Best known as one of the founders of online marketplace Not on the High Street, Holly Tucker MBE is now turning her attention to helping the nation's creative small businesses. Nick Martindale meets a woman who has made it her business to inspire others

Holly Tucker MBE has always been on something of a mission. The founder of Not on the High Street and, more recently, Holly & Co is not prone to doing things by halves and it is those characteristics you suspect which have made her so successful as an entrepreneur.

"When I was young my nickname was Hurricane Holly and I've kept to that all my life," she says. At school she won a national competition to design a recycling bin, while by 17 she was head girl and tasked with showing the Queen around her school. In her spare time she would look for ways to earn a bit of extra money, initially taking on household chores for her parents, and then from the age of 14 cleaning the local pub early on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

For someone so committed, the idea of spending summer holidays doing not very much did not appeal, so instead Tucker would head off to a family friend's advertising agency in the heart of London between the ages of 15 and 17. This would eventually put her on the route to her first career, working for advertising agency Publicis.

"On the day my A-level results came out my Mum drove me to the job interview and I got offered my first job," she recalls. "I had been offered a place doing art at university as a degree so I had a choice to make; did I go to university or to what I now call the University of Life. I picked the University of Life and started work at 17 years old. I was in a hurry and wanted to get started."

After a few years she moved on to publishing firm Condé Nast, and later to the fledgling dotcom start-up But after a while she felt the urge to start working for herself, and in particular to indulge her artistic and creative side. "My life had quite a few twists because I was in a hurry, and it dealt me a few blows," she explains. "I decided to go freelance in the publishing world and I did that very successfully for two years. But I really needed to get back to who I was. I wanted to get more creative in my life and I started creating wreaths and doing table and floral decorations from my one-bedroom flat at night, as I would work all day."

Fair trade

Indirectly, this would set her on the path to setting up Not on the High Street. She realised she needed somewhere to sell her decorations and sought out a local market in her home town of Chiswick, only to find there wasn't one. "I created the whole fair just to sell my own products, and had 150 stalls, out of which I had one," she says.

"That's where I realised that I didn't want to be in the business of making wreaths and bits and bobs, and the real passion I had was to create events. So I created a company called Your Local Fair which brought events to places like Chiswick and Fulham, where I would pull together a number of small businesses and put on these beautiful events."

The model took off, and for two years worked well, although Tucker soon found that any outdoor fair was heavily dependent on the vagaries of the British weather. But the idea of building a business out of bringing together other entities was born and, with the internet already well established, the scene was set in 2005 for Tucker to launch one of the UK's most successful online marketplaces. "I could see the power of bringing a lot of small businesses under one roof, but Your Local Fair was just the wrong medium," she says. "But that concept created Not on the High Street, which

was initially built as a 24-hour-a-day fair, where the public could meet these businesses that I had curated."

One thing she was sure about, though, was that she didn't want to do undertake this journey on her own, and approached Sophie Cornish, her former boss at Publicis, to come onboard with her. "I still have that email of June 2005 where I asked if she was interested in bringing small businesses altogether under one roof online," she says. "After 24 hours of thinking about it she said yes, and we became a duo in 2005. We knew this was a big concept so we got very cheap offices just outside of Richmond. We hired four computers and had a plastic Ikea orchid on the desk, and we set off to create a space online where we could pull together the best of small businesses and allow customers to discover them altogether."

This was not quite as easy as it sounds. An early challenge was to create the technology required to allow customers to make multiple purchases from different retailers using one shopping basket; something eBay itself was wrestling with at the time and for which Tucker admits she and Cornish lacked both experience and finance.

"We had very little money," she recalls. "We had a small bank loan, our parents had given us a small loan and we had put together a small amount of money ourselves. We had working husbands and very young children - my son was three months old at this point - so it was a very stressful period of our lives but come April 2006 we managed to pull off one of the first UK marketplaces." The launch didn't go smoothly when problems with the checkout meant it was unable to accept payment and had to rebuild the site in a week, but the potential was there.

Fight for funding

The business initially had just four staff, made up of friends and family "because they were the cheapest form of labour we could find". The fledgling firm almost ran out of cash in 2006, but its first Christmas later that year convinced the two founders that it could work, and they started to seek external finance to help them get it properly established.

The process was hard work. "At that point in time the glass ceiling still needed to be broken; barely any women were raising money through venture capital," recalls Tucker. "We spoke to a lot of gentlemen in that world who would talk about their wives going shopping, and we were two blonde women trying to set up a craft shop; it was a very different world. It was very difficult to explain to them that we were building something that was going to change the way we retail online."

It went down to the wire, but eventually "as the last pennies ran out" the duo successfully attracted funding from former investment manager Tom Teichman and his Spark Ventures fund, who had previously backed at a similarly early stage. "He saw that Sophie and I had the spark and that we had the ability to talk to female customers like nobody else they had seen," she says.

"That was February 2007, and from that we invested that money into building new site experiences, which meant we were able to take on new small businesses." Throughout all this, Tucker and Cornish remained choosy about the entities they would work with, with the emphasis on small and creative firms offering something a bit different.

A second round of funding followed through Mark Esiri at Venrex Investment Management, which was an easier process on the back of the first and a higher profile following coverage in the national press. "We had this mixture of Tom who had experience and Mark who had niche retailing experience and really understood the female customer, and really we couldn't keep up with it after that," says Tucker. "Our growth was exponential; we were growing at 1,000% a year and all our small businesses were growing at a similar rate."

Allowing customers to personalise products also helped to create a niche in what was then an immature market, giving the site a further unique selling point among its customer base. Over the next decade the company attracted a number of further rounds of venture capital funding, including a £21 million investment in 2016 by a consortium of firms to help it improve its website, grew to 200 people and moved to bigger premises in Richmond, increasing its total transaction value from £100,000 a year to £158 million in 2016 along the way.

The impact of the business, though, goes beyond the financials, helping to create a route to market for thousands of creative businesses as well as meeting the needs of customers who were previously underserviced. "We have completely revolutionised the idea of starting your own business and having that as your main income," says Tucker.

"Before it was still very antiquated; the high street was declining and you had a lot of people who wanted to run a small business but there wasn't a powerful tool like Not on the High Street. So not only have we changed the lives of these small business owners, we've also had millions of customers for whom Not on the High Street is now the go-to place where they're looking to be thoughtful, because there is still quite a bland offering on the high street. So Not on the High Street has brought colour to business and customers, and the online experience."

Second coming

With Not on the High Street now a much bigger beast, and Simon Belsham in place as CEO to run the business on a day-to-day basis, Holly has turned her attention to her latest venture, small business support service Holly & Co, which has been up and running since February this year, and where her title is the suitably ambitious "chief inspirator".

"Bringing Simon in allowed me to take a breather after a decade of tirelessly working, and see things from a bird's eye point of view," she says. "I could see that, having grown an army of successful small businesses, what was needed was to create a home for these businesses and a place where people could come and get advice and information but in a way they could connect with," she says. "So we created Holly & Co where you can sign up and become a ‘Co', and this is where you can interact with us."

In practical terms, this means access to an online "pharmacy" offering advice on business basics, regular blogs from Holly and access to a wider community of creative firms. There's also the Work/Shop in Twickenham, where people can call in to discuss business and buy products from other Cos, and the opportunity to book more formal consultancy sessions with Tucker herself. Going forward, the plan is to put on regular events where people can meet other like-minded firms and buy and sell items.

"It's a one-stop shop for small businesses to become connected," says Tucker. "I have decided to dedicate the next 10 years of my life to this. When you realise that 40% of the workforce will be operating in the freelance economy by 2020, they need a place where they can really connect and which they can call a base. I plan to pied-piper this group and be their virtual cheerleader on their journey."

Her own time these days is spent between her three main interests: Not on the High Street, Holly & Co and her family, consisting of her husband Frank and son Harry. "Each week it's a different percentage I spend on each," she says. "I am living the good life where work is life and life is work and it's not a 9-5 but a constant.

"It's a constant being a Mum; my son now is 12, and he was three months old when I built Not on the High Street," she adds. "He now works in our artisan café as a Saturday job. My husband, who I didn't get to see a lot, is now much more involved in my everyday life and they now get to dedicate their next 10 years to the business as well." Already there is a team of 16 in place, and Tucker expects this to grow as the business takes off.

Expensive mistake

Recruiting staff, though, is one area in which she has learned from her own experience. "When you have a business and things are running at 100mph you're desperate to hire the next person, but if you hire the wrong one it can put your business back a year," she warns. "Actually it's better to have a gap, and to wait and make do, rather than just hire. If I had my time again I would be telling myself that because all it takes is one bad apple to upset the cart."

More generally, Tucker believes any brand now needs to have both an online and offline presence, and indeed Not on the High Street is already experimenting with pop-up outlets to test out the physical format. "We have had the era where online was sufficient and now we're very used to that, and want more," she says. "It's not OK just to be online, and it's not OK just to have bricks and mortar. The future is going to be about how you combine those two and give customers a truly immersive experience."

Away from her main commitments, she's also the UK ambassador to creative small businesses, a government position announced by the then prime minister David Cameron in 2015, and which fits in perfectly with her wider vision for Holly & Co, as well as chairwoman of St Margaret's Traders Association in Twickenham.

With such a busy schedule Tucker, who has battled dyslexia for her whole life, rarely has time to appreciate what she has achieved, but she admits she is particularly proud of receiving the MBE. "I tend to be in a hurry but that day when I met the Queen gave me a moment to smell the roses," she says. "I actually stopped and realised I must have done something right. As a mother you tend to beat yourself up about trying to constantly juggle every single ball, but my son was sitting in the first row and looking at his smile and seeing how proud he was of me made me realise that all the sacrifices had been worth it.",

She won't, though, be drawn on whether there are more businesses in her. "Right now I'd have to say never again, but then I said that last time," she says. "I will be 50 in 10 years' time so I'm thinking I'll need a break then, but who knows. Ask me again in 10 years' time."