Inspirational Woman: Lisa May | Founder & Director, Strut-Solutions & The Stories Society

Experienced retail professional, Lisa May, is the Director and founder of Strut-Solutions which provides support for growing retail brands, acting as a trusted partner to help them achieve their long-term goals.  

Lisa is also the founder of The Stories Society, a boutique marketing agency working with female-led product-based businesses.

Can you share the story of your journey to where you are today, highlighting the challenges you faced and how you overcame them? 

Before starting the business, I had worked in retail for almost 20 years. Working for brands such as Jack Wills, Joules, Diesel and department stores, including Debenhams and House of Fraser. Finally becoming the European Brand Manager at Eileen Fisher. The early years of my career were spent in Visual Merchandising, before moving into Sales and Buying.

Like so many, the pandemic devastated retail brands and companies. I found myself on unpaid leave, followed by redundancy all before we came out of the first lockdown.

I had always been part of female networking communities and quickly realised that where corporate companies were struggling, independent brands were thriving. Some seeing astronomical growth and customer demands. Realising that high street and luxury retail were potentially about to embark on a big downward spiral, I decided to utilise my expertise and offer guidance to independent brands. By using my corporate experience and knowledge I’m able to support them to build sustainable and thriving brands many of which have since gone on to huge success.

Four years on I continue to support growing retailers with in-house consultancy and strategy planning as a “temporary CEO” while also running a boutique marketing agency for female-led product-based businesses.

What pivotal moments or decisions do you believe were crucial in shaping your career and personal growth?

Throughout the past 12 months, I’ve had to understand what I truly wanted to achieve – rather than maybe progress where the immediate success was. I have always been hugely passionate about getting into the weeds of a retail brand and supporting across all areas; product, finances, marketing, operations, customer experiences, and omni channel. But as the marketing agency grew quickly, I found that couldn’t take on some of the consulting projects I would have liked to.

It’s over the past year I realised that retail strategy is what truly makes my heart sing, and creating a waitlist for the agency allowed me to explore projects that have turned out to be really rewarding and successful.

I think for a while I questioned if I could run both the consultancy and the agency. Now I know I can, but you can only grow one at a time to do it successfully. For me, this was a huge learning curve as well as a relief – to know you can do it all….just not all at the same time!

As a woman who has achieved significant milestones, what advice would you give to young women starting their careers or entrepreneurial ventures?

Firstly, there is no such thing as a quick win or overnight success. In my experience, the long game is the one that has always served me the best. Creating solid foundations, building consistency, and aiming for quality not quantity, has in my experience proven to be the best course of action. Also, don’t worry or focus on what everyone else is doing, it is never going to support you or your business. It will just prove to be a distraction.

It’s also really important to build your business on your terms, in a way that feels right to you, and how you want it to operate. We are flooded with information about all the things that we “should be doing” – but if it doesn’t reflect the brand you want to build then in the long term it probably isn’t what you should be doing. You need to feel passionate and excited about the decisions you are making and the direction you are moving in. If you don’t, you more than likely won’t achieve the results you desire, and end up changing things further down the line anyway.

Reflecting on your experiences, what strategies have you found most effective for balancing personal life and professional ambitions?

Having a business that works around my personal life has always been a priority. I think this comes from years in corporate retail and having very little control over my schedule. But I think I’m still trying to figure out what the right balance looks like in reality. I suppose I’m good at building the business on my terms. When I’m working longer hours, or travelling a lot one week, at least I know I’m doing something I’m passionate about and believe in. I also know when to let things go and step back.  I get the best results when I’m working at my best, so allowing time to recharge when needed is something I think I’m becoming quite good at doing.

How do you approach setbacks or failures, and what lessons have you learned from them that you can share with others?

I had a colleague many years ago who said “Feedback is a gift and failure is a stepping stone”, and annoyingly it’s so true. I think it comes with age and experience, but after the initial emotions have played out, whether it’s disappointment or upset – I try to look at challenging situations subjectively.

Asking “What do I know now that I didn’t before?” “What will this mean when I do it differently next time?” I think it’s really hard to come out of any challenging situation and not to have learnt something. It’s what you do with that learning that matters. You can dwell on it, or you can channel it into your next attempt.

In your field, who are the women that inspire you, and why do you look up to them?

There are many professionals that I admire both in the retail industry, but also as entrepreneurs. Mary Porter, Sharon White, Eileen Fisher, Jo Malone, Lucy Allen and Chrissie Rucker. Women who have worked through the ever-challenging retail industry, the highs, and the lows are still managed to drive either their business or other brands to success. Women who have not always done things the way “you’re supposed to do it” – but challenged the norm, and believed in their brand and its ability.

I am also inspired by the phenomenal women I get to partner with now. Women who are making waves and carving their paths. Tillie Peel, founder of The Pop Up Club. Amelia Peckham, founder of Cool Crutches. Jennifer Morgan, founder of Simply Scandi Magazine. And the many other female-led brands who had an idea and the determination to turn it into a thriving business.

Can you recommend any resources, such as books, podcasts, or networks, that have been instrumental in your development and success?

Oh…I’m a huge reader, personally and professionally. Everything I have learnt about running and growing a business has come from a book. To name a few I have loved – Oversubscribed by Daniel Priestly, Company Of One by Paul Javis, Work Like A Woman by Mary Portas and Strong Women by Karren Brady. But the list is endless. I find successful entrepreneur stories very inspiring

Looking to the future, what goals are you working towards, and what advice would you give to someone looking to make a positive impact in their community or industry?

After 4 years of building and understanding what I want the businesses to look like, and how I can best support the retail industry – I feel my immediate future is more of the same which probably sounds incredibly uninspiring. But, often in business, we can be at fault for always pushing to the next thing, the next goal, the next challenge. Right now I am exactly where I wanted to be 2 years ago. It has not been easy, there have been many, many challenges and sacrifices. So, taking time to relish where I am and what I’m currently achieving on a day-to-day basis will give me the creativity to see what the longer-term future could look like, and when the time is right, to shift to the next level.

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