Truth be told, Elle Woods and the “bend and snap” aside, if I think of lawyers, the classic corporate power suit accompanied by a rather fetching wig; mountains of paperwork piled on desks late into the evening; and high-rise offices à la Suits come to mind.
Having complete control over your diary, working remotely from home and being able to maintain a healthy work/life balance does not.
Having trained at a major City law firm before moving in-house for media giants, including Endemol and more recently Jamie Oliver’s empire, it was the latter lifestyle that Nicola Hartley craved, when she launched Mint & Co aged thirty-five.
Upending the traditional business and legal affairs company model in more ways than one, the two of us sat down in a peaceful walled garden in Farringdon, so that Nicola could share with me her story so far…
Nicola Hartley. This could be long-winded, so I’ll try and keep it short! Effectively, Mint & Co is a modern legal and business affairs company aimed in particular at SMEs creating TV digital, branded and immersive content. The bulk of our clients are production companies but we also have clients that are YouTube talent, influencers, studios, independent creative agencies and channel management companies…
Essentially, legal and business affairs is a function that you’d usually have in-house if you were a company of a certain size but a lot of SMEs can’t afford to have someone on their books doing that full-time. The main aim for us is to be accessible and highly commercial in our approach. We also help companies with their overflow; they might already have an in-house team but they get really busy at particular times and prefer our flexible support over taking on another employee.
Whilst Mint & Co is not a law firm (so they don’t assist in any litigation or work on employment matters for example) they instead support their clients with their day to day commercial deals. For instance, if a TV production company were commissioned by Netflix or Sky, Mint & Co would oversee everything on that production to ensure that deals are completed on the most favourable terms. Given that it’s a completely alien world to the one I know (!) I was interested to hear what Nicola was doing prior to launching the business at the end of 2015.
NH. I’ve always been a lawyer for media companies so it was a natural progression from my skillset I guess!
Beginning her career at a media law firm (where she also had secondments to MTV and ITV), Nicola then spent three years at Endemol, the Dutch TV production company, before moving to Jamie Oliver Limited for five and a half years in 2010.
NH. Jamie Oliver Limited was an amazing place to work! He had his fingers in lots of pies and I worked across everything on the creative side from the magazine, the TV production company, the advertising and film production companies to his YouTube channels.
She can. She did. Not much then..!
NH. I know! It was a really good grounding for Mint & Co, because it helped me to understand different industries and clients’ needs. For that reason, I was also very conscious from the outset that I wanted Mint & Co to be a business affairs company and not a law firm. When I worked at Jamie Oliver and we used external law firms as opposed to business affairs consultants, I was really aware of their differences in terms of how much they understood about the creative and commercial side of the business.
Someone who’s worked in-house understands the creative process so much more and is more commercial in their approach; they understand the bigger aims of the client and risk profiles, and don’t focus on pernickety detail.
For this reason, Nicola was also keen to make her company accessible on price.
NH. Smaller companies (and arguably larger ones too) don’t want to go to a law firm with big overheads and pay £400-500 an hour. We don’t have those big overheads because we don’t have a big office; we work remotely and can keep rates lower for clients because of that!
That also echoes the ethos of the company. It’s all about work fitting in to the lives of our consultants creating a lifestyle that they love where they don’t have to go into the office and miss their childrens’ bath time and bedtime, or not have freedom to focus on other interests. It’s very much about championing flexible working.
SC.SD. Given the fact that you clearly had a senior role at Jamie Oliver, what inspired you to set up on your own?
NH. I think having my daughter, Lola, was a real turning point for me. I’ve also always been a little bit rebellious in nature and I couldn’t accept the law firm way of life for long because it meant frequently having to cancel personal plans, so I moved quite quickly in-house after a couple of years. In-house offers a better work/life balance but in our industry, you’re generally still expected to go into the office. I wanted a step up in my career and I was interviewing for ‘Head of Legal’ at other prestigious media and TV companies but every single one of them was five days a week in the office, and it didn’t feel appropriate to raise working flexibly at interview stage.
Lola was two at the time and I found myself coming home from these interviews in tears and I couldn’t work out why that was for a while. I was excited by the job itself, but the thought of missing bath time and bed times and just not seeing her was making me feel really sad.
I think I just thought, ‘why should I have to give up a work/life balance and miss out on seeing my child grow up in order to progress my career?’ I was frustrated and angry and thought there must be a way I can create amazing work for myself with brilliant clients and not have to follow the trodden, expected path.
SC.SD. Absolutely. So the idea for Mint & Co starts to develop in your head, what did you do in the early days to turn that idea into a reality…
NH. Well luckily I had a colleague who became my business partner in the early days (who I’m not actually with now) and we encouraged each other I suppose. She had children too and we both said, “we can do this, let’s leave together!” We handed in our notice at the same time and used those three months to go out, meet people and get our first clients so by the time we left, we had some waiting in the wings for us!
We worked so hard in those first few months! We were both the bread winners too, so we both took on temporary contract roles because the money is so good as a contractor. We had a great day rate for four days a week and then we were working on our business in the evenings, lunchtimes and weekends, which was a bit crazy when I look back.
It was a really hard start, but we somehow made it work and because there were two of us in it, we were in it together and it was really good (to start with…)
SC.SD. To start with?!
NH. I think the mistake that we made was that even though we had this common desire to change the way we were working, we didn’t really talk in any depth about what we wanted the business to become, how we wanted it to look, what our roles would be etc… When you’re going into a business relationship, it really is like a marriage. The stuff you talk about and the stress that you share, you have to get on and I think we were treading on each other’s toes a bit too much and for whatever reason, just weren’t gelling. We both realised it and luckily, we were both grown up about it early on to say, “look we both want different things out of this…”
SC.SD. How many months in are we talking?
NH. It was about eight months in so still relatively early and then I effectively bought out her share and rebranded – we were called Paper & Rock originally! I found a brilliant designer who I met through my sister and just liked his aesthetic and him as a person straight away. He’s very intuitive…
SC.SD. It definitely doesn’t scream business/legal affairs…
NH. That’s exactly what I wanted! I basically swallowed a lot of marketing and branding books early on to get really clear in my mind how I wanted to be different to competitors and how I wanted the branding to align with the company ethos. Essentially, I wanted it to look fresh and creative and more in line with our clients and what they’re doing as opposed to a corporate service.
SC.SD. And the name?
NH. I brainstormed a lot of different names! I suppose it’s a little clichéd, but I wanted something that sounded fresh and also not corporate! The ‘Co’ was very important though because of the inclusivity and community of freelance consultants that we’re building.
SC.SD. Did you make a business plan?
NH. We did make a business plan but it felt like a complete stab in the dark! We didn’t know if it was the right thing at all; we just borrowed templates online and looked at what other people were doing! It gave us a footprint to work from though and made us do the research on competitors and how we wanted to be different.
On the flipside, a lot of our growth has been organic and very much based on our contacts and who they could introduce us to…
SC.SD. Was it a case of inviting a lot of people out for coffees and a chat then?!
NH. Exactly! With a lot of service-based industries, it’s very trust-based. People like to have a shared connection- so we went through our contact books, worked out who we knew, who they could introduce us to and just arranged meetings with people, which more often than not were relaxed coffees. Some of them turned into pitches which was a new experience for us though! The conversion rate on face-to-face meetings was very high because once someone’s met you and they like you, it’s easier to build that strong connection.
SC.SD. Absolutely! What about getting the consultants on board?
NH. So that’s been very organic as well actually! That’s either been people in our network that we’ve either known or known of and then more recently we’ve been doing more research on LinkedIn…
SC.SD. A good LinkedIn stalk comes in handy like that!
NH. It’s amazing! Some people have approached us directly via LinkedIn too saying, “we really like what you’re doing!” They’re all non-exclusive so they work for their own clients as well, which I know some business owners wouldn’t like, but I see it as a benefit. They’re learning things outside of what they do with me and that’s valuable but it also means that I have the luxury of bringing people in for smaller amounts of time. For instance, I have some people who are specialists in the music industry, some in social media; that expertise isn’t always needed constantly, but when it is, it’s brilliant to be able to pull those people together for a particular project.
SC.SD. When you look back at that period when Mint & Co hadn’t proved itself yet, what were your main concerns about launching this business? The things that worried you most…
NH. The obvious thing was financially, ‘how am I going to make this work?’ Naturally I’m a bit of a risk-taker, so I never thought, ‘I’m not going to do it because I’m worried about the money.’ I was quite pragmatic. I thought, ‘ok, I’ve got this pot of savings, they are probably going to go..!’ but it was a means to an end.
I also think another big challenge was that having been a lawyer for my whole career, you have a very narrow scope of role. You know what you’re doing in that role but you haven’t ever run a business. You don’t know how the finances work, you don’t know how the marketing really works etc…
SC.SD. Marketing is a minefield isn’t it!?
NH. Absolutely, but it’s interesting because I realised quite early on that I loved that side of things because it was so different to law! Finance has always has been my weak spot though.
To start with I got a bookkeeper who set us up on everything but now I use Xero with a bit of help because it’s so user friendly. I don’t put my invoices through it though because I’m a bit particular about all of our stationary (including our invoices) looking pretty..! We’ve obviously got accountants behind the scenes too and I occasionally ask them questions about whether I’m doing ok! My Dad’s been a huge support too with a good finance head.
I think it’s good to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Some people take the approach that they want to be great at everything, but I quickly identified what my strengths are and that is definitely not one of them, so I wanted someone else to help with that side of things!
SC.SD. So you bought your former business partner out… What did day one of being on your own feel like?
NH. Scary and lonely and quite isolated too because you no longer have that person to bounce ideas or worries off. That’s where my Dad’s been a great support; just having someone in the family to talk to. I also decided to try a few business coaches. I see my current business coach about once a quarter and she helps me to look back on what’s worked, what hasn’t, what needs to change, what goals to focus on. It’s a form of business therapy, it’s so helpful.
My take on coaches is that you can’t usually find one person who is really good at everything, so I found someone who was brilliant at the business/strategy side and making me think about my targets, client base, which events to go to etc… and my other coach is amazing at people skills, management and analysing the profile of the consultants and who we’re looking for.
I will definitely look to bring in another director down the line but in the short term, I quickly realised I was doing everything to do with the business and it was too much. I was doing sixty-seventy hour weeks and thinking to myself, ‘I set this up to get a work/life balance!’ I was working much harder than my in-house role, but I knew that once I’d invested that time – which was probably about a year – I would have built the company up enough (as it was all bootstrapped), to be able to employ someone on a fixed-term contract.
The someone in question was Nicola’s now right-hand woman, Debbie Fine, who I also met during this interview and quickly saw why Nic hired her!
NH. With Debbie’s first contract, I actually couldn’t afford her beyond three months, but I was really honest with her and said, “are you sure you want to come on board because I can’t promise I’ll be able to pay you?!” She’s very entrepreneurial and now has such a key role in the company – helping with marketing, operations and management of the Mint Collective – and that’s freed me up to do more work on business development and working directly with clients. I’ll have to gradually decrease my time working directly with clients so that I can grow the business more, but for now it’s a nice balance.
SC.SD. You mentioned competition earlier so let’s discuss!
SC.SD. How aware of them are you? Do you keep your eye on them regularly? Are they a concern?! Go!
NH. So to start with, we very much researched what people were doing because when I was working on the ethos and what makes us different, I was determined to pitch us slightly differently. We’re the antithesis of that ‘corporate feel’ service, and that was very intentional.
Since then though, I haven’t looked back that much. I feel like we’re on our own little path and mission now, it’s growing really nicely, and actually I don’t feel like I need to look around anymore. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not?!
SC.SD. Anything but!
NH. A really good analogy for me is a race – if the runners start looking behind them, they start slowing down! The ones that win are the ones that go for it and don’t look back! Maybe there’s something in that….
NH. I think it’s important to know where your headed and stick to that. If a competitor obviously came out with something incredible that you liked the look of, maybe it’s time to reassess…
SC.SD. Given that you’re paving such a unique path, the likelihood is other companies are looking at you too so how does that feel when it’s the other way around?!
NH. Haha! I have noticed that more people on LinkedIn are getting in touch wanting to chat and I’m sure it’s sometimes a fishing exercise, but I engage with them because you can learn from each other.
SC.SD. Let’s get the bad bits out of the way first! What have you found to be the hardest part about this whole journey since launching Mint & Co?
NH. I won’t labour it any more but being the sole founder is very hard on a bad day when things are tough. Now that I have Debbie on board it’s easier though because she’s such a good sounding board. She’s so enthusiastic and literally living and breathing the brand and I suppose I didn’t think it was possible to find someone like that! We have a mutual friend to thank for introducing us actually! Lynsey’s role has been so important too – having a part time PA (or rather VA!) support to help book meetings, arrange travel and events and help with social media and other tasks.
SC.SD. For anyone that isn’t in a position to take someone on yet, how did you deal with the fact that you were on your own in this before Debbie and Lynsey came along?
NH. An amazing thing when you start a business is that you find there are people out there who are willing to help you and give you an hour of their time and mentor you for free. I met an investor at an event who didn’t have anything to do with my line of business but I just picked his brains about if I was doing the right thing and he was really happy to help. Building up a support network is key.
Another challenge that I didn’t expect, but perhaps should have done, is the challenge that comes with managing people. I had managed only two people in my previous roles – a whole team and it’s different! I think the joy of working with people is that they all have different skillsets and personalities, but the challenges are that everyone has their own agendas and you’re not always aware of them.
I’ve spoken to one of my coaches a lot about this – we assessed the profile of the consultants we were looking for, analysed those we already had in the team and realised which people weren’t actually the right fit. They might have been brilliant at the work itself, which is always the short-term gap that you’re trying to fill, but what’s important is that they’re also the right person for your brand and ethos, for your clients, and a good fit for the team. I realised quite early on that the constant challenge with the model, when you are working with non-exclusive consultants, is that you’re not always their top priority so it’s juggling that reality and making it work but also recognising when someone wants to be a team player and when they don’t. Sometimes that’s not obvious at the beginning and takes a little while to work that out.
I’m really happy to say that everyone in the current team is completely on-brand and I trust them implicitly but it’s taken me a while to get to this point with learnings along the way!
SC.SD. I suppose you’ve had moments where you’ve had to turn around and say, “this isn’t the right fit” then?
NH. Yes or naturally people have left because they’ve realised it’s not the right fit for them either. We’re a modern company and we want team players. We use the Slack platform for sharing knowhow on different areas of the industry, posting training events and keeping in touch . We arrange social gatherings for the team too as although we work remotely, face to face contact is important. Most people are great and generous at sharing but some have taken a bit longer to get used to engaging with the platform.
SC.SD. And when you’ve noticed that someone isn’t a team player, how does it feel knowing that the responsibility lies with you to sort that issue out?
NH. It’s a really hard question to answer! It’s been quite a hard lesson for me to learn actually. I find it quite hard to make that judgement call if something’s not working. Sometimes I’ve given people the benefit of the doubt for a bit too long.
SC.SD. It’s that people pleasing side vs the reality of being the boss isn’t it…
NH. Definitely. It’s one I’m becoming more comfortable with and recognising earlier on now. Our longest standing client also noticed that someone in the team wasn’t quite right once and she made a comment to me which was so useful because that confirmed how I was feeling as well. Getting client feedback is so important.
SC.SD. Now that’s all out the way (!) let’s talk good bits! What makes all the work you’ve put in worth it?
NH. The best bits are that I’ve now worked hard enough to build a foundation and get more organised with processes and clearer on what we’re looking for in terms of both consultants and clients we want to work with- I feel more in control and no longer need to work quite such crazy hours!
When you start you feel like you’re firefighting quite a lot and are trying to keep your head above water financially as well. When there’s a quiet month or clients are paying late, I think, ‘shit! I’ve still got to pay people’! But I think that worry is always there as a small business owner. That feeling just gets more comfortable as you expand. It’s so rewarding to watch Mint & Co growing – I‘m proud to have built a team of people who genuinely want to be part of the team.
SC.SD. If you were working sixty-seventy hours a week at the beginning, what does it look like now?
NH. It’s still fulltime so a minimum thirty-seven hours a week but that’s probably the least I’ve ever done! Now, it just means that I’m no longer getting up at 5.30am every single morning and working every single evening. I can spend more time with Lola which is great and also start doing things for me again – which sounds ridiculous – but for the first eighteen months, I felt like I didn’t have a life. I wasn’t happy. I still maintained relationships with family and friends but I didn’t see them as often, I didn’t really exercise and I hated that because I felt really unfit. Now I make the time to exercise three times a week because I know it makes me feel better. Having that flexibility to now be able to say, “at 2’oclock, I’m going to go for a swim” is so liberating!
There will be growth times ahead I’m sure where I’ll probably have to do those crazy hours again, but I think you have to be true to yourself and what’s making you happy. I know I can only do that for short periods of time because otherwise I’m depleted and I don’t feel happy.
SC.SD. Has anything taken you by surprise for the better or worse throughout this whole process?
NH. I think it’s grown faster than I thought it would actually! I rebranded in October 2016 and when I look at the client list now compared to then, it feels amazing.
In twenty months, Mint & Co has grown from having six clients to over forty.
NH. I think I’ve realised that I’m happy with it growing organically too. Another thing I struggled with as a female founder is whether I should be doing the same as male competitors, maybe trying to get equity and grow it faster. I’m not saying all men do that but I think it’s definitely more a male founder mindset. My approach to this company has been very personal and I didn’t want to feel pressured to do it a certain way. I wanted to grow it at a speed that I was comfortable with that allowed me to maintain a work/life balance and quality relationships with friends and family.
Having said that, I definitely struggled at the beginning, questioning if I was ambitious enough. Sometimes I think I made the mistake of being a bit too relaxed about it and didn’t look back at my targets and business plan enough. Now I have more time I can start being more disciplined about that. Everyone needs targets and goals because otherwise it won’t grow in the direction you want it to. It’s making sure you’re in control of that growth!
SC.SD. You just mentioned social life and family… How have your relationships with family and friends been throughout this process and have any evolved for the better or worse?
NH. I don’t think any of my friendships have changed; if they have it’s been for the better. They’ve been really proud and supportive and it makes you think, ‘I loved you anyway but I love you more now because you’ve been so lovely!’ My family have been really supportive too – you do have more stressful days and are emotionally more up and down…
SC.SD. That you are!
NH. It’s just natural! I think knowing you have that support base is so comforting and realising who those people are is really important.
SC.SD. How do you switch off from all of this? What does down time look like?
NH. Netflix! But it takes me months to get through a series. I’m getting better at organising little trips abroad now because just stepping away from your usual environment for a few days is always really energising. Exercise – yoga, swimming, boxfit… I feel like anything that is a release of stress is a good thing and it keeps your mental wellbeing in check. Obviously seeing friends and family when you can is always lovely, and grounding too. I’ve also recently got into meditation and found it transformative. Taking fifteen minutes a day to breath and take time for myself has made such a difference to my stress levels and tuning into my thoughts/being more mindful throughout the day.
More recently, I’ve found having a creative outlet to be useful too, because running a business is very business focused obviously! Using a different part of my brain now and then is really important to me, so I’ll randomly book myself on to creative workshops! I did a floristry workshop recently and ‘mindful marbelling’ with our brilliant client Patternity; just trying to do something like that every few weeks is energising.
SC.SD. No one’s said that before, I love that idea!
NH. I’d definitely recommend it! I do think that sometimes you can’t just switch off though and I’ve definitely learnt to just sit with a feeling – you can’t always fight something. As soon as you start fighting it, it can make it worse so you have to just say to yourself, “right, today is a shit day. I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed and I might not feel better by the end of the day but I’m just going to accept that…”
SC.SD. “And tomorrow will be better?”
SC.SD. Do you consider yourself to be successful?
NH. Personally, if I’m making enough money – not a ridiculous amount, just enough to live comfortably – and I’m creating a way of life that will benefit my team as well, I’ll feel like I’ve reached a level of success. I want to change the industry and the way people are working.
SC.SD. You’ve mentioned there are periods of growth on the horizon so where do you want that growth to take the business?
NH. I think building a really great community of consultants and being able to offer this way of working to as many people as possible is a natural motivator for us. To do that though, we need to up the workload and find more consultants with other expertise in different growth areas. Technological changes are so huge at the moment so the challenge of growing with that change is key and the fact that the model is very nimble and flexible will help with that. I want to move more into immersive content and start to explore AI, blockchain and the intersection with the creative industries too.
Our client base are predominately SMEs who choose not to have their own in-house person and there are new and innovative companies setting up all the time so it feels like an exciting space to be in at the moment!
SC.SD. Definitely! And how do you see your role evolving going forward as you navigate that change?
NH. Well I’d like to grow the company in other territories eventually which does feel really ambitious…
SC.SD. Nothing wrong with that!
NH. I’d love to go over to the US, perhaps South Africa and the Middle East too… so I’m sure there will come a time where it can’t just be me. It would be nice to appoint a CEO when the time is right and take on a more strategic/consultancy role in the future
SC.SD. Can you see yourself working on Mint & Co in some way, shape or form for the rest of your life then?
NH. I don’t know if I can if I’m brutally honest. I’d like to see it be successful and grow but then I’d like to start a business that’s completely different!
SC.SD. Any ideas what that would be yet?!
NH. I do have a few! It would probably be more down the wellbeing, retreat route… It’s stressful starting a business so I’d love to explore the idea of a retreat for founders who need to find more balance in their lives, learn to manage stress and look after themselves well in order to thrive in their lives and with their businesses…
SC.SD. I’m thinking Soho Farmhouse style…
NH. That kind of vibe yes! I love design so the whole space would be beautiful, the setting would be lovely and then you’d have lots of different, wholesome activities to do!
As the breadwinner in her family with a two-year-old daughter at home and a job title that alluded seemingly to a level of success that many dream of; the fact that Nicola rebelled against the status quo and risked it all for an idea with no guaranteed proof it would work in the long run, takes a level of courage that (fifty-interviews in) never fails to inspire me.
In true She can. She did. style though, her risk paid off.
From the pastel branding that resonates with the creative nature of her clients; the flexibility she has built into her business model that allows her consultants to work around their families; to the company’s minimal overheads that ensure that client fees are kept low; each detail of Mint & Co is so far removed from its corporate competition and in turn grants Nicola and her team the work/life balance she sought all along.
Yet when you start your business with a Co-Founder and share the pressures that loom when you’re in charge, adjusting to life as a sole Founder can feel overwhelmingly tough.
Especially when you’re managing an entire team for the first time and the onus falls on you to deal with any conflicts if and when they arise.
What I admire about Nicola though is that she rose to the challenge and despite admitting to losing herself for a while in the early days, has arrived at a place where she can now see her hard work paying off. She has also learnt to invest in her own happiness again.
Softly spoken with an inner strength that cannot be concealed, it won’t be long before her global ambitions for Mint & Co materialise, I’m sure.