HR & Management

Kelly Hoppen: From Formula 1 batchelor pads to owning the colour taupe

8 min read

19 February 2015

You're never too young to start a business – famous interior designer and Dragons' Den investor Kelly Hoppen is proof of that.

From designing a kitchen for a family friend, to leading over 50 projects worldwide at one time, she now boasts an impressive CV. And the recent Btube launch, with a flair of confidence and noticeable entrepreneurial experience, Hoppen shared some excellent advice on making it big – mentioning some of the hurdles that may be faced along the way.

At the age of 16 and a half, the South African-born entrepreneur started off her career by designing bachelor pads and rooms for Formula 1 racing drivers that she met through friends.

“I was fearless, I was tenacious, ambitious and passionate,” said Hoppen. “And I was totally in love with my job. I had all the right ingredients to grow a business. But I had to think about what would set me apart from everyone else because in those days you were either a secretary or interior designer. It was as simple as that.

“The world was getting smaller; there was this global fusion. And what was interesting for me was that I could see that from the west we were completely obsessed with the east and putting those different designs together, while people in the east wanted something of the west. So my vision of style became a brand and I really never looked back.

“I had big companies asking whether they could license my name and if they could design products with me. I was turning over a few million pounds a year quite soon into my career. But I was very lucky to be working for racing drivers, actors, people that could move the word around that I was good at my job.”

She added: “It taught me that a business can shift quite quickly into different directions. So you need to have your feet firmly on the ground. Essentially, you need somewhere to go for information. My mother was my mentor and she still is.”

Read more about Kelly Hoppen:

To this extent “I’ve always been an advocate of encouraging business people to follow their dreams,” explained Hoppen. “With over 30 years of first-hand experience building different businesses, I know what’s involved in turning an idea into a reality.”

True to her word, Hoppen is involved in various initiative spanning the Prince’s Trust, the government’s GREAT campaign and works alongside UKTI. She’s won numerous awards for her success. The European Woman of Achievement in 2007 and Natwest Everywomen Ambassador award in 2013 for inspiring young women are but a few.

And her international acclaim best positioned her to write up the government how-to guide, “From local to global”. In it, alongside her top ten tips for breaking into new international markets, she offers excellent advice: “Much of doing business includes conquering your fears. There are parts of growing a business that will challenge you to do things you have never done before. Sometimes, you will have to take a step into the unknown, but for every nerve-racking leap of faith, there could be many more rewards.

“Confidence is vital when doing business – believing in yourself, your ideas and your ability is incredibly important,” she wrote. “Always remember that being flexible and agile as a business person will help your enterprise to flourish. Challenges are just opportunities you are yet to capitalise on, to see them in a positive light and don’t give up on a business idea you feel will work if expanded from these shores.”

“We’ve got some amazing small businesses in the UK and I’m immensely proud of the talent and skills we can share in new markets.”

Read more to find out about previous Dargons’ Den investments.

Yet it seems that Hoppen’s most emphasised advice, offered in her Btube speech, is to think outside the box – one of the reasons why her business got off the ground so quickly.

“I own the colour taupe. That was the colour I loved and I built a business around this kind of style and colour despite what anyone might say. I really ask myself can taupe be more than a colour? Yes it can, it built my brand.

“You need to find something that sets you apart from somebody else. But you also need to believe it 100 per cent because if you don’t no one else will.” 

But despite this fact, Hoppen “fears the future of the young people starting in business today”.

“Starting a business at 16 and a half I was trying to think what was different today. I was thinking the other day, what was different in the days when I started my company. My vision and reason for starting a business was simply because I loved what I did. I think today, fast forward those 40 years, all those young entrepreneurs that I meet think mostly about instant fame or recognition. They often try to start businesses because they think of being on TV or in magazines.”

People need to think carefully before they commit to a business. That doesn’t just mean whether you have the money to finance a company, but also if entrepreneurship is the right thing with you.

Hoppen also believes that there are just some people that don’t suit being an entrepreneur.

Read more about Kelly Hoppen’s Dragons’ Den investments:

“Some of the people I invested in during Dragons’ Den ended up being a big wake up call for me, as I assumed when you give people money and gave them your time that they would run with it,” Hoppen explained. “There are certain people who don’t fit the criteria. Some are just lazy or expect you to do all the work for them.

“You also have those that just don’t have those entrepreneurial skills in them, in which case you have to be honest to yourself – ‘maybe this isn’t the right thing for me’. There are a lot of people in the world that start off in one job and change to another – it’s the same thing – some aren’t cut out for it. 

“I think you are born with that entrepreneurial essence in you. You can be taught a huge amount but you know when you meet someone who has got that flair.”