A spotlight on: Katie Nickless, 36, Co-Founder of DNA Travel

Not many people can say that the decision to start their business emerged after a year off work in which they quit their corporate job of five years; sold their house and moved into rented accommodation; then spent the majority of their savings on living the high life for a year!

Nor would they readily admit to being motivated more so by the lifestyle that their business provides (as opposed to the more philanthropic business causes that we have grown so accustomed to hearing nowadays).

But thirty-six year old Katie Nickless isn’t like a lot of women I’ve met!

Having connected online via the Southwood Social Hub – a membership community for female entrepreneurs – and gone on to laugh our way through a number of coffees and catch ups ever since, my decision to share Katie’s story was an easy one to make.

Given that she launched a corporate travel business alongside her brother’s luxury travel company last year (that went on to turn over seven figures comfortably in its first year might I add) the two of us sat down on Friday 16th March so I could delve into her start-up story so far…

The gorgeous Katie Nickless, 36, Co-Founder of DNA Travel

KN. I’ve worked in travel since I left school really… well I did a few ski seasons so it was kind of travel!

For five years, Katie managed the sales team at a large corporate travel agency covering all of their offices outside of London. Though it gave her plenty of opportunities however, ultimately she came to the realisation that she was no longer happy there.

KN. It gave me so many great opportunities but something wasn’t right. I didn’t agree with a lot of people on where they wanted to take the business, it was hard to put my point across, I was attending senior management meetings and my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. I was clashing with people a lot so I sat there one day and just thought, ‘no, I’m done!’ I quit quite quickly, sold my house and decided to take a year off work…

SC.SD. As you do…!

KN. I know..! It was brilliant though! I had some money from the house and I just thought, ‘I’m going to spend it! I’m not going to be too responsible! I’m just going to take a year out, spend my money and have a lovely time!’

SC.SD. See a lot of people dream about doing that but never actually go ahead with it…!

KN. It was brilliant! People always ask whether I got bored but no way! There was plenty to do!

SC.SD. When you have the money, I can imagine it would be great but I guess it wouldn’t be so fun when the pennies run out..! Did you have a reality check at any point where you realised the good life might have to come to an end?!

KN. Erm… so that’s when I started working again! I got to a point where I realised I need to start earning money again and that’s when I started talking to my brother. He’d launched a luxury travel company a few years ago and it seemed daft for us not to come together. I’d bring my corporate experience in travel and launch that side of the business.

I realised I didn’t want to go back to a ‘normal’ job because I needed that flexibility. I hate being told I have to work 9 to 5 where you have an hour for lunch. I don’t run the business like that now for that reason. We give people as much flexibility as we can because we trust that they’ll do a good job.

SC.SD. Employees are pushing back against that in general nowadays aren’t they?

KN. Absolutely! It doesn’t work. I’ve worked in offices where they’re just so unproductive. Just because they’re in work doesn’t mean they’re doing work. They’re chatting, they’re out for cigarettes, they’re on Facebook… So escaping that was only a good thing. My boyfriend wouldn’t say this as I’m getting up later at the moment (!) but I’m better at 6am and then late at night too. Having my own business doesn’t mean I have to be tied to my desk. We’re adults at the end of the day so we should have that freedom.

SC.SD. When you clashed with management in your old job, was it that you were fed up of answering to those people in particular or were you fed up of answering to anyone in general?!

KN. Probably answering to anyone else! I’ve always been like that to be honest. I’m pretty head strong – I always have been – and quite opinionated and I just found myself sitting in management meetings and it’s like they were removed from the people that actually worked for them. I’d say something and they’d say, “no, no, no, we’re doing it this way” and there was probably…

SC.SD. A bit of tension?!

KN. Yes! They all just agreed with each other and it got a bit similar in the end. I look back on it now and they were a brilliant company but I got to the point where I needed to be free and not work for anyone else anymore.

The DNA company logo…

Though the luxury side of DNA Travel had already been established by her brother, I wanted to find out what launching the corporate side of the company entailed.

KN. I changed the website first because it looked like a car showroom website; it was awful! I love branding and buy into brands quite heavily so I wanted to make sure we had a softer look because all corporate travel websites look the same. I contacted a few agencies and just explained that I wanted it to be really personal so people know we offer that personal service. Then basically it was just setting up the systems.

Travel businesses rely on a lot of convoluted systems behind the scenes so you have to make sure you’ve got all the licensing and that kind of thing in place. We hired a guy that used to be a solicitor, such an intelligent guy, and he built all the systems and back end stuff. He moved over from the company I used to work for because we always worked together so well! We always used to say, “we’ll have our own travel business one day” and it was always such a throw away comment but now here we are and every day we say, “oh my god, we’re actually doing this!”

Then when we were in a stable position with systems, it was just a case of calling people, getting out there and trying to win corporate business; which when you’re a small business that no one knows…

SC.SD. Is hard?

KN. It’s really hard! I mean, let’s face it, no one likes a cold call…

SC.SD. Oh my gosh I hate them!

KN. Exactly! It’s so awkward so – whilst I still think there’s a place for cold calling – I’m all about networking, getting out there and meeting as many people as you can! That’s why I’m always chatting in the Hub and asking for people to meet for coffee; nothing needs to come from it but it heavily relies on me meeting people and trying to communicate our philosophies. All the big companies are vying to be the biggest company out there whereas our focus is on servicing clients really, really well; not overloading our portfolios trying to be the biggest but being really good at what we do and building up a brilliant reputation because of that. That’s really important to me. I love the marketing and branding side because of that, even though I have no experience doing it (!) but we’re building the business that way so we become a reputable brand people want to work with.

SC.SD. Was there anything else you had to teach yourself on the job?

KN. So much and the Hub has been amazing for that because of all the HR experts, marketing experts etc… that you can ask for help! Olie, one of our account managers that I mentioned earlier – has been incredible at helping with contracts, policies, and all the legal stuff so we’ve been incredibly lucky there. I do our social media but now we’re a year down the line, I’ve started reaching out to see if we can hand that over to someone.

You have to do it all at the beginning. You don’t have the money to outsource everything but in the same way that people outsource to us to look after their travel, I’m a huge believer in outsourcing when you can to people that know what they’re doing. I mean, I’m constantly thinking, ‘do people really want to see another picture of a beach?!’ so we try and stay relevant about upcoming hotels, top destinations, travel tips etc… but doing that on top of your day job and trying to win clients is tough. I’m definitely looking to hand that over but that means I have to hand over the reins and I don’t always like doing that either..!

Some of the incredible destinations that DNA Travel manage!

SC.SD. What does your core target audience look like?

KN. We look after a lot of SMEs across any industry to be honest but we have very specific services we can give them and we’re very clear about that. If I’m on the phone to someone and they say they fly Easyjet to and from Berlin every week, we can’t help them. It’s not relevant to us but you see it so much at big companies where the sales team would go to that meeting anyway just to tick off a KPI. It’s not good for the company, it’s not good for the client but they’re too wrapped up in their personal targets.

We’re quite specific. We want to work with brands that we can really service. It’s a complete travel service – kind of like an extension to their team – and our account managers are all experts. We’re all well-travelled and have all worked in business travel for over five years so it’s a case of, “pass it over, we’re the experts and we’ll look after you!”

Within a couple of months Katie had secured a number of small clients but six months after launching the business in January 2107, her first big client came on board.

SC.SD. Were you confident from day one that you’d get those big clients on board?

KN. We were confident because we spent that initial time making sure everything was in place. I was really adamant that we don’t just go to clients and say, “we can do it” when the reality behind the scenes is us going, “oh shit!” I’ve never been a, “let’s just wing it” girl so I’d never be able to work like that!

DNA’s resident Bull Dog Betty…

When we move on to the biggest challenges Katie has faced with her business so far, she shows no signs of hesitating and answers immediately.

KN. Working on my own. I hate it. Absolutely hate it! All my friends probably think, ‘she’s got so much flexibility, she can come and go, it’s such a nice life…’

SC.SD. Such a misconception!

KN. I know! To a certain extent I get it; I can go to the hair dressers at lunchtime if I want to but it’s certainly not like that every day. It got to the point last year where it became quite depressing. The motivation wasn’t there.

And I’ll be honest with you, when it’s your business and the motivation isn’t there, you start to worry because people are forever saying, “you will always feel motivated when you own a business because it’s yours!” But there are times where I’ve sat there and thought, ‘do you know what? This is bloody hard work! I’m sat on my own, I’ve been in this house for days and days and days, I’ve only spoken to the dog..!’

SC.SD. See I usually work at my parents but they moved to the middle of nowhere two weeks ago so I’ve been working from my flat whilst they get the broadband sorted… I know it’s only been two weeks but oh my gosh, I can relate to that. I don’t mind my own company but it’s really lonely when it’s day in day out.

KN. Honestly, I got to the point where I didn’t want to walk to the local shop; I was just hiding being the laptop! I wasn’t focused so getting out of the ‘office’ is really important.

SC.SD. It’s another reason why I decided to do these interviews face to face; just to remind myself that I can still hold a conversation!

KN. Haha exactly! It’s so lovely to have that flexibility but I’d recommend working elsewhere two/three days a week.

SC.SD. Even if it’s to a local coffee shop where there are other human voices…

KN. Exactly! Life does exist outside my home office window! But yeh, I really did get to a point where I thought, ‘this isn’t for me’ and it wasn’t because of the actual business or work; I just couldn’t be in the house for that long…

SC.SD. How did you pull yourself out of that slump then?

KN. I go for so many meetings over coffee just to get out the house! (Networking!) I work from David Lloyd some days, I’ve just got a membership at Soho Farmhouse which is beautiful so work from there a couple days a week, I work with my sister sometimes as she has her own business…

SC.SD. What about your brother?!

KN. Erm… we do meet up but once every couple of weeks! Not too often!

SC.SD. For good reason?!

KN. You have to remember that he’s my brother! We get on brilliantly but no, I couldn’t work with him every day and I know he’d say the same for me!

Katie and I met in the Southwood Social Hub…

SC.SD. You’ve mentioned you need to network heavily to attract new business so where do you go to network and what’s your advice for anyone who’s not confident meeting people like that and pitching in person?

KN. Well I obviously joined the Hub last summer. I think I saw it on Facebook actually! I didn’t know anyone in it. I think I just thought, ‘£20 a month, I’ll get to talk to people, why not?’ and it’s been absolutely brilliant. I’ve collaborated with a few of the girls, you can meet for coffee like this and it’s so much easier to trust them. I’d much rather support other women locally!

The Southwood Social Hub – of which we are both members – is a membership community for female entrepreneurs.

KN. My worst nightmare would be to stand up and do a sixty second pitch which you often associate with networking events but I avoid anything like that. I’m in sales and even I hate it! I’d turn into a gibbering wreck!

I’ve learnt now though that as long as you know what you’re talking about, you’ll be fine. What’s the worst that could happen? I used to say this to my sales team all the time and they’d come out with these scenarios and I’d say, “that’s not going to happen”. They might not like you, yes, but so what?! Worst things happen!

Having said that, I’m a really confident person but at the same time I’m a big worrier. I worry about every possible thing you can think about and I remember doing a massive pitch once… Usually you pitch to two or three people but I walked in and there were twelve people in this staged meeting room; they gave me a lectern and I really had to compose myself! As soon as I got going though, I felt like I smashed it and walked out of there and felt amazing! Unless you do stuff like that, you don’t get the highs.

Katie on one of her many trips away!

Given that DNA Travel turned over seven figures comfortably last year, I was interested to talk about more of the highs in detail.

SC.SD. Let’s talk about days that make all of this hard work worth it!?

KN. Winning new business for sure!

SC.SD. How do you celebrate?

KN. Usually with wine! I can’t lie about that! Any win is a big win for us and when you start winning business, it snowballs I think. Maybe it’s laws of attraction…

SC.SD. It definitely spurs you on doesn’t it?

KN. Totally! You feel more confident! It’s that ‘we can do this’ feeling! At the beginning, before any clients came on board, was really scary. There have been times where my brother and I have sat down, looked at each other and said, “right, where are we getting that next big win from?” It’s scary but I’m all about perspective. My business really means so much to me but what’s the worst that can happen? It won’t fail!

SC.SD. With a service-based business like yours, there will always be companies that need to travel so there will always be potential work out there for you…

KN. We’re needed, it can’t go wrong! And I also know deep down that we’re bloody amazing at what we do! Having said that, winning new business – if you ask anyone – is really tough.

SC.SD. Have you established a routine yet where…

KN. No!

SC.SD. I was going to say where you know it’s the time of the day/week/month to start reaching out for future business!?

KN. No! I’m joking… every day to be honest! I’d love to say I’m structured and do this and that but I’m not! At my old company we’d call from 10 till 12 then 2 till 4 but I can’t work like that. You have to be in the right mind set to pitch and some days you just aren’t so I don’t do it because I know it won’t be productive.

Again in my old job it was a numbers game, “call as many people as you can” but it’s pointless. Call the right people, call people you can help, call companies you actually want to work with and call when you want to call. As cheesy as it sounds, working smart is really important to me. It’s not about working 6am until 11pm every day; it’s about getting the most out of the time you put in.

I do feel guilty sometimes though. I’m like, ‘this is my business, why aren’t I feeling it today?’ but personally I think that’s human nature. I don’t think anyone is on top of their game 100% of the time!

Celebrating in style with wine and family!

SC.SD. Let’s talk about your personal life more… How did your family and friends react to you setting this up and what were their thoughts about you going into business with your brother?

KN. My parents are super, super proud. My Dad’s always had his own business; my sister has her own business so I think it was always going to happen. We’re a really, really close family so the support there is unfailing and they’re brilliant because they ask questions all the time; they’re interested! Dad’s always asking, “how are things with you and Danny?” just to check we’re still getting on too!

SC.SD. Would you recommend going into business with family to others?

KN. I think you have to have a really good relationship before you do it. We’re so close! Don’t get me wrong, we can clash but we’ve got each other’s backs and ultimately we want it to work for each other too. Advice wise, I’d say to really think it through though. Question, can you work with them? Do you share the same work ethic? The same outlook? I think it would be very difficult for a lot of people but we’re a very close family and we’re friends too.

My sister has her own business so we share the same frustrations. She has a team of about fifty people working for her and two kids too so she’s queen of the juggling act! My whole family understand the process which has been so helpful.

SC.SD. What about friends who haven’t got their own businesses so don’t necessarily understand those processes?

KN. I think some might be a bit envious of my flexibility and being able to manage my own time – especially when they have long days/commutes – but in general they’ve been great. A lot of my friends have young children though so they’re busy doing their own things…

SC.SD. That’s a job in itself isn’t it?

KN. Absolutely! I must admit that I find my life very different sometimes. They’ve got their responsibilities which are very different to mine! I really want children one day but my primary focus is the business… I’ve always been really independent…. I don’t know what I’m trying to say here..!

SC.SD. Does the lifestyle your company provides you with drive you?

KN. Definitely. I don’t have to have loads of money in the bank but the reason I do all of this is to sustain my lifestyle. I like going on nice holidays, I like going out for nice meals and I’ve always been like that! My parents think it’s hilarious but I do all of this to have a nice life. I’m sure it’s not for everyone but I do love a fancy dinner!

SC.SD. It’s nothing to be ashamed of!

KN. It’s not even things like wanting designer everything; I don’t care about that! It’s just that I want to have a lifestyle that I love…

It can be hard sometimes because I used to earn really good money. I was single, I didn’t have many outgoings so my disposable income was ridiculous for my age and I don’t earn as much as that anymore because within a small business you can’t always support that but I’ve made sure I do alright because we’re working so hard at it!

SC.SD. It’s good that you’ve acknowledged that I think because so many people have said that they don’t and the money sits in the business…

KN. Obviously you’ve got to be careful. We don’t take big risks financially at all but we pay ourselves because we work hard for it!

Katie with her partner Luke

SC.SD. How did you approach putting a value on your time and the service that you provide? You’re a new business, you don’t want to undervalue yourself but you don’t want to scare people away…

KN. To be honest, I felt ok with that! I know we’re good at what we do and that might sound overly confident but compared to others, I know we’re going the extra mile. We’d spent a lot of time working it all out, we made the decision and we stuck to it. It sounds so cheesy doesn’t it but we’re totally worth what we charge.

More of the stunning destinations that Katie’s company offers!

SC.SD. What’ve you learnt about yourself since launching DNA?

She goes quiet…

SC.SD. Not much then..!?

KN. I should come out with something deep and meaningful shouldn’t I!? I guess that it was always the right thing to do. I’m my own person and I think you know deep down when you want to work for yourself. Some people like structure and routine and that’s just not me.

SC.SD. See I like routine but when it’s on my own terms! And when it doesn’t go to plan, it’s fine because that’s also part of this new routine!

KN. Exactly!

Katie Nickless, 36, Co-Founder of DNA Travel

SC.SD. Rounding up then, where do you see this business going and can you see yourself running DNA for the rest of your life now?

KN. It’s difficult because everyone always says “yes” to that question don’t they?! It’s hard but no! We want to build a really brilliant business where we’re all thriving from it and build somewhere where the team love coming to work, are treated well, are paid well – that’s really important to me – but five, ten years down the line I can see myself doing something else. What yet, I don’t know but I like the unknown in the long term! In case you haven’t realised yet (!) I don’t like feeling trapped!

That’s what’s great about me and Danny though. We appreciate that things change all the time. It’s not about the problem it’s about how we’re going to sort it. Let’s not blame anyone. Let’s fix it and move on. And we both share a similar outlook with the future of the business.

SC.SD. That always helps! What advice would you give to anyone who is reading this now and thinking about launching their own business?

KN. Personally, I think life is too short to work for someone else so just do it! Sit down, work out what you really want to do and once you’ve worked it out, do it. If you’re unhappy in your job right now, just leave. It’s not for everyone, granted. You have to be quite resilient but if you’re willing to work at it, it will work out. That’s another thing too… I have this voice deep down telling me this will work out.

SC.SD. I trust my gut instinct more than anything!

KN. Exactly! Honesty and intuition are my two biggest things. I’m not a big believer in fake it until you make it so I think you have to have that confidence in yourself and what you’re doing.

SC.SD. Last question then, do you have a favourite quote?

KN. Yes! It’s a bit of a long one though..!

SC.SD. Go for it!

KN. Ok..!

“The longer I live, the more I realise the impact of attitude on life. Attitude to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… or a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our attitudes.”

SC.SD. Bloody hell Katie!

KN. I did warn you in my defence! It’s from Jerry McGuire… Blame them!

If you’ve been reading the She can. She did. interviews for a while now, I’m sure you’ll agree when I say that Katie’s outlook provides a refreshing change from the norm.

In a world where we’re inundated with varying charitable causes, that lie at the heart of so many businesses’ PR campaigns nowadays; Katie’s story acts as a welcomed reminder that it’s ok to want a nice lifestyle for yourself and launch your business with that goal at the forefront of your mind.

Especially as she’s willing to put in the work to achieve that end goal and is mastering the art of becoming more productive with her time as a result.

From her refusal to introduce the corporate habits that she was expected to adhere to in her former career and her focus on working smarter, not longer hours, in her own business as a result; her attention to detail in the initial months when laying the groundwork for DNA, that allows her to pitch confidently to clients and own the value of her work now; to her refreshing ability to put the challenges she faces into perspective by constantly questioning, “what’s the worst that can happen?”; Katie’s efforts to create a lifestyle for herself that she loves are admirable, as she has found ways to work towards that goal without sacrificing her day to day happiness too.

Straight talking, spontaneous with a sense of humour to boot, she is an example in how to avoid letting your business become your boss and for that I couldn’t have appreciated my chat with her more.

For more information on DNA Travel, visit the website here or find her on Instagram: @thisisdnatravel


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