Business Startups: Sylvia Tidy-Harris

It was standing room only for the seminar by Sylvia Tidy-Harris, Director of  The Speakers Agency at the Business Startup Show at ExCel, Docklands on 28th May.  Sylvia shared details of her varied work history; she went from working in the healthcare industry to the travel and leisure industry as a tour director – a field which took her all over the world and gave her a wealth of experience in customer service.  “I learnt to put up with people; both the nice ones and the not so nice ones!” she joked.  She also learnt how to find things for her picky customers at a moments’ notice, a knack which stood her in very good stead in the early days of running her speakers’ business.

Her first foray into this field came when she gave the after dinner speech at her wedding after her husband according to Sylvia, “bottled out of doing it!” She was so impressive that several people approached her afterwards and suggested that she should consider after dinner speaking as a career.

After mulling over the concept, Sylvia set about strategising ways to create a company of after dinner and special event speakers.  She soon came across an agency that had been run by an elderly couple for thirty years.  The problem was that the speakers they had on their books were quite elderly also, and sometimes they died before they could fulfil their engagements!  After discussing the issue with her husband they agreed that they would buy the company from the couple and bring on board fresh speakers.

Neither one had any business acumen and had never been purchased a business before. Sylvia and her husband had no money to buy the business, but what they did have was £1000 which they used to create a website through which they launched their new business, The Speaker’s Agency. Sylvia stressed the importance of including in your business title the service you will be providing so that it makes it easier for prospective clients to find you.

“We called our selves .com and bought every other domain name as well.  You should buy every domain name; even if you don’t need it now, you don’t want to find out as you expand that someone else has your name and you can no longer use it.  I’ve bought three or four hundred domains over the years and I quite often get offered money for them, so it is actually a good investment,” Sylvia advised.

Sylvia and her husband started out with four speakers: her mum and dad, Nicholas Parsons and herself!  During this time Sylvia was still working as a tour director but she finally gave it up in 2003.

A few months into her venture she observed that when people had a lot of money, they booked a male speaker; when they didn’t have a lot of money they requested a female speaker.  This baffled Sylvia as both genders were performing exactly the same service, but then she realised there was a niche in the market for female speakers.  She took on a PR company who did an excellent job of promoting her business and shortly after she launched Women’s

In the year following the launch, not only did all the other speakers’ agencies do exactly the same thing, but her growth went up 198%.   A few years later she launched Men’s, partly because she wanted to be the first company in the world to do it, but also “because I love being politically incorrect in the midst of the powers that be!”

She then became a columnist with the Daily Telegraph, writing mainly about how red tape made life next to impossible for small business owners.  “What I didn’t know was that so many people felt exactly the same way; I received hundreds of emails and bags of letters of support from the readers.” Sylvia exclaimed.

Sylvia started acting as an agent for a number of people who came to her looking for representation, which led to having to create another company to take care of the various television and radio deals that were being created as a result.

A cautionary tale to her great success happened in March of this year.  Plans were being made to launch in Australia when Sylvia was approached via the internet by a lady in Australia who said that she too wanted to launch a speakers’ agency there. Having made all the necessary due diligence checks, Sylvia was satisfied that everything was ok and gave the lady all the contacts she had acquired.  “When I met up with her in Australia,” Sylvia continued, “my gut instinct told me something was wrong.  She wanted us to see a lawyer, which was strange as we hadn’t agreed to the terms and conditions of us working together.  During discussions with the lawyer I discovered this woman had spent AUS$10,000 having all of my emails checked, which set alarm bells ringing. But the real purpose for the meeting was to get me to give up all of my existing businesses so that I could come to Australia and run the speakers company with her, because she felt that I would be taking work away from her!”  The upshot of this episode was that Sylvia was not allowed to launch her company in Australia.  “I was so demoralised; but when I spoke to other entrepreneurs about it, I discovered they had experienced the same thing at one time or another.”

Despite this her business continues to flourish and she ended with a note of encouragement for those who were facing an uncertain future because of the recession:  “If any of you are thinking of starting your own businesses, do it now as this is the best time to do it!”

Sylvia summarised the princples that every business should incorporate:

• Learn to trust your gut instinct.
• Buy every domain name possible
• Have a crisis plan – if your PC goes down for three weeks, what do you have in place to deal with it?
• There is no magic formula for success – create your own opportunities.
• Don’t dodge the tax man – REMEMBER when you are receiving payment to put some aside for VAT!

Belinda Nnoka
Belinda Nnoka

Belinda was a staff writer for Women Unlimited from 2009-2010

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