The latest instalment of our #FemaleFounders series is here! This week, we meet Bess Joffe who is one of the founding members of SquareWell – a business consultancy firm in London.
Bess is a particularly inspiring female founder as she has multiple strings to her bow. She has almost two decades of experience working in corporate governance stewardship. As well as being a partner of SquareWell, Bess is a qualified Canadian lawyer and an Advisor at Impactive Associates.
We caught up with Bess to see how she went on to found her company and what inspired her to take the plunge.
1. Why did you start your business? What spurred you on?
When I left my last full-time role at the end of December 2017, I realized that in order to stay interested, engaged and additive to my space – the ‘corporate governance’ or ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) world – I needed to do something different than I had ever done before. My experience has been on both the investor side and the corporate side of the table -which is relatively rare. I was determined not to do something that was already on my CV. Having industry expertise, coupled with management skills and extensive experience in managing senior relationships, the next obvious challenge for me was to become an entrepreneur – to learn how to build, run and establish a business.
I met my business partners, two very progressive and thoughtful men, in March 2018. They had experiences from entirely different angles in our field and ideas for how to actually start improving the relationship between public companies and their investors in a tangible way, based on analysis of data and fact. The novel, yet inherently logical approach they had conceived of was the missing piece in the field for me and I jumped at the opportunity to help them bring this offering to the market more broadly.
I was determined not to do something that was already on my CV.
2. What are the unique challenges you have faced as a female founder?
I think everyone goes through this – juggling. In some of our meetings with external stakeholders, I am still the only woman at the table, and this is definitely noticeable to me. And even though my partners in business and my husband are progressive, self-aware men, they still don’t really have a clue what it is like to be a woman playing multiple LEADING roles in your life. I’m a mother to two young kids, employer of a nanny, am responsible for running about 90% of things related to our house AND a partner in a business, employer, director, and thought leader. Oh, and I’m a wife.
I’m always juggling and thankfully have the flexibility to move relatively seamlessly across my various responsibilities but it is a constant challenge to be pulled into so many different directions. And I have a lot of support as I do it, so I definitely have it easier than most other women out there. And it’s still incredibly difficult.
I definitely have it easier than most other women out there. And it’s still incredibly difficult.
3. What were the three steepest learning curves during your first year in business?
We’re still in our first year and, so far, I think communication has been the biggest challenge. The three of us as partners have different backgrounds, different work experiences, and are from different countries. While some of our communication is short-hand and unspoken, much of it still needs to be right out there and worked through. Being able to communicate directly & honestly in a constructive manner, even when it’s hard to do so, is so important to being able to stay focused on the long-term health of the business.
Being able to communicate directly & honestly in a constructive manner, even when it’s hard to do so, is so important to being able to stay focused on the long-term health of the business.
Another major – and continuing – learning curve is the level of detail and dedication that is required to run your business. The legalities involved, the accounting, working out things that you take for granted in larger organizations (like a business travel policy for employees, or code of conduct) are all things that we need to build from scratch.
Finally, I think the commercial aspect of selling a service has been a pretty steep learning curve. It’s definitely more art than science. I’m good at reading people and communicating with them. That’s certainly an important factor in converting people to become paying clients, but there’s definitely more commercial judgment that I keep acquiring!
4. What is your favourite thing about founding your own company?
That we are only limited by our imagination. We can do whatever we like – expand our service offering, put out disruptive thought leadership pieces, take controversial views on issues – without having to worry about a bureaucratic approval process.
5. What is the best business advice you have been given by someone else?
You have to trust the people you’re in business with and trust your own instincts.
6. Do you ever suffer from imposter’s syndrome? If so, what do you do to tackle it and move forward?
I have suffered from this for years in a variety of roles! I just tell myself that everyone is really ‘faking it til’ they make it’ and so there’s nothing unusual about the fact that I’m doing the same!
7. What’s the best book on business you’ve read?
I’m a lawyer by training and can’t think of a single business book I’ve actually read. One legal book that I think is so helpful and actionable is Getting to Yes – all about how to negotiate effectively. And the tools and insights it gives you can be implemented in your everyday ‘small negotiations’ with colleagues, managers, etc, not just formal ‘business’ negotiations.
8. Tell us about another brilliant business woman you think our readers should know about
Since we launched the business I am seeing incredible women entrepreneurs all around me. It’s amazing how you notice others’ efforts once you start to go down the road they’ve travelled ahead of you. One of my mentors is a Toronto-based lawyer named Carol Hansell who left a premier business law firm and set up her own firm called Hansell Advisory. She’s doing incredible work in the governance world and is so inspirational to me.
9. What piece of advice would you give yourself if you were starting your business now?
Expect to feel anxious and uncomfortable. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed. It’s the flip side to the exciting aspect of it.
10. If you were working with a marketing budget of £1,000 what would you spend the money on?
A graphic designer to create polished & professional templates (i.e. Word documents, Powerpoints, etc) for our client deliverables.