Daphne Thissen is the founder and director of Thissen Consulting, an independent client feedback agency specialising in one-to-one client feedback for a range of industries, but heavily focussing on architecture, engineering and construction, sectors that, though changing, remain male-dominated. Daphne worked for English Heritage and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the UK before setting up her own agency that gathers and interprets independent feedback from C-Suite client stakeholders on behalf of international companies operating in various sectors including FMCG, Telecomms, Legal and Financial Services and Construction. Understanding the importance of “soft skills” in the delivery of multi-million-pound projects, her work facilitates securing, maintaining and growing deals and collaborations between large international companies. Daphne is currently a board member of the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill and of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. She is a former judge for the Andrew Doolan Best Building in Scotland Award.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
I’m an architectural historian by background. Initially, I worked in organisations preserving architectural heritage. Later, I moved into the diplomatic world, working for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the embassy, my remit as cultural attaché was broad and I was able to work on many different art and cultural projects. When I felt that I had achieved all I could in the diplomatic field, I began thinking about branching out on my own. It was natural that I would draw on my experience and the networks I’d nurtured.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
When I was in diplomacy, under the Dutch system architecture comes under culture, which enmeshed well with my skills. We did a lot of architecture projects and were noted for innovation in cultural diplomacy in this area. Working a lot with architects, I did a lot of networking on behalf of others. My initial idea was to assist architects in networking and partnership building.
How did you achieve awareness?
My business is specialised, one where word of mouth and direct networking are more important to bringing in new clients than mainstream marketing. Where I use social media, it’s LinkedIn rather than Instagram that reaches the right people. Even then, it’s about starting conversations with specific people rather than advertising our services. Conferences, seminars and other sector events are also important, to meet people and to be seen.
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
My company didn’t require the kind of investment that manufacturing a new product or building a new app requires. So, I was able to get it off the ground using my own resources. Nor is investment a priority: what I do relies on human capital and you can’t treat people as a commodity. Similarly, growth utterly depends on people, so my growth has come about through carefully considered, very targeted business development and marketing that focuses on relationships not products.
What are the key successes?
Becoming aware that large companies are willing to work with SMEs like mine and showing that agility and personal attention really do make a difference. Relating to this, a key success is pushing through all the things that can hold you back, the limitations you impose on yourself, and daring to put yourself forward to the people who need to notice you.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
The ongoing challenge is connecting and ultimately working with new clients for a regular flow of work. We increasingly live in a world that tries to prevent us from communicating directly on a human level. But, an FAQ or bot is not able to address the questions my clients need answering on multi-million pound projects. Since there are many barriers to direct contact with key decision makers, I try to overcome this by becoming more visible within the industry. I can see examples of where this has paid off, where the decision makers find me rather than me knocking on locked doors.
What are your plans now/for the future?
Developing a structure that enables scalability without sacrificing quality. My Catch 22 is that I can’t take on some projects because they require more people, but I can’t take on more people because the projects are fixed-term, yet I can only deploy people with very specific skills. I’m looking at creative ways of working with freelancers. It’s early days yet.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?
Don’t be afraid to be very niche. Be prepared for slow progress. Work in shared workspaces if you miss colleagues around you and try to avoid too many specialists who charge for advice that turns out to be no more specialised than what you can find out for yourself.
Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?
Not sure I have reached that pinnacle yet. But, for what it’s worth, I think my business has had slow, steady growth and is still here because I spent a lot of time in the planning stage. Timing is everything. Don’t confuse what you want to happen with being in a position to make it happen. Bide your time before throwing your hat into the ring.
Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?
Vanessa Murray at Stanhope PLC,a founder of the Mentoring Circle, a female mentoring network aimed solely at young women working in the property industry. Caroline Cole, founder and managing director of Colander, one of the first successful female entrepreneurs I met. Venu Dhupa, CEO of the Westway Trust, where I do some voluntary work on their cost of living project. She’s a versatile champion for diversity and a great manager. Sadie Morgan, architect and co-founder of DRMM, is a strong critical thinker and an influential voice for the built environment. Selina Mason, who leads master planning at Lendlease. We met recently and I was struck by her passion for creating better spaces for living and thriving.
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
From Andy Leek’s ‘Notes to Strangers’ project: “Enjoy the F out of being the age you are.”
Plato: “The highest form of knowledge is empathy for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world”
Mark Manson: “Confidence is not a belief in success, it is a comfort with failure”
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