2 November 2017 Interview

Debbie Wosskow, Love Home Swap

The serial entrepreneur talks to Business Voice about finding success in the sharing economy – and helping other women to do the same

Q. You sold home-exchange club Love Home Swap for £40m this summer. What was it about that business that you think made it a success?
A. It’s about a range of different things. Firstly, it’s about being the ultimate consumer of the product personally. The idea for Love Home Swap sprung from a vacation I wish I had just had with my small children. I wanted to go and stay in a home that matched my own somewhere else in the world, so what was it I needed as a target customer of the service?

Secondly, you have to be part of the zeitgeist. For me, it was being part of what became known as the sharing economy. I was at the forefront of that, as I led the government review into the sharing economy, but if you look back even a decade, Airbnb hadn’t been invented.

The third thing was the way in which we developed the business. We created swap points to expand how people could swap their properties. It became clear we were developing timeshare 2.0 and for that reason Wyndham, specifically its RCI business, was a great investor and eventual acquirer of Love Home Swap.

Q. So you took investment from Wyndham before selling to them. What's your view on how big business can collaborate with start-ups and tech savvy businesses to overcome the challenges that they may have found in terms of embracing technology?
A. Our partnership has been really important. What we brought to the table was the ability to run at speed, innovate, fail fast and to deploy a team that would have been quite difficult for a big corporate to find and hire. What they brought to us were some very practical things around reach and scale.

We were the first early stage investment the group had ever made, and I think that they continue to make more because it's a model that’s worked well for them.

Q. What was the biggest challenge growing LoveHomeSwap?
A. Finding scale and waiting for that moment when growth takes off. When I first pitched to investors for Love Home Swap, I was roundly told by a range of investors that nobody would ever stay in a stranger’s home. Fast forward to where we are now and my mother stays in Airbnbs – and she's not a natural early adopter of the sharing economy.

You need to be in the right place at the right time.

Execution is everything. You can have the idea but it's not going to get you anywhere without the boring stuff

Q. What was the best lesson you've learnt?
A. Execution is everything. You can have the idea but it’s not going to get you anywhere without the boring stuff. It's about being clear on the numbers and the targets and driving a team towards an audience.

Q. It’s coming up to a year since you launched your next venture, AllBright. Can you explain a little more about that business and what you see as the biggest opportunities for it?
A. We’re driven by a desire to combine profit with purpose. The mission is about making the UK the best place in the world to be a working woman – because currently the situation is pretty dire: last year only 2.17 per cent of all capital globally went to a female CEO. On the other side of the table, only 7 per cent of investors are women. In spite of all of this, women get great returns – better returns than men.

So together with Anna Jones, who was the CEO of Hearst, we have a small venture capital fund that backs female entrepreneurs, which we’re hoping to grow and develop over time.

We have the AllBright Academy that runs a series of courses to help female entrepreneurs get started (one in ten women in the UK say they want to start their own business, but they don’t), or people who have started and want to scale up. We run 12-week programmes, but also shorter, modular courses that you can do over three evenings. We’re really building a girl gang of entrepreneurs who are there to support each other.

And what we've realised over the past year is that there's a big need to get women together in a room. So we’re launching the first members club for working women, which is called The AllBright, in Bloomsbury, central London, which will open its doors early next year.

Q. Do you think the UK is particularly bad at supporting women entrepreneurs?
A. As a woman in the US, you're twice as likely to start a business as a woman in the UK. That to me is quite powerful, so something is not working in the UK system here.

It’s got to be about diversity, because if you look at my own relationship with Anna, we’re from very different backgrounds. Anna had a very elegant corporate career and she was the first female CEO of a media company. Mine was much scrappier because I've built and sold these businesses. I think I’ve got an awesome business partner and we’re able to do great things because we’re from very different backgrounds. But how do we manifest that for other women?  

Frankly, a year ago, we were told that there were no great female founders to back

Q. You’ve already invested in six businesses, but how much of a difference do you think you can make?
A. Frankly, a year ago, we were told that there were no great female founders to back. By demonstrating that we can raise capital to open a separate workspace for women, we shocked a lot of people.

And if you look at our investor base behind The AllBright, we have three big property companies investing because people are now looking at how people want to work differently, flexibly, and what that means for women.

Q. From your work with Sharing Economy UK, and on Sadiq Khan’s business panel, you’re no stranger to lobbying for business interests. So what's your take on the current business environment and how the UK government supports innovation and entrepreneurship?
A. For me, the current lack of dialogue around entrepreneurship is a real shift compared to the coalition and Cameron governments where it was very front and centre, with the creation of Tech City, for example. A lot of the initiatives that I was involved with via Number 10 aren’t there anymore.

I think it’s quite a worrying time when there are conversations floating around about constraining or rethinking the Enterprise Investment Scheme, which is the absolute lifeblood of angel investors – one of the things that we are very good at in the UK.

We also need to prioritise digital skills as we’re getting left behind by certain other countries.

Having said that, my involvement on something like the business panel with Sadiq Khan is super positive. Entrepreneurs will always find a way, but I think the political environment and support of entrepreneurship is not as friendly as it was before the Brexit vote.

Q. Ending on a more personal note, AllBright, is your fourth start-up, so what’s your best advice to others looking to do something similar?
A. Have a really thick skin. Not everybody is going to like you, not everyone is going to think what you're doing is great and positive. It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about being liked, worry about being professional and results driven. For women, in particular, that’s something that holds them back.

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