Jill Boulton was a journalist for 15 years, working at various newspapers in the north of England, including The Northern Echo and then in Scotland at The Scotsman Publications, before striking out to launch her own business – Visorcat.
Visorcat is a device which allows motorcyclists to safely clean their helmet visors with a wash/wipe system, increasing a rider’s vision, confidence and safety. It’s attached to the cyclist’s glove, and operates both safely and simply.
For Jill, pictured with Visorcat Operations Director Andy Pringle, the move into the world of entrepreneurs has been exciting and challenging. She had to learn about the worlds of business and marketing quickly to make her business a success. We talk to Jill about how being a journalist helped her develop her own business, and some of the valuable tips she’s learned along the way.
Jill, a lot of people want to start their own business or become entrepreneurs, but lack an idea. For you, where did the idea for Visorcat come from?
I was interested in business from a young age – my Dad dipped in and out of various ventures, and much later I was deputy editor of a business magazine called Business Review in Hull, East Yorkshire, and the best aspect of the job was interviewing businesses, which I found fascinating.
Ten years after that I ended up working as a sub-editor on a business newspaper called Business a.m. in Scotland, where I now live. That newspaper really inspired me to set up a business, and by that time my brother had come up with an idea for a motorcycle product that could be used by the rider to safely wash as well as wipe the visor while riding. I understood the need, as I’ve always been into bikes. So the seed was sown.
From journalist to entrepreneur
When did you realize that you were finally ready to take that leap and leave the newsroom to run your own business?
I was made redundant from the business newspaper and had a variety of short term and freelance jobs after that. I didn’t find another job that I loved, so I think I was ready for it. And by that time most of my former colleagues were being made redundant too!
Soon after that I had my son, and I started reassessing my life like a lot of people do when they become parents. So I took the plunge and started doing something about this idea that wouldn’t go away.
Lots of business people point out that it’s good to have an idea, but what makes the difference is the execution. Can you share your thoughts on this, and what it was like running Visorcat in the early years?
I still consider Visorcat to be in its early years! We spent a few years pursuing another project, which we later abandoned. So this diversion took up some time and money. We then started the Visorcat project. I won an award of £10,000 which enabled me to file a patent application and make prototypes, and then we raised more cash to make a few hundred products.
We knew then that we needed to raise more cash, which didn’t materialise, and it ran out! So we then had what I now refer to as ‘our quiet period’ when we were paying patent bills but couldn’t do much else.
But that’s behind us now, thank goodness! Execution is an interesting concept. I have executed the idea simply by my refusal to stop. Even when times were tough I continued slowly towards my goal. In the end, that’s the fundamental thing you need – persistence. Everything else you can acquire, one way or another.
Marketing that works
How are you actively marketing Visorcat? What marketing tactics have worked well, and which ones not so well?
Well, we’re only just up and running again after our quiet period, so it’s still work in progress. We did some experiments with Facebook advertising last year and got good results, so we’ll revisit that. Amazon is also good, although I haven’t yet cracked Sponsored Products.
But Amazon has undoubtedly been a very powerful marketing tool for us – we were invited to join Amazon Launchpad for innovative startups, which has been brilliant as it gives us a greater presence and a few more opportunities for promotion. We were in the Amazon Gadget Geek Gift Guide at Christmas!
Trade shows and motorcycle events are beneficial. And LinkedIn is excellent for building credibility and has resulted in sales and inquiries. We’ve also formed a relationship with a major name in motorcycling through LinkedIn. It’s hush-hush at the moment though! We also use Twitter.
On the negative side, what we learned at an early stage is don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Early on we formed an alliance with a road safety organisation in the UK, which had been very supportive. However, we relied on them too much to help us launch the product, and in the end nothing much happened.
I think what I have learned is, you need to continually market your product and business. If you stop doing that, sales will inevitably drop. While a few people find our website through web searches etc and through recommendations, it’s persistent marketing that pays, and important to mix traditional and digital marketing methods – it all adds credibility.
Can you tell us about some of the marketing challenges you’ve faced and how you’re tackling them?
Because we’re primarily an online business selling a physical consumer product, it’s really hard to portray how fantastic the product is – and this is a product which can ultimately save lives – unless you use video.
Pictures can’t always tell the story, but video usually can. So we’ve had a challenge there, showing how flexible and durable the product is, how well made it is, how soft it is, how lightweight it is.
It’s really only something you can find out by touching and feeling, and using. We will continue to attend trade shows and bike shows, where people can try it for themselves. This is a product that weighs only 65 grammes – even video can’t really show that. Reviews from trusted organisations (and journalists!) help, though. And customer reviews, of course.
Journalism training a big help
How did your training as a journalist and experience in newsrooms equip you to be an entrepreneur? Did it help having contacts in the media?
I think training in journalism is a brilliant foundation for a lot of jobs, and it definitely helped me. It’s good for when the pressure is on, less so when a lot of planning is involved, so I’ve had to learn that! It’s good for researching subjects too.
Working as a newspaper reporter in the early years gave me a little knowledge about a lot of subjects, which has been useful. I think journalists have a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff so they can find the really useful information, and then present that information succinctly. That’s a valuable skill in business, as is the ability to talk to anyone, either face to face or on the phone, which seems to have gone out of fashion as a communication tool but is an underrated medium for building trust.
Regarding contacts, a lot of the people I knew had left journalism. However, it helps to know how journalists work, and give them the information you know they want. I have just written and sent a 200-word news release for a trade magazine. He asked for 200 words so that’s what he got (well, 222 including a headline) – all carefully crafted of course!
Most journalists are known for their curiosity and questioning. This can be really useful when you need to access information or find a different approach if you hit a wall. Did your curiosity and penchant for questions get you through some tough moments?
Absolutely true, although I would say that ‘hitting a wall’ resonates with me more as you hit lots of walls when you set up in business for the first time.
Journalists are very good at climbing over walls or knocking them down, or finding their way around them. I am not sure curiosity was my saviour here – it’s more my belligerence!
What’s your advice for journalists who want to start their own business?
If you’ve had a career in journalism, especially if you’ve worked freelance, then it will stand you in good stead. Journalists are largely self-sufficient, tough and confident individuals who can find out what they need to know. They’re also good at delivery, if they have a deadline to work to! So go for it! Define your goal and work persistently towards it, and you will get there.
I wish I’d known . . .
What things do you wish you’d known before going into business?
A good question but a very difficult one to answer. If I’d known how hard and stressful it would be, how much money it would take or how long, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But my natural enthusiasm, a healthy degree of naivety and my ‘true Yorkshire grit’ has seen me through.
Journalist and entrepreneur Jill Boulton
Jill Boulton is a former newspaper journalist turned entrepreneur. One of her lifelong passions has been motorcycles and now innovation in motorcycle safety with Visorcat. She studied politics and economics at the University of Wales and then journalism at Darlington College of Technology. She is based in Dunbar, Scotland. You can find here on Linkedin and Twitter.
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