Our female founder this week is Lisa Myers, founder of Verve Search. It was fantastic to hear her journey and challenges along the way. Throughout the interview you could feel Lisa's passion, ambition and drive. It was infectious and I hope you feel it in the interview too!
Tell me a bit about your background and journey so far.
I grew up in Norway and at 19 I started studying Philosophy & Logic at university. Then I started a media degree which was completely boring; it was then I realised I didn’t want to study at all. I’m dyslexic so I wasn’t the greatest at school, I could never sit still. Although I always knew I wanted to do something big, it wasn’t going to be in academia. So, I took a gap year and, as many Scandinavian people do, came to the UK. It felt like coming home for me, I’m from a very Norwegian family but with a very English name. I worked briefly at a ski magazine, they must have thought ‘Oh you’re Norwegian – you can ski!’. I’m a rubbish skier! I started as a PA, then became editorial assistant and then worked as a journalist which is quite ironic – a Norwegian dyslexic that doesn’t really ski!
The first part of my career was basically full of irony, all the things that you really wouldn’t expect. I worked as an accounts exec and then I started working as a project manager in the web team of a marketing agency. The one thing that has followed me throughout my life is a ridiculous curiosity for figuring out how something works. I took apart VHS machines, TV’s, Moped’s – anything. I was very rarely able to put them back together but I just wanted to know how things worked.
What was the next stage of your career?
At 26 I became pregnant, not planned. After having my daughter I stayed at home for about 9 months on maternity. Any woman that is a mum just assumes that they’re going to love staying at home, I didn’t feel like that and then I felt the first pang of ‘Oh no, am I going to be shit mother?’, which I think everyone has at that stage.
When I came back to work they said ‘You can’t be a project manager because there’s no position for you at the moment but we’ve got this thing called SEO’. Because I could only work part time they asked me if I would look into that. After 9 months of not using my brain much at all – I was so ready.
Once you’d been shown SEO what did you do next?
I read everything that I could about search and I got really excited because this was the perfect mix between marketing, technical and figuring things out. There were no rule books and there was no way you could teach this or have learnt it at university. I didn’t feel like I had a disadvantage from not having gone to university. I could just learn all about it and I could be really good at it. I started blogging about it, trying to figure out how things worked and then started growing the team at that agency I worked for, offering SEO as as a service to their existing clients.
I had about five people at the point when I left but what was always clear is that they didn’t think that it was a serviceable business. They just thought that it was an add-on to the websites that they built, or the campaigns that they built.
Was that the trigger for starting Verve?
My passion for SEO was so strong that them not taking it seriously made me want to start a company. I was pretty sure I could do a better job if I could sell it the way I wanted to.
Starting & Growing Verve
Once you had made the decision to start a company, how did you take the first steps?
Everyone thought I was insane, it was 2008 at the height of recession and people were panicking. Everyone was trying to save money but I thought it was the perfect time. In the recession they can’t spend money on TV ads because of the cost so where are you going to spend your money? Where you can prove that it works? It had to be online. I handed in my notice in December 2008 and launched Verve Search in February 2009.
I didn’t have any clients because I couldn’t poach anyone and I didn’t have any money. What I did have though was a profile within the industry. I’d been blogging, writing, speaking and I’d won a couple of awards. I got my first client from the conference I launched at, then the second client in March and hired my first person in May. It took a lot of sheer determination.
After you hired your first person, where did Verve go from there?
The first few years went quite slowly. Most of our clients were quite small, a few medium brands and one large one. We weren’t doing a lot of work and we weren’t charging them a lot so it grew slowly. In 2010 I got pregnant with my second daughter. In fact, in 2009, I started a company, got married, quit smoking, got pregnant all in the space of six months. I thought, let’s do it all at once!
After having my second daughter I took a few months off and decided to freeze any new clients. I was supposed to be away for 5/6 months but I was only away for 4 months; I was speaking at a conference when I was 38 weeks pregnant. Then I started speaking again when my daughter was three months, and I was breast feeding between sessions. That was really important to me to show women that you can be a Mum and still run a business. We need to stop thinking that kids keep us back in our careers. The only reason it keeps us back is because we think it does. It definitely isn’t easy, but there are very few things that are easy – anything that’s worth having doesn’t come easy. I think the biggest thing I have learnt is that you can achieve anything if you believe in yourself. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks – if you feel like you can, you can. When I came back after having my second daughter, that’s when things started going very fast. I was very focussed on what I wanted to happen and ramping up the growth. From 2011 to 2012 we went from three people to twelve and that’s when it started really taking off.
How did you manage that growth – how did you go from three people to twelve?
I had a very specific view on how I wanted to recruit and what I wanted to do. Back then I had a view that I could teach people how they needed to be. I hired a lot of people that didn’t have experience but had the intelligence and the ability to work. We then got some really good huge clients as well, and that’s when I also decided that I didn’t want to be another UK-only agency, I’d rather deliver services internationally. For me, if no one else is doing it then that makes me more interested. I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing.
What challenges did you face when you were starting up initially?
To be honest, I still find challenges with being a woman in the tech industry. It is a challenge, but I won’t accept it! For me it’s sometimes an advantage just as much as a disadvantage. In an industry where there is hardly any women, I don’t sound like everyone else. Just by being a woman you’re softer, you’re different. If you’re in a room full of 50 other agencies that are pitching and you’re the only techy female, it will make you stand out.
What advice would you give to someone setting up on their own company?
Always listen to your instincts, building a business on someone else’s experience and gut feeling is not a good idea. Be brave and trust yourself, it’s only you that know your limits. After all it is not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you are.
And I think I am capable, intelligent and pioneering – therefore I am!