Tamara is the Founder and CTO of Mr & Mrs Smith! Yes - the luxury travel agent that you have spent hours trawling through daydreaming...procrastinating...imagining yourself on that beach! She founded the business 13 years ago with her then boyfriend James (now Husband)! It has evolved from a physical travel guidebook into a global online travel agent and Tamara is half of the team that manages its five offices and 120 people. Read on to discover her journey, her advice for female entrepreneurs and of course her top hotel picks!
Current Job CTO and Founder of Mr & Mrs Smith
Favourite podcast Invisibilia
Favourite hotel It's like choosing a favourite child! My favourite hotel I went to last year was UXUA Casa in Brazil. The owner is the ex-creative director of Diesel and every single piece of furniture, light fitting etc. has been designed and crafted by him. You can just tell it is a passion project that is very special.
Dream place to visit So many on my list - Tokyo, the Himalayas, Nicaragua
Go to meeting spot I will meet anywhere where there is decent coffee!
Necessary Extravagance Hey Jo Leggings - never have I owned leggings so good (no baggy knees after flights)
Favourite productivity tool Wunderlist
Female inspiration in business I have three sources of inspiration:
- My contemporaries - I have been fortunate enough to meet a small group of amazing women who all run their own businesses. We all support each other and they give me a huge sense of solidarity
- My two really good girlfriends with whom I can just be myself
- Strong women designers who I just admire infinitely because I cannot do what they do! Particularly Kit Kemp who designs the Firmdale Hotels and Judy Hutson who designs The Pig Hotels
Top networking tip Don't try to put on a persona. Try and listen to the people who you are talking to.
There is a huge difference between listening whilst thinking about how you are going to reply and really listening to what someone is trying to tell you.
Can you tell us briefly about your background prior to founding Mr & Mrs Smith and what you gleaned from those experiences?
Straight out of university I was given a dream job to go to Brazil and launch an energy drink (largely because I spoke some Portuguese, was willing and probably quite cheap labour)! It was a watershed year; I learnt a bit about everything: how to create a business, how to initiate marketing, how to get a physical product from one country to another, production, distribution etc. At the end of the year the company ran out of cash so we had to come home but the whole experience not only taught me about business and getting stuck in, it also taught me that things are not forever. I came back to the UK and decided to work for some larger organisations to institutionalise my education a little. I also worked with my mother a little who has always been very entrepreneurial and runs an agency called The County Register.
What’s the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today?
Well, my Father-in-law always says that
If it was easy everybody would be doing it
What has been your biggest challenge?
When we first launched with our travel guide book our biggest challenge was actually getting to know our end customers as our clients were the bookshops. We even put a little card in the book to solicit information and build a database! Of course the guide books was a dying industry and the internet was taking off so we pivoted from a book publisher to an online travel agent. Taking the leap to actually change the business was a huge challenge! Our challenges now are quite different...keeping the brand fresh, attracting a younger audience whilst still pleasing our core database who might have had families, managing global offices and motivating our team and keeping everyone pulling in the same direction.
What do you consider your greatest achievement, and what personal qualities do you attribute most to your success?
My greatest achievement is building my team - when you are in business it is all about the people who you work with and I love my team so much! I especially enjoy seeing the younger developers rise up through the ranks and become senior developers and witness them produce something they are proud of. I am delighted that we consistently push boundaries, stay innovative whilst retaining a no blame culture - just a great team environment!
Mr & Mrs Smith
Tell us about the inspiration, origins and evolution of Mr & Mrs Smith
Mr & Mrs Smith was born from frustration. When James (my husband/co-founder) and I were dating he would try to take me away for country weekends but we would end up bitterly disappointed again and again. But the inspiration has always also come from the hotels. There are these incredible places out there - Alila Villas Uluwatu in Bali where the architecture is jaw dropping is just one example! I love seeing hoteliers push the boundaries, create an environment where the small touches live long in your memory and who continue to inspire me. I never get bored of seeing new and innovative way of doing things.
You are the CTO. What does that role entail?
I run the team who make, create, fix and maintain the bookable websites... the blogs, the backend systems, the content management system, the rates and availability system plus all the integrations that we have with hotel central reservation systems and channel management tools.
Tell us more about Smith & Family
Smith & Family was born as my husband James and I went on to have children. We realised that we were not prepared to drop our standards in terms of the hotels we wanted to go to. Just because you become a parent does not mean that for your evening meal you want to sit at a sticky table with squashed fish fingers under foot! There is a real market out there for families who want to stay in incredible places with their children.
Smith & Family is built on three pillars - it has to be great for kids, great for the adults and finally great for the family as a unit, because I find that as a working mum when I go on holiday with my children I actually want to spend time with them not dump them up in a kids club for the week! There are very few properties that tick all three of those boxes! So our biggest challenge with this brand extension is a supply constraint...they are out there but they are hard to find.
Sourcing your hotels sounds like a tough job! What does it take to be a Mr & Mrs Smith hotel?
SO many things - the way we curate is our gold dust!
It is all about the experience, so if you walk into a hotel and you feel like you are being treated like a number or just made to feel uncomfortable or that you should feel privileged to be in this environment - those feelings would discount that property for us. There are so many elements and touch points within a hotel that can affect that feeling as you walk in, down to the music levels, what type of music, the way the staff are dressed, the way they greet you, the way communal spaces are broken up etc. I always feel that a Mr & Mrs Smith hotel bedroom should make you feel excited as you walk through the door, and that you should feel an overwhelming urge to jump on the bed! But again - is the lighting really difficult to work out and overly technical, are the sheets a bit scratchy or Egyption cotton, is the bed big enough, can you fit two in a bath...
It is the sum of all of these things that make up the experience and make you feel special, whether you are travelling as a couple or as a family, that determines if it is a Mr & Mrs Smith hotel.
What is the vision for Mr & Mrs Smith and any other future ambitions?
Mr & Mrs Smith aims to be the absolute best guide to the best boutique hotels in the world.
In addition, last year we bought a small villa company so in 2016 we want to really get under the skin of that. We want to launch villas properly with a view of expanding the locations, going into cottages and perhaps developing our ski offering!
Women in Tech
How do you handle being a working mum - any advice for others?
My tip is not to be scared by people who look like they are managing everything and doing it brilliantly because I think that underneath it all we are all trying to do the best we can. I never feel like I do anything to 100% of my ability. When I am at work I miss my children, when I am with my children I think I should be doing some work - there is never a perfect balance. My advice would be don't beat yourself up about it, just keep chipping away at it.
Who do you surround yourself with?
Positive people. I would advise you to remove those negative influences close to you as they are very very draining - often one does not realise what they are putting up with especially if they tend to see the best in people.
What advice can you offer women who are looking to start their own business?
I think women can sometimes get paralysed by the grandiose scale of what they want to embark on. I recommend thinking about it in smaller terms - just get to the first step, then overcome the next hurdle and continue to face each problem as it comes. If you had told me I was going to run a global, five office, 120 people business in the travel industry thirteen years ago I would have gone "What?!" But each step and success brings you more confidence.