10 Career Lessons From A Female Entrepreneur

Kelly McCabe spent over a decade working in specialist cancer care before she left it behind to join a corporate start up. Why? She wanted to gain the right experience to be able to launch Perci Health – an online platform that offered cancer patients access to long-term support. Having launched the business with her co-founder Morgan Fitzsimons two years ago, she’s had to learn a lot very fast – from why mentors don’t always have your best interests at heart to the fastest way to raise millions in funding. Here, she shares the ten things she thinks all working women should know.
By Harriet Russel /
01

Find Your Focus

I graduated as a specialist cancer dietitian and went to work for the NHS at a large cancer hospital just outside of London. I worked with patients with head and neck cancer and over time became a head of therapy, managing physiotherapists, dieticians, physiotherapists – all the other disciplines that sit alongside traditional cancer treatment. Then, I had the chance to replicate that same service in the private sector, so I went to work for HCA, which is a large American healthcare organisation. Finding a way to support cancer patients outside of chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy has always been my focus since day one – it’s never wavered.

02

Spot The Gap

Over time I became the chief operating officer for a group of seven different cancer centres across the UK, and soon spotted a problem. As an industry, we’re very good at offering 360° support to cancer patients inside a hospital setting, but once the patient is out of that setting, that support isn’t always as accessible. There’s that moment when the oncologist says you’re cancer free and they’ll see you again in six months or a year. But during that time, there’s very little support being offered to you – event though you’ve been through something quite traumatic. That’s where the idea for Perci Health came from – we wanted to fill that gap and help patients manage cancer in the long term. It’s so important with any business or job move that you spot the gap and try to fill it the best you can.

03

Find The Right Team

Having had the idea for Perci, I knew it was worth getting some experience in an equity-backed start up. I was looking to learn a lot more about the digital space and pick up more skills in leadership and people management. This this is also where I met my Perci co-founder, Morgan Fitzsimons. The London Sock Company was busy building out a leadership team and I joined as their chief operating officer; Morgan was the chief marketing officer. We worked together there until about two years ago, when we both left to set up Perci. But it was only after we’d decided we knew each other well enough – and critically had established we wanted the same things out of running our own business.

04

Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

I was well aware that ten years of experience in the private healthcare world was not enough to equip me to run my own business. It was one of the main reasons I went into the corporate world first. I needed to know more about people management, leadership and what it was like to feel uncomfortable at work. It was clear to me that running my own business would require a certain level of discomfort, so I needed to change my environment to find out how I would handle it – albeit with the safety net of a regular paycheck. It showed me just how quickly I picked things up – something I might not have known I was capable of otherwise. 

05

See Fundraising As A Learning Opportunity

Since the day we set up Perci, fundraising has been a constant part of our work. We’ve now been through multiple fundraising rounds and have raised £1.25m in total. At the beginning, Morgan and I put together a pitch and only went out to trusted names – old bosses or ex-colleagues – and asked them for as much feedback as possible. We never expected them to give us the money; it was purely for our own understanding. In time, those people connected us with others in in the private equity space, and we again asked for feedback. From there, we refined the pitch and developed an understanding of what the value of the business was. In hindsight, approaching serious investors cold turkey would have been very ineffectual. Now, after speaking to probably hundreds of people, we have ten solid backers – most of whom are doctors – who really understand our vision.

06

Be Wary Of Mentors

It’s crucial to realise that not all mentors have your best interests at heart. Some of them are in it for the money or the clout, and they won’t always care about you or your career. If someone claims they want to mentor you but tries to charge you a lot of money for it, they’re not the right person. They clearly don’t understand that people in the early stages of a new career won’t have a lot of money to spend. What’s preferable is mentors who are only interested in paying it forward – by which I mean, they received good mentoring when they were starting out and see the value in passing on what they’ve learnt. That said, knowing you’re taking up someone’s valuable time can be tricky – if it makes you more comfortable, you could agree a small hourly rate to be able to pick their brain, uninterrupted.

07

Get Ready For Setbacks

As women, we’re taught to fear failure. But it doesn’t matter whether you’re starting a business or just trying to build your career, setbacks are inevitable, and you need to be prepared to handle them. Taking responsibility is important but there’s no need to catastrophise. What we’ve found really works is not building a culture based on blame. Morgan and I rarely get uptight about who did what wrong – we look at it more like an organisational failure than an individual one. After all, people only tend to make mistakes when they haven’t been given the adequate resources or instructions. As leaders, we’re more interested in finding a solution, so it doesn’t continue to happen and moving forward. It’s a much more proactive and optimistic way of working.

08

Learn To Work Together

Because Morgan and I both had experience in leadership before Perci, we had the chance to develop the right people skills before becoming co-founders. Obviously, neither one of us has the final say at Perci, and while we work and think very differently – which can lead to different opinions – we’re great at finding the middle ground by remembering what our long-term goals are. I also think it helps that we didn’t meet as friends, we met as professionals. Even now, we spend so much time thinking about our company culture and leading by example. We’re an entirely remote workforce, so we do all we can to keep team spirit alive and well, and communication slick. The people who work for you have to feel supported, otherwise things become really difficult.

09

Set Your Long-Term Goals

It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to hash out a business plan or you’re just planning for the next promotion, having long-term goals in mind will inevitably help you progress. In those crunch moments, remembering why you’re doing something, and for what, will get you through it. When I asked Morgan to help set up Perci, she insisted we interview each other for the job. It was so valuable in hindsight. The questions she asked me were things like, “Are you in this for the money?” and “Are you planning on having children soon?” That way, we were able to work out whether we were working towards similar goals as co-founders or wildly different ones. Hashing all that out has helped us succeed, without a doubt.

10

Get Your Ducks In A Row

You’ll often hear entrepreneurs tell you that you need to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. But it’s not great advice. You can certainly change your career at any time, but you need to give thought to the skills and experience you have – not just your job title. You also need to build up a certain financial buffer until you’re successful enough to pay yourself a salary. There is no ‘perfect moment’ to start a business – the juggle is omnipresent – but there are things you can put in place to ensure the journey’s a bit smoother. Remember, the only person who put limits on your life is you, and if you can change your perception of what you’re capable of, then anything is possible. 

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