Susanna Lawson still remembers a conversation she had with friend and fellow entrepreneur Jennie Johnson.
Johnson is best known as the founder of leading North West nursery Kids Allowed, which was bought by Kids Planet in January 2020.
Johnson’s planned retirement was cut short when she had the idea for another business – a parenting app called My First Five Years – so decided to have another go.
“I used to meet up with Jennie and told her ‘I’m never doing what you do and go again’,” recalled Lawson with a smile.
Fast forward two years and Lawson has joined forces with Tracy Johnson to launch Circle of Trust, which has been described as the world’s first female-led word-of-mouth app.
“It lights a fire in you,” she explained. “I love going into businesses that aren’t mine and adding value and strategy but when it’s your own business, it’s really exciting.
“It can also be the hardest time because you’re working really long hours. You have to be everybody. You have to be finance, tech, sales, marketing etc.
“You have to have every single hat on. It’s exhausting but it’s just amazing.”
At the heart of Circle of Trust is her relationship with Johnson – or ‘TJ’ as she’s known.
“I call TJ ‘Mary Poppins’ because she is full of positivity as a first-time founder,” said Lawson. “She calls me ‘Side Eye Suzy’ because I’m looking at things like risk mitigation, cashflow forecasts etc.
“That is what makes us the perfect partners – she has the vision and the passion which I share but I’m pulling her back down to the ground with the ‘what ifs’ but that’s based on having founded a business previously and having made mistakes first time round.”
Lawson is one of the region’s most respected entrepreneurs for the way she grew OneFile to the point it was bought by a Canadian company called Harris in 2021 for an undisclosed sum.
She launched the business in 2005 after identifying how technology would make the apprenticeship industry more efficient.
‘I’d been a carer in nursing homes and support worker for adults with learning difficulties,” she recalled. “Then I got into the learning and development world and saw there were huge inefficiencies of doing vocational training on paper.
“I could see there was a potential solution using the internet to store the portfolios, access the work and mark the work online.
“OneFile was an online platform where training providers, further education colleges and employers could deliver their apprenticeships at post-16 vocational learning online, which made the system more engaging and efficient.”
Looking back Lawson admitted that she and her now husband ‘didn’t have a clue’ about running a business at the beginning.
“We spent four months building the product in our back bedroom but had no idea of how to sell it or bring it to market,” she said.
“We had no idea about the financials or how to scale a tech solution. We had to learn absolutely everything.”
She grew the business to 80 staff but advises other founders against growing to quickly.
“At OneFile we had a period of between six months to a year when we noticed a trend starting to emerge,” she said.
“Profitability was dropping, the sales were slowing down, customer complaints were rising, the team was saying they weren’t as happy anymore and the company had lost its family feel.
“It felt like the entire foundations were cracking and something was drastically going wrong.
“When we looked at it we realised we’d probably grown too fast and hired for skill and competence rather than behaviours and values. We had to do a hard reset.”
The sale to Harris took just over six weeks and Lawson was planning for some non-exec work alongside an ambassadorial role at OneFile when fate intervened.
“I definitely wasn’t going to do another business,” she said. “Then I met the amazing TJ, who I was introduced to by a trusted mutual friend.
“She told me about her idea – which was Circle of Trust – which I absolutely loved.”
It works by connecting consumers with trusted personal recommendations from their own network – be it accountants, hairdressers or mechanics.
Circle of Trust had a soft launch in Manchester in October but Lawson thinks the opportunity is huge.
“OneFile was very niche as there were only a small number of businesses we could sell to,” she said.
“With Circle of Trust literally anyone can be an end user. It will be massive.”