge.
Do you have any specific tips for anyone wanting to start a new business?
It’s not for the faint-hearted. You have to be passionate and driven both as a person but also clear in relation to your business idea and how to deliver it. Having said that, it’s absolutely possible to start small and take it a month at a time. A business plan doesn’t need to be a huge complicated thing – it’s simply a blueprint for taking consistent action in pursuit of a hairy goal. As business owners, we have the ability to tweak and change things over time so don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need it all planned out from day one. Let your business evolve and above all treat it as a game. The more fun you can have, the better the results will be.