20 Questions: Frances Dickens, Of Astus Group

By on November 20, 2013

Frances talks tax, ponies and solar panels

1. IF YOU HAD DONE SOMETHING ELSE, WHAT WOULD IT HAVE BEEN?

A three-day event horse rider. When I was younger I spent most afternoons riding horses for a local dealer. Or a full time clay pigeon shooter, which is better than riding horses now I’m too old to fall off.

2. WHAT ELSE WOULD YOU HAVE NAMED YOUR BUSINESS?

Astus is a media bartering company – we help companies to trade the goods and services, in return for media space. We actually thought of all sorts of smart names before launch, but we were so busy getting the deal done that we only started to check the domain names about three hours before we had to sign the deal, and found that all the ones we’d thought of had already gone! Cue panic.

So we went to Latin (as you do) and Astus, which is derived from the Latin word for astute, was basically the first one we found with a domain name available. I think it’s taken on a life of its own now so we didn’t do too bad a job in choosing that.

3. IF YOU COULD BE BASED IN ANOTHER CITY, WHERE WOULD IT BE?

It has to be Hong Kong. I spend a fair bit of time in our Asia and Australia offices but Hong Kong is still my favourite place in the world.

4. HOW DID YOU RAISE MONEY AT THE BEGINNING?

My business partner Paul Jackson and I spent hours and hours (and hours) chasing down opportunities to present our business plan to various VC’s and potential investors, none of whom really understood what we were proposing.

Eventually one of these (who had clearly made the appointment by mistake) actually got totally into what we wanted to do and although it wasn’t right for her she put us in touch with a friend who did invest. This was matched by Paul and myself and then our start-up team all wanted to invest as well.

Paul and I ended up giving away half the company for investment cash that we never actually touched because we were profitable in month three. We’d do it all again like that though because the dynamic has worked so well and ten years on we’re now the market leader by some clear distance.

5. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST IMPORTANT DECISION?

To turn away business in the early days because we weren’t 100% certain we could deliver the deal properly, even though we didn’t have many clients at the time and really wanted the business.  A lot of this has since turned into good business/clients for us though because of that honesty but we had no idea at the time that it would.

6. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST MISTAKE?

Getting hung up that we needed to fill particular roles and ending up with a couple of people who we didn’t know as well, and who turned out not to be the right personalities. Parting company was very distracting when we needed to be focussed on chasing down business.

7. WHAT IDEA DO YOU WISH YOU HAD COME UP WITH?

Golden rice? I did want to say those African water pumping roundabouts where the kids play and pump clean water up at the same time but apparently they’re not really viable. A great idea though.

8. HOW DO YOU COPE WITH STRESS?

I don’t do stress, it’s a pointless state of mind. Either fix it or forget it until you can.

9. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB?

My first part-time job was jumping ponies in qualifiers for rich kids, who’d then ride them in the final. And feeding the pigs. My first ‘proper’ job was as a pensions clerk. I hated it but that’s what you get when you fail all your O Levels because you’ve been riding ponies instead of going to lessons.

10. WHAT WAS YOUR WORST JOB?

Definitely the pensions clerk – I still refuse to have a formal pension scheme.

11. WHAT WAS YOUR BEST JOB?

The one I have now of course! Or riding ponies and feeding pigs

12. IF YOU WERE ON THE APPRENTICE, WHAT WOULD YOUR TEAM NAME BE?

No B***S***. Unfortunately I’m addicted to the programme even though I spend most of it shouting at the telly. It infuriates me that so many of the candidates subsequently appear in the media as some kind of business guru when they clearly demonstrated that they were clueless about even the basic aspects of business.

13. WHICH COMPANY WOULD YOU INVEST IN RIGHT NOW?

Pilkington – for its solar window glass development, which will be so much better than those ugly roof panels.

14. APART FROM PROPERTY, WHAT IS THE MOST EXPENSIVE THING YOU’VE BOUGHT?

Our Mercedes. It’s five years old now but I still won’t be changing it for a while yet as it looks and drives as well as the day it arrived.

15. SUITS OR JEANS?

Jeans, I have more than 40 pairs to fit every possible event.

16. FLEXIBLE WORKING OR OFFICE HOURS?

It has to be flexible. Some of our staff go to the gym at a time that suits them rather than taking twice as long at peak lunchtimes, two dads come in early and leave early one day a week so they pick their children up from school and we have others on reduced hours to enable them to balance working and being mums.

With only 30 people in London it’s easier for us to be flexible perhaps than larger organisations but we feel very strongly that we’ve invested a lot in great people over the past ten years and we want to make it possible for them to keep working through different demands in their lives. I also don’t like our people working long hours. Life needs to be fun and balanced.

17. WHAT IS THE BEST THING ABOUT YOUR OFFICE?

The atmosphere. It’s lively with lots of banter, underwritten by an awesome loyal and committed team of people who all play their part in our ongoing success.

18. WHAT APP CAN’T YOU LIVE WITHOUT?

I love Newsstand. Reading my usual paper every day while setting up our company in Australia was crucial for my sanity.

19. WHO IS YOUR BUSINESS IDOL?

Without a doubt it’s my business partner Paul Jackson. He’s super smart, loyal and much more stubborn than me. He’s very much the strategist whereas I’m the ‘doer’ but that makes for a great partnership.

20. IF YOU WERE PRIME MINISTER FOR THE DAY, WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE?

Our ridiculously complicated and intertwined taxation and benefits system. It might take a bit more than a day though so maybe I’d kick a few hundred unelected ‘lords’ into touch instead.

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