Meet Jess Stephens, one of the greatest minds in mobile and digital marketing. In 2012 Jess Co-Founded Tagpoints, a mobile proximity marketing platform. In the space of just one and an half years Jess has taken the company from being a boot-strapped start-up to becoming an established FTSE 250 company. After this short period Jess sold Tagpoints to global tech giant, SmartFocus, where she then gained the position of Chief Marketing Officer as part of the acquisition. Jess has not founded one, but two companies, as she also created and sold a deals platform to Money Supermarket. Here’s everything you need to know about her journey as a Rebelhead Entrepreneur…
Getting to Know Jess
How did you become the Co-Founder of Tagpoints?
After graduating with a 2:1 in English I got a job as a Digital Marketing Exec for an online recruitment company. I’m a complete data geek, which you have to be to work in marketing these days. In this job I had an incredible mentor who taught me not to go along with the norms. She told me ‘if you don’t know how to do it, don’t let the I.T. department tell you that you can’t. You must find a way to do it’. I adopted this mentality which marked the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. I would go home and read manuals on SEO just to teach myself how to do it. It’s a case of learning as much as you can about open source technologies. Your mindset is crucial. I learnt to question every agency that ever said ‘this is the way we have to do it’ because I wasn’t afraid to try something different. Never let anyone tell you no. Just go and do it yourself. It used to be the CIOs who make the decisions about what software a company buys. Over the years, especially the decade I’ve worked within, there is a shift meaning marketers are more in control of which software is bought.
“I learnt to question every agency that ever said ‘this is the way we have to do it’ because I wasn’t afraid to try something different.”
We heard you Founded a second company and sold it?
I did. Whilst doing a few stints client-side I met a couple of guys who later came back to me with an idea. They explained what was happening with Groupon in the states, which was completely new at the time. It turned out their idea was to create a similar but better version in the UK and wanted me to Co-Found it with them, along with my tech colleague who is still with me now at SmartFocus. The goal was to make the platform more personalised and interactive, hence we created something called Local Daily Deals; a deal platform with more personalisation. This highly appealed to Money Supermarket at the time, who were looking to acquire deal platforms, so after 6 months we sold it to them.
How did you know your idea for Tagpoints was going to work?
I hardly had any moments of uncertainty; I was entirely convinced it was going to work. No doubt about it. I knew the idea was sound, I knew there was a market for it and I knew I had the right people on board to deliver it. My business partner at the time was a phenomenal sales guy who knew the mobile industry inside out and together we knew we could make it work. I may be looking back with rose tinted glasses but there was only ever one flicker of uncertainty. We were at the Christmas party with our full time employees and my business partner and I looked at each other and said ‘is this it? Is this going to be the year we smash it?’ We concluded with ‘yes, we have to!’ This is my only recollection of a ‘wobble’ conversation, which wasn’t even that much of a wobble. I do believe this attitude related to the mindset instilled in me growing up; so long as you’re trying as hard as you possibly can, it will happen.
“I do believe this attitude related to the mindset instilled in me growing up; so long as you’re trying as hard as you possibly can, it will happen.”
How did you decide which industries to focus on at Tagpoints?
We chose a vertical and stuck with it. For us, shopping centres were are no.1 target. We could have done anything, airports or maybe other retailers, but we had made our decision. My business partner had tonnes of experience in the shopping centre industry and shopping centres just happened to need lots of mobile loyalty offers. We got introduced to people at Ellandi LLP, an asset management company, to work with them on their shopping centres, which was incredible. They are now on a huge growth pattern having gone from 9 to 21 shopping centres in the time we’ve known them.
Did you put a lot of money into hiring people at Tagpoints?
More money went into freelancers at the beginning. We had 12 people; 7 freelancers and 5 employees full time, including myself. We hired people where we knew immediate change could be implemented. For example we hired a sales guy who did his own lead generation and was happy to run the whole process from outbound to lead closing, making him a great hire. He also took the model we’d created for one shopping centre, perfected it and replicated it for other shopping centres. All 12 of us went on to SmartFocus when Tagpoints was acquired, showing exactly how much talent we had in our team.
“I used to be naive in the sense that I believed I was working in a level playing field; I used to think the working world was based on meritocracy and the value that if you try hard enough you will get out what you put in.”
What personal challenges have you overcome?
I used to be naive in the sense that I believed I was working in a level playing field; I used to think the working world was based on meritocracy and the value that if you try hard enough you will get out what you put in. Yet throughout the course of my career I discovered I was being discriminated against due to the fact I was female. Gender discrimination held a strong presence in the workplace when I was client side. No question about it. So I decided if there was going to be a glass ceiling, I had to build my own building without one. Entrepreneurship is a viable option for women in this way.
“I decided if there was going to be a glass ceiling, I had to build my own building without one.”
I do acknowledge that not all women experience discrimination in the workplace, but it is true that a lot do, which is a sad realisation. Having said that, hand in hand with the negative came the uplifting realisation that there is a positive discrimination story to counter it. One of the reasons we’ve attracted positive press from publications such as The Guardian is due to the fact I’m a female Founder of a tech start-up. When you phrase it this way, you’ll find there aren’t many of me around. I enjoy playing towards positive discrimination because I’ve defied the odds to get to where I am. Women should use this to their advantage.
“I enjoy playing towards positive discrimination because I’ve defied the odds to get to where I am. Women should use this to their advantage.”
How do you measure success?
I value three elements which contribute towards success: fun, fame and fortune. This is the order in which I’d like to succeed. Fun takes the biggest percentile of the concoction. You have to create something you enjoy and that you attract fame and recognition for, enabling you to make a powerful, positive impact. The fortune is a by-product of both the fun and the fame. To achieve these three things you must surround yourself with giants, with those who are better than you are, so you are continuously learning. Being successful also takes a lot of sacrifice and commitment. We’re nearly halfway through the year; I’ve worked every single weekend and have only taken one day of holiday in January. I thought the start-up stage was fast paced, but being acquired is a whole new ball game and success means keeping up whilst forcefully leveraging achievements to date.
“I value three elements which contribute towards success: fun, fame and fortune. This is the order in which I’d like to succeed.”
Rebel Wrap Up
What would your dream car be?
Mercedes SL500 Gullwing. I don’t ever want to own one though. To spend that amount of money on a super car would be an enormous waste, but it would be great to drive one every now and again.
Tell us something interesting about yourself…
I actually play the keytar. Indeed, not the guitar. I used to play the piano and go to lots of open mic nights. I would be very envious of those who were able to get on stage so I had to think of a solution as to how I could make the piano portable. The keytar wasn’t exactly something I could transfer my piano playing skills to – it’s a lot like learning a completely new instrument – but the portability of it was the reason I got into it and the keytar I have is actually the very same one Stevie Wonder uses in his tours. My keytar even has a laser that shoots out of the end to astonish the audience and make it even more 1980’s than the instrument already is! I focus on 80’s classics when playing but I still have lots to learn.
If you could change one law what would it be?
Business rates as we charge people on the highstreet. As much as I love digital I don’t want to see the high street disappear. The physical presence of retail will help the country to grow by allowing people to buy and sell. At the moment business rates are a barrier preventing people from getting started.
What is the one rule you disagree with?
That you have to have an early morning routine to be a good entrepreneur.