It’s a muggy Wednesday afternoon on Clapham High Street, and I’m off to meet Jessica Gardiner, 27, Founder of The Assistant Room– a global online lifestyle, fashion and beauty magazine that has become the destination for Personal and Executive Assistants around the world. Championing the idea that the role of the Assistant is no longer just a job but a lifestyle choice, The Assistant Room organises networking events and provides its global readership with expert views on news and trends across beauty, fashion, travel, lifestyle and hospitality.
I first came across Jess via a recommendation from an old uni friend (thank you Steph) and from her very first email, knew that we’d have a LOT to talk about. My call with her the following day only confirmed that. To set the scene, I usually send through an email invitation to the Founder of each company inviting them to feature on She can. She did. I mention that if they have any further questions, I’d be happy to discuss on the phone. We arrange a brief call, I quickly run through what the interview involves, we set a date and that is that. Ten minutes tops.
My call with Jess went on for almost half an hour.
Discussing everything from the songs that made the cut onto her motivational playlist (more on that later) to the little voice in your head that won’t switch off the minute you choose to start your own business, I quickly started to worry that we’d run out of things to say in person.
Fortunately, my fears were unwarranted. Right on cue at 1pm, she arrives. Armed with Starbuck’s Iced Peach Green Tea’s, we find a table outside and after a quick sound check to make sure we can both be heard over the soundtrack that is Clapham Highstreet, the interview begins.
Jessica Gardiner. I feel like I’m being interviewed by that guy…who’s that guy that used to do the interviews?
She can. She did. Erm…Parkinson?
JG. No, ‘Life Stories’
SC.SD. Piers Morgan’s ‘Life Stories’
JG. Yes! I feel like I’m on that!
SC.SD. I used to love watching those so I’ll take that as a compliment!! Thank you so much for agreeing to sit down with me this afternoon, I love what you’ve created with The Assistant Room so I’m really looking forward to this chat.
JG. No thank you! I’m so excited to be interviewed. I think we all feel like we do so much but no one really knows about it so it’s nice to get the chance to share our stories.
SC.SD. That’s good! Let’s set the scene then, where did the idea behind The Assistant Room come from?
JG. I was a Business Manager and PA to a fashion blogger a couple of years ago when I had “the lightbulb moment”. Just seeing the amount of engagement she was getting on a platform that was so colourful and visually stimulating… I just thought this is what the PA industry needs. I didn’t think that PA’s were being represented properly at the time. Everything was so black and white and super corporate. It was all aimed at people that had spent 25 years in the industry and they tend to stick together. There was nothing that I could relate to so I came up with The Assistant Room.
Having been a PA since she was 17, with ten years’ experience behind her, Jess established The Assistant Room in February 2016 and by December, decided to go full time with it.
SC.SD. How did you juggle a full time job with the initial start-up of TAR?
JG. As well as working for Ella, the fashion blogger, I was working as a PA for a Gold Mining Company which was extremely laid back so I had a lot of time on my hands to really think about what I wanted the company to be like.
SC.SD. An ideal situation really then!
JG. Exactly! My ex-boyfriend designed the logo in about five minutes and I designed the website myself. Then when I had half an hour here and there, I’d add to it. By October, I thought we’ve got amazing traffic coming through so I put more effort into making it something I knew it could be.
I had spent ten years networking by that point so I had such a solid base around me that I automatically had a readership which I’m so thankful for. These are all girls I could phone up and say “Hey, how was your weekend?” not just Linkedin contacts, so it picked up a lot of interest really quickly which was amazing!
SC.SD. That definitely helps! And what about getting the girls on board- how did you find the funds to have four writers working for you so soon?
Jess has a team of four women- each of whom have full-time PA roles- helping her to produce the polished content that makes up The Assistant Room.
JG. In October! I don’t actually pay anyone though! I just explained the situation frankly. I said along the lines of I really believe in this idea and feel as though if you can see beyond six months to a year and look at the bigger project and you want to be part of it then I’d love to have you. It’s an opportunity for you to do your own personal PR, you write however you want to write so long as you’re not coming across like a crazy person (!) and you write about what you want to write about. I can’t pay you but you are now technically press.
SC.SD. That’s amazing. So they essentially approach restaurants, travel companies etc and get things on the house in exchange for exposure?
JG. Exactly, they get more from that than they would me paying them.
SC.SD. It’s a really clever concept. My background as a Conference Producer meant that I was often dealing with PA’s if I had to finalise logistics with my speakers so I can completely appreciate what goes on behind the scenes. Juggling diaries, time zones, personalities etc… Talk to me about how your background as a PA prepared you for the realities of running your own business.
JG. There’s absolutely no way that I would be in the position that I’m in now had I not been a PA. I always worked at C-level and when you work next to those people side-by-side every day, you learn from the people that are running these big businesses and created these big businesses so they become more like mentors… it’s a very lonely place to be at the top because you are so accountable for everything, you’re the boss, so you become so attached and in sync with your PA- they take you with them along the way. I’ve been asked before, “Jess, should we sack the CFO?” That’s not a question you ask just anyone.
SC.SD. Absolutely not! How did you find the transition then? Moving from being the expert in an industry you worked your way up in for 10 years to not being a PA anymore and your team telling you what’s going on in the PA world so to speak?
JG. It is really hard, I miss it a lot. You’re so vital to their lives, it’s an engrained feeling and you get so used to it. I have this little voice in my head all the time saying “go back to work” and I have to slap that voice down and ignore it because it would be very easy for me to go out tomorrow and walk into a job. It would be like becoming part of the furniture again but then I think I started TAR for a reason so I’m going to continue.
SC.SD. It would be the safe option?
JG. Exactly, if running your own business was easy then everyone would do it.
SC.SD. Ooo that’s good, I’ll quote you on that! What does a typical day look like for you?
JG. There are some days where I wake up at 6am and work solidly through to dinner time and that will be phone calls with London, New York, India (anywhere where there is a high concentration of PA’s), listening to webinars, responding to emails, organising events… I tend to do about 5 things at once so I’ll listen to a webinar whilst doing emails, painting my toenails and… eating a sandwich!
SC.SD. The queen of multi-tasking! Any off days?
JG. I do have off days and when you have your own business I think it’s important to know that off days are a. normal and b. absolutely fine. There are some days where I wake up and think fuck this, I’m not going to do anything today because I worked my absolute arse off yesterday. I’ll have a lay in until 9am or maybe I can’t be bothered to get out of bed so I’ll do everything from bed!
SC.SD. Because you can?
JG. Because I can.
SC.SD. And that’s a good feeling?
JG. On the days I can do it yes. I’m not the kind of person that finds it difficult to focus at all, you could put me anywhere and I’ll crack on with work and I think some people struggle with that. When you go from being employed to self-employed you haven’t got someone breathing down your neck saying you have to do this and that, you take it at your own pace and it takes some time getting used to.
SC.SD. You have to be disciplined…
JG. You have to be so disciplined! Not that I say no to a glass of wine but if you are out on a Saturday night for a friend’s birthday and you know you’ve got a meeting the next day- which does happen when you own your own business because its 24/7- you have to be controlled.
SC.SD. It sounds like you’ve got it sussed! Have you had any days where you’ve really questioned why you’re doing this?
JG. So many. In the same way that I’ve learnt to understand that having off days are ok, I’ve realised that having low points is ok too and that they will happen… I treat them like a book. If I’m having a shit time I open the book focus on that for half an hour and then close the book and move on.
I also think the constant difference between an amazing day and not an amazing day is really tough. When you have a sensationally productive day, you might not have that again for two weeks and that can sometimes make you doubt whether you’re doing the right thing.
SC.SD. And the voice comes back!?
JG. The voice comes back! It’s not always saying get a full time job, it says ‘you could even get a part time job’, but I’m like no, I need to focus on this. It’s all or nothing for me.
SC.SD. Damn right! Let’s move on to the good bits! Talk to me about the moments where you just know you’ve made the right decions?
JG. It has to be the feedback we get from doing events and working with brands. I get an adrenaline rush just talking about it, it’s weird! Brands didn’t really understand the PA industry and didn’t see how PA’s could add value to their brand which is absolutely insane to me. They are some of the most commercially powerful people in the world- these are the ones who tell the CEOs of the company what to do- they have so much power and influence.
Because of the approach that we took that was so different to everyone else though, slowly but surely there was a bit of faith restored.
SC.SD. That’s so good, well done!
JG. Thank you! There’s a reason we get the response that we get and it’s because of the amount of work that we personally put into it. I had Anthony Joshua’s PA describe us the other day as ‘The Vogue’ of the PA world which is amazing.
SC.SD. That’s a big compliment! Side track for a second though- lucky her! Let’s talk opinions. What was the response of those closest to you when you said I’m quitting as a PA and am going to set TAR up?
JG. I think because it had already been established for a while they were all a bit like, oh ok, yeh, sure etc… I think some people thought I was a bit of an idiot to give up the salary that I was on though.
At the time, Jess was earning £55k p/a as a Personal Assistant.
SC.SD. So you took a big pay cut?
JG. Huuuge pay cut. I don’t really take money from the business; I just live through the business if that makes sense? So I think they thought I was mad and I loved my old job so much…
SC.SD. Which is interesting because a lot of people would set up their own business when they’ve had enough.
JG. Exactly, I think people probably thought it was quite unnecessary. But I wouldn’t look back, I just threw myself into it and everyone was really supportive. I’m very lucky that I have a strong family and strong group of friends and I think the team help too because it’s petrifying going it alone when you have no pension, no healthcare cover…
SC.SD. Yes, I definitely took the benefits for granted!
JG. Exactly, they just disappear. But if you do have that belief in yourself that it will work then it will happen.
SC.SD. What about putting yourself out there on social media? Any negative or patronising comments?
JG. It has happened.
We go on to discuss how Jess has experienced people on Linkedin making negative comments about the titles of some of TAR’s editorial and tagging friends in the comment section on Facebook regarding some of her articles.
SC.SD. And how did that make you feel?
JG. To be honest, I couldn’t give a rat’s arse! I am of the opinion that people who send negative energy towards you aren’t worth your time because you’re never going to be able to bring them round to your thinking.
When you start a business you have to be prepared that there will be opposition and it will be strong opposition… but you have to let it go over your head, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is you staying focused on what you want to achieve because at the end of the day, you’re going to be in a much better position than they are.
SC.SD. Have you found that any of your relationships with people have changed as you became more successful?
JG. No, they’ve only got stronger. I have a very supportive group of friends but you have to be prepared that things will take a back seat. Your life dynamic changes. For instance, I opened my cards and presents three days after my birthday this year and I’m a huge birthday person! You have to be prepared for that! My friends are so understanding though, I’m so so lucky!
SC.SD. You can’t beat your besties! What advice would you give to young girls who might have an idea for a business but are being told that they should go to uni and get a degree first?
JG. Don’t listen to anyone! …That’s really bad advice isn’t it!?
SC.SD. We’ll roll with it! Did you go to uni?
JG. No. I felt a bit lost because everyone was talking about uni at college. You don’t have the experience at that age to think I’m going to be ok. I think the important thing to remember is if you have an idea and you really believe in that idea, don’t tell anyone about it. You’ll immediately open the doors to egos and opinions that will tell you that it won’t work. If you are of the entrepreneurial spirit, you will always have those clogs turning in your head and you need to let them. It’s a creative process and you want to leave it as untouched as possible from everyone else.
SC.SD. And then?
JG. And then as soon as you’ve got the idea, you can turn around to everybody and say “this is my idea, are you going to support me with this?”
SC.SD. I love that and it’s so true! Let’s move on to personal life and dating- do you have time to date when you have your own business?
JG. I am dating which is fun! I’ve just come out of a three year relationship actually…
SC.SD. So your ex saw the business grow from scratch?
JG. Yeh he saw it grow from the beginning, he helped me with everything, setting it up, designing the logo etc… so separating myself from that was quite a painful process. It was almost more than just breaking up with someone because he will always be a part of TAR now. We’re still really good friends though!
SC.SD. That’s good, I can imagine it being hard to walk away from when the two are so closely aligned though. So you do have time for a social life then?!
JG. Dating is probably one of the only times I do detach myself. I get forced to have down time, I don’t like it. I’m very lucky that I have friends that are like, “we’re going out, you’re not bringing your phone, we’re going to meet you here at this time!”
I look at her phone suspiciously.
SC.SD. And that goes away… genuinely?
JG. Ok, I take my phone and give it to them but I say if it rings and it’s important then I’m answering it! To tear myself away from work is difficult but I really enjoy it and when you’re on a roll you have to keep it up!
I woke up at 3 am a few days ago, made loads of notes, went back to sleep and woke up a few hours later surrounded by massive scribbles filled with ideas.
SC.SD. Ok… bit weird! Were you conscious at the time?
JG. I think I woke up, was immediately conscious, went crazy for about an hour and a half, and then went back to sleep.
In those ninety conscious minutes, Jess came up with the idea to create a private membership club for young entrepreneurs that will be launching soon.
SC.SD. And you woke up in the morning feeling…?
JG. Rich! No, drained, but it’s all part of the fun.
SC.SD. I’ll take your word for it! Talk to me more about the playlist…
JG. I have a motivational playlist when I wake up every morning..! It’s full of semi-aggressive, empowering songs… I need to send it to you. Christina Aguilera, Beyonce….
SC.SD. Who runs the world?
JG. Yep, that’s on there. They’re the songs that make you feel like you can get up and you don’t need a coffee to get things done.
SC.SD. I don’t know if a song could ever make me feel like that!
JG. See I’m allergic to caffeine, it makes me so shakey, and I get rashes, it’s terribly glamorous. I would credit a lot of my good work to my playlist!
SC.SD. And your favourite motivational quote?
JG. It’s not business related at all but my Mum has always said this to me and it’s “grow old disgracefully”
SC.SD. Go on…
JG. To be successful you have to get your hands dirty and be prepared that sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone and do things that you wouldn’t normally do. So maybe at a networking event, you have one glass too many with the most influential person in the room.
SC.SD. But you bond?
JG. Yes, you bond and it’s very much a case of it’s not what you know but who you know in today’s society.
SC.SD. I couldn’t agree more. So to end then, is The Assistant Room your forever now and if so how do you see it growing?
JG. I still definitely want TAR to be around in five years but I want us to have a physical presence elsewhere in the world- in New York and Dubai. Whether that’s an office or just a regular trip over there I don’t know yet but I want to create a new culture globally that focuses on the fact that being a PA is a lifestyle choice and that you don’t have to work for the same person in the same company for 25 years to be treated as a serious professional.
SC.SD. So you’ve still got lots of ideas then?
JG. Lots and lots and lots of ideas!
Having met Jess now, sat in awe of how switched on she is and witnessed in person just how passionate she is about her company, I certainly don’t doubt that.
To find out more about The Assistant Room, visit their website here.