On the lead up to interviewing Fi Grayson from She Can. She Did., I was a little intimidated. Fi has conducted over 50 interviews with inspiring female business owners under the age of 40 in the last year alone, so she knows a thing or two about how to interview well. Upon meeting her however, all nerves melt away, as it turns out she’s one of the friendliest and most humble characters I’ve come across in a long time, not to mention hilariously down-to-earth. I had been following the journey of She Can. She Did. for several months when I finally met Fi at her Midweek Mingle event in London, and pestered her for an interview to find out more about this passion project that was attracting a lot of attention.
If you haven’t read any of the interviews from She Can. She Did. yet and you’re an aspiring business owner (and if you’ve made it here, I’m guessing you are) then I urge you to use the links below when you finish this post, to head over and take a look at what Fi has been doing for the last year. After leaving her corporate job, she noticed a distinct lack of online insight into the first steps of the inspiring young female entrepreneurs that were being mentioned in the glossy magazines she was reading. Armed with a desire to deconstruct their stories and find out the most significant lessons they had learned since starting their businesses, Fi began interviewing the people who inspired her, and She Can. She Did. was launched.
I’ve long been a fan of her in-depth interviews that get to the very centre of each person’s story, but it’s not just the interview subjects that inspire me and the SCSD audience. Fi isn’t afraid to laugh about gaps in her knowledge when it comes to entrepreneurial jargon, nor is she embarrassed to ask questions that she and her readers have long wanted to know the answer to. In our interview she offers up her advice on how to keep your mindset healthy even when your bank balance is depleting, the major lessons she has learned from all of the interviewees she’s spoken to over the last year, and of course how she plans to continue turning this passion project into a thriving business. If you hope to do the same some day soon, or you’re attempting to right now, then my sit-down with Fi will certainly boost your business confidence, just as it did mine.
Let’s start with what you were doing before. Can you tell me about your previous job and what made you decide to leave?
I can indeed! So I used to be a Conference Producer for a publishing house in London, which meant that I was producing finance conferences around the world from the age of 21. On my second day on the job my boss handed me my old portfolio, and so my first conference was in New York. It was such an amazing job to start my career but because it was all finance conferences and I gave up maths after GCSE, economics and I have never been the best of friends, so the day-to-day reality wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds!
After three and a half years of doing it therefore, the novelty wore off. I’d started looking at other jobs but all the jobs that I was interested in meant either having to take a huge pay cut, or to go in at the level that I wanted to go in at, they wanted you to have 6 or 7 years’ experience, which I didn’t have. Given how competitive job applications are and how long application forms are nowadays, when you know that you’re already going up against people with all of that experience, it’s really hard.
Anyway, last April I was in Boston for one of my conferences and an email came through from work that instantly made me feel anxious, and I remember just thinking ‘I am so over this’. I took a screenshot of it and sent it to my big sister saying along the lines of “I don’t know if I can do this anymore”, and she said “Just quit Fi. I’ve been hearing this for a while now”. It was literally that simple. I always talk about lightbulb moments with the girls I interview, and I never had a lightbulb moment for She Can. She Did, but I did have a moment in that hotel room where I just knew I was ready to quit my job. Anyway, knowing that I wouldn’t be back in Boston any time soon, I decided to walk to Harvard University before I left, and the whole way there I was thinking ‘what can I do if I quit my job?’.
It just came back down to ‘what do I enjoy doing?’; I enjoy researching and I enjoy writing, but I wanted to do that with topics that I actually cared about, and now knowing that I wasn’t going into another job, I felt very passionate about the fact that I had to do something on my own!
Anyway, I remember stopping for coffee on the way because it was tipping down with rain and I just Googled ‘women under the age of 40 who have their own businesses’. Obviously the Forbes 30 Under 30 list popped up along with articles in some of the glossy magazines, but all it tended to be were their pictures and maybe a paragraph explaining what they’d achieved. I couldn’t access anything that actually broke it down in terms of what they did to get there and what their first steps were, because all of those girls had a day one where they didn’t know they were going to become successful and they had to power through a lot to get there.
By the time I eventually got to Harvard, I remember just thinking, ‘if I can’t find what I’m looking for, why don’t I just reach out to these girls myself and see if they’re willing to share their stories in full.’ I didn’t think of it as a business at first, it was literally just a project, but then I kind of fell in love with it and I’ve just been making it up as I go along since!
All of those girls had a day one where they didn’t know they were going to become successful.”
So with that in mind, how did you actually start? You had your 3 month notice period to work, what did you do next?
So I officially started on August 7th last year! I just remember opening my laptop not having an actual clue what I was doing, and I hadn’t done enough prep in those 3 months either! You would have thought that I would be panicking a bit but I’m the kind of person that needs that pressure on me I think! I’m getting better now, but I needed that pressure of the salary completely disappearing and just being thrown in at the deep end so that I just got on with it.
Who was the very first person you interviewed?
A lady called Siobhan Holmes, who founded The Vino Van. It was so funny because it was a Friday evening in summer, the interview started at 5.30pm and it just felt like such a funny welcome to doing your own thing when you go to work at 5 o’clock on a Friday night while everyone else is just finishing. She had renovated an old horse box and turned it into a Prosecco van, and so we met at a local festival. It was absolutely tipping down with rain again (a theme with me!) and the event ended up being cancelled because the rain was that bad, so Siobhan and I were just sat in her Prosecco van having this interview, completely freezing, while all these people were coming up to us saying “you know the event is cancelled, you can go home” while we were in mid-interview.
Do you often do interviews at people’s workplaces to get a sense of them and their business?
I do indeed! In the beginning I just travelled left, right and centre, and I’m kind of having to weigh it up now because I’ve got a bit busier. For example there’s a lady that I interviewed in Cornwall and that would have taken 11 or 12 hours there and back, so there are some where it’s better to Skype! I definitely prefer face to face though because I just feel you can get so much more from them; we can go for coffee, everyone’s more relaxed and it’s a bit more down to earth!
How many interviews have you done so far?
I think it’s just gone over 50! I don’t know if they’ve all gone up on the blog yet but I have a backlog of about 9 or 10, so it might even be nearer 60. In the beginning I wanted to do one every Sunday and Wednesday, but I mean you must find this, transcribing an hour and a half chat is literally a joke! I just wasn’t leaving my laptop and it was getting really silly. So then I thought no, I’ll just put out one a week, work on that for 2 or 3 days and then have the rest of the week to focus on a bigger picture if I’m going to dedicate my time to this.
I quickly realised that I wanted to turn it into something, it wasn’t just a project any more, and I think I got a bit better at allocating my time. For instance, I have such a big backlog of interviews at the moment because I used to try and fit as many interviews as I could into one day when I went into London, but then I’d get home and realise I had 4-5 weeks’ worth of interviews!
I quickly realised that I wanted to turn it into something, it wasn’t just a project any more.”
Did you have interview experience from your previous role?
Sort of. As a Conference Producer, you’re responsible for all the research behind the event so that you can write market-leading agendas and secure the best speakers in the world to present, so in the initial stages of production I’d head off to Canary Wharf and sit down with senior level guys at Barclays, HSBC and so on, and interview them on the challenges their industry was facing at present. So my interviews weren’t necessarily QA, QA, QA, and I’d never type them up, but I was comfortable sitting down with complete strangers and asking them lots of questions!
But honestly Caitlin, they’d come out with some stuff and I wouldn’t have a clue what they were saying half the time! I’d make a load of notes, go back to the office, Google what I’d heard phonetically, then the actual term would come up and I would think ‘ahh, that must be what they were on about!’
Fake it ’til you make it, I love it! You’re doing this full time at the moment, right?
I am indeed!
So when you said it was a project in the beginning but you want to turn it into more than that, does that mean turn it into your full time business?
Yes, basically find a way of making some money from it because I’m completely broke! That was the reality check I had walking away from my job. You must find this with Desk Life Project, but if you appeal to a specific audience and build a core network in that space then that will naturally appeal to a number of brands who view that network as their target audience. I think it was a mix of being broke, falling in love with it and knowing that I didn’t want to give it up. (And realising that I’m working around the clock on it and I want something to come from it.)
Also, the determination of every woman I interview kind of rubs off on you, so I definitely learn from them, they give me ideas, people write to me and suggest things and I think ‘oh that’s a good idea’, and just go with it.
I was adamant that I wanted to bring my events background into it at some point too so I think the beauty of what I’m doing, what we’re doing, is that you have the power to kind of make it up as you go along.
You’ve managed to build a huge network of followers that seem really engaged with what you’re doing. How have you found your audience so far?
You know what? It’s actually the feedback from the girls that has kept this going! I’ve had some really shitty moments since launching this, especially around Christmas last year; not having a salary and constantly comparing and thinking ‘well this time last year I could afford this’. It was so hard! I’m not very materialistic so I don’t mind not going shopping or anything, it was more that I’d often be the friend who picked up a bill at dinner so not being able to go out for drinks and celebrate was horrible.
But seeing people tag friends in things, saying “you should do this” or “read this” or seeing messages from people saying “I really needed to hear this” reminds me why I’m doing it. That just kept me going and I think from about 2 weeks after my first interview went live, girls started reaching out to me to be interviewed and they’ve all been really helpful in sharing things. I honestly couldn’t have done it without them and I’ve made some amazing friends through this which I’m also grateful for!
I wanted to ask you about that; do you reach out to people that you want to interview, or do they mostly come to you?
Yes, so at the very beginning I reached out to 15, maybe 20 women, and all of them bar 2 or 3 said yes. But very early on, girls started reaching out asking to be interviewed so from mid-September onwards the majority have asked to feature which I love!
You mentioned in one of your blogs about the importance of not being scared of “fancy pants jargon”. What have you learned from the interviews that you didn’t understand before?
Definitely, it’s so funny because every time anything to do with terminology comes up it goes back to a story I told at my first event where I mistook ‘FX portfolio’ for something to do with special effects when my old boss handed over my old portfolio of events! I’ve learned so much from the girls. For example, anyone who said they raised investment for their business, I’ve always asked them to talk through the process of how they did that in layman’s terms. There’s an interview with a woman called Zoe Vu on the blog and she broke it down so, so well. I remember walking away from that thinking, ‘actually, this isn’t as scary as you think’.
She just basically said that even having 10 years in banking behind her, it was terrifying, but actually all of that terminology aside, they just want to know that you’re reliable and that you know the numbers. You’re the founder so you know the numbers better than anyone else. Hearing it like that suddenly made it sound less scary!
With all the women that you’ve interviewed so far, what are the main similarities you have noticed? Anything that you recognised everyone saying or thinking?
Genuinely it’s their attitude to low moments. Every single one of the girls is a ‘glass half full’ girl and I really appreciate that because I’ve always been someone that tries to be too. Growing up I’d always just apply for things and figure out a way of doing it afterwards. For instance I’d always watch people run the marathon and think, ‘I couldn’t do that’, but then I’d think ‘don’t be silly, just sign up and once you’re in you’ll train’. Silly things like that. I just think if anything gets hard these girls just grit their teeth and get on with it; it’s just about not dwelling on anything or making excuses.
Some of the girls come out with some insane things that they’ve had to go through that put all of my worries into perspective. For instance one of the girls’ bank accounts was hacked four years into her business and she couldn’t afford to keep the majority of her staff. Instead of quitting though, she scaled back and built it up from scratch again. Going back to Christmas and how crap I felt, it’s like, so what?! If they can get through that, then I can stop worrying about this temporary issue! Not one of the girls I’ve featured on the blog has had it easy! You know that image that always goes around Instagram with the entrepreneur journey being a squiggly line? That’s just so true. Don’t get me wrong, everyone wishes it could be easy, but it would be kind of boring without it and you get the best stories when you’ve gone through those crappy moments and worked your way out.
You’ve gone through your low moments, but you’re organising live events, travelling all over the country…you must be so busy! How do you stay organised enough to do that?
Before I started this my day was so structured. My alarm would go off at a set time, I’d catch my train at a set time, I’d be at my desk at a set time, I’d go home and do a workout, have dinner; everything was just routine. When you walk away from that suddenly you have this whole blank canvas of a day ahead of you and I really struggled with it. I’m good at motivating myself anyway, but it’s more the fact that I don’t have anyone to tell me to walk away from my laptop, and weekends are suddenly not weekends any more. I make sure I have Sunday off now because I didn’t initially and I was getting frazzled, and still I’ve interviewed people that worked seven days a week for years when they started up and I just think ‘how?’ I don’t understand it! How the hell do they not burn out quicker?
I also don’t do anything until I’ve had a good coffee in the morning. Honestly Caitlin, I’m not a nice person without it! Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday I’m working on the events, my long-term plans for She Can. She Did, and reaching out to people. Thursday is transcribing interviews and sending them over, Friday is cutting them down, and I normally write my intro and conclusion bits on a Saturday and format it all. Then of course I post on Sunday nights!
Sometimes an email can come in though and you’ll suddenly find yourself working on that for an hour and you realise your day has gone. Random opportunities can come through and throw you off course so quickly but I’m definitely getting better at working out what to say “yes” to now!
And what about work life balance? What do you do for self-care?
I always work out in the morning – just to clear my head! Four or five times a week as soon as my alarm goes off I’m up and sweating! But also one of the reasons I work at my parents’ house and not my flat, is because Hector, my dog, is here and I’m such an animal person. At 11 o’clock, lunchtime, and maybe like 3pm, I walk him for 10 minutes just to get air and to move.
That’s another thing, when you’re in London you move constantly. To go from that where your step count is through the roof to sitting on your bum all day was horrendous! I don’t know if you found that as well, but I just felt like ‘ugh, I need to move’. So I’ve been really strict with telling Hector “we’re going for a walk!” He loves it.
I know exactly what you mean. I got really strange back pain when I first became freelance, and I’d never had that before. I think it was just from sitting down all day.
It’s so true, and you don’t realise it but even in an office just silly things like walking to the bathroom or the water fountain would take a while. If there’s one thing I miss about working in the city, it’s that!
You get the best stories when you’ve gone through those crappy moments and worked your way out.”
Do you have a mantra that you tell yourself every day to stay motivated?
Not really, but like I said earlier, I try to be a glass half full kind of person. Don’t get me wrong, some people get dealt worse cards than others, but I think attitude is everything when it comes to launching a business!
In terms of quotes though, I really like the one that says, “No one is you, that is your power”. I genuinely think that every single person has the potential to make something of themselves, anyone can make it work if they’re willing to put the effort in.
I also think it’s about embracing your quirks! All of my friends say I’m like Phoebe from Friends, I’ve never been cool in my life! Growing up everyone listened to Radio One while I had the Les Mis soundtrack on back to back! So as corny as it sounds, I think being happy in your own skin is so important before launching a business, as the minute you put yourself and your business out there, you’re vulnerable because people are watching. Knowing that you’re comfortable in your own skin really helps because people are going to talk – it’s a sad reality when you do something on your own – and having a good relationship with yourself and being able to trust yourself to do what it takes to make it work, regardless of other people’s opinions, goes a long way.
I love that! Who is your mentor and how did you find her?
It’s Hayley Southwood, she’s the founder of the Southwood Social Hub. I was introduced to her by someone and interviewed her when we first met. She has a Scandinavian online store called the Southwood Store, but she also has the Southwood Social Hub which is basically 15 minutes down the road from me! She mentors loads of girls and after interviewing her I joined the hub. It’s really casual, we just go for coffee and catch up.
Obviously some of the girls I’ve spoken to have really hardcore business mentors where they might go to someone for help with their finances and go to someone else for marketing advice. I don’t have anything like that. For me it’s just nice to sit down with someone who’s been through it all already who can say, “how about trying this?” or “actually, you’re doing fine! Chill!” you know?
Of all the interviews you’ve done, speaking on what you’ve learned from other people and what you’ve done yourself, what is the best piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to start a business or a project like you have?
I get really annoyed when people say “just go for it”. I know everyone has heard that loads, but it’s so true! It’s like the marathon; if you’re sat there each year thinking ‘I’d love to run that one day’, sign up and run it then! But no, in all seriousness, tell someone that you’re going to launch your own business and you’re immediately held accountable. Your pride is on the line then. You don’t want to be the person who said they were going to do something and then doesn’t.
Then I’d say to just start really small with things like buying a domain name because it all snowballs. Once you’ve actually got a name it makes a huge difference because suddenly it’s not just “I’m launching this business and it will be blah, blah, blah”. Instead you can actually introduce yourself as the founder of X and immediately it gives you more confidence. It’s no longer just an idea in your head.
Some of the girls have said that the minute you have that brand behind you, especially if you’re quite shy, you can then let the brand do the talking. I also think it’s important to remember that every single person you admire in the business world had a day one, one day. I’ve had a few messages from people who are thinking of going into business but they’re worried that no one will take them seriously because they’ve got nothing to show for themselves. I think that, it’s so cheesy but, everyone started somewhere so it’s about recognising that and embracing it.
I remember when I was reaching out to the girls in that first week I said along the lines of, “I know I’ve got nothing to show for myself right now, however…”. I think you’ll be so surprised as well, just how many people will help you. Everyone has said it, they haven’t gotten to where they are today on their own. It’s about not letting yourself feel intimidated by what’s going on around you, and just going for it. I have to end with “just go for it”, don’t I?!
A classic, but it works! What’s next for She Can. She Did?
I would love to know that Caitlin! No, in all seriousness, I’m about to launch a podcast once I get a microphone for my birthday (hint hint Mum and Dad!) which should be fun and will hopefully cut down on my time transcribing interviews, and I will hopefully continue to put on more of The Midweek Mingles for as long as the girls want them! But then long term plans… My January was spent meeting sponsors, because I really want to launch a big event, a bit like the Cosmo Self-Made Summit, and bring that conference knowledge back in, but make it way more fun than my old events!
I’d also love to write a book one day condensing everything I’ve learned from the girls with my own experience of launching She Can. She Did.
If I’m being honest though, I’m taking every day as it comes, trying to stay flexible and just enjoy the whole journey!
You can take a look at Fi’s website, She Can. She Did, at the link here, and follow what she’s up to on Instagram @shecanshedid. The August Midweek Mingle is now sold out, but keep an eye on the SCSD event page to find out about the next one and grab your ticket!