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Older women in tech still have a really hard time, says Frugl founder

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You’ve got to be fairly fearless to spend twenty odd years running a successful PR agency, only to decide you’re giving it all up to launch a totally different business.

That’s what Suzanne Noble did when she decided to focus on a new project – the bargain and events discovery app Frugl – which she officially launched in May 2014.

“I’d always been a bit of a bargain hunter and I loved travelling. When I was in New York, I was always on the hunt for fun things to do and did the same in London,” she explained. Deciding she could utilise her own knowledge and condense it alongside other people’s recommendations onto a straightforward, accessible platform – the idea for Frugl was born.

The first step was finding developers to help realise this idea, which she admitted was something of “a nightmare”. 

“I think there’s a statistic where you get ripped off at least twice before hitting the jackpot,” she added wryly. As with many discoveries in business, Noble lucked out through word of mouth to find her current developers.

She has built this out to recruit a social media manager and content manager, along with her co-founder, and is now targeting a first proper funding round through Syndicate Room.

Her background in PR set up the marketing for Frugl and despite all the initial endeavours being self-funded, she has already built up 20,000 users on the app. Frugl’s dashboard curates content, which Noble and her team edit themselves, flagging up everything from theatre to free drinks and food. The activities displayed all cost up to a maximum of £10.

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“We’ve been building up relationships with promoters and currently have around 1,500 on our database. Otherwise I have a pretty big address book,” she explained.

The events and selections are often picked through Noble’s own interests – “I’m big on sample sales, so there are loads of them! And comedy too.” She hopes to be able to expand more thoroughly into food and drink over time.

Despite this, Noble says it has been hard-going so far and is candid when laying out several criteria which she feels set her back. “I don’t think it can be underestimated how difficult older women in tech have it,” she said. “The gender bias is simply ridiculous and on a daily basis too.”

She has ran several businesses since her late twenties, but Noble suggested when it comes to tech, there’s a long-running, damaging preconception as to what entrepreneurs and innovators should look like.

“I think a lot of investors are expecting something out of The Social Network – someone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg, and if you don’t fit that model, it’s a barrier,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s even a conscious thing, but they’ve already built up that internal resistance.”

Noble herself is 54 and thinks other industries have witnessed successful older business founders and it has become more commonplace. She mentioned numerous lists that round up older entrepreneurs – one of the most famous is of course Ray Kroc, who established McDonald’s in his early fifties and quickly transformed it into a franchise success.

Image: Shutterstock

“Experience is really valued, but in some areas doesn’t seem to carry much weight,” Noble said. She feels that too often money is thrown at “people taking a punt” on an idea not yet thought through, rather than investing in those who have backgrounds in running businesses and doing so well.

She does, though, feel VCs are “keenly aware” of a need to invest more in female-founded businesses. “So many of them have flagged it up to me as something they want to do more of,” Noble said.

The Diana Project carried out in the US originally in 1999, found fewer than five per cent of all VC investments went to businesses with women on the executive team. It did a follow-up study between 2011 and 2013 which found this had increased to over 15 per cent, indicating some progress. It also found, however, that companies with women on the executive team were just as successful –­ if not more so – than those with no women, and reported the model for venture capital that has “been in place since the 1980s should be reconsidered and re-evaluated” in order to stimulate change.

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Noble said more concrete efforts could be made – whether that’s setting quotas or just  investors going out of their way to find women-led businesses. It seems some are striking out independently and setting up women-led VC firms. Theresia Gouw and Jennifer Fonstad founded Aspect Ventures, where 40 per cent of its portfolio companies have a female founder or co-founder. This could be an active route to unsettling the status quo.

In terms of looking for the best method to raise investment for Frugl, Noble has plumped for Syndicate Room for the first round, where she had to provide 25 per cent of the funding before it was posted to the platform online. She had spoken to friends who had tried other crowdfunding platforms and simply found them “far too time-consuming”, which was a deterrent when she was already fielding many elements of the business already.

“It adds to the challenges of doing everything and I think people sometimes forget that raising money can be a job in itself,” she explained. For Noble, it’s also the area of the business she has least experience with. “Obviously, I knew all about marketing with my background, but at the beginning when it came to thinking about breaking even and all of those areas, I really had to step up,” Noble said.

She has tried a range of schemes, including an accelerator academy which she felt was perhaps “a bit too early” for Frugl, but nevertheless gave her a good grounding in the various basic areas of businesses. It was particularly important for her, as the experience of growing a business wasn’t new – but prior to Frugl she had done so organically.

“The Access to Finance programme was great – I had a really helpful mentor there who helped me establish financial forecasts,” she said.

If the funding round progresses smoothly, Noble hopes to fully establish desktop and mobile as the team is in the process of refreshing the iOS app and adding Android. “Then we’ll be aiming to scale up, do marketing and expand beyond London,” she said.

The funding is the first hurdle to overcome before Noble can get cracking with Frugl’s progress. She admitted that had she known how tricky the investment stage would be, “I would have put someone onto it a lot earlier”.

The combination of being a female entrepreneur as well as a business founder over 50, sometimes seems like a bit of a double whammy she said. Noble recently signed up for Google’s Founders over 50 – a free startup school for older entrepreneurs. “It’s the first time I’ve seen something like this, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Noble’s desire to keep learning, coupled with her long-term vision for the business, reflects her upcoming status as a formidable business founder over 50 – and adds another voice to the debate calling for more attention to be paid to older entrepreneurs. 

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