What is it like to be the Managing Director of a multi award-winning digital agency while juggling a busy social life, numerous voluntary activities and raising a family? Adam Hignett talks to Jenny Kitchen of Yoyo Design and winner of the Young Business Person of the Year category at the Royal Tunbridge Wells Business Awards about how to run a successful enterprise by the age of 30
From the outside, the office of Yoyo Design is an inauspicious building.
With its entrance sandwiched between the two halves of Iceland on Calverley Road and a brutalist-looking exterior, it did not look like a building conducive to creativity.
But it is a different story when stepping into the office itself – the first thing you notice is a wall filled with Lego, alongside numerous framed pictures of comics, modern art, sculptures, three hanging snowboards and a well-used chalk board which takes up an entire wall.
It certainly felt like the Silicon Valley-style office I had read were so common in creative industries.
I was greeted by Jenny Kitchen, whom I had come to interview, and was given a quick tour of the predominantly open-plan layout before settling down in a comfy side room with a big TV and sofas.
“So why do you think you won the Young Business Person of the Year award?” I asked.
“That’s a really tough question, probably because I do a lot of different things,” She replied laughing and putting an emphasis on ‘a lot’.
“I joined Yoyo four and a half years ago and since then I literally haven’t stopped.
“Along with my other business partners we are the type of people who are never satisfied with the work we do ourselves and are always hungry for the next thing, which means we are never resting on our laurels.
“We want to create something brilliant and sustainable which will carry on for a long, long time.”
The business has grown rapidly since she joined and now employs 19 staff. It hit a record turnover of £100,000 last month, of which £25,000 is profit, going a long way to achieving their revenue target for 2016 of £1million, she said.
Yoyo was actually founded in 2008 by Jan Golding, Director of Strategy, and Gregg Lawrence, the Creative Director, four years before Jenny joined.
“I had worked in various marketing agencies in London and started at a company called Undercurrent for three days a week while still at UCL (University College London) studying linguistics.
“Somehow I still managed to get a 2:1, but I knew from then on I wanted to go into marketing.”
Despite being a very small operation, as Jenny was the sole employee of the firm – which was run by her future husband’s best friend, who also happened to be their housemate – she believes it taught her all the skills of running a marketing firm.
“It gave me an understanding of all the boring stuff people forget like the accounts, banking and admin side of things, what it takes to win new business and build a reputation as well as how quickly it can be lost.”
At that time she was still only 19. She continued to work for other marketing firms in London before joining forces with her by-then husband James Forage, whom she has been married to for the past ten years.
It was through his work at a company called Fortune Cookie that they met Yoyo founders Gregg and Jan.
Before I ask how both her and her husband came to own 25 per cent of Yoyo each, I have to ask if every creative company has to have a name which to most people sounds very bizarre.
“I know,” she said, laughing, “but that is the creative world, rules and corporate-sounding things go out of the window. Could you imagine if this agency was called Lawrence-Golding-Kitchen-Forage?”
It was a fair point. I thought that I wouldn’t want my branding designed by a company which sounded more like a law firm or accountants.
Realising they had complementary, but not overlapping, skill sets and a good rapport, they struck a deal to buy into Yoyo over a few drinks in The Barn pub.
“We decided to go for it and the rest is history,” she said, describing the first year in which they commuted down from Tufnell Park and slept on sofas as ‘horrific’.
She candidly admits that the money to invest came from her grandfather’s inheritance. But investing in any company – rather than in a house, putting it in the bank or simply spending it – is a risk, I suggested.
“It was a big risk, but I knew working in the larger London agencies that there were many things I loved about the industry and wouldn’t change but there were a lot of things I didn’t like and would change.
“It meant that if I wanted to be in the industry I would have to be involved in managing an agency myself.”
Too much hierarchy, leading to a loss of communication with clients and their wishes through what she described as ‘Chinese whispers’ plus a lack of value for clients and rapid turnovers of staff – leading to low morale – were the parts of the London scene she wished to rectify.
To this end, Yoyo operates a profit share scheme with its staff – 15 per cent of the total. It also ensures employees are regularly briefed on the direction in which the company is going so they can give feedback, and it pays for them to get their qualifications.
It also offers an array of non-work activities, such as yoga, trampolining, quizzes and nights out designed to boost morale, fostering friendship among colleagues and letting them relax.
As if to emphasise the point, at that moment a group of female employees passed by the glass office in which we were sitting, heading for a two-hour ‘style workshop’.
“It’s part of our commitment to having happy staff,” she said.
So how is it that she is now the MD, the first among equals of the four directors – one of which includes her husband James, who joined at the same time as Jenny and has the title of Technical Director?
“I was brought in as Client Services Director and we all had our very specific divisions.
“We were all on an equal level but then about two and a half years ago we had a really frank conversation as things were not working with us all being at the same level, because there was no one person leading the direction of the business.
“We sat in a room with two of our business mentors at the time and asked ‘who should it be?’ and they all turned around and pointed at me.
“I was 27 and petrified, wondering if I could do it, although I knew I probably had the best skill set for the job.”
Since then she has stepped back a bit from personally managing client accounts to focus on overall strategy, leaving the other directors, who she said are ‘at the top of their game’, to concentrate on the creative process.
So how does she juggle having a two-year-old boy and running a business?
“Lots of people say that when women have children they come back to work distracted and their priorities have changed.
“And it has changed me entirely because I don’t have a huge amount of time and can’t stay late into the evening.
“But I have studied every single book out there on time management to make sure I do as much as possible. I actually do more now than I ever did before.”
On top of this, Jenny involves herself in a host of other activities, such as being a Digital Envoy for Kent, speaking at conferences, organising tech events and this year being a manager of TedX.
Does this leave her with any free time?
“My drinking habits haven’t changed,” she joked.
“Yes, running a business takes up a lot of time but I never want my life to be solely on that side of things so I say yes to as many opportunities as possible – even if it means a few sleepless nights and working long hours.
“But none of it I have regretted because it has either taught me something new or let me meet new people, or it’s simply fun and distracting.”
But does this not get exhausting?
She hesitates before saying: “Well, I am still only 30 so I guess I just find the energy to do it.”
WHO ARE YOYO DESIGN?
The present day Yoyo started in 2008 with creative directors Jan Golding and Gregg Lawrence and specialises in digital strategy, marketing, branding, user experience, web design and development.
There are 19 employees who work under the slogan ‘generation play’ as everyone was born between 1977-1994 – the generation which has grown up with easy access to digital technology and subsequently helped define it.
Clients include Universal Music, Royal National Lifeboat Institution, England Athletics, Marks & Spencer, Penguin Random House and The Open University.