It’s a late August afternoon and it’s absolutely pissing it down. A bus has just driven past and drenched me à la Bridget Jones and I arrive at Bill’s in Hammersmith for interview number eight, flustered, cold and a tad soggy from the knee down.
Fortunately though, I’m here to meet Grace Hooper and Kehinde Akinnawo, the dynamic duo behind DOT – a bespoke PR and events company that counts Maison de Fleurs, Alexandra de Curtis and Percol Coffee Co. as clients. At aged 24 and 26, Grace and Kehinde are the youngest of the women I’ve interviewed so far and from our initial introductions over email, I knew that we were going to get along.
After spending a good five minutes playing that game of ‘are they the girls that I’m supposed to be meeting or will I be walking up to complete strangers’, I decide to risk it. Thankfully, it’s them (!) so after quick hugs and introductions, we sit down over coffees and the interview is underway.
With a degree in History of Art from the University of Leeds (Grace) and a degree in fashion illustration from the London College of Fashion (Kehinde) between them, it wasn’t until landing the same internship post-graduation, that the two girls officially met.
She can. She did. So you both met at Ralph Lauren? How many years ago are we talking?
Grace Hooper. We met three years ago now for a month long internship.
SC.SD. Wow, so it’s not like you were working together for ages then?
Kehinde Akinnawo. We just clicked! We went our separate ways for a while – Grace went to Emerge – another PR Company – and I went to Jimmy Choo but we kept in touch even though the internship was over.
It wasn’t until Grace quit her job, and completed the London marathon despite breaking her ankle half way round that the idea behind DOT began to surface.
GH. I essentially finished it on one leg! I was on bed rest for a week and just went stir crazy. I’m not one of those people that can sit still.
Anyway, I got contacted by a brand called Kold Cocktails who wanted to launch an event – it was a client I’d worked with before – and I was like erm… I could do that for you?! Pick me! And that’s basically how DOT got started. (To Kehinde) You came to me in July and we were organising the event for September 2015.
KA. I think we always knew we’d do something together so thought let’s just see how it goes.
SC.SD. And how did it go?
GH. It went so well! The event was a real test for us but we got so many contacts and a lot of confidence from it.
Neither of us had a job at that point so we thought if this is going to happen, we need to make it happen now. We didn’t want to go into it all guns blazing but we got three clients off the back of it. We were like hmmm maybe there’s something we can do here together. And that’s essentially how it was started. It was very organic!
SC.SD. I love that! PR and events is obviously such a competitive landscape. You got clients from that but how do you go about choosing your client base and who to work with in general?
GH. There are hundreds of PR companies out there but we’re really careful about who we work with and we’re really careful about how we work for them. PR can have a bad rep…!
Often smaller brands go to the big PR companies first and sometimes that works brilliantly because they’re amongst big names but sometimes because they’re a smaller brand they can get lost so we would rather work with those emerging brands who perhaps don’t trust the big companies…
KA. Especially when the industry is so big. Without having great connections how else are you going to get out there? We also reach out to people that we’ve just always wanted to work with and find inspirational.
GH. Plus we don’t limit it to just fashion or beauty. We have such a broad spectrum. Our clients include a flower company, a tea company, a coffee company, fashion etc…We do a lot more outreach to clients now too. We usually follow them across their social platforms for two to three months before reaching out to make sure that they’ll fit and are the kind of brands we want to work with.
It varies a lot but yes, that’s how it started and over the past two years it’s just grown!
SC.SD. Talk me through your plan in those first few months- where did you base yourself, did you make a business plan, how did you market it etc…
KA. To be honest, we never really planned! We’ve never run our own company so didn’t know what it entails so we just made it up as we went along. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t but you learn.
GH. It was a massive learning curve! You learn so much so quickly!
SC.SD. Like what?
GH. Neither of us is any good at maths. We’re both shocking in fact and now we’re doing our own accounts. We sat down with my Dad for about an hour and he was like “this is how you do a tax return.” You look at it and it’s the most impossible thing that you’ve ever had to do but then you realise that there are millions of people that have done this before us, they worked out how to do this so we can too and you just do. Even if it is blooming non-verbal reasoning! That’s one of the most rewarding things I think!
KA. You don’t necessarily know you’re about to learn those things and then by the time you’ve done them you’re like oh, I just did that!
GH. The first year was really tough though. We didn’t take a salary for a year and a half.
The girls took on part time jobs including babysitting roles to keep cash coming in.
GH. I was exhausted because I was at work in the day and then babysitting in the evenings not getting home until 2am but you find a way. When we first started we talked about raising rounds of investment but then we were like, you know what, we don’t need that.
KA. Grace’s Dad simply said “you don’t need money to start this, just go and get a client.” With PR, you don’t really need to spend money to start anything. It’s just a case of reaching out to people.
GH. You always make it work. There’s always a solution to every problem and you’ve just got to work your way through it until you find that solution.
We were very lucky too though because my Dad has an office in Hammersmith which he very kindly let us use for free but we also do a lot of work at the Starbucks in Victoria Station- they have excellent wifi!
KA. It’s just nice to get out the office sometimes, different environments…
SC.SD. I can definitely relate to that! I get cabin fever at my flat so much so my coffee spend is ridiculous!
SC.SD. Did you face any big hurdles in those first few months?
GH. We took an intern on quite early on because we felt like we needed one but it probably wasn’t the right time for us. She was great and stayed with us for a couple of months but I think we took on so much so quickly. We had four clients and we weren’t doing things to the best of our abilities. We didn’t necessarily scale it back but we took a breather. We were like, let’s just evaluate what we’ve got, see where we’re at and then we can start going again.
SC.SD. And how did the realisation that you’d taken on too much feel?
GH. Terrible! I think our clients were expecting a lot from us and it was only us two. We wanted to say “you need to give us time to get used to this” but understandably they don’t have time to waste, they need you to be doing it now.
KA. We’d worked in PR but we didn’t expect it to be as demanding as it was. When you’re working for other people, you don’t have that direct contact… well you do but you’re not the one having to ring up and say pay us!
We felt like sometimes we were too close to them and they could take advantage of that. It was just learning that it was a working relationship and we learned that there are boundaries.
SC.SD. What steps have you taken to address that then?
GH. We made a plan!
SC.SD. I feel like there should be a drum roll here..!
GH. Not like a business plan! We just sat down and worked out which clients we’d work on which time of the day on which days of the week. We just told them “this is when you’ll hear from us and if you haven’t heard from us by then, feel free to give us a call…” and that’s how we’ve moved on from that.
It’s obviously flexible. We love that our clients want to talk to us all the time! We want our clients to feel like they’re growing with us and we’re growing with them and it’s a community, like we are one. But as Kehinde says there do need to be some boundaries… like calling people at 6 in the morning.
KA. Or 11pm at night!
SC.SD. So it’s not all glamour and parties then?!
GH. We have a lot of interns that come to us and they’re like “ooo parties” and we’re like yes there are some great parties but we have to do a lot of work before we actually get to the parties!
Because we don’t have a product that we’re selling, everything is completely individual to each client so one person will expect something totally different to someone else…
KA. It’s like working 3 different jobs! You almost need time to get your head into the right headspace for each different client so you know exactly what you’re doing for each.
Juggling eight clients between the two of them, Grace and Kehinde have hired someone to join their team in September as well as taking on an intern.
SC.SD. Why is September so busy?
KA. Fashion week! All the new trends, it’s the run up to Christmas so Christmas campaigns start…
GH. Vogue’s September issue is the biggest issue of the year. Everyone follows on from that so suddenly it’s a case of we’ve got to be focused on ‘70s’ or ‘dusky blues’ or whatever it is!
SC.SD. So what Vogue says goes?
GH. Depends on what industry but to a large extent yes… Print has changed dramatically over the past few years though. When we started, everyone wanted to be in Vogue and in print in general but now less so…
SC.SD. Where do they want to be now then?
KA. Bloggers/ Influencers. That’s definitely the main market right now.
GH. Clients are cutting their budgets for print advertising and swapping it for influencer advertising. We have to say that to a lot of our clients now; you need to realign your budget to work with influencers because it’s the way people are buying products now.
SC.SD. Do you see that trend sticking around for a while?
KA. It’s been around for a while but it’s really blown up in the past year. They have more impact and are more relatable to their audience.
GH. We read the other day that 60-70% of 13-17 year olds consider influencers to be the people that they trust more than anyone else…. it’s so hard to distinguish now between a very high profile influencer and a celebrity .
Conversation quickly turns to our favourite influencers, which youtube vlogs we’ll watch and who we find most relatable…
SC.SD. Right we’re going off on a tangent! Let’s get back to you!!
GH. We could talk all day about influencers!!
SC.SD. Let’s talk wow moments!
KA. I think it’s when we get new clients!
GH. Client wins when we’ve been after them for ages is always amazing. In September we’re starting to work with a client that we’ve been talking to for nearly a year and a half and when they signed we were like FINALLY!!
From a business perspective, when we first took our salary too! We were like wow this is something we’ve earned! Blood, sweat and tears have gone into this!
For the first year and a half, the girls didn’t take a salary from DOT and juggled the launch of the business with various part-time jobs.
KA. It was literally December last year!
GH. And it wasn’t very much!
KA. But it’s still money!
GH. Exactly, we’re probably in the most stable position now than we’ve ever been which feels amazing. That’s why we feel so confident we can grow and it’s why we’ve taken on so much in September. We’ve got the foundations and we know what we’re doing. I think people start a business and expect everything to happen in six months and it doesn’t.
KA. Later on you’re like “oh my god why is this so hard”.
GH. But if they had all come on board at the beginning, we probably wouldn’t have lasted.
SC.SD. So do you think the fact that things didn’t happen overnight made you stronger?
SC.SD. Ok that was freaky! You sounded exactly the same!
GH. That happens a lot when you’re around someone 24/7!
SC.SD. Haha! Right what does a bad day look like then?
GH. Sometimes we get people screaming at us down the phone because their samples haven’t arrived in LA or something… usually it’ll be that someone’s passed the task on to someone else who hasn’t realised what they’re supposed to do and it gets lost in translation but that’s all out of our control.
SC.SD. How do you cope with that?
GH. Scream back!?
KA. She’s joking! I usually take myself out of the situation and say “I’m going to call you back” and once I’ve calmed down I’m like “ok let me explain what’s happened.” But in general, we don’t really have many low points.
SC.SD. I was going to say, for low points they’re quite tame…!
GH. We keep each other quite level I think. I’ll call Kehinde being like “I’ve just had someone scream down the phone to me and I don’t know what to do” and she’ll just say “chill, it’s fine, take a break” etc…
KA. We’re constantly communicating with each other so if she’s in the office and I’m working from home, we still help each other through it.
SC.SD. Has your friendship changed since launching this do you think?
KA. I think we’re closer now!
GH. It definitely started out as a business friendship because we met when we were interning but it gave us a really nice basis I think. We knew exactly what each other’s work ethic was like and we knew how each other would react to different things. Even though interning at Ralph only lasted a month, it was a really intense space so it taught us a lot about each other.
SC.SD. What are each other’s strengths and weaknesses?
KA. I’m a lot more laid back!!
GH. It’s true she is!
KA. When she’s on holiday she’s still on her emails and I’m like “Grace, it’s ok, switch off.”
GH. Yes, I don’t stop working!
KA. You keep me on it though!
GH. I’m like the list queen. I’ll say “here’s a list of everything we’ve got to do today!”
SC.SD. I LOVE a good to do list. I’ll draw the little squares just so that I can tick the box off once I’ve completed something.
GH. Yep all of that! Cross things out, tick them off…
KA. See I’m more of a “yeh it’ll be ok, I’ll remember that” girl… but then I forget!
GH. The amount of notebooks I’ve bought her so that she can start…!
KA. I’ll take the notebook but I end up just carrying it round in my bag!
SC.SD. What about friendships on the outside looking in? Have any of those changed as the two of you have got closer or as you have had to prioritise the business?
KA. When we first started this some of my friends were still at uni. I went back to Leeds for their Leaver’s Ball and I remember saying “I’m going to do this event and am thinking about starting my own company” and some of them thought it was a really bad idea, “you haven’t got enough experience, you’ve only had a job for a year, it’s such a massive risk” etc… and others were and still are so, SO supportive. They are like “why wouldn’t you do it?”
I was literally 21 when I started DOT and people thought I was mad but in many ways that’s spurred us on because we want to prove them wrong!
SC.SD. How do the brands react when they find out how old you are?
KA. We never say our age outright but sometimes they look at us like ooo…. you’re really young! Especially the more established brands.
We’ve had some people try to take advantage of it, we don’t have to pay them as well, we can help each other out etc… but our response to that is “yes we can help each other out… but we still need to get paid!” We do sell ourselves on being young too though because we’ve got energy!
When you’re young you think a bit differently and you can spot things that might not be working anymore.
GH. We work with a lot of younger people within the industry too so our contacts are different to some of the bigger firms and I think that works to our benefit.
And also, it sounds stupid but we really understand social media which is obviously the way forward. We handle all social media for our clients, I have 4 instagram accounts on my phone so I barely post on my own! I think some of the bigger PR companies don’t have the structure to offer that tailored service.
SC.SD. I think it’s fair to say that in general, the more corporate a company becomes, the more set in their ways they become.
KA. Exactly and we’re so flexible with our clients. We’ll always try and do what they ask. We’re never going to be say “eww no, that’s not PR.”
GH. And if we can’t do it we’ll delve into the little black book for them and find someone that can! We’re very supportive of other small businesses.
SC.SD. That’s good to hear! Where do you two go to for support?
GH. We’re quite chatty people so if we’re at a networking event we try to make the most of it and try and give out as many business cards as possible and take as many too. I’m always connecting with interesting people on Linkedin, Jess (Jess Gardiner, Founder of The Assistant Room) is great and we have a lot of cross over with her. We text each other business questions like ‘we need a new accountant who are you guys using?’
SC.SD. So you have a good support network then?
GH. Definitely but it didn’t start that way. We’ve had to build that over two years and are network is probably the most valuable part of our business.
SC.SD. I can imagine. Let’s move on to your personal life…
KA. Like dating?
SC.SD. Ok let’s go there first! Is there time for dating with this?
GH. I have a boyfriend of four years and he’s always been incredibly supportive… he actually came up with the name. My middle name is Dorothy… I can’t believe I just said that on record!
GH. I’ve heard all the Wizard of Oz jokes! Anyway we were on a walk one day and Kehinde and I had been struggling with names for ages. We tried to do something with Grace and Kehinde but it wasn’t meshing (!) and then he said “why don’t you do something with Dorothy… Dot?” and I texted Kehinde, she liked it and that was that.
Even when I’m being miserable and am complaining about doing accounts he’s been so supportive though and will tell me to just get on and do it!
SC.SD. And what about you?
KA. What about me?!
SC.SD. Bit aggressive on my part, sorry! What about time for dating on your side?
KA. I have dated but dating requires the energy to make an effort and sometimes I just want to go home. My commute is so long and by the time I’m home, I just like my quiet time and time for me.
SC.SD. That’s understandable. When you do meet men though, how do they react when you tell them that you’re a business owner?
KA. I don’t actually tell them that… I think it’s sometimes really intimidating.
GH. I agree. Even if I’m at a party and people ask what you do and I say I own a PR company, people’s reactions vary a lot. I’ve had guys that are like “whaaaaaaat?” and back off and other guys are will say “wow that’s amazing, tell me more…”
SC.SD. I think it’s so interesting because you can tell a lot from those reactions- it shows so quickly who’s intimidated and who isn’t.
KA. Exactly, I think some guys then become insecure about their job when I reveal mine so I just say I work in PR.
GH. I think guys our age are more intimidated as well because they’re starting out in their careers and when we say we own a business, they’re suddenly like whoah…. how have you got so many steps ahead of me?
My boyfriend sometimes says “I’m so envious you’ve got your own business, I wish I could” but whenever anyone says that to me I say you can. There is nothing stopping you. Yes it’s a leap of faith and you won’t be able to pay the bills for a few month – that’s a bit rubbish – but at the end of the day when you do earn that money, it’s going to mean so much more to you.
KA. Even if you don’t know how you’re going to make that money, you just find a way. You just make it happen.
GH. I think you do have to have a certain mind-set to start a business though. There are a lot of things that you need to overcome.
SC.SD. How do you switch off from that then?
KA. The gym, she loves it now too.
GH. Yeh it took me a while to get into it!
KA. We eat. Good food always helps…
GH. Always! I’ve started meditating too actually. I started struggling to sleep and I tried so many different things, all the different teas…
SC.SD. Don’t! Whoever said chamomile helps you sleep?! I try it and it’s like no, I just need a wee!
GH. Exactly! I don’t have insomnia but I was struggling to switch my brain off and meditation has really helped. Even if I have 50 emails sitting in my inbox and I can’t think where to begin, I just think hold on, take a minute and come back to it with a fresh perspective. Although saying that, I have 7000 emails sitting in my inbox right now…
SC.SD. Blimey! You would have to meditate to get through that one! What about favourite motivational quotes?
KA. It’s not really a quote but I really believe in the law of attraction
If you haven’t stumbled across this theory before, the law of attraction is the belief that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts a person brings positive or negative experiences into their life.
SC.SD. I remember being in a taxi on the way to JFK with my old job and the driver was banging on about the law of attraction and he was so passionate about it, it really rubbed off on me.
KA. Yeh it’s true, just don’t rush and get stressed trying to get to your end point because you will get there if you believe it enough. I stumbled across a youtube video explaining it and you just don’t realise how much struggle you actually cause for yourself by worrying. You just make it so much worse in your head.
SC.SD. I think girls are experts at that…
GH. Sooo true! We are the queens of overthinking! There’s a bar in Waterloo called ‘Tonight Josephine’ with ‘Well behaved women rarely make history’ in neon lights. I love that.
KA. Yes, I think people think women in business should act a certain way and that they shouldn’t know what they want.
SC.SD. Well look at you two, you’re 24 and 26. A lot of people would say you shouldn’t have your own business…
GH. I think you’ve got to take risks in this life. You’re only on this planet for a small amount of time in the grand scheme of things. You’ve just got to go for it.
KA. I think if you’re scared a lot, you won’t actually get anything done.
SC.SD. Very true. Quotes aside, what motivates you in general then? Money?
SC.SD. See I don’t see that as a bad thing!?
KA. No but in general, it never has! I’m genuinely motivated by helping people. That’s what I get my most joy from.
GH. For me, it’s that this is ours and nobody else’s. That really motivates me. Yesterday we had a massively long day and didn’t leave the office until 9pm and I rang my boyfriend on the way home and he was like “yes but it’s yours. No one has told you what to do, you’re doing it because you want to do it” and I got up this morning and just thought you know what, that’s true, this is for us. It’s not for anyone else! That’s probably the most powerful motivator for me.
SC.SD. I think that’s really understandable. Last questions then, can you both see yourself having DOTin 10-20 years’ time? Is this it or is there more you want to do?
GH. We’re working on another project now which is very top secret…! When it launches we can talk to you about it!
SC.SD. We’ll have to book another meeting in!
GH. Definitely! That’s taking up a lot of our time at the moment! DOT will always be our baby though and we’ll always do it. And the clients that we work with are more like family now, I can’t imagine not working with them and speaking to them on a daily basis.
KA. I think if we always keep it small like we do, there’s never going to be a day where we wake up and say we can’t do this anymore.
SC.SD. So keep DOT where it is and then use your other project to grow?
GH. Yes, DOT was never going to be a massive PR company. I think when we started out we were like “oh wouldn’t it be amazing to have this huge PR company” but in reality I don’t actually think it’s in our personalities to have that. We want to be able to talk to our clients every day. I don’t think we’d ever want to be the boss that doesn’t get involved.
KA. Well not until we’re 30 and want to retire that is…!
GH. Haha we’re very protective over it!
KA. Don’t go messing with DOT!
GH. We’ll see where it goes… It’s an adventure!
We end there and I leave London knowing full well that for Grace and Kehinde, it will be exactly that.
Starting a business – let alone a business as successful as DOT – is no mean feat, especially when you’re 21 and 23 years old with just a year of industry experience behind you and friends in your ear saying it’s a bad idea.
In just two years, they’ve built a network and company that continues to grow, are preparing to launch a second project on the side that will soon be revealed and throughout all of this continue to be the best of friends. They’re fearless in their pursuits not restricted by past experience and circumstances, they take each new challenge in their stride learning as they go and any sceptical reactions along the way only serve to spur them on.
I spent the majority of the interview sat in awe. Hopefully by now, you can see why.
If you want more information on DOT, visit their website here.