Caroline never set out to be an ‘entrepreneur’. Working in the voluntary sector with children with complex needs and their families, Caroline craved change and decided to turn an idea she’d had for a business into a reality.

Mutual Attraction, a now double-award winning matchmaking service launched in 2011. She has since gone on to launch the Matchmaker Academy, a training school for matchmakers which stemmed from her book ‘How to Become a Matchmaker’. Through the Academy, Caroline hosts training weekends, delivers 1:1 coaching and in 2016 launched their first online course. Together with Charly she launched the Dating Expert Academy.

Caroline has many business achievements she’s proud of but the biggest has to be not fainting with nerves before doing live TV! A finalist in the Great British Entrepreneur awards, an author and a regular commentator for female entrepreneurship in the press, Caroline is excited to be connecting and working with female founders around the world.  In her spare time she enjoys walks in the countryside with her husband, baby and sausage dog ‘Lady’.



Amy: Welcome to today’s episode of Virtually Free, everyone. Today I have Caroline Brealey with me. Welcome.

Caroline: Thank you so much for having me, Amy.

Amy: I’m really excited to chat with you. And just a little insight for our audience, I think this is wonderful and I don’t think you know this Caroline, but your website was actually the very first time I actually took the jump and got my face out there so that the internet could see me. So I find this is very interesting that you’re going to be our very first guest on Virtually Free. So I think it’s great.

Caroline: I absolutely love that. I’m glad that I’ve done part of my job and I’ve encouraged you as a female entrepreneur in some way, so that makes me feel awesome.

Amy: Awesome. So today’s episode is all going to be about starting business and what you need to kind of have down before you really jump in, which I think it’s going to be absolutely wonderful and I’m super excited to talk about it. So let’s dive in right away. What’s a business plan and why should you have one?

Caroline: Do you know what? Most people nowadays they go “I don’t need a business plan.” You hear about all these famous people who say it. “I didn’t need one.” Or “I wrote it on the back of a napkin, three words.” And that’s great but here’s the reality, most of us need a business plan because it kinda covers the what and the who and how you’re going to do things.

Caroline: So we all have ideas for a business, right? That’s why they’re tuning into your podcast, they got an idea for a business. But you need to take stock and just really think it through before you dive in. And I know it’s exciting and you just want to start and you want start with the fun stuff. You want to start with creating your services and your products but what you want to do is a business plan which outlines absolutely everything from start to finish about your business. Because that is going to help you fully understand your business and what you’re going to do. And you’re going to go deep. So you’re not just going to look at what you’re going to do, you’re going to look at how you’re going to do it.

Caroline: And that might raise some red flags and it might make you go back to the drawing board a couple of times. But it’s so much better for that to happen now than when you’ve invested time, energy, money down the line. So a business plan is really your document of mapping out your entire business from start to finish. And it sounds daunting and it sounds scary but you can break it down and honestly, you will go into your business so much more confident.

Amy: I love that you mentioned this because I think that’s one thing that people kind of have this misconception about, especially in the online business world. And because is so new and it’s because it’s so alternative than like the normal brick and mortar business but they’re like “Oh, that’s not the traditional way of doing it.” And some people may argue, okay, yeah that’s true. But I look back and applied for funding through Canada because Canada is great, it has all these great entrepreneurship things. And I basically did not get the funding because I didn’t follow through on my business plan. Completely my fault, completely understand.

Amy: But in retrospect this is three year ago when I was freshly out of university and I was I can take out the world. Fully naïve, 25 year old that I was. But, excuse me, I really look back and I’m like man, I really should have do that. So I love that you mentioned that and the importance is so much. A business plan is very daunting as you said, so could you give any tips and tricks to what to look at in a business plan?

Caroline: Sure. The key thing is to really break it down and you can find loads of templates online. So you don’t need to kind of think about everything from scratch, there is a ton of guidance. But the first kind of thing you normally look at, you look at things like your elevator pitch and your executive summary which is summarizing your business. But I would say don’t kind of worry about that right now, that thing’s for down the line.

Caroline: Actually what you want to be looking at is normally you start with your background and your skills. So it’s looking at yourself as an individual and going, okay, why could I run this business? Why could I create these products or services? Do I have the skills? Do I have the knowledge? And if I don’t, who does? Who can I bring on board? ‘Cause sometimes we have business ideas where we just recognize maybe a gap in the market. But we might not have the skills or knowledge that’s actually needed to do that business. And that’s okay as long as we’re prepared to bring other people on board.

Caroline: And actually sometimes we might never have done anything to do with the business we want to start but we still have the skills and knowledge from other kind of things that we’ve done, other jobs. So it’s really about looking at where you are right now and what you’re bringing to the table and what you need to get brought to the table. So that’s the kind of starting place. And it’s being really open and honest with yourself as well about your skills and maybe areas of weakness, to put it politely. And just being totally transparent with yourself.

Caroline: And then it’s looking at your products and services which is the juicy bit, right? The bit that everybody loves. So what are you actually going to be selling? So is it a product? Is it a service? What does it look like? So in one of my businesses, when I’ve not got my female entrepreneur cap on, I run a dating agency in London. So I would be saying okay well it’s a service but what do my membership packages look like? And within these membership packages, how many dates are people getting? Are they getting any coaching with it? Are they getting any styling? What exactly are people getting for their money? So really break it down.

Caroline: It’s not enough to say if you’re a life coach, I’m going to sell coaching packages. What does that coaching package look like? You’re going to sell a product, a candle. What kind of candle is it going to be? You know, you got to go deep, really think about what it is you’re going to be selling ’cause people don’t part with their money for nothing.

Caroline: Then you want to look at your kind of target market. Who the heck is going to buy what you are offering? So who is your ideal customer? And you really want to break that down, who is going to buy what you have to offer? Are there enough of them? Do they want it? Is your product or service solving a problem for them? You really want to kind of get to know them. And that’s where a kind of bit that comes in that maybe some people don’t like doing but they absolutely have to, which is speaking to their potential customers. And it’s daunting, right. You kind of want to put it off. You go “No, it’s fine. I know what people want.” But we don’t, unless we ask them.

Caroline: So this is where in your business plan, you really want to be kind of going how am I going to find these people who want to buy my services or product? What am I going to ask them? How am I going to ask them? Am I going to do a questionnaire? Am I going to do a Zoom call with them? What is it going to look like? How are you going to get that info?

Caroline: Next you want to do a competitor analysis. Everyone loves doing this bit but they always then feel horribly depressed and down for the next few days because with the competitor analysis you’re really looking at what’s already out there, what’s working well, what not so well, where can you kind of bring your uniqueness. And yeah, one word of warning with that. It is depressing when you look and someone has already done my idea, there’s no room for it. It doesn’t mean there’s no room for it, and sometimes competition can be a really good, in fact many times, really good healthy thing. So don’t fall down a comparison trap when you’re looking at your competitors. Just look at it objectively, look at it in a strong female entrepreneur way and don’t let it kind of bring you down, if there are already people out there doing what you do.

Caroline: And then just to touch on the other things. Marketing, you want to be looking at how are you going to bring in your customers. Again, it’s not enough to say I’m going do Facebook ads or I’m going to do Google AdWords. You want to be breaking that down even more. What kind of adverts are you going to do? What kind of money do you have to invest in those adverts? Because again that’s really getting deep so you fully understand what you’re committing to with your business. And then you want to look at your operations, so day to day, what is it going to look like in your business? How do you, if you got a product, how are you going to ship it to people, for example? So really think about day to day.

Caroline: And then finally, the numbers. You want to think about your finance. So do you need to get money? And if you do, as you rightly said Amy, then you need a business plan because banks, any kind of grants, loans, they want to see a business plan. So you also want to be mapping out when you think you’re going to be making a profit. How much money are you going to be spending? So I know this all sounds scary but literally you can break it down section by section and by the end, you will look at your business plan and be like “Oh my god, I know what I’m doing. I feel confident. I can’t wait to go.”

Amy: I love that. Thank you for that wonderful overview. And we will have a transcript of this so you are able to access it all and take notes and build your own business plan from it. So thank you Caroline. Excuse me. I love that you’re like you know, it’s overwhelming, it’s scary.

Caroline: It is.

Amy: Also for the rebels out there because that was who I was. Like “I’m not going to do this, this is how the normal does and I’m not normal so I’m not going to do it.” Believe me. It’s not a matter if you’re a rebel, if you follow everything to the T, you need this business plan.

Amy: And you know, for exactly what you said. Let’s say you’re not applying for a loan, you’re not doing this. The confidence it’s going to give you because you’re going to know your business inside and out from the beginning, it’s just going to skyrocket and it’s going to put you, your confidence it’s going to be so awesome and you’re going to be on the right foot from the get go. And you’re not going to be struggling, trying to figure it out two years down the road like I was.

Caroline: Absolutely, we all made that mistake and then hindsight is such a wonderful thing, right?

Amy: Right. Yes. If only my 20 year old self could yell at my 25 year old self. I’d have a whole book of it. I’m just joking. So you dive into this business plan and in theory we want it to be all peachy keen and jelly beans. But you know, some red flags have come up. So what kind of happens with that? Should you just like stop dead in your tracks and be like “No never mind, I’m not interested, this isn’t a good idea. I’m going to go in B direction.” I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Caroline: So yeah, this has happened to me a couple of times when I’ve been doing business plans. Sometimes it’s just a case of you wake up one day and you’re like “Oh my god, I have the best idea, I came to in the night.” And then when you’re looking at it the next time you start really thinking about and you’re like “Hmm, maybe it’s not such a good idea after all.” I think that happens to us all.

Caroline: Sometimes when you’re really committed to an idea and you do a business plan and then you start thinking about it in this kind of depth, and then you kind of think “Hmm, you know what? Actually this doesn’t sound very profitable.” Or “Actually I don’t think that my target audience would actually pay for this kind of service.” Or whatever it might be that kind of starts to flag up. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should ditch the idea in totally. But it does mean you need to really think about it and reflect on it. Don’t just kind of get ready down the line because you are better to know these things now. And as I said before, you kind of invest that time and money into a business. So you need to start thinking in a different way. You need to get creative to find the solution. And you need to mull it over.

Caroline: I think in this society we’re so fast paced and quick, like we want a business and we want it now. We want it to start yesterday. So often we kind of overlook things just purely because we want to get going, ’cause we’re excited and we’re passionate about our idea. But just take a bit of time to take stock and really think about what the problem is and think about how you can solve it before you move forward. So it absolutely doesn’t mean you need to completely ditch your idea but it does mean you need to get creative.

Amy: Yeah. You’re reliving my beginning of my business right now through this interview. Oh dear, yeah. I wish I heard this three years ago, yeah, yeah.

Caroline: And occasionally you know what? It might mean you have to ditch the business. Maybe it’s really not a business that will work or whatever. But actually that’s quite rare. Just go into it with an open mind, I would say, the business plan because you want red flags to kind of come up. Because that’s going to challenge you and creating a business isn’t easy. Everyone says things like “Hey, start up your business in 24 hours.” It’s tough, it’s hard to start up a business so there are going to be challenges.

Caroline: If you want to throw in the towel at the first kind of red flag well then maybe this isn’t the business for you anyway because if you haven’t got that passion and that drive and that enthusiasm behind you, you are going to struggle. Because it’s tough work, right?

Amy: Oh yeah. Yeah. A lot of tough work. But it’s worth it, it really is.

Caroline: It is, totally.

Amy: And so because this podcast is geared towards the new up-and-coming online entrepreneurs, we kind of don’t necessarily have that intuition kind of trained or that thought process or the ability to kind of see if it is a red flag or if it’s not. There’s some blatant things like if you’re like oh, one person in the entire world is going to buy this or you can help at or whatever, you know that’s not a good idea.

Amy: So kind of going back to what you talked about with market research. How do you do that in 2018? What is the best forms of market research, especially for online biz?

Caroline: I really think nothing beats actually speaking one on one to people who fit your ideal client avatar. So for people who aren’t familiar with that, that’s people who basically fit the ideal person who would buy your product or service. Let’s say you have an online course for example, it’s somebody who you know like oh my god, they totally need this course. This course solves their problem, they’re going to want this, they can afford it. This is my ideal client right here. I just need this on like a scale of like 100 million and I’ll be a multi multi millionaire living on Necker Island.

Caroline: What you want to do first is find out who the heck is that person. Who is your ideal client avatar, what do they look like. And again, there’s tons of templates online and things where you can kind of really work on who this ideal customer is. It’s a great activity to do because it makes you think who is this person, where are they hanging out, what do they read, what do they listen to, what inspires them, what social media platforms are they on. And by doing that, that really helps you to kind of understand what you need to be doing and where you need to be. But it also then means that you can kind of target those people to speak to before you dive in and create your product or service.

Caroline: So what I was doing when I created the League with Charly Lester is we found ’cause we target female entrepreneurs at the start of their journey, like with this podcast. So we found women who met that criteria. And we found them through doing things like shout outs on social media. And often it would be people we would know who then share it and somebody would approach them. We posted in various groups and things on social media. And we basically got together a group of women who fit our ideal client avatar totally and we asked them, we said can we do a Zoom call? And we gave them complimentary membership when we launched as a thank you and that’s important you know, you want a nice little incentive.

Caroline: But it was really about kind of saying to them “This is our idea, is this something you’d want? Would you pay for it? How much would you pay? How do you want it delivered? Do you want interviews, do you want live trainings? Do you want Facebook Lives? Are these things important to you?” And it was important that we got that information before we dived in because we had to create an online platform which cost money. And we were saying, Charly and I, oh we know we need an area where members can communicate, they can message each other and they can chat and find a job’s board and stuff like that. Okay.

Caroline: When we ask people, no one mentioned that they want that. So we saved ourselves probably about 5,000 pounds right from the get go because we actually just start and kind of didn’t make assumptions anymore of what people wanted. And we actually asked them. So we set up Zoom calls with people, we did questionnaires, confidential ones as well so they didn’t have to own up if they thought our idea was bad or not. And you can also do things like where you can get together with a group of people on things like Zoom, like a conference call and ask people. But the key thing is really making sure that you do find people who fit your ideal customer. If you’ve ask friends and family, they get it. The information that you’re going to get is going to be so skewed. And the same if you don’t ask people who fit our ideal client.

Caroline: So I mentioned that my other business is matchmaking. When I started that business and it’s a very expensive service, I was asking people who were married. “When you were single, would you have done this?” And they were like “No way. No way, I wouldn’t pay that kind of money.” But the fact is they were in a happy marriage now, they couldn’t remember what it was like being single. And actually they didn’t know what it was like being a single woman in their late 30s. So they couldn’t relate. So I brought data that wasn’t correct. So hopefully that does make sense.

Amy: Oh absolutely.

Caroline: But the key thing with research is you got to find people, you got to ask them and you got to be prepared that sometimes the feedback maybe isn’t what you want to hear.

Amy: Yeah. And it’s hard, I know it’s scary to do market research, especially at the beginning that confidence unless you did a business plan it’s really up there. But if you didn’t it’s like shaky. And you know, we kind of live, especially, I’m very open, I have high-functioning anxiety. Sucks but when I get negative feedback it really bothers me, bothers me it’s a very downplay of what happens. But it affects me to an extent that it doesn’t for other people. But we’re all human.

Amy: We all don’t want to hear that our ideas are not great or sorry this Aries I don’t know if you’re into astrology but this Aries energy has got me swearing like a sailor right now. I’m really trying not to. But back on track. As a human being, we don’t want to hear that our business ideas that we’re so over the moon about, suck. So how do you suggest that these new business owners deal with not so great feedback?

Caroline: It’s so difficult, right? It is really difficult because it’s your baby, this business is like your total baby and you don’t want to hear anything bad. But again, it’s good to hear two sides for every story. No business is perfect and certainly no startup business is perfect. So getting that feedback, even if some of it is negative, you got to try and not take it personally because it’s not personal, it’s about a business idea. And actually it’s better that people are honest than lie to you or just to make your life easy just say, oh yeah, I’d buy when they know they wouldn’t. Because then you end up in a sticky situation.

Caroline: You got to try and not be stubborn. Try not to take it to heart. Of course it’s going to get your back up a little bit. Come on, we’re all human, right? But you got to look at it objectively. And just be like okay, so these people have said this. Can I go back to them and ask them more about it? Which is great if you can. If you can’t, you still want to take on board what they say and just really think about is there any truth to it? Is this the case? Maybe it’s not, you don’t have to listen to the feedback and take it on board if you don’t want to. You’d be a bit crazy not to. But some things you might not agree with still and that’s also fine.

Caroline: But do take it on board, reflect on it and think okay, is there some truth in this? And if there is, what can I do to maybe challenge it? So again, if people are coming back and saying it’s too expensive, I wouldn’t pay for this, what would they pay? And is this that you’re targeting the wrong people? Are you targeting people with not enough disposable income? Is your kind of online course for example as I’m using as an example now again, is it not targeted enough? Is the name not clear enough what it is? So don’t see it as a negative necessarily, reflect on it, take it on board and see what you can do with it.

Amy: Yes. One of the best sayings I ever heard was there’s no such thing as failure, only feedback.

Caroline: I like that.

Amy: It’s just so relative, especially in online business, especially how quickly is evolving and changing and just really throwing everyone that does for a loop, Facebook algorithms change all the time. Instagram, Pinterest, everything is always changing. So what works sometimes or what worked two or three years ago, is not necessarily going to work to the same extent as it is now.

Amy: So taking note it’s freaking scary, like so scary to get that negative feedback but honestly it’s going to be better for you and you know your business is going to be so much better for it.

Caroline: Absolutely, and you have to be confident with your business idea as well because you know what? You’re going to have haters the whole way through your business journey. That’s just part of business life. You’re also going to have a lot of support, you’re going to have a lot of encouragement, a lot of great feedback. We tend to forget about that a bit more so one of the things that I do now ’cause I do take feedback hard even though I’m telling you don’t do that, I do. I try my hardest not to. But I do now just a have a Word document where even if somebody in an email says something really nice, like just to let you know I found that really valuable or whatever, I just copy and paste into a Word document where I have everything. And some days you just need that.

Caroline: You need just to say hold on, actually let me look at all that good feedback, I am on the right track, I am doing good work. And you know what? Forget about haters and just carry on focusing on doing what you do and doing what you do well.

Amy: I love that and I’m definitely going to do that ’cause you know that one thing that goes wrong it overshadows the 15 other things that you did right in that one hour. So I probably going to implement that as soon as possible, so thank you.

Amy: Well, it was wonderful chatting with you Caroline. And I was just wondering if you’d like to leave the audience with any words of wisdom?

Caroline: Yeah so I would just say business is such a fun journey, you’ll have some days that you cry. You’ll have some days where you’re jumping for joy and everything in between. And I don’t want to be super cheesy and say it’s a roller coaster but it is an interesting ride. And you got to roll with it. Don’t give up at the first hurdle, keep going, keep persevering, when you’re in business is such an incredible experience, it’s a huge learning curve, surround yourself with other great women. Be inspired by others, learn from others, don’t be afraid to ask for help and just try and have some fun with it. ‘Cause business shouldn’t always be so serious.