Catherine Salway: from Virgin to start-up
Catherine Salway: from Virgin to start-up
A view from Catherine Salway

Losing Virginity and finding Redemption: the story of a start-up

In Marketing's new series shining a spotlight on the entrepreneurial marketers moving from the corporate establishment to the start-up world, Catherine Salway, former group brand director for Virgin, explains why she felt compelled to launch her alcohol-free gastrobar Redemption.

It was Christmas 2010. I was overworked and overweight. Spending too much, eating too much and drinking too much. Much as I loved my job as group brand director of Virgin, I had been there more than 16 years, and it was time to ctrl-alt-delete my life.

I was overworked and overweight. Spending, eating and drinking too much. It was time to ctrl-alt-delete
my life

Some people feel they have a book in them. I felt that I had a brand in me - something cool but also socially responsible. I was interested in ideas which brought together healthy living in a sexy and cool wrapping – for example, Virgin Active gyms in Italy which looked a bit like nightclubs and where fit young Italians hung around looking nonchalant.

I left the mostly fluffy, sometimes prickly, warmth of the Virgin nest on a voyage of discovery. I became a walking cliché by travelling and discovering the joy of a bit of abstinence from alcohol (India), juice fasting (Australia) and raw food (California). And I started to wonder if I could bring a little bit of that into the urban setting. A space away from temptation that still feels like a treat.

As I researched the subject, there were big overall trends of (younger) people being healthier and drinking less in western societies. Governments were looking for ways to reduce the massive ill effects and cost of alcohol misuse and obesity. A lot of people are looking for ways to reduce their wheat, dairy and sugar intake in their everyday lives.

These trends were hardly served at all by the hospitality industry. My marketing background at Virgin had taught me well – stay true to the macro trends and consumer insight, and your innovation has a good chance.

Time for Redemption

Coming up with the name Redemption and building the brand has been enjoyable and fun. But it’s been a much harder journey than I could have imagined.

I wanted to launch in London’s Soho first, to play into the epicentre of overindulgence. Now being auctioned to only the biggest industry players, the price of real estate in that market is sadly prohibitive for a start up with a radical idea.

After a hugely time consuming and costly search for capital, I managed to find three lovely angel investors, and together with my savings, I brought a beta version of the idea to market, with two residencies in shared spaces – one on the roof of Netil House in London Fields, Hackney, and the other underneath Trellick Tower in northern Portobello. The reception from the public and the media has been amazing, but the operational side has been bruising.

The corporate lessons

There are some things that Virgin taught me brilliantly – how to manage a project, how to hire a team, how to run a budget, how to create an entire brand.

I often wake up at 4am in a petrified panic at the state of my personal finances

There are other things that I never got exposed to because other departments dealt with it, such as how to actually raise capital, how to deal with HMRC and Companies House, how to procure IT. It’s been a game of snakes and ladders.

I often wake up at 4am in a petrified panic at the state of my personal finances, and the amount of sheer heavy lifting I have to do just to have one small fledgling brand.

To cut a long story short, we now have the support of Hackney council to find a flagship in Shoreditch, the new epicentre of London and my new favourite place.

We have a strong vision ("spoil yourself without spoiling yourself"), some brilliant advisors, some great staff lined up, a tidy little five-year plan and, other than at 4am in the morning, some ambitious cojones.

Lose everything - or change the world

So what learnings can I pass on? As a marketer you can create a business, or create entrepreneurial value, because marketing is really the engine of it all. And that’s especially valuable to society if you can do something with social benefit.

Obviously for anything you do, you need to have a healthy margin and opportunity for scale. But I’d advise:

It’s about weighing up the risk of losing everything with the size of the prize

1. Get educated on all aspects of running a company before you go out alone.

2. Be prepared to get messed around - I used to think I wasted 90% of my time dealing with corporate politics, but when you’re fledgling, 90% of what people promise you materialises in nothing - so it’s just a different kind of waste.

3. You have to be way stricter on suppliers and staff than when you have the corporate machine to support you.

4. Don’t underestimate how hard it is to live without a salary for years - having a supporting partner would help, having children might make it too much of a white-knuckle ride.

Ultimately it’s about weighing up the risk of losing everything with the size of the prize – which is that you might just change the world and make some serious money in the process.

Tweet to @CatherineSalway @RedemptionBar



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