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Inspirational Female Founder Spotlight: Abi Selby

Abi Selby, is founder of Spabreaks.com the leading spa experience booking company, working with more than 800 spas around the world and arranging spa days and breaks for up to 12,000 people each week. The company’s goal is to market spas dynamically and with integrity, showing the world the wide variety of spa experiences available for everybody and every occasion. 

Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?

I am from Newton Abbot in Devon and I went to the local school followed by Glamorgan University and Cardiff University. I don’t have any formal business training and I have a vivid memory of my careers advisor telling me that I wouldn’t ever amount to anything. I should possibly thank her because I’ve definitely striven to prove her wrong and to make sure I never make anyone else feel like that. After university I worked as a freelance journalist but quickly realised I was better suited to marketing. Having worked in a small collection of hotel spas I had a lightbulb moment, which is where Spabreaks.com began.

How did the idea come to you for the company?

I realised there was an opportunity to change the way spas were marketed by working with them to realise their commercial potential whilst showcasing the integrity of the industry. I started Spabreaks.com in 2008 when my first son was four months old (I now have three children). It was just two interns and myself at the time, in the middle of a recession when the discount model, Groupon, was in full flow. People thought I was mad.

How did you achieve awareness?

Spabreaks.com is essentially a marketing platform for spas, so it’s leveraged off the growth in digital marketing.

When you start you have almost no money to put into anything. Now we’re more strategic and knowledgeable about when, what and how we do things. For example, during and after the pandemic we invested in our proprietary tech stack and improved the customer digital journey, operational and fulfilment efficiencies.

Despite the technology however, at its core is that Spabreaks.com has been built on communication. It’s a network of more than 600 spa destinations and, now, over a million spa users. Day one, awareness came from picking up the phone to the people I knew, and putting together packages of spa experiences that I knew people wanted. We then set out our stall online and answered the phone ourselves.

How have you been able to gain funding and grow?

We had some initial investment but in truth the company has been self-funded almost from day one. We don’t spend what we don’t have, but we do reinvest pretty aggressively in our people, in our marketing capabilities, in our technology and in our website.

What are the key successes?

Reaching the number two position in The Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 in 2012 was a game changer. Financial growth year-on-year never fails to be an achievement, and I think coming through the pandemic when so many businesses floundered was a real collective achievement for every member of the team.

On a personal level, there are two things I am most proud of. The first, always, is my team. I have always said that the best thing that you can do as a business (but also in life) is to surround yourself with people who are as positive, excited and passionate as you are, but who bring their own gifts and perspectives to their roles.

The second thing is that we not only work hard on our core business, but also to positively influence and support the spa industry. We have done (and continue to do) a lot of work to make spas more accessible.

What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?

I think the thing to remember is that there will always be challenges, some are bigger than others but they are always there. From a business perspective, Covid was a major hurdle, as it was for everyone. The willingness of the team to ‘muck in’ speaks to their dedication to the company and hopefully the culture we have created.

A wider and ongoing challenge is to attract great people and nurture them within the team. It’s not easy to find people who are great at what they do, so I can’t express how much we value those within our team.

What are your plans now/for the future?

Commercially, our goal is to support our spa partners and to drive business to them as much as possible by making sure we’re meeting customer wants and needs in our products and marketing. We also continue to be dedicated to making the spa world more accessible.

What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?

I think if you really want to start your own business, the real message is to start. It’s not to say that you should go into something blindly or unprepared – you absolutely need to think things through, but you will never have a risk free, perfect plan.

Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?

1) Surround yourself with good people

2) Do your research and then trust your gut

3) Look for opportunities in spaces that you know

4) Have the humility to know that you don’t know everything and be ok with that

5) Know that success is both subjective and an ongoing journey – not a destination

Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?

My three children are a constant source of inspiration. No one will make you feel quite as proud or quite as humble as your children.

My dad is sadly no longer with us, but he was phenomenally kind and supportive, so I always seek to emulate that in my personal and professional life.

The fifth – Jacinda Ardern’s views on leadership have put words to something that I have often felt but not been able to articulate. She said: “I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?

It changes over time, but one that continues to resonate is from that great philosopher, Christopher Robin in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think and loved more than you know”.

What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?