In the News
Notonthehighstreet Boss Claire Davenport – Building an Empire Powered by Women
By Gemma Goldfingle | 18 March 2021
After a bumper year that has not just brought soaring sales but a new majority shareholder, Notonthehighstreet boss Claire Davenport is eyeing growth. That growth will be powered by an army of women both within, and outside, the business
It’s been a stellar year for Notonthehighstreet (NOTHS). Known for selling thoughtful gifts online, it is somewhat inevitable that the marketplace soared in popularity during the pandemic when people were forced to keep their distance from loved ones.
Sales surged by more than 50% last year as the artisan marketplace attracted almost a million new customers. This success helped woo a new majority stakeholder, US investment firm Great Hill Partners, an active investor in online growth businesses, including furniture marketplace Wayfair.
A quick glimpse at chief executive Claire Davenport’s Zoom background shows why the marketplace is thriving right now as quirky prints, plants and her trusty “crazy cat lady” mug – all from NOTHS, of course – adorn her Oxford home office.
Davenport says items like these from a much-expanded NOTHS range, which signifies a move beyond just selling gifts into self-purchase, have propelled growth over the year.
“We’ve expanded our range in home and garden and food and drink, which have been very strong during pandemic.”
“We’re known for gifts but actually we can help small businesses across the piste that sell anything from home and garden to jewellery. We’re expecting a trend towards self-treating this year,” she says.
Davenport also believes the trend toward buying more quality products will benefit her business.
An army of agile artisans
There is no doubt that what consumers want has changed dramatically over the past year. NOTHS has been able to quickly adapt to these emerging trends thanks to its army of artisan sellers.
Over the past 12 months, 75,000 new products have been added to its range, the majority of which are in categories outside gifting.
Davenport says its sellers have rapidly developed of-the-moment products from rainbow craft kits to letterbox gifts and products to brighten up home offices.
“We had facemasks on-site way before most retailers could source them,” she says.
Leanne Osborne, product and inspiration director at NOTHS, explains how the marketplace shares trends data, such as sales and search stats, with its sellers to enable them to tailor their offer to the latest trends.
“We have that wonderful entrepreneurial story… it showed female entrepreneurs that there was another way to build a business outside of the corporate route” Leanne Osborne, Notonthehighstreet
“If you give an artisan some information about a particular trend, it’s incredible to see what comes back,” she says.
In April last year, for example, searches for ‘rainbow’ increased 1,800% year on year on its website.
“We shared that with our partners and two days later one of them had created a new colour-in rainbow craft kit for kids to colour in and put in their window to support the NHS. The sales were astronomical.
“When a partner understands the opportunity and puts their creativity on top of it, the agility they’ve got is phenomenal,” she says.
Osborne points to Sandra Colamartino, a long-term NOTHS seller who runs Quirky Chocolate from her Edinburgh workshop.
The entrepreneurial small business owner is no stranger to the type of pivoting that has become commonplace during the pandemic and has sold everything from notebooks to socks and even created the world’s first chocolate brussel sprouts in 2014, which has remained its Christmas bestseller ever since.
During the Covid crisis, Colamartino branched into yet another new area – breadmaking kits – teaming up with a local bakery to source the ingredients to sell on NOTHS after hearing how strong demand was.
Such entrepreneurial thinking is commonplace in its buyers, says Osborne, who is responsible for finding businesses and creators to sell on the platform, which she describes as “the best job in the world”.
She had an incredibly busy year as the marketplace added 500 new small businesses over the past 12 months.
When the lockdown began in March 2020, applications from small businesses increased 78% as people started new companies or were forced to look for new routes to market in the face of retail closures.
NOTHS now has 5,000 sellers on its marketplace and 82% are female-led businesses.
An empire built by women
It is no surprise that women flock to sell on the platform. NOTHS is a business built by female entrepreneurs – Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish set it up 15 years ago – which many of its partners find inspiring.
“We have that wonderful entrepreneurial story and it really inspired a generation of makers and doers. It showed female entrepreneurs that there was another way to build a business outside of the corporate route,” says Osborne.
“A lot of our partners have had that more traditional corporate background but wanted a more creative outlet. The way we’ve developed and championed female talent has given them a place to flourish.”
Women can flourish within NOTHS’ own business too. Tucker and Cornish may no longer run the show but there is a new generation of women leaders taking the marketplace to new heights.
“If you’ve got a woman at the top of an organisation people make the assumption that it’s a place where women can succeed” Claire Davenport, Notonthehighstreet
Alongside Davenport at the helm, NOTHS’s executive team is predominantly women. In fact, nearly three quarters (72%) of its leadership team are women – something that is practically unheard of in retail, despite the fact that women make up the bulk of the customer base for so many businesses.
Davenport believes having strong female role models within companies encourages women to go for bigger roles.
“Subconscious messaging is important. If you’ve got a woman at the top of an organisation people make the assumption that it’s a place where women can succeed,” she says.
Osborne, who joined NOTHS nine years ago, is one of a string of female execs that have thrived at the company.
She puts her long tenure down to the etailer pushing people to apply for new roles and develop new skills.
“I’ve taken on pretty much a different position every year. The company has provided so many different opportunities for me to learn, grow, move sideways and upwards,” she says.
“We have an excellent people team who promote what we call the jungle gym – the sideways move. They are really good at recognising talent and understanding where people have the skills to be successful in a role and are not limited by the experience that they’ve had.”
Women in tech
Davenport is particularly passionate about female talent progressing in business, particularly in the male-dominated tech sector. She even founded Wits End, an organisation that offers support and networking for women in tech.
Women are still very much in the minority in the sector but Davenport believes “pipelining” – building talent by attracting more girls to study STEM subjects – can help narrow the gap.
She insists employers in the sector must play their role, which means taking on more women entry-level engineers and data scientists who learn on the job.
“Employers have to be prepared to take more junior engineers on to try to bring people up and through the system. If we all have schemes in place and are taking people at that entry-level position then in 10 years that will have lifted a whole generation up, so there are more women to take on roles and more role models.”
Davenport has worked in many male-dominated industries from technology to gaming to investment banking, which is where she began her working life. it was to prove a point that she chose that career path.
It stems from a conversation she had with a guy in her college who was showing off when he got his a job offer from a big bank.
“Wearing my Dr Martens and with my Midlands accent, I told him to stop boasting and that anyone could get into investment banking – I could do it if I wanted to. He said ‘I don’t think so’ and that was it. I thought: I’ll show you. So I went to Goldman Sachs and they offered me a job. I don’t like things not being open to me,” she recalls.
That is clear from Davenport’s time working in Luxembourg, which she describes as a “very male- dominated” corporate environment. During this time she was pregnant with her second child.
“In Luxembourg it’s illegal not to take five months off when you have a baby. You have to finish at 32 weeks, eight weeks before the baby is due.
“I felt fine and with my last child worked until a couple of weeks before the due date but it’s a criminal offence [to work beyond 32 weeks].”
Davenport sought two legal opinions to overturn this to no avail so eventually had her team come to her home for meetings.
Davenport acknowledges that having a baby is still a big career hurdle for many women and many find themselves “stepping out of the career fast lane” at that point.
“You’ll get more women dropping out or taking a backseat in their career because they do the majority of the primary care. We need to try to keep women in the system and make it possible to come back,” she says.
Leaders need to set an example that it’s ok to merge work and family life, says Davenport, who reflects back to when she was general manager of VoucherCodes.co.uk, which she ran from 2014 to 2017.
One Black Friday, the firm hit its target early in the day so she decided to leave the office early to spend time with her family. “I excused myself as my daughter was in a school play that evening and because we’d hit our numbers I was able to go and see her be Cinderella.
“The number of people who told their friends or mum that I did that was crazy. It was such a small thing but it meant a lot as it gave people the permission to do the same,” she says.
And it is not just women that can set this example – Davenport encourages male CEOs to be visible in leaving for sports day or picking up kids at the playgroup to normalise this behaviour.
From promoting women in business to helping women grow their own empires, Davenport has a busy year ahead and she’s expecting NOTHS’ phenomenal growth to continue post-pandemic.
She says: “Online shopping has had a big year as its been needed to fill a gap for people. But it’s more than that – it’s a structural change. People are going to carry on working from home and town centres will lose footfall.
”If you add that structural change to our totally agile model, which means we can follow the product trends as they happen, the growth will continue. If, like last year, people want firepits, we can sell them firepits. But if it’s not about firepits this year but deckchairs or picnic blankets, we can pivot overnight.”
If the ability to rapidly switch direction is retail’s new superpower then Davenport and co should be invincible.