Yellow Fish Founder and Director Maria Valentine has just sold Yellow Fish to new MD Laura Pace after 18 years at the helm. Here, she shares her personal journey as part of our series of features celebrating female leaders in the industry…
I have really struggled to write a short piece on my journey as owner of Yellow Fish and experiences of running a business. It’s hard to know where to begin and what to cover; 18 years of ownership and 30+ years in the travel industry has taught me many things, not only about business and this beloved industry of ours, but who I am as a person, my values and my morals – I could go on for a very long time! But here’s a brief synopsis!
My career has always been within the travel industry; at the tender age of 18, I was manager of a Brighton-based travel agency swiftly followed by a stint heading up the first UK tour operating programme to Sri Lanka, which ended equally as swiftly when the foreign office advised against travel due to a fresh outbreak of political unrest in the country. Even in those early days I was aware of the very male dominated world I was working in; none more so than when my male photographer had to do the negotiating on hotel contracts for our stop over hotels in Dubai; I would not be taken seriously being very young and female!
Following the demise of the Sri Lanka package holiday, I entered the world of the ‘conference organiser’, a term I’d never even heard of let alone knew anything about, when I joined an agency in Brighton specialising in the delivery of pharmaceutical congresses and conferences, and where I stayed for 15 years.
My first role was to be responsible for the placement of venue signage and managing a ‘welcome desk’; those early days of delivery with no mobile phones and no internet and a ‘you do it all’ mentality were the foundations for my career from then on. I became a director within the business and towards the latter years saw the need to develop our non-pharma business. It was this that led me into the world of travel incentives.
I immediately saw the advantages to a business of rewarding their teams with bespoke travel experiences; those once in a lifetime experiences, and I knew this was my forte; combining my love of organisation (with a touch of OCD!) with creating bespoke, memorable experiences all around the world. However, the business I was with saw it differently and wasn’t prepared to invest in the world of travel incentives; much more time consuming with lower profit margins and pharma was their focus, so that led to me going it alone. No great ambition to do anything more than what I loved and do it to the best of my ability.
When I started Yellow Fish back in 2003, at the age of 35 with an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old and a husband commuting weekly to Dublin for his work, I remember saying ‘I’ll give it 10 years and then I’m out’. It is now the 18th year of Yellow Fish trading and what an amazing roller coaster of a ride it has been; exciting, rewarding and, I can’t lie, challenging pretty much year on year as I faced from the outset the threat of being sued by my previous company, economic recessions, natural worldwide disasters and now a global virus!
Add to that the usual business challenges of winning and maintaining contracts, the joy at seeing the growth of particular business sectors, only to realise the effect on the business when you have the majority of your eggs in one basket, the need to constantly review your offering and keep ahead of the rest with creativity, technology and service offering and, most importantly, ensuring you have the right people with the right skills to deliver amazing solutions.
Alongside the business challenges are the personal challenges that life throws at you; the juggle of owning your own business whilst bringing up a young family (thank goodness for a spreadsheet – my kids lived by them!), family bereavements, financial pressures and aging parents needing care etc. From an initial small team of three starting the journey, painting the walls of our very first office space, stocking up with stationary and note pads (so exciting) and developing the brand that still stands today, to a team of 25 with an in-house creative studio delivering full end-to-end solutions for major blue-chip clients and myself and Yellow Fish achieving the accolade of one of the UK’s fastest growing female owned small businesses in 2015; it’s been an exciting journey.
As female business owners I truly do feel we ‘have to do it all’. That statement is no criticism of my male colleagues, but it is in our female DNA to nurture, care and be empathetic and we are so capable of juggling those ever-spinning plates. I personally feel it’s a huge asset to be a female business leader; we keep it real, are true to ourselves, recognise what is important in life and, through our own experiences, are able to support our teams and be understanding of pressures of getting the balance right in this increasingly fast paced world we live in.
I am proud to have founded and developed an agency that has my core values at the very heart of it, and now so very proud, and excited, to be handing over the reins of the business to a fellow female force, my MD Laura Pace. I am thrilled that Yellow Fish remains female owned and managed, and I know Laura and our amazing team will definitely be taking Yellow Fish forward to swim in even bigger seas – but always keeping it real.