Claire Brynteson: No Room For Giving Up

Claire Brynteson, Entrepreneur and Founder of buy:time. Claire Brynteson is the Founder of buy:time, one of the UK's premier lifestyle management companies. In 2009, she won ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ with her ‘historical mentor’ in the Independent on Sunday’s Awards for Women Entrepreneurs. 

Claire Brynteson spent the first half of her 20s travelling the world, funded by lead singing in a band and training horses. She moved from the equestrian world into finance in the mid-1990s, then spent five years with Goldman Sachs.

In 2002, she left the corporate world to set up buy:time; a flexible PA service offering lifestyle management and concierge services to individuals with too much pressure and too little time to manage their all round commitments, let alone have any spare time and energy for family life or relaxation.

buy:time now has twenty staff and is one of the UK’s premier lifestyle management companies, managing clients’ lives, administration, households and properties, plus providing back office support to companies and professionals in need of flexible business assistance. They help with all manner of tasks, which have included everything from setting up wedding proposals to providing witnesses for wedding ceremonies; from loading iPods to queuing for book signings and escorting children to music festivals. 

Claire is now forty two years of age and is married with three small children. She uses her own buy:time PA to enable quality family time whilst running a growing business. She has been covered in Sunday Times Business, Financial Times, London Evening Standard, The Independent, Vogue and Harpers & Queen, in addition to appearing on television and national radio mentoring business start ups. She was nominated for the ‘Women of The Year 2008’ award in recognition of creating a service which helps others improve their own organisation and productivity levels, won ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ with her ‘historical mentor’ in the Independent on Sunday’s Awards for Women Entrepreneurs in 2009 and is a judge for the UK annual National Business Awards.

We spoke to Claire about the ideas behind buy:time, how the company has developed, her experiences of balancing motherhood with a career, and the personal highlights of her career so far. 

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for buy:time and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

CB: I spent several years sitting in a very large sales/trading floor of a leading investment bank, surrounded by people without enough time to cater for all that life threw at them. We had a concierge service provided as an employee benefit, but it just didn’t ‘hit the spot’ for most. I could see that people would benefit from someone turning concierge on its head and offering a different approach. Identifying the fundamental differences required meant that I could create a service that would really make a difference to people’s lives. It was also easy to design a service based on my own needs - I needed a flexible life assistant. Now of course I need a flexible business assistant too, and I take my own medicine everyday!

At the same time, I wanted to work for myself, and I’m not sure my personality suited the corporate arena – I felt a bit stifled in it.

I also knew that my working schedule in banking didn’t work well with the hands-on mother that I wanted to be. 

I wanted it all: to be the mother at the school gates two or three times a week; to maintain a career and financial independence; to continue to develop a strong identity outside of the home; to have ownership of my own time, with the drive and ambition to succeed in something to be proud of.

So these things meant that I wanted to start my own business, and I was fortunate enough to have a decent enough idea for it. Then it came down to timing and, for my market, luckily my timing was perfect. 

TNW: What distinguishes buy:time from other companies in the lifestyle management space?

CB: The USPs at the start gave 3 clear distinctions :-

  1. No memberships, no minimum usage, no fixed term – a simple Pay As You Go structure;
  2. One dedicated assistant for your business and personal life;
  3. Service that operate anywhere at pretty much anytime – a PA who works virtually, on-site in homes, offices and out running errands and who also travels in her work. 

Over the years other companies have followed suit, and nowadays it is the brand that distinguishes buy:time from the pack. Ten years of experience and a lot of media attention helps greatly and will always keep us ahead of the game. Rising levels of competition is excellent news at any time, to raise consumer awareness, and then it comes down to the power of the brand and what we know from a decade of doing it.

TNW: You are currently raising funds for the growth of buy:time. Which fundraising route have you chosen and why? If you are pitching to investors, how are you finding their attitudes towards you as a female entrepreneur?

CB: I would LOVE funding now, as I’m more than ready to make a big leap in growth and keep going from there. It’s time to ramp up and get a whole lot more serious about growth and my ultimate exit. I face an enormous market  with many reachable ideas for the business, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have attracted much interest in capital raising activity. The approaches have so far been from private investors or companies with aggressive, strategic expansion plans through acquisition and cross selling opportunities thereafter, i.e. wealth management firms.

I have learnt a lot through these experiences but have not yet succeeded in establishing the right investor. I am currently tempted by the crowdfunding concept and will explore that when I have time. 

I have not noticed anything in particular about me being a female entrepreneur, but then I suspect I’m just not open to it and so it doesn’t come my way - I’d like to see anyone try!

TNW: How important is technology to the success of buy:time? What kind of technology are you personally enthusiastic about and why?

CB: I love technology and it is very important to buy:time. As buy:time forms the support structure behind so many entrepreneurs, sole traders and companies, we need to be working efficiently with many different techno-faces. We have to see what customers are working with and integrate into it. We need our own secure systems for privacy and working with sensitive information wherever we are and moreover we need to access everything at all times, from anywhere. We need to learn new technology all the time and we need all systems talking to each other. Lastly, we need to track all our working time and report it through our internal financial control.

We now use an internet based phone system, which has opened up a whole new world for telecoms.

I’m a big fan of ‘information in one place’ and keeping things simple.

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

CB: I work with a marketing plan, but my basic strategy is to have my ear to the ground day and night, monitoring what works the best and do more of it – and do it better.

Press coverage and networking are by far the most effective means of taking this product to market. Word of mouth referrals are amazing and continue at a promising rate year to year, scaling up in line with the growth of our client base and brand presence.

The B2B propositions work extremely well for our service, providing flexible outsourced solutions for other corporate entities to bolt on a valuable benefit to their core offering or white label the service with their own brand.

TNW: How will buy:time adapt to, or capitalise on, the forecasted emergence of the mobile business model over the next few years, which will see businesses adopting more flexible and fragmented ways of operating?

CB: This is what buy:time is built for! This is what has helped our growth over the past 3 years in particular. Not only do I believe that we are in a mobile working world right now that is only set to increase, as you say, but we are also in an outsourcing culture, both at home and at work. These two things are the most powerful supporters of the buy:time model. We work anywhere, at any time, on flexible terms, in a combined business and personal role. It just works. 

I can’t claim to have foreseen this, but I can claim to have felt it a long time ago and geared the business towards it and tailored our marketing efforts in response to it.

TNW: When you first founded buy:time, did you fulfil all customer requirements yourself? Tell us a little about the journey from those very early days to the present, where you employ a staff of twenty.

CB: Yes I did! – but it feels surreal now, as whilst constantly marvelling at the skills, talents and experience of my team, I fully appreciate that I could not do it now. They are amazing, and I’m glad I only have to run the business!

I needed to execute the service myself in the beginning as I had to find out:-

  • How it should work structurally and what to expect out of employees. 
  • How much revenue could one PA generate, and therefore what could I afford to pay them? 
  • What did the clients really want and how best do we deliver it? 
  • What systems and information flow does a PA need to fully support the customers? 
  • What is the optimum portfolio of client types for a PA to juggle?

I’m glad I did for another reason. I wouldn’t enjoy heading up our regular team meetings and addressing a small sea of faces that might have this expression at times: “what does she know about it?”

It keeps my expectations real and keeps me grounded, as I’ve done the job myself.

I took on my first lifestyle manager (as we called them then) after three or four months and then kept adding more people each time the demand outgrew the team capacity. 

What I want now is to take on five to ten at a time and motor forward. Recruiting, training, developing and mentoring people costs and it would work well to take new recruits forward in groups. I’d also like to sweep up all the zillions of ‘one-woman bands’ in our industry and invite them ‘in’, which is a major project, but one I believe in.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

CB: There is so much I have learnt and could share and pass on to others. 

The biggest challenge has not been about growing the clients – there are opportunities everywhere for me to pursue in business development and there always have been. The challenge is in finding the best people to grow my team with. 

I am inundated with CVs for PA roles, and I’ve also been lucky to have been approached by many interested parties for investment and acquisition of the business; there is no shortage of people that want to help me grow the business, but whether or not they can deliver is a different question. The PAs I have are amazing, but I have to scoop the cream off the top of all the applicants when recruiting. The real struggle is finding another one of me to grow this with. There is too much opportunity for me to do this by myself. I need a sales person, a real business development guru.

I’ve fallen over in the past by believing in the wrong people. 

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far?

CB: Getting my own PA! Finally having for myself what I give others all the time.

In the ‘day-to-day’ running of the business, there have been so many highlights. Some of the things we do for our customers are just unreal!

Aside from the diversity of work and the far-fetched requests, when faced with an impossible expectation and pulling it off is as good as the perfect chardonnay for me - and I love my wine! 

In my personal career path, it was fabulous to win the Addidi Wealth Management / Independent on Sunday’s Entrepreneur awards. I was pregnant on the awards night and so couldn’t even have the champagne to help with the much-hyped presentation I had to give, and that was a well-won challenge! 

Recognising that I was indeed an entrepreneur was another particular personal highlight for me - with my head down, doing my thing, I hadn’t noticed that I had earned that title. I was written about by the Sunday Times Enterprise Editor several times in the paper and in her books as an entrepreneur and it was a bit of a moment when I started to accept that title myself.

Other highlights are milestones – as I started to build an internal team that gradually took bites out of my role, removing me from the day to day running of the business, I felt a ‘moment’ each time. I only wear a couple of hats now, which makes an amazing difference. 

A noticeable occasion, although not a highlight, was the headline that described me as “the woman who thinks maternity is for wimps.” What a load of rubbish! I don’t think that, but I do a lot of public speaking, interviews and consulting on women in work and working mothers, etc., as a result of it, so that can’t be a bad result.

TNW: What is your top tip for balancing motherhood with a career?

CB: People say don’t try to do it all – I say the complete opposite!

It’s incredibly hard, but try to do everything you aspire towards and you’ll achieve most of it.

Within that, prioritise well, as you can’t do everything as well as you’d like to perhaps, all of the time; that’s different.

Is it hard? Sometimes impossibly hard. Should that put anyone off? Not in my book. There truly is no such thing as can’t. There is always a way; there’s just no room for giving up.

The sacrifices for being a hands-on mother and growing a business at the same time are definitely there. I haven’t slept enough in years, and I have to book in time to see my own husband, let alone my mother, brothers and friends, but the kids grow up so fast and I’m determined not to miss it. Plus, they need their mum – simple. I wouldn’t have given up on a successful business idea, so where does that leave you?

TNW: What is one leadership lesson that you learned from a boss or mentor and have gone on to incorporate into your own leadership style? 

CB: Goldman Sachs taught me a lot. Love it or hate it, GS has a lot to offer. It taught me tenacity and self belief. It taught me an immense work ethic – things are done now and no-one goes home until it’s all done. We worked hard and we wanted to – I feel the same now.

It’s about a working-together culture and it built the ability to keep going no matter what. No wallflowers and no quitters allowed!

My experiences at GS also taught me diplomacy in the management of staff. My desk head at GS was amazing in this respect and dealt with every situation in a calm and productive fashion, presenting ‘guidance’ and helping without too much heat or being overly critical. One can communicate a message in so many different ways, and to work backwards from the best result of a conversation is better than working forwards from what you want say. I didn’t get it right at first, far from it, but I’m getting good at it these days.

My other inspiration is my husband, who has many talents that I dip into and am inspired by. His creativity and measured thinking is brilliant. His name is Paul Owen and he has just started his own venture too, called The Clear Path Company – it’s interesting.

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