The Brains Behind a Brand; an interview with Tamara Heber-Percy, co-founder of Mr & Mrs Smith

I have to admit I'm not quite prepared for the experience of walking into the offices of Mr & Mrs Smith (the destination guide and bookings service for boutique and luxury hotels). I'm here to meet founder Tamara Heber-Percy,but despite having accrued some idea of her goddess like status in the world of online travel, nothing has quite prepare me for the vast hangar like space off a tiny side street in the heart of Chiswick. Sixty five staff, all buzzing away, heads down, concentration furrowing their already furrowed brows; 'I know. Getting big now,' Tamara laughs, 'when we were across the road, above Boots – we must have been forty-five then. And I thought that was big.'

We retire to a small glass partitioned conference room – the Mr & Mrs Smith stats projected on the wall behind her, 'I like to be near them,' she laughs, 'so I can check them every two seconds.' Though she admits to the prospect of heading up such an enterprise being 'properly scary,' there's an aura of calm that pervades the office. No segregated office space for this founder, she sits at ground zero amongst her dearly beloved staff; development director Toby – her right hand man at the desk next to her.

But what of the stress of being in charge of this many people; all reliant on her for their monthly pay cheques – does she ever feel the pressure? 'When you’re a smaller company and you’ve just got one, two, or three employees, actually it hits you harder, because you’re a really small team. But now it’s a different worry because the numbers are obviously much bigger.' Her team are nothing if her forte however; 'There’s that old saying: “Always employ people who are better and cleverer than you.” It really does pay off if you can do that.'

I can see why they would stick around too; this is one 'boss' who is certainly one of the people. It doesn't hurt either that she's immaculately groomed, (no make up to speak of), resplendent in a crisp white shirt, jeans, her long brown hair tied back in a ponytail – a knockout; a remarkably down to earth one too. See this is why it's always better to conduct the interviews in offices – take the entrepreneur out of their natural habitat and they're a whole different kind of beast.

This entrepreneur is the kind who certainly doesn't take no for an answer. Much of the success of the brand can be attributed to her and husband James's sheer dogged persistence – a quality that underpinned the decision to fly in the face of the serial publishers, agents and so called 'experts' who told them there was no gap in the market for a book on the boutique hotels of the world. Mr & Mrs Smith (aka Tamara and James) set about proving them wrong; a romantically auspicious start to their online business; 'We were still courting in those days,' Tamara reminisces. 'He ran a members’ bar and club south of the river; he’d printed flyers for his club nights, and he always said it’s about the quality of the flyer. If you get a scrappy piece of paper shoved into your hand by somebody, or you make a nice, humorous, fun flyer you’re more likely to go.'

A couple joined by a shared love of marketing; 'When we decided to publish the guide, he turned around to me and said: “How difficult can it be? Essentially, it’s about three-hundred flyers stuck together with a bit of glue.” Naivety at the beginning is a wonderful thing.'

'We looked at all the guide books that were out there at the time, and thought that we could do better,' Tamara continues. 'There wasn’t a single guide book out there that was really talking to us as thirty-something time-poor people, who knew that these boutique-hotels out there existed, but just didn’t know how to find them. So we just thought: “How difficult can it be? We’ll just do it ourselves.”

And do it they did – Beginning with the birth of their own publishing company to release the tome; 'Everybody said: “Oh, you’ll probably sell about five thousand copies through friends of friends...” When, three months later, we’d done twenty-five thousand, that was a moment when I thought: “Wow. This is a change,” - no more negativity!'

Tamara hardly seems the kind to fall prey to negative thinking; her career (even prior to Mr & Mrs Smith) is testament to a brain full of serious business acumen; Not only did she found an online dating website (now run by her mother) but she also worked for a series of high profile accounts in her role as marketing consultant for companies such as Unilever; 'One of the biggest accounts I had at the time was Ford. It was when customer relationship management was a really hot topic, and people realised that they could gather lots of data about their customers on the internet (micro-sites and competitions etc). I think that gave me the best grounding I could have in terms of understanding how you get information on your customers, try and understand what it is they want, and come back to them with a product they want as well.'

But back to Mr Smith; how on earth does the couple cope – given they must spend every waking moment together? Are there ever tantrums in office? 'We sit at opposite ends,' she says, 'He’s there behind you. Both of us like the open-plan style. James is more in the corner. I like to be amongst my developers, because I like to see what’s going on with the website.' Despite her previous assertions- she's incredibly laid back; I hasten to use the very nineties phrase 'cool' but that's the one that most springs to mind; though that's hardly how she sees herself - 'I don’t know whether there’s a little bit of a control freak in me, but I need to know that the website’s okay at any given time. Years and years ago we had a few shaky times when it kept going down. It was just so worrying and stressful. I vowed never to be away from the data ever again. My husband thinks I’m a compulsive.'

Despite her commitment to the business, Tamara is the first to admit behind the glam sassy exterior there's challenge, especially with the recent expansion of the brand into new territories; namely the US and Australia; 'It’s really difficult,' she admits. 'Just as we’re getting home, putting the kids to bed, New York is still e-mailing up until I go to bed. Then I wake up in the morning and I’ve got sixty to a hundred e-mails from the Melbourne office. It’s pretty relentless. But, you know, it’s my third child.'

Soon there will be a fourth, in fact the first week of October saw another branch added to the Mr & Mrs Smith tree; 'a whole new website for Smith and Family'; a bespoke list of boutique hotels (complete with bookings service) for discerning families and their offspring.

This new project must have required some serious research? One of the perks I imagine? Certainly when it comes to her children; 'Seeing the world through their eyes is amazing.' Though Tamara is quick to admit she can also find herself a little jaded by the endless rigmarole of luxe accommodation. 'What I really find fascinating is meeting owners for the hotels, for whom the hotel is their passion and the ethos. I love the stories, the styling, the design – that’s what brings a hotel to life for me now.

What does work look like then, when she's not travelling the globe? (This husband and wife team have a decidedly personal hand in picking the hotels on their site); 'It’s a constant case of prioritisation, checking if there are any issues, and making sure our key projects are still moving forward, that all our developers are okay and not getting bogged down with bugs.'

From the mundane to the metaphorical; what nuggets of wisdom has Tamara gleaned from almost ten years at the head of the Mr & Mrs Smith empire? 'I would say to get advice early on. When I think about the advice I’ve had in the last year – if I’d had that three years ago it could have accelerated the business. We took it very late. I think that’s the entrepreneurial spirit: you want to just get on and do it. I think recognising what you can’t do is almost as important as saying, “Oh, let’s just go and do it.”

I've only been speaking to Tamara for thirty minutes, but she's told me more in that solitary half an hour than most subjects do in three; a snapshot of her life – exactly the USP of the site; go there, stay here; an aspirational element to fast track you to a certain kind of life, a life you want – hers.

So has this seemingly 'perfect,' wife, mother and businesswoman ever made any mistakes? 'Almost three years ago, we redesigned the website. I let it go live when it wasn’t ready and the entire thing broke,' Tamara shudders at the thought. 'It was very, very difficult to roll it back, (which we did manage to do) but for three days we had a very broken site and it was the most stressful thing I’ve ever been through. It taught me that a deadline is a deadline, and you have to hit it – but it’s just not worth putting up code you’re not comfortable with. You can’t relax until everything’s okay again. We did no business for three days - awful!... I came back and thought: “I’m never going to let that happen ever again."

Stress was mitigated by some very wise words from Tamara's mother; 'The saying she always used to give me was: “It’s not life-threatening, is it, so calm down!" She's been a real inspiration to me; a classic entrepreneur. She’s always run her own business. She made me realise that nothing’s ever as important as you think it is. Nothing is so stressful. In business you have to take a sanity check on it, I think.'

Interview by Alice Kahrmann

October 2012.