Thanks very much to The Telegraph for including a profile of me in their section on women in business on 17th November – you can read it on their website, or below.
How she did it: ‘I help people live almost rent-free in London’
Five years ago, Katharine Hibbert, 35, was a journalist and author of Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society; a book about the squatters and scavengers who live on what the rest of us throw away.
The Oxford native, who now lives in east London, had always been interested in housing, communities and cities, so in 2011 she decided to set up Dot Dot Dot – a property company with a difference.
Here, Katharine – who will be appearing at Telegraph Women’s ‘how to be resilient’ talk – tells us how she did it…
Tell us about your business
Dot Dot Dot allows people who do voluntary work to live cheaply in buildings that would otherwise be empty, as guardians. By doing this, we deliver a reliable, flexible, cost-effective security solution to property owners, inexpensive housing to residents, and we support them be great neighbours and volunteers. Today, we house hundreds of people across the country – London, as well as in towns and cities from the South Coast to Sheffield. We’re a team of 15, based in London’s Olympic Park.
What inspired you to start it?
Through my work as a journalist – and my experience as a Londoner – I saw how the lack of affordable, well-managed housing was blighting lives and preventing people from getting involved in projects that they were passionate about, and that would help the city as a whole. At the same time, I saw the problems that empty buildings cause for owners – they need flexibility to sell, refurbish or demolish their property, but find themselves dealing with crime and dereliction in the meantime. Peering through the metal grilles of empty homes and seeing how much better it would be for owners and residents alike if someone could live in there, was what drove me to start Dot Dot Dot.
What were the first few steps you took?
I was fortunate enough to have a profile as an expert in empty buildings from my book and working on a Channel Four series called The Great British Property Scandal. So my first step was to talk to everyone in my network about my idea, to get their thoughts on whether or not it could work, and to enlist their help if they believed in it. I got some great feedback, and a chance to practice my pitch, which helped a lot when I started talking to property owners and funders.
How did you raise awareness?
Mainly by showing up and telling people about it. I had speaking opportunities thanks to my book, and I went to all the relevant events, conferences and lectures I could. It was through that networking that I won our first clients. And a lot of our work has come through word of mouth ever since. One of the best things about running a social enterprise is that when people understand how we’re making a difference, and are confident we’re going to deliver a great service, it sells itself. People tell each other about it.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I started Dot Dot Dot with minimal support or investment, so at the beginning it was a real struggle to find the energy to push things forward every day, before I had any real proof that it would work. For the first couple of years, if I’d just packed it in it would have made no difference to anyone but me – the lack of co-founders or financial backers means that you really have to dig in to your own reserves of motivation. Sometimes you just don’t believe it or aren’t in the mood. The challenge is to soldier on anyway.
How do you tackle challenges?
I love being surrounded by colleagues who care about what we’re trying to do as much as I do myself, and who bring different perspectives to solving our problems. Some of my favourite moments at work have been when we’re dealing with a real crisis – or when we have a high-stakes pitch to deliver – and we’ve pulled together, and done what we’re each best at to get a good result. It’s not necessarily fun at the time, but you look back and you’re satisfied.
Also, outside work I love endurance sport, and I hope to bring a bit of that wiliness to grit my teeth and finish the race into the office as well. Plus exercise is a great way to de-stress and stay healthy and energised in challenging periods.
What helps you stay motivated through tough times?
It helps so much to have a sense of mission about what we were doing. Especially in the early days, when I faltered and thought about quitting and getting a proper job, I’d remind myself of how much difference it would make to individuals if I could support them to do the things they cared about – and of how much difference those projects would make to the community. Still today, when I feel demoralised or lacking in motivation, there’s nothing like hearing the stories of the amazing voluntary work our guardians do – 25,000 hours of it in 2015 – to get me back to my desk.
What’s the best thing about running your own business?
Probably the fact that you get to choose who you work with – and that as the business grows, you can recruit people with skills that you don’t have yourself and support them in making your idea even better. Also, I love the creativity of it, and the way that the organisation takes on a life of its own. It’s very satisfying when you get a second to stand back and see what has grown from the seed you planted.
Do you have a business philosophy?
Be kind. That doesn’t always mean being nice, but it does mean being fair and honest, rather than trying to pull any fast ones in the hopes that you’ll get away with it. Integrity is the best strategy in the long run, and even if it wasn’t, it’s still good to get to the weekend and feel as if you’ve made the world slightly better – rather than slightly worse.
What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?
If you have an idea for something and which you think there’s a market, find a way to start making it happen. You don’t need all the answers before you start, and you don’t need to have all the skills – if you’re resourceful, you’ll find the solutions as you go along. And if your idea is good enough, and you let other people get on board and help to shape it, then you’ll attract the support you need. What you eventually end up producing might be different from what you imagined when you started out, but you’ll never know unless you get started.
My greatest fear is… Boredom. I love to be busy and excited about what I’m doing.
The bravest thing I’ve done is… Saying ‘no’. When you want to please people and find solutions that work for everyone, it’s hard to walk into a room and tell someone something that’s likely to make them unhappy or angry. But you owe it to yourself to do it when necessary.
I would tell my teenage self… Hang in there! Being a total geek at 14 is going to pay off in the long run.
I believe… In recruiting people who’re brilliant at their jobs, then giving the freedom and support they need to get on with it.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is… Everything takes twice as long as you think it will. And even when you’ve applied that rule, it still takes longer than you expect. So sometimes you just have to be patient – with yourself and with the world.
My top business tool or resource is… Friends. I think best when I’m talking, and I couldn’t have got here without the people who’ve been willing to hear me out in a pub or a café when I was stuck on a problem or worried.
My favourite quote… ‘Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage’ – Anais Nin.