At just 26, Samantha Kingston is taking over the world of VR. Founder of Virtual Umbrella, a specialist VR marketing agency, she has been named a rising star of the BIMA 100, has been included in the MCV’s 30 under 30 and nominated for unsung hero in the Women in Games awards. We caught up with her to discuss her top tips for female entrepreneurs and an insight into the tech world.
What were you doing before you started Virtual Umbrella?
Before I started Virtual Umbrella I was working in my local theatre in my home town. I used to run all kinds of events and we even put pantomimes on at Christmas. I then got a call from a recruitment company who said they had a job available in a games company, which became my first introduction into VR.
Did you always want to be an entrepreneur? Or was it a path that came out of opportunity?
I never really knew what being an entrepreneur was until I did it. I always knew that I wanted to do my own thing, but was never 100% sure what that was going to be. Through watching and meeting other founders/entrepreneurs I finally understood what it meant.
What made you choose the Virtual Reality sector to start your business?
When I first tried VR something clicked in the back of my mind and I knew straight away that this was an industry that I wanted to work in. I was not sure where to start or how I could work with it, but that didn’t stop me from learning all about it. I went to as many VR events as I could and tried out as much content. I even tested headsets and content for other companies…basically meaning that I got to try out the development version of the headsets which are now on the market today.
Did you have a mentor or an established business person, to turn to for advice?
Before I started the company the main person that I would go to for advice was my ex-CEO who was the person who introduced me to VR in the first place. Now, my business partner Bertie, is my rock. We both have great passion for the industry and working everyday together is a blessing.
How important has it been to you to have a business partner? How do you manage the business together?
If you had told me three or four years ago that I would have had my own company I probably would have laughed. I am very lucky to work with such a great business partner and I could not imagine doing it without him. We both have had to learn everything from scratch; accounting, taxes, cash flow and how we both work in an office environment.
One of the biggest worries for young entrepreneurs is quitting their jobs and funding their new business. Was this something you experienced with Virtual Umbrella?
Of course, the fear of having no security is terrifying. I had several freelance jobs when we started Virtual Umbrella and Bertie was working a full-time job down in Bournemouth and then would work in the evenings on the company with me. We were working double for a good couple of months. We were completely self-funded, every penny we made went straight back into the company. We lived off noodles and baked beans some weeks and always panicked about the rent, but this was what made us understand ‘the hustle’ – whatever happened we would make it work. We are not the kind of company that would be invested into but we have had VC’s approach us and even had conversations of being bought-out which is fantastic, but that is two very hard years in the making. We still have noodles and baked beans in the cupboard just in case.
What has been your proudest moment/achievement in your career?
One of my proudest moments so far was winning the Southampton and the national Venus Awards for new business. I am really critical of what I do and I think being involved in the Venus Awards made me realise that I was not alone, there are some incredible business women out there and what I am doing is good.
Also reaching the two year mark of Virtual Umbrella. It made me very proud to see that we have made it this far, we still have a long way to go but wow two years – insane.
What has been your biggest challenge since starting Virtual Umbrella?
Looking after my health has been my biggest challenge. I have always pushed myself to the limit. When I came home from University at Christmas I would always get really sick because I had pushed myself so hard. Now, I have been in positions where the stress has become so bad that I have ended up in hospital. My goal for 2017 is to work hard on this. Virtual Umbrella won’t exist if I am in hospital.
What support was available to you/did you use as a young entrepreneur? Was there any support that you wish had been available to you but wasn’t?
If I am honest there is not much out there. I have found a couple of workshops in Southampton that helped me in the beginning to help me write my business plan and look at accounting but apart from that, I have not found anything. If I needed support I would go to people that I admired or knew would help me. CEO’s, other women in the industry or I would reach out to women in similar positions that I admired for help. If I could start all over again I wish I had business mentor I could grab coffee/ drink with who was based in my area that would have been great, other than online or in London.
Do you have any skills or qualifications that were essential to your career?
A lot of what I know now has been through trial and error. I think there is a massive difference between gaining skills to go and work in a company to actually running your own company. Yes there are workshops out there, but I never knew this was what I wanted to do, so we learnt along the way. However, the many managerial jobs I have had in the past have been incredibly helpful with taking on interns and part time staff. I want to really offer a great experience if you work for me. However I have also learnt a lot about people and that loyalty and being nice does not always work in business.
Has there ever been a point where you struggled to keep motivated? What did you do to break through this?
Oh yes. There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed because I am too tired or know that I could just answer my emails from bed. That is not very productive at all. I don’t have anyone to tell me to work, I have no one kicking my butt apart from myself. Although you learn quickly that if I don’t get out of bed no-one else is going to get the work done for me. Having an office has actually made a huge difference, in the first year we worked from home, cafés, pubs and on trains when we had too and I really liked the freedom but since getting an office, I can leave work behind when I get home. I don’t do a 9-5 week, I might start at 6am or 3pm but I know the work will get done, I am working to my own schedule that works for me.
What advice would you give to a young female entrepreneur who is struggling to stay ambitious and motivated in their business?
There will always be people that tell you, you can’t do it because of your age or gender or that you are short or tall. Once you identify that one thing that makes you passionate everything will make sense. If you want to work for yourself, create something, you are the only person that can really stop you. Make a plan, stick with it. If it fails, don’t worry. Failure is not always a bad thing.
Self-care is very important for lots of entrepreneurs. How does this fit in with your business and lifestyle?
I had no idea that looking after your mind was a thing. Until I had to look after mine. When you put your everything into a project it is very hard to think of anything else. Emails, Twitter, Facebook, Skype and the rest can make the world seem incredibly noisy. I never knew that notifications on my phone would affect my mental health so much.
It got to a point where I could not switch off my mind. I thought about my company in the middle of the night, while I was with friends or family, and in the evenings to the point where I was getting stressed about being stressed.
I needed to get rid of the noise so I started turning off the notifications. Turning my phone off. This also massively helped my work as well. I was finding that clients were phoning or emailing me on the weekend because I was replying (making it acceptable). Now they understand that I am only available Monday – Friday.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years time? What is the aim/the dream and how do you plan on getting there?
I feel like I have the ‘entrepreneur’ feeling now, so I would hope that I have made Virtual Umbrella continuously successful and maybe to have started some more projects – maybe start another company. Maybe my office will be set up somewhere sunny and have an awesome view. That would be nice.
If you could go back in time, and give yourself one piece of advice before you started Virtual Umbrella, what would you say?
If I could go back in time I would tell myself that know a lot more than I think I do. Having an opinion about something, either online, in a crowd or on stage can be really daunting, it took me a long time to realise that my opinion does matter.
If you could recommend one book or podcast that has helped you get where you are today, what would it be?
You have to listen to Emma Gannon’s podcast. It is like my weekly bible. Emma interviews incredible creative women and it’s like having a warm hug of inspiration on a regular basis. I got into a habit of listening to podcast while I work and it’s really helped. It reduces stress and makes me feel much more relaxed.
As I started the company I brought #GirlBoss and it was one of the best books I have read. If you like honesty, bluntness and a great read I would suggest it.
Is there one person that you admire or aspire to be like?
There are so many people that I admire. My business partner, people I work with day to day. Fantastic women founders that I meet all the time, I wish I had more time in the week to spend more time with them.
When I started out I aspired to be all of them, those that have passion and love what they do, but I soon came to realise that I should aspire to be me. I often encourage others to ‘do a you’ – so I plan on doing a me for a long time yet.
If you could have a coffee with any woman in the world, who would you choose?
I would love to go for a coffee with Cindy Gallop. I think she is incredible. To the point, on a mission and someone I really do admire. Cindy if you ever read this… Let’s grab a drink.