“My friends think I’m lazy, but I just work efficiently!” laughs Karen Darby, the gregarious, fun-loving founder of SimplySwitch. Karen is one of those inspirational entrepreneurs who accidentally stumbled across her chosen career and has been making everything she touches a success ever since.
Like a lot of entrepreneurs, Karen’s entrepreneurial spirit was evident early on. She left school with one O-level and landed a job in telesales for a local newspaper, making 50p on every £5 advertisement she sold, or as she explains it “enough for a packet of fags!”
After deciding that she had what it took to make it in the telemarketing industry, Karen set up her first venture at 22, a telemarketing firm called the Decisions Group. She became something of a name in the industry, riding the boom in direct marketing. Within seven years her company had 200 staff and a turnover of £4m. She sold the company in 1990 and set up her second enterprise, Karen Darby Direct, which provided training for call-centre staff. Working from home and looking after her young sons at the same time, Karen personally trained hundreds of people in the call centre industry, several of whom have gone on to set up their own highly successful businesses.
Drawing on her call centre knowledge Karen got the idea for SimplySwitch (launched in 2002) after being bombarded by sales people trying to get her to switch supplier after the deregulation in the gas and electricity markets. Karen identified a niche; while people knew they were now free to choose which energy company they wanted to use, there wasn’t anyone telling them how to make the change or providing a switching service over the telephone, and so SimplySwitch was born. The company created over 100 jobs and helped thousands of consumers save over £20m on their household bills. In 2006, Karen sold SimplySwitch to the Daily Mail for a reported £22m.
Karen has now launched her fourth and most exciting venture yet Call Britannia which she is very passionate about. She is combining her background and skills in the call centre industry with a social purpose and is on a mission to create 10,000 jobs for the unemployed.
One of Karen’s bug bear’s is the lack of expectation that is bred into working class children at school. Her upbringing was pretty tough and there were no authority figures to help her find her way; she had to find it within herself to be determined to do something constructive with her life. She has worked with the students in her son’s college encouraging them to set up their own businesses. “The thing is, I have done it and there is nothing really special about me,” Karen explains. “I’m not particularly clever, but I’m tough, I’m driven and I really do think that if I can inspire people to do something positive in difficult circumstances then that’s great. I’m thinking of setting something up along these lines with a commercial aspect.”
Karen is testament to the fact that you do not need to necessarily be a specialist in a particular subject or have the cash yourself to launch your enterprise. Sometimes all that is needed is the ability to spot a gap in the market and the ability to turn it into a business. Sound like you? Then jump onto her table at our Extraordinary Entrepreneurs Evening.
• She juggled four jobs while still at school, managing a laundrette, working in Tesco, a fish and chip shop and a florist!
• After the sale of SimplySwitch, Karen turned down £5m to stay at the company for an extra three years.