We’re chatting to Kelly Molson, co-founder and managing director of Rubber Cheese, this week! After reading her thought-inspiring blogs in which she interviews female digital agency directors in order to provide others with real-life experiences of what it’s like to be a woman in business, we thought it was about time that Kelly takes her turn. Kelly shares with us how she became co-founder and MD of Rubber Cheese, what her experiences have been like as a woman in business, what advice she would give to others in her position and loads more interesting stuff! So, let’s find out what she has to say…
Hi, Kelly! Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! Can you firstly tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do at the moment please?
“I’m co-founder and managing director of Rubber Cheese, an award-winning digital agency supporting visitor attraction and food and drink brands.
Rubber Cheese design and build online systems, websites and apps that improve conversions, save resource and increase sales. Trusted partners of Chivas Brothers, Plymouth Gin, and Eureka! The National Children’s Museum.
Passionate about the value of networking and relationships, I co-founded double award-winning Grub Club Cambridge – networking events for food & drink professionals.
I’ve recently launched kellymolson.co.uk a campaign to support, inspire and increase the number of female agency owners in the digital sectors.
I live in Cambridge with my fiance Lee and our two dogs, a 13-year-old chocolate lab Buster, and 7-month-old dachshund Doris. I LOVE food. You’ll find me eating my way around Cambridge, working out (because of all the food) or growing veg in the garden allotment.”
What’s your background/career path?
“I trained as a graphic designer when cow gum, Letraset and gouache paints were still a thing. Back then I was too eager to start working, I deferred my place at Uni and got a junior job instead.
I worked mainly in print, branding, marketing and packaging were my specialisms. I loved the creativity my roles brought, but I never really felt settled anywhere and moved job every couple of years to find the next challenge or learn the next thing.
In 2002 I started working at an e-commerce agency just as online shopping began to explode. I thought it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened! Suddenly I was thrown into a digital world where anything was possible. I was hooked. It was here I met my business partner.
By this time I’d started to wonder if I could work for myself. My grandfather was a successful business owner so I suppose it was the norm in our family. I wanted to take ownership of my future and build something that was mine. I knew I wanted to work more as a partner to my clients, to really understand their businesses. I guess I wanted to be more of a strategist than a visual designer. I loved meeting new people and thrived on understanding their challenges and how a digital approach could solve them.
In 2003 at the age of 24, I co-founded Rubber Cheese alongside good friend Paul Wright. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
You mentioned above that you are co-founder of Rubber Cheese; we’d love to hear more about your agency and how you started it…
“We started from our bedrooms like all great agencies do! Our lucky break came just 2 weeks in when we secured a contract with an architect’s firm working on a 2-year project for Tesco. Suddenly we were attending high-level design meetings at Tesco headquarters and we knew this was what we were supposed to do.
Around 6 years in our client base had grown organically. Paul and I were working long hours on client work and pitches, but we were struggling to run the business around our production roles. It was this point we decided to build an agency. We hired our first team member to take on my design role, and I became the Managing Director and began to grow and develop the business.
It was a huge learning curve for us. Building a company culture, understanding the figures, balancing cash flow, keeping the sales pipeline full. I’ll admit I felt slightly resentful of Paul still being in a creative role and me starring endlessly at spreadsheets!
We’re now a team of 6 with a focus on digital, creating online systems, websites and apps that improve conversions, save resource and increase sales. A mix of designers, developers and strategists make up the team who all share a core mission: To make a positive impact on the lives of others through the systems and products we create.
The food & drink, and visitor attraction sectors have become specialisms over the last few years, having been selected as a digital partner to a number of Pernod Ricard brands, including Plymouth Gin, Beefeater Gin and Chivas Brothers. An incredible project with Eureka! The National Children’s Museum followed which has been nominated for a number of awards.”
As a woman in business, what challenges have you experienced throughout your career?
“I was 24 when we started Rubber Cheese. Full of confidence, fearless and I took every opportunity put our way.
Over the last few years, my self-confidence and self-belief have taken a huge hit. Being completely honest, the biggest challenges I’ve faced have been due to the effects of infertility. The last 2 years we have suffered miscarriage, multiple rounds of IVF and the devastating early loss of our twin girls.
All of that has had an effect on the agency. It’s incredibly difficult to put yourself out there as the “face” of the company when you are grieving, but still have sales pitches and meetings to attend.
The time I was able to dedicate to it around seemingly endless clinic appointments was very limited. It was almost impossible to plan my diary as things changed on a daily basis.
The tipping point came when I couldn’t commit to a pitch date for the most amazing project. It’s important to me to be honest and authentic in everything I do, so I took a risk and explained my situation to the potential client. Thankfully everyone was understanding, flexible and extremely supportive.
Being transparent is a key factor of business success for female agency owners. We should be able to speak openly about these things without fear of being judged.”
Your blog series focuses on female founders who run their own digital agency; what prompted you to start the blog?
“Initially, the challenges I experienced over the last few years prompted me to start the blog. When these things happened, I realized there would be others who’d had similar experiences and that we could learn from and support each other.
I then began to wonder what the percentage of female agency owners actually was, and if challenges like these would have any effect on that. I wanted to understand if anything was holding us back, if there was a common theme, if we needed extra support etc.
The blog is also a platform to celebrate female agency owners, creating a showcase of inspiring role models in the industry which will hopefully inspire future leaders.”
In your blog series, you share the statistic: ‘@The Wow Company’s recent survey of 471 agency owners across the UK has the figures as Female 27% – Male 73%.’ What do you think about this figure?
“I can’t say I was surprised, but it was disappointing to see. Having said that, I’ve attended a number of industry-specific events and I would have put the percentage a lot lower based on those.
Vickie Allen founder of SyncDevelopHER, and the DevelopHER Awards is a truly inspiring woman. She gave a talk recently “Where did all the women go? A trip back in time to when women ruled the code!” and joked that it’s her aim to make the toilet queues for the ladies’ loo’s longer at industry events!
Is it down to children and childcare? I can’t speak from experience, but I can understand how difficult it would be to grow an agency and a family at the same time. But if anything, my agency now gives me the utmost flexibility with my time and allows for a better work/life balance than I’ve ever had, which I know will support our family when the time comes.
I think it starts long before this. We are not encouraged into leadership roles from an early age, there’s a disconnect somewhere along the education path. I’m keen to get back into the classrooms to show young women what they can do, and not necessarily taking the university path either.
Companies perform better with women on the board, there have been endless studies in this.
Male and female directors provide a different perspective which team and clients benefit from. I know Rubber Cheese is stronger for it.”
Can you tell us about your support network and how you access the support you need to run your business?
“I threw myself into networking as soon as we launched Rubber Cheese. I’m a great believer in givers gain, and I built a solid local network based on this, attending local events and actively looking for ways I could help others.
It’s not around any longer, but I was an active member of Ecademy – an online membership organisation for entrepreneurs and business owners. I made great friends and contacts on there, and I’m lucky to have the support of many of them still. A few of us make up a regular mastermind group. We meet every 6 weeks to discuss successes and challenges, supporting each other in any way required. It’s a format that I love because it’s about giving first.
When I moved to Cambridge I knew very few people in the city. I found a fantastic co-working space to base myself, The Cambridge Business Lounge. Owner Ed Goodman was instrumental in helping me make new connections, even leading to co-founding an award-winning networking group of my own, Grub Club Cambridge.
We recently launched a local meetup for the digital industry Digital Herts, A community of designers and developers working to improve the web design and development industry in Herts & Essex. We meet every 2 months to share ideas, network, learn and promote local talent.
At times my business partner and I have worked with a coach, and we had support from the now-closed Growth Accelerator fund. I am actively looking for a mentor, someone that has been through the agency journey already or is two or three steps ahead of where we are now.”
What do you think about the level of support available for women looking to progress their career within the digital/technology sector?
“I think it depends at what stage you’re at and what you’re looking for. There are a lot of organisations aimed at women in the creative and tech sectors which seem more focused on startups or getting you to Creative Director level. Next Tech Girls is a fantastic initiative, they aim to improve gender equality in the technology sector by providing 5,000 girls with tech work experience by 2020.
Specifically, for agencies, The Agency Collective is a fantastic resource and there’s BIMA and the Drum Network. Agency Collective are actively working to encourage more women within their community which is fantastic to see.
I have a vision to create a peer to peer network based on shared experiences. Small trusted mastermind groups with a focus on support and advice from other agency owners. I believe peer to peer learning is the best form of mentoring you can find. The aim of my network would be to increase that percentage of female agency owners by inspiring up and coming leaders and supporting existing founders on their journey.”
What do you think makes a great agency? (How do you approach company culture?)
Our culture is based on a shared vision and values which the whole team is inspired and driven by. Everyone is treated with kindness, tea and a shed load of biscuits.”
What is your one key piece of advice for women looking to build their career?
“If the last two years has taught me anything, it’s that life is incredibly short and precious.
When the worst thing that could happen has already happened, there’s nothing more to be scared of.
You have no idea or control over what comes next. Stop waiting for everything to be perfect. Just start.”
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