Dubbed the ‘Delia of business’, Erica Wolfe-Murray is a leading UK business and innovation expert, an experienced business coach, creative and financial adept, and mother of four. Her practical, delight-filled but no-nonsense approach has helped companies double their turnover, secure new IP, pivot, and fall back in love with what they do.
Tell us a little about yourself, your career and your new book Simple Tips, Smart Ideas.
Having left home at 16, little or no planning went into my career. I managed to support myself the year I did my A-levels through various jobs, then moved to London to work. I soon realised that a flat-mate’s job as a copywriter in the ad industry was way more interesting than the insurance-related position I’d found myself. The next job I took, in the creative industries, began my love affair with creative people and companies, which has not faltered since.
Two jobs later I was working in an ad agency, handling British Airways’ advertising across Europe, the Near East and Africa. I was travelling for work, meeting amazing people, absorbing everyone’s experience like a sponge. I was not even 21. But whilst account management was fascinating, it was creativity that really caught my soul. I could see that the creatives within the agency had way more fun, so I turned my attention to copywriting.
After a year or so of writing for anyone that would give me work, I found myself as the in-house writer at the Conran Design Group, working on brands such as Habitat, Heal’s, the Conran Shop..design and interiors – two more of my passions.
By my mid-twenties, I was asked to run a small design company with its founder to help bring in more consumer-focused client projects. Winning new business is challenging, but NatWest, Next and Design Council projects came in the door, and I was made a director. At the same time, I launched an independent documentary production company with my new husband. Over more than 20 years it made award-winning programmes for all the UK networks and many US channels too.
With small children we decided to move out of London, so I started a tiny design business in the cupboard in their playroom, working with a pool of talented freelance designers. This grew, as did our family. By the time I had four children under nine, I was running a small design company, a mail order catalogue selling our own home furnishing/garden accessories (made from natural materials in the UK) and a shop; design projects from the likes of Historic Royal Palaces rolled in.
But you can only do so much. I was stretched too thin, particularly as I then needed to take over running the finances of our production company. In the next few years, my focus shifted from working as a creative head towards a different skill set – being a financial director. It was a fast learning curve, encompassing everything from book-keeping to overseeing the money on big US shoots. I learned a lot, and whilst I may not have been creatively fulfilled, I could work at home and focus on the children.
With my marriage over I stayed on at the production company as I worked out ‘what next?’, realising that I needed to do something that made my heart sing. After a couple of false starts, I launched my consultancy, Lola.
With all my experience in the creative industries, I understood both the creative imperative and how the finances needed to stack up. No-one else I knew had the same skill set. Lola works with creative, cultural and tech companies to help them grow using their intellectual assets and IP, to build new products and services from their existing capabilities, and to develop resilience through wider value and revenue models. Since it launched in 2011, over 250 companies and freelancers have worked with us.
Our ability to innovate no matter who or what creative company we are working with is because we evolved our own methodologies. They are simple, but easy to understand. More importantly – they work.
It is these easy-to-use methodologies and straight-forward diagrams, new ways of innovating through better understanding of your route to where you are, and what you offer, that form the basis of my book, Simple Tips, Smart Ideas.
I have worked as a copywriter. Writing the book felt natural and easy. I could use my tone of voice, not some other brand’s voice. I was pouring out what I do every day on to the pages. It felt like a love song to all those people and companies I had worked with over the whole of my career. But I have focused, in particular, on micro companies and freelancers – businesses who get little or no support once they are past the start-up phase.
What did you learn through the process of writing your book?
Unlike a fiction book which has a narrative arc, I had to really think through how the reader might approach the book. I realised that it was unlikely ever to be read cover-to-cover, so making it work in a way they could just dip into when needing help or a bit of inspiration was important.
As I wrote, I realised that short, simple paragraphs and snappy bits of advice were likely to be more useful than lengthy text. I felt that readers needed to be able to find and try new ideas easily.
I also hadn’t appreciated just how much I know about what I do. It is something I often tell my clients that they underestimate their own knowledge base. The book made me understand that I was doing the same.
What inspired you to create a physical book in an increasingly digital world?
Working with the number of clients that I do, I have noticed that very few of them use their laptops/phones to take notes. They are all still using pen and paper. Lots of them use staple cards or scribble ideas down in books. I want this book to be used in the same way. I want it to get battered, be loved, turned to when you need a little help. Just like you turn to your favourite cookbook when you need reminding of how to make pancakes.
Most business books look pretty dull. The design team has done a great job. Alice really set the tone when she hand-drew all the circles and lines in the diagrams so they are uneven. It gives the book a freshness and approachability that works well with the text. And we’ve used uncoated paper throughout, which feels wonderful but also lets you write and draw on it more easily.
Do you have any tips for founders and entrepreneurs looking to succeed in 2019?
Really understand what your hopes and dreams are both personally and with your business. These form the horizon you are aiming for and are key to your sucess, whether you are launching a start-up or have been in business for longer.
Appreciate that your ‘route’ to here is totally unique to you, so use it as the springboard for your business. No-one else will have the same life-journey ever again. By harnessing this you can create a company that can outperform competitors.
Recognise what ‘growth’ means to you. It could be growth in influence, profitability, markets; it does not have to mean creating a huge company and selling it. If your business is providing for you, your family and your employees with some additional ‘growth’ acting as the icing on the cake – that is absolutely fine.
Finally, what’s next for you once Simple Tips, Smart Ideas has been published? How do you think the creation of your book will affect your career moving forward?
Throughout the writing and creation of the book, I have not stopped working with my Lola clients, so it has definitely been ‘business as usual’ which won’t change.
In addition I would love to be seen as a champion of the 5m micro companies and 4.6m freelancers who are a major part of the UK economy but who have no voice, no influence. I care very deeply about them – the book is really my gift to them.
As a director of a small fin-tech company, Taxo’d Ltd, which helps freelancers with their tax calculation (from book-keeping through to filing with HMRC), I know what a juggling act the self-employed have to do. Helping build this company, which is the only financial support service developed by freelancers (rather than accountants) for freelancers, is really important to me. We are in the process of gaining FCA accreditation so will be able to offer really useful services and products with our users at the heart of it all.
So, lots to do!
You can buy Simple Tips, Smart Ideas here, and learn more about Erica and her work here.