Take the lead: entrepreneurs

These five budding entrepreneurs are reimagining sleep spaces, soft drinks and womenswear

People 14 Dec 2018

Mauricio Villamizar, co-founder, Pop & Rest
Nancy Zeffman & Eileen Willett, co-founders, Cucumber Clothing
David Spencer-Percival, founder, No 1 Botanicals
Tom Charman, co-founder & CEO, Kompas App, with Olivia Higgs and Kurt Henderson
George Rice, co-founder, Serious Pig

Whether fuelled by passion or driven by spotting a gap in a market and believing it can be successfully filled, entrepreneurship is flourishing. Every budding business is different, but each entrepreneur shares similar traits: never taking no for an answer, learning from the best, staying hungry and ambitious, never standing still and deploying business agility, inspiring those around them, and trusting their gut instinct. With this in mind, we talk to the founders of five ventures, all initiated by the belief that the idea they are nurturing could grow into a funded and functioning undertaking. Despite knock backs, they are weathering the roller coaster of start-ups and finding their own ways to trailblazing success.

Mauricio Villamizar
Co-founder, Pop&Rest

We all need more sleep. Fact. Very few of us get the sleep we need and yet we push ourselves to work long days, propping ourselves up with caffeine and rarely taking naps. A Nasa study showed that a 26-minute nap can increase productivity and concentration by 34 per cent. Other cultures build siestas into the day, but taking a sleep break just isn’t part of the UK work culture. Until now.

When Mauricio Villamizar and Yoann Demont moved to London from Colombia and France respectively, they worked for the same London company and were surprised by the distinct lack of napping. ‘The pace of life for the London worker is really fast,’ says Villamizar. ‘In Colombia we know that power naps boost your mood, but the work culture is very different here. There are capsules in Tokyo and New York where you can go and rest or sleep for an hour or so, but the idea hadn’t really caught on here.’

So, in September 2016, Villamizar and Demont co-founded Pop & Rest and, a year later, opened the first sleep pods in Monument, near London Bridge. For £15 an hour, you can rent out a small, soundproofed space with a bed, clean linen, tea, coffee and water. You don’t have to sleep in a nap pod, of course. You can get some work done in a peaceful space or simply take some time out and rest or meditate.

Villamizar says they were surprised by their first customers. ‘We assumed they would be Europeans or South Americans used to the concept of siestas, but to our surprise they were locals. They saw the flyers and came straight away. Some were working too hard, others didn’t sleep well the previous night or were jetlagged, a few had hangovers. Word of mouth kicked in within a few months and we were able to open in other locations in London.’

It wasn’t easy to raise money for Pop & Rest, and Villamizar and Demont had to rely on savings and the generosity of family and friends. Now they are confident that the company can grow and expand both across London and into other major cities both in the UK and in Europe. Do Villamizar and Demont ever get the chance to use the sleep pods? Villamizar nods. ‘Sometimes we have to take 20 minutes if we are working until midnight. It’s the only way to ensure we maintain peak productivity. And yes, it always works.’


Nancy Zeffman & Eileen Willett
Co-founders, Cucumber Clothing

The simple ideas are often the best. Nancy Zeffman and Eileen Willett, both in their early 50s, launched Cucumber Clothing in 2017 when they realised the fashion world had paid very little attention to the huge market of hormonal women. They recognised the clothing requirements of staying cool and comfortable for new mums, perimenopausal and menopausal women, curvier women and women on hormonal medication as part of their cancer treatment.

They spent a year sourcing a fabric that wouldn’t fade after repeated washes and that kept women cool. Cotton and silk didn’t work, but technical fabrics such as polyester microfibre and rayon proved reliable. While the fabric is sourced abroad, all manufacturing is done in the UK.

Zeffman and Willett, who describe themselves respectively as a ‘former advertising guru’ and an ‘ex-fashion maven’ on the Cucumber website, initially developed the brand in their spare time. But then an article in The Telegraph at the time of launch gave Cucumber exactly the momentum it needed and they were able to turn their attention to the company full time.

‘We were overwhelmed at the initial response. We’re only a very small online brand and yet we already have a solid base of customers who are repeat purchasers. We are a solutionbased fashion brand making jumpsuits, dresses, nightdresses and so on that feel nice but have a purpose as well.’ ‘It helps that times are changing,’ adds Willett. ‘Women are feeling more empowered when it comes to discussing their bodies. Older women are talking about the menopause in a way they never did before.’

Long term, Zeffman and Willett are quietly ambitious. They want to eliminate all plastic from their packaging and keep that packaging to a minimum. With the retail market in flux, they won’t be opening a shop but might sell to upmarket spa boutiques. Ultimately, they’d like to be the next Lululemon, but instead of making technical athletic clothes, they will be keeping swathes of the population cool in both senses of the word, as the brand name suggests.

‘We wanted a name that did exactly what it says on the tin,’ says Willett. ‘Everyone knows what it means to be as “cool as a cucumber”.’


David Spencer-Percival
Founder, No 1 Botanicals

We all know the Mediterranean diet is key to good health. Scientists were baffled, however, when they discovered that in Acciaroli, south of Naples, one in 10 of the population is a centenarian. The rates of Alzheimer’s and heart disease are low. Blood circulation is unusually good. Locals take regular exercise and appear to be blessed with good genes, but they also cook with plenty of herbs, including rosemary.

When David Spencer-Percival, whose background is in recruitment start-ups, read about Acciaroli, he had a lightbulb moment. ‘One in 10 people living to 100 is off the scale. It was clear to me that rosemary was a superherb. I soon realised it would be impossible to eat it in the same volume as the people in Acciaroli do, so I tried to find a rosemary drink. There wasn’t one. I thought to myself, “Why is nobody making a drink with rosemary extract in it since it’s clearly so bloody good for you?” That was it. I had to make it myself.’

Spencer-Percival says that extracting the compounds from rosemary was ‘fiendishly difficult’, but that his lack of knowledge of the drinks industry was generally a positive. ‘Bottling is like the Wild West, but at least we didn’t know what we couldn’t do. When it came to packaging, we asked ourselves what kind of bottle Apple would make if it made drinks. The white glass bottle was a masterstroke.’

The timing of the launch was also very shrewd, coinciding with the recent shift away from alcohol, and from sugar. Everyone knows that smoothies contain huge amounts of sugar, so it’s no wonder that attention has shifted to “healthy” drinks such as No1 Rosemary Water. It’s now shifting 9,000 bottles a month in M&S, helped in part by its light, delicate flavour, but also no doubt by Victoria Beckham posting a photo on social media of herself drinking from one of the distinctive bottles.

Rosemary water has in fact been so successful that Spencer-Percival recently worked with scientists at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew to extend the range. There are now nine new botanical drinks from sage to mint and meadowsweet. So, where next? ‘I imagine the future will involve a link-up with a large drinks company. I believe it’s a billion-dollar brand, but I’ll keep a stake in it because I love it.’


Tom Charman
Co-founder & CEO, Kompas App

Tom Charman (pictured centre) was living in Munich with Olivia Higgs (left), studying economics and politics with German and Mandarin respectively, when they realised how difficult it was to explore a city beyond being told where to go by TripAdvisor, Foursquare, Yell et al. They ate their way around the city, explored street art in hidden underground passages and sampled homemade vodka in a hidden Franco-Slavic bar. They posted their experiences on Facebook and created a beautifully curated Instagram account, Hidden Munich, which still exists today.

Out of those posts came the idea to create Kompas, an app that helps people navigate and explore cities in a more personalised way. Back in the UK, Charman and Higgs were joined by a third co-founder, Kurt Henderson (right). All three, while still in their twenties, have impressive CVs. Charman gave a TEDx talk on machine learning in 2016 and the following year was named the Future Face of Innovation and Technology by the Chamber of Commerce. Higgs has given a TEDx talk on the wider impact of AI and has been recognised as one of the top female entrepreneurs in the UK. Henderson has managed a record label, mentors for Young Enterprise and was named as one of 20 young entrepreneurs under 25 by Startups in 2017.

Funded by a group of angel investors, Kompas has been growing steadily since its launch three years ago. ‘The idea has always been to support small businesses, which was hard work at the beginning because it was 100 per cent outbound marketing,’ says Charman. ‘Now morebusinesses are coming to us and it’s around 60 per cent outbound and 40 per cent inbound. We cover three cities in the UK and two in Germany and we’ve just done a beta launch in San Francisco. We’re planning to roll out into a further 10 or 11 cities in the next six months.’

His biggest concern is ‘the big boys moving in’. In other words, Facebook or Google seeing the chance to make money out of similar information. ‘It’s such an obvious idea; no one has tapped the potential of consumer travel yet. The market is huge and no one really understands the way people travel, why they do it, how they do it and so on. We believe there is enough space for both the whales and the small fish of the business world.’


George Rice
Co-founder, Serious Pig

George Rice and Johnny Bradshaw were in a beer garden in north-west London in 2009 when they started talking about bar snacks. ‘There had to be something better to snack on than crisps and nuts,’ says Rice. ‘We started thinking about salami and the fact that Peperami only exists at one level of quality. Perhaps we could do a posh Peperami! That was the eureka moment.’

Around the same time, British charcuterie started to emerge and Rice and Bradshaw wanted to see if they could use British meat. After two years of trying unsuccessfully to work with British produce, they met a guy from Sicily who was living in the UK and knew exactly what he was doing. ‘We hit it off, which was brilliant,’ says Rice. ‘But Johnny had run out of patience by this point, so it was just me on my own. When I’ve had bad days and have been ready to throw in the towel, I’ve looked at the name and the logo and thought, “There’s some gold in that. Stick with it.”’

Rice’s patience has paid off. In 2014, Serious Pig raised £125,000 via crowdfunding and BrewDog owner James Watt offered to stock the snacks in BrewDog bars across the country, raising the company’s profile overnight. ‘When pubs start to improve the range of their beers, it naturally follows that they would want to offer a better choice of snacks.’ Serious Pig is also stocked in Tesco, next to the craft beer, in Co-o  stores and in Booths in the north.

The next challenge is to ‘grow in the right places’. In October this year, Serious Pig launched Crunchy Snacking Cheese as an addition to a range that now includes baked salted nuts, ‘Snacklingham’ (air-dried ham strips) and ‘Snackling’ (oven-roast crackling). The ovenbaked Italian cheese is, says Rice, a game changer. ‘It’s matured for 11 months and it’s amazing! The take up has been significant and I foresee it being our best-selling product this time next year.’

Rice, who previously worked for Paul Smith, is ramping things up in January, when he will be looking for money on Crowdcube to expand Serious Pig. Is he worried about the company growing too quickly? He laughs. ‘When you haven’t got a million quid in the bank it’s impossible to grow too quickly! Our challenge is to make sure we don’t discount our products too quickly because then it’s just a race to the bottom.’