Rachel Lowe has had an extraordinary rollercoaster ride. Nine years ago, while working as a taxi driver, studying for a law degree, and bringing up two young children, she had the idea for a board game, Destination, and set up her own company. Looking for funding, she appeared on BBC’s Dragons’ Den and was ’ripped to pieces’; nevertheless, she launched Destination London in Hamley’s in 2004 and it became the store’s top-selling game, outselling even Monopoly and Twister. But in 2009, having spent six years building her business, Lowe lost everything: the company went into administration, she was declared bankrupt, her home was repossessed, and she had a nervous breakdown. Two years ago, Lowe bounced back, regaining her Destination brand, as well as launching a new fashion brand, She Who Dares. As Lowe gears up for a big 2013, she talked frankly to Eleanor Harris about the highs and lows, facing her fears, receiving an MBE, and sitting alongside Chanel.
Rachel Lowe MBE is director of She Who Dares UK, based in Portsmouth. Lowe was born in 1977 and has a law and business degree from Portsmouth University. She founded Destination Board Games in November 2003, and to date has produced 21 editions of the Destination game, including licensed editions Destination Hogwarts and Destination Animation. In October 2010, Lowe teamed up with entrepreneur Simon Dolan to found She Who Dares UK, and launched the She Who Dares brand in Autumn 2012. £500,000 has gone into its development, with products including fragrances, accessories and jewellery. In 2009, Lowe received an MBE for services to business, and she won the NatWest Everywoman award in 2006.
What inspired you to create a board game?
Everything in the game is drawn on my own experience as a cab driver. I was on my way to a job when I got held up at a set of traffic lights, and the idea of “red light, miss a turn“ popped into my head. I imagined my cab being a playing piece and the destinations I was travelling to being a game. I did nothing with it, but then one day I picked up a lecturer from Portsmouth Uni, and he inspired me to go to uni as a mature student. That really changed my path: while I was doing the degree, I spotted a poster for an enterprise challenge, entered my game, and won. Because the game features 45 top tourist destinations, it doubled up well as a souvenir, so I used all the prize money to set up the company from a hub at the university.
How did you take the business to the next level, and how did you fit it all in?
I ran the business between lectures, while the children were at school, and in the evenings I’d be mum, but I continued to cab drive on weekend nights, so I managed to juggle it. I used the winnings to get a prototype made, and raised £12,000 in sponsorship from companies I featured in the game, and got that match funded by a local firm, raising enough to get two editions into production, Destination London and Destination Portsmouth, 2,500 copies of each, and I secured a launch platform with Hamley’s. Ordinarily the buyer wouldn’t have taken it based on a prototype but for some reason he did. Just prior to that I did some filming for the Dragons’ Den, there’s quite a story there!
I went in all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, did my pitch and felt confident that the Dragons would love it and be really impressed with everything I’d done, and they completely missed all of that and focused on my inability to remember all my numbers. They ripped me to pieces and I cried the whole way home. But I picked myself up and thought I’m going to do this anyway – and I did. We launched in Hamley’s in the October half-term and by November 18 it was the number one selling product in the whole store, and it stayed number one for the whole Christmas period. It was apparent I’d proved the Dragons wrong, it was a bestseller, and we got Debenhams, Toys R Us, Amazon, WH Smith, all the national retailers, stocking it. We did a deal with Disney for Destination Animation, as well as adapting the game to other cities. It was a really exciting time, my feet didn’t touch the ground.
In 2009, everything went wrong – what happened?
We’d agreed a deal with Warner Brothers for a Harry Potter edition, but the film it was attached to got delayed, so we lost all of our retail listings and couldn’t bridge that financial gap in bank repayments, and it was the height of the recession, so our bank, rather than helping us, pulled our overdraft. I don’t think at the time I realised how ill I was getting, I started to fall apart and everything went to the wall. When you’re an entrepreneur you put everything on the line. If things don’t work out, you can very quickly lose everything you’ve ever worked for, which in my case I did: my home, my car, my savings. I had a total nervous breakdown, it affected me badly, both mentally and physically, and the company went into administration. I’d desperately tried to save the house and business but in the end I couldn’t. What I felt let down by was the banking system, there was every reason to help us bridge the gap and they didn’t. As a consequence, we featured in a BBC Panorama documentary called Banks Behaving Badly, which raised the profile of the brand again.
How did you bounce back? I read that it started with a tweet to ’Twitter Dragon’ Simon Dolan …
It was around the time that Panorama was screened that our paths crossed. He came to see me and noticed some material for She Who Dares, another brand I had registered, and he loved the idea of it. We set up She Who Dares UK, and slowly but surely my confidence grew. I’m proud of the product range I’ve developed for She Who Dares over two years, it’s a very exciting time – we signed a branding deal with Swarovski, and our fragrances, Eminence and Dalliance, will be in the bigger retailers going forward this year, so Christmas will be a big one for us. Simon has allowed me to not only create a new brand, but also to get my other brand back: we went together to the administrators and on Christmas Eve 2010 we secured the Destination brand back into She Who Dares UK. Shortly after that I signed deals with the London 2012 Olympic Games for Destination London 2012 and Warner Brothers for a final Harry Potter edition – which sold out – and the games went back into Debenhams, Toys R Us and Harrods. It means I can hold my head up, I know there was nothing wrong with the game, I didn’t fail, it was just circumstance, and for those licensors and retailers to want to work with me gave me my sense of worth back, as did the MBE.
Tell me about the MBE – would you consider it your greatest achievement?
I nearly didn’t accept it at all, because I got the letter from the prime minister’s office at roughly the same time that the company went into administration. I thought “how can I be honoured an MBE for services to business when my business has just gone under?“ but my dad got me to accept that it’s not about money, it was acknowledging that I’d done a lot of work in schools and colleges, promoting enterprise and education.
For me, success is incremental – it’s all those step-by-step little achievements, and no-one can take them away.
I would say my greatest achievement is pulling myself up from the gutter, getting back out there, facing all of my fears and having another go. This past two years has taken me more guts and strength than anything I did six years ago, because I’ve had to come back in knowledge of everything that could go wrong. But the sense of worth that the MBE gave me has completely inspired She Who Dares as a brand – it’s all about acknowledging women.
Both the fragrance and board game markets are difficult to penetrate – is it this personal aspect that sets your products apart?
The game is successful because I had that personal connection with it, and it had a great story behind it, and now She Who Dares is part of what I’m about. One of the straplines is “Nothing is Impossible“, and I truly believe that. If you had said to me three years ago, when I was on my knees, “You’re going to come back with this game“, there’s no way I would have believed it.
Anything can happen, but it does take a lot of hard work. I play the lottery but I don’t believe I’m destined to win it – I’m destined to make my own success: the more you put out in life, the more you get back.
You are keeping much of the production for the fragrance in the UK – why is that important to you?
I suffered personally during our recession, so I know how important it is to have as much money going into our UK economy as possible. With the fragrance, every single company that we work with, for every single component, our money goes into a British company at its first point. It’s probably costing us five or six times the amount you’d pay to have it made in China, but I wanted it to be a high-quality product that we can be proud of and I love the fact we’re having it made here.
What is the most important lesson you have learned?
Balance. The first time round I put in too many hours, too much energy, and I will never get that time back with my children. Now, they absolutely come first. My life is so much more balanced, and I’m delegating more. As an entrepreneur you have to accept that there is only one of you, and people make successful companies, and I’ve got a great team. Something else I’ve learned is to be focused. I’ve developed an enormous product range for She Who Dares, but we’re only going to market with four products initially, and we’ll focus on promoting the brand. There’s so much we can do, and the games side is where it gets tempting because it’s easy to adapt Destination to any licence, but it can become a distraction, so we’re going to keep it balanced.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
My dream is to have She Who Dares the fragrance sitting alongside Chanel, Marc Jacobs, Prada, and all the other top brands. That’s going to take time but I believe it’s possible. Personally, my only ambition is to be happy, and I do feel happy, life is good. During the time of having nothing I learned to laugh and be happy with nothing. If you can be happy with nothing, you’ll always be happy.
Details: Rachel Lowe website