Interview: Emma Little on ambitions to make history

Emma Little, founder and chief executive of ExecSpace. Picture: Jane Barlow

Emma Little, founder and chief executive of ExecSpace. Picture: Jane Barlow

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Emma Little’s company is enjoying great success, but she has no plans to sell, writes Gareth Mackie

Having started out selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, Emma Little has a clear goal in mind: to build a “bloody big business”.

But the founder and chief executive of venue-finding service ExecSpace insists she has no desire to scale up the Edinburgh-based firm only to sell it on and disappear into the sunset.

“A trade sale doesn’t interest me,” says Little, who launched the company at the height of the financial crisis despite having no experience of the corporate venues market.

“It was never about chasing the money, it’s chasing the success and the recognition and knowledge I’ve built something of real scale and substance that I and everybody I care about can be proud of.”

ExecSpace specialises in booking venues for clients such as life and pensions providers Aegon and Standard Life, and last month landed a “transformational” deal to provide its services to the public sector north of the Border.

“I’m really chuffed with our client base – it’s quite diverse,” says Little, who worked for mobile phone giant Vodafone before deciding to embark on a venture of her own. The company, set up in 2008, started life in what she describes as a rented “vending machine cupboard” on Edinburgh’s Morrison Street and won its place on the Scottish Government’s procurement framework away from incumbent Capita, the FTSE 100 outsourcing giant, following a competitive tendering process.

Little says: “We’re the only provider under the lot for conference and meeting venue bookings. It’s the best thing to have happened to ExecSpace.”

The firm currently employs 17 people and Little expects to take on up to four more staff by the end of next year as a direct result of winning sole provider status on the framework, a “one-stop shop” for the government, loc­al authorities and police and fire services to book venues for conferences and meetings. The procurement service is also open to the voluntary sector and universities and colleges in Scotland.

“The Scottish procurement framework is potentially transformational for ExecSpace and builds on a strong 2015 for the business, during which we have bolstered the team with a number of business wins and key hires,” Little adds.

ExecSpace, which also has offices in Aberdeen and London, has enjoyed double-digit revenue growth in each year since she founded the business and is on track to generate turnover of more than £6 million this year.

Little set out on her own after working as a corporate acc­ount manager at Vodafone, managing its relationship with Royal Bank of Scotland. She came up with the idea after noticing the difficulty colleagues had in booking venues. She admits that when she launched the firm she knew nobody in the industry so drew up a list of firms to cold-call and “see who was surviving”.

She says: “Before you start a business, you think it’s about being charismatic or super-intelligent or well connected, but it’s not. It’s absolutely about resilience – when most people would give up you have to deal with it and get a team to buy into your vision.”

That resilient nature was put to test in a previous job, when Little sold £1,500 vacuum cleaners door-to-door. She says: “Most people lasted two weeks, because it was commission only, but I lasted 18 months and it was a good grounding in business.”

ExecSpace secured a six-­figure cash injection in 2013 from private equity firm Bradenham, and Little says the Scottish Loan Fund has also been “hugely supportive”, having invested £700,000 in March.

While overseas expansion is a longer-term goal, Little believes some companies try to globalise too soon “because it’s perceived as sexy”, and says the UK market offers enough opportunities for the time being.

She says she is “incredibly proud” of her workforce, who she acknowledges could have found jobs elsewhere “where it’s maybe a bit safer and less stressful”.

She adds: “There’s a couple of guys in my team and one day I want to be able to give them a cheque – if cheques still exist – and give them a sum of money that’s going to change their life, because I think it’s quite bold to stick with an entrepreneur.”

However, this does not mean Little is looking to sell the business to achieve that dream of giving something back. “My motivation for doing this was, first and foremost, to remain in Edinburgh for the rest of my life and create a huge success.

“It’s about building a bloody big business we can be proud of, and I’d like to go down in history as one of the best business people to come out of this era.”

30 SECOND CV

Born: Edinburgh, 1978

Education: Broughton High School, Lasswade High School and Inverkeithing High School – I didn’t go to university

First job: Turbo Carwash, with Jenna who lived on my grandparents’ street – I was 11, she was nine and we’d clean up to eight cars a day

Can’t live without: The people I love. Business and success are massively important to me, but it doesn’t mean a thing if there’s no-one to share it with

Favourite place: I’m a home bird, so for me there’s no place better than Edinburgh, but I do like York

Car: Mercedes ML350

Favourite mode of ­transport: I try to walk ­everywhere while in Edinburgh and London

What annoys you? Lack of effort, lack of gratitude and sense of entitlement. But most of all train announcements – we’re already annoyed the train is late; we don’t need to know the reason why, every 30 seconds

Best thing about your job: I love coaching, developing and leading genuine, resilient, hard-working colleagues who love the business like I do. Seeing them progress, be the best they can be and become more confident makes me incredibly proud. Also getting the breaks – that restores your faith hard work pays off

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