Inspirational Woman: Fiona Blades | Chief Experience Officer and President at MESH Experience

Fiona Blades is the Chief Experience Officer and President at MESH Experience.She has worked with global brands such as Pepsi and Mercedes, to help improve their customer experience.
Fiona Blades

She’s also a passionate advocate of women in business and is the NY Event Lead for Women in Research (WiRE). She is also an ambassador for the Market Research Society.

What inspired you to start a business?

An opportunity.

I was working in the advertising industry, on brands like Mercedes-Benz, and I knew that it wasn’t just the TV ad that was making people buy cars. Seeing cars online, watching TV programmes like “Top Gear” and noticing your neighbours’ new car all influence people’s purchasing habits. Yet the research and data tools were very TV advertising focussed and lacked a way of understanding how everything people encountered influenced brand. Jeremy Bullmore, the advertising guru, has a wonderful way of describing brands, “People build brands, like birds build nests, from scraps and straws they chance upon.”

So I thought, “how could we capture all these experiences; these scraps and straws?”

The answer, which sounds simple now, was the mobile phone.

In 2006, when we launched MESH, there were no apps and Twitter didn’t exist. We used standard SMS text messages. People would text us a code to let us know the brand, the touchpoint and how positively the experience made them feel. These texts went into an online diary where photos and comments were uploaded. To begin with, this seemed like a gimmick but by 2012 Harvard Business Review called the approach, Real-time Experience Tracking, “a new tool (that) radically improves marketing research” bringing us credibility.

Tell us about your company, vision and team.

MESH Experience was launched in 2006 to help clients make quicker and better decisions about their marketing investment. John Wannamaker famously said, “half of my advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”. With Real-time Experience Tracking (RET) we had the answer!

We’re all about experiences. It’s in our fabric whether it’s monitoring them, understanding them, living them, tracking them or capturing them.

Our vision is to help measure and create experiences that build brands, people and society.

Every day we ask ourselves ”how we can help our clients to create more of the positive experiences and eliminate the negative?”. Experience is in most of our job titles to remind us of this – I am the Chief Experience Officer. We are not simply delivering data or research to a client, the experience is important.

We have amazing teams based in London, New York and Sao Paulo where we are working with Fortune 500 clients like LG Electronics, Delta Air Lines and Unilever. The notion of creating great experiences includes our partners, the participants in our studies and our own team.

This means having challenging and rewarding experiences as well as having fun!

What is the greatest challenge and the greatest reward in being your own boss?

Prioritisation is the greatest challenge. There is never enough time in the day. As a business owner you are constantly juggling balls. You need to focus on your clients to deliver exceptional experiences, your team needs motivating through the good and the bad, and you can’t take your eye off the finances. A couple of overdue payments could jeopardise salaries. You also need to work out where you need to invest. Should you be investing in marketing, new tech or business development? Keeping focussed is hard.

One of the truly great rewards is seeing people grow. A week ago I sat in a MESH Academy meeting, where we share ideas across offices and the VP of North America, in charge of Delta, showed how the team’s work had created a single figure Marketing Impact Score. This had not only won the International Business Excellence Award in Dubai in May, but had also contributed to MESH becoming Delta’s Woman Owned Business of the Year in March. Another team member also showed how she had created an excel spreadsheet full of formulas that reduced the time taken to produce a whole host of monthly scorecards (needed quickly by Delta) from five days to one. And our data team demonstrated how they had created automated reporting for clients in the UK and Australia.

I marvel at the ingenuity of our people.

What motivational tips can you give to our members about goal setting and managing both successes and failures?

 When it comes to motivation there is a saying I heard from a yoga instructor in Thailand which I frequently mention to our team, “In disease, find ease. In discomfort, find comfort. And when you do, you are at the growing edge.” Everyone finds themselves in challenging situations. However, when you do, take a deep breath, try to focus and find the comfort within the moment. When you do this, you grow.

Setting goals is also important to maintain focus. During a particularly challenging time financially we set a target and wrote it on a blackboard, so that we could see what we were aiming for each day and to keep motivation and our focus. In the end we smashed our target.

Not everything goes to plan though. During the 2008 recession we had to call our team in Singapore to say that we needed to cut costs. By the Monday morning the MD called to say they could halve their costs by moving temporarily to Thailand. I would never have thought of this. It’s a good reminder to ask others for help in difficult times.

Finally, and one of the more important points, celebrate your successes with others, not just with your team, but with the clients and partners who have helped along the way.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a business owner?

Keeping the faith through the difficult times.

I remember why I love doing what I am doing. The fact that I am always supported in my decisions by my husband helps to keep me going.

The moment I felt most vulnerable was when I knew I would have to sell everything I owned to pay our partners in the 2008 recession. Our main creditor accepted a new repayment schedule and another didn’t even present us with an invoice until I asked for it 12 months’ later. We still work with both of these partners today.

What advice would you give someone looking to leave the corporate world and launch their own startup?

 Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you passionate about what you are about to embark upon?
  • What are your strengths and gaps (and be honest)?
  • How are you going to fill those gaps?
  • What does your support network look like?

From my own experience, leaving the corporate world to create a start-up was so much more challenging and so much more rewarding than I ever imagined.

You need to weigh up personal and work priorities. Perhaps ask yourself, ”Do you have staying power and resilience?”. If so, then go for it!

What are your tips for scaling a business and how do you plan for and manage growth?

Managing growth is difficult. Either you have too much business coming in and not enough people or too many people and not enough business.

These are some great tips that I have been given along the way:

  • When you are growing keep recruiting for new people. Give them an offer letter for a set amount of months in advance but with the option to bring this forward. This way, the candidate knows they have a start date in the future but they could come on board earlier.
  • Process your onboarding with clients. Make this as streamlined as possible so that you can scale quickly.
  • Remember that the most profitable customer may be the one you reject (Good advice from my father). Think of the 80:20 rule. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to a new client if they are likely to suck up resource. Taking their business could erode your profitability.

In terms of scaling, make sure that you pilot successfully and prove the value of roll-out.

When it comes to expanding geographically, following the opening of one of our offices in Singapore and the recession, we made it a rule that we should always have a founding client in the area before committing to a new office.

What does the future hold for you?

I feel hugely optimistic but I don’t know what the future holds. As a business, MESH has targets and a vision, but to reach these, we need to be attuned to what is going on in the world. I live every day for the moment whilst planning for the future.

As a certified WEConnect woman owned business owner, I feel privileged to be engaging with some wider business issues. Women are still under-represented when it comes to investment, but educated young women in the US (where I now live) are earning more than their male counterparts.

My grandmother, who graduated with a degree in Commerce from Manchester University in the 1920’s, was one of a few women who had two votes: one as a person and one as a graduate from Manchester University. My mother owned an Indie nightclub in Manchester for 20 years, The Brickhouse Nightclub. Both were strong women, so I have a lot to live up to.

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