Inspirational Woman: Fiona McNae | Founder of Space Doctors

Fiona Mcnear
What inspired you to start a business?

Starting a business has always felt like an irresistible challenge – like learning to sky dive or pushing myself through a PhD which nearly broke me. That need for challenge has always been somewhere in my blood.

It felt inevitable that I’d have to give it a go at some point and that point came when I was pregnant with my son Fred. It was a combination of feeling uncomfortable working within the constraints of big brands/corporations and the big agency world, and a desire to test myself and be a bit more in control of my time.

Leading Space Doctors as we grow is my ultimate job. It’s the feeling of taking the first step, of clearing the blocks out of people’s way, of spotting the next opportunity and working with super-smart people. I feel that sense of adventure deeply and it remains as strong 16 years on as it did on day one.

Tell us about your company, vision and team.

Space Doctors is a global brand consultancy specialising in culture and semiotics insight. We work on creating meaningful futures for brands and organisations. That means we help them work out what their future could be, and should be. We don’t just do that for our clients however, we strive to create meaningful futures for our staff and our industry. Increasing the possibility of more desirable futures for them all is what gets us excited.

We are craftspeople, insight experts, and future shapers. We bring those techniques to some great organisations all over the world – like P&G, Givaudan, IHG and Nestle, working across many industries such as property developers, architects, government agencies, fragrance houses.

It’s a great privilege to work with the Space Doctors team. They are extraordinary. My hope for everyone that works at the company, is that, regardless of whether they spend one month or 10 years with Space Doctors, they move on knowing their time as part of our organisation was time well spent. At best it should be time when they were challenged, learnt new things made lasting friendships, had unique experiences and developed and thrived professionally. The quality of community and experience we create for our staff is very important to me.

 What is the greatest challenge and the greatest reward in your role?

The challenge is always having the courage to take the first step. .Sometimes you have to move forward on incomplete information and trust your instinct. Pitching that right is important – it’s the difference between stretch and inspiration, and stress!

Space Doctors has a simple business model – it consists of our people and their ideas.. My reward comes from seeing individuals in our company (and in our client teams) seizing opportunities which I know stretch them by either proving something to themselves or learning to think in new ways that are braver and bolder than before.

On a personal level, reward also comes from working with some world class external advisors who challenge and inspire me, pushing me to be better as a leader. In the end it’s all about continuing to learn – nothing ever stays still. Someone once said to me “when you think you’ve got it 100% right, it’s time to retire!” I always try to remember this.

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

Reach out far and wide for support, second opinions and advice. There is always someone who has been in your shoes, who can help you weigh up the possible outcomes of a decision. Surround yourself with these people – listen, learn and then make your own decision.

Our business has been built on long term client relationships and we have some big blue chips that have worked with us for more than 15 years now. Good relationship require you to know how they work, their aspirations, their worries, how many children they have, why they leave the office early every Wednesday and even, how they have their coffee. If you know your customers, you can anticipate their needs, be more effective in addressing those and also have tough conversations when you need to.

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

It’s a scary thing moving from the relative security of the corporate world to relying on yourself. My friend Louize offered me the following quote from a talented young author Erin Hansen when we first started; “What if I fall? Oh, but what if you fly?” It was important and it stayed with me.

My advice would be to look at the opportunity hard in the face, roar at it and then jump – making sure you’ve set up a safe place to land. That’s about having a good reliable client or two who is ready to commission work from the get-go.

Be prepared for a day-to-day experience which is more alive, more unmediated. If you’re smart you get used to checking your cash flow’ before you have your first coffee. You’ll live off the highs but the lows can get deep under your skin. It’s exhilarating, and demanding.

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

You’ll need to understand from the get go that you need to innovate. Your initial growth will stagnate over time because the world around you will continue to change. Be open to completely reshaping your initial idea to keep it fresh.

We have moved from an initial set of quite academic tools to help better understand how communications work (‘how should mothers be represented in advertising’), to defining a whole new set of applications and hybrid methodologies which give us access to new markets and answer new questions. We have worked on reinventing the shopping mall, building sensory signatures, understanding the future of male grooming, of airlines, of work. In all this we stay true to our roots, but reapply and reinvent our ideas constantly to stay relevant and useful.

What’s your ‘Meaningful Future’?

Our meaningful future is full of fascinating new collaborations, building our global reach and new innovations in Speculative Design, Sensory & Spatial insight. There will be new methodologies developed by our team to help build better human narratives for the Tech industry.

The future is always all about learning and staying aware of cultural change. Building better futures for our clients, our people and our industry.


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