A long time ago, when things were very different, we sat down face-to-face to speak with Susan Walsh - the one and only Classification Guru.
If you're looking for a genuinely inspiring business owner, then look no further. The importance of persistence, of having a passion for what you do, of surrounding yourself with the right people, and of wanting to make a difference - there is so much in here. Just don't call her an entrepreneur......or mention ghosting.
Before we get on to The Classification Guru, could you tell us a little about your back story?
Well my early career after university was in FMCG sales - National Account Executive, National Account Manager. I’ve kind of never known what I wanted to do, I just thought that's what I should be doing. I had ambitions to be a sales director and then I realised that, actually, I really didn't enjoy what I was doing and it wasn't for me.
So then I worked in a few more companies, had a bit of a bad experience, and then I got a bad wrist and had to have an operation. It was then that I decided that I was going to open a shop. In Guildford. Not the cheapest of places.
"I've never known what I wanted to do, I just thought it's what I should be doing."
Was that the realisation of a long-held ambition?
Well, I think I had been thinking about it for a while. I vaguely remember being at university doing a module on entrepreneurship and thinking at the time that I would like to have my own business, but I don't have an idea.
So then I had this idea for the shop. It was at a time when office culture was changing, so as a woman you didn't have to wear a suit anymore. You could wear smart casual like nice tops, dresses, skirts, trousers - that kind of thing - but there wasn't really anywhere that you could go for it. It was before the internet really took off, so I decided to open a shop. It looked amazing, you know, and people really liked the clothes - but in Guildford because it wasn't a brand, people wouldn't come in. They would walk past for months before even stepping foot in, even though I had the most amazing tartan handbags and wellies, and beautiful dresses.
You know, so many women left my shop feeling amazing because I got them to try on dresses that they would never have looked at if it had just been on a hanger. But it just wasn't enough. I ran up so much debt that I just had to close down in the end.
"So many women left my shop feeling amazing because I got them to try on dresses that they would never have looked at if it had just been on a hanger.
But it just wasn't enough"
Why do you think it didn’t survive?
I think people at the time were obsessed with brands - I really think it was that. I had really good gifts and I was right by the market stalls so people were passing by at the weekend. Maybe the shop wasn't the right shop, maybe a different location within Guildford would have helped - you know, lots of what-ifs. The lease nearly fell through and I nearly went online so maybe that would have been different, but that wasn't the route that I wanted to take.
How long had you been open?
I'd been open about seven or eight months, I think. I opened just before Christmas thinking that would be a great time, but no.
It was typical that just as I was closing down, people would give me their number for when new stock was coming. I was starting to build it. I think from that I learned that with any business, you always need more money. No matter how much you've got, you always need more - and more time. It always takes longer than you think.
"With any business, no matter how much money or time you've got, you always need more."
It’s quite a leap from that to The Classification Guru.
Well I had to close the shop and I literally had no money to pay my bills. So I just needed a job and quick, so I went on Gumtree found an advert for data entry/data classification. I was like “Well, I'll do it.” And this is absolutely like a twist-of-fate kind of story as the guy happened to be in Guildford and had a spend analytics company.
So I started doing just the odd few hours here and there for him, but I found I was really good at it. I think it was because I'd come from a corporate background where I understood what businesses were spending things on, so I could classify it better. Rather than being a technical person who's looking at the black and white of it, I could see it from the point of view of “your business would be using this service for this”. I was really fast too. So I took on a contract job for about six months and at the end of that the guy said he had full-time work available so why don't I come on board. So I did.
I worked with these guys for five years. I grew a team to about 14 home-based people that I had recruited, trained and managed - and I really, really loved what I was doing. The problem was that I couldn't really go any further. I love learning so I'm not happy just doing the same thing all the time. I always want to be learning new skills and doing more things, and I’d got to the point where I'd stopped learning. Then the company got bought by big American corporation and it just wasn't the same and I really didn't know what to do. This was like three and a bit years ago, so I just thought rather than just do the same as the company had done, I’d try to flip it.
"I love learning....I'm not happy just doing the same thing all the time."
What do you mean by that?
I didn’t want to charge people for this expensive dashboard that tells them all kinds of analytics and reporting, if the data was still a problem. Some people probably don't want the fancy software but they do want the clean data, so I just thought there was a real opportunity there to just offer the data cleansing service. I have worked with AI and machine learning and I know that it's not there yet to be effective enough, so it just has to be done part-manual. So off I went - and I think within a week I had business cards and a logo and was ready to go to the Surrey Business Expo.
The head of procurement for Surrey University was there and also someone from procurement at Guildford Borough Council, so I was like ready to go. For me it was a real test because I could speak to procurement people, tell them what my offering was, and gauge their interest. And from that, I got their emails and the university were interested in further conversations, so I thought “Okay - I think I might be onto something here.”
So then I started building my business and my brand, and I exhibited at a procurement event which my previous company had been at - and I put everything I had left into that. That for me was a big thing because I felt like it would give me credibility within the procurement community - and people were really interested. But it was a real learning experience because with this type of work, unless they have an immediate issue, it's months and months or years of building a relationship before you get the business. It wasn't as quick as I thought it would be.
"I didn't want to charge people for this expensive dashboard....if the data was still a problem."
"It was a real learning experience. [Getting the business] wasn't as quick as I thought it would be."
Did you find you had a problem explaining what you do?
Yeah, totally. It's taken me years to refine that, and even now people just call me the dirty data lady - and I'm quite good with that because it's still in the right area. I have a personality/persona now around that - so people might not know exactly what I do, but different parts of what I do appeal to different areas.
The data community has really welcomed me with open arms and really locked into what I'm saying. I had no idea that what I was doing within my little procurement corner was so relevant within the Master Data Management world, so that's been great as well - but it's about jumping on those opportunities.
The biggest revelation for me was when I started talking in terms of taxonomies and some of them didn't even know what that was. I was so naive, I thought I was the one that that knew the least but actually no. I think that's actually where the whole Classification Guru really grew because I discovered that actually within the industry, there's a lot of smoke and mirrors and buzzwords and I'm trying to make it accessible and usable for everybody. That's where my point of difference is - I'm talking to people on a really basic level, but actually that's what's needed.
"There's a lot of smoke and mirrors and buzzwords.
I'm talking to people on a really basic level, but actually that's what's needed."
What would success look like for The Classification Guru?
The reason I started the business in the first place was I just wanted to do something that I loved and paid the bills, and that is still the case. But I now have bigger aspirations for the business. I would love to have a team of classifiers and data analysts - and I would be the go-to source for data quality and data accuracy. People would know that they get a consistent standard of work, because I think that's the biggest thing within the industry - there's no consistency. The quality's just not there. So that would be, you know, the next 10 years - building up a little mini-empire.
What I really want to do is help people who are contractors, and I'd really like to focus on people with mental health issues. So, I might have a project and I might say “right, just do this much and do it within a week” and someone's not forced to work to certain hours or times. So long as they do the work and return it on time, I don't care what kind of issues they’ve got or what their background is.
If they are in that mindset - and it's very hard to find people who are kind of switched on with that mindset – then that’s all that matters. I think just because you've got a mental health issue, it doesn't mean you're not capable and you're not valuable. It's just that you can't be there 100% of the time whereas a job like this, you know you can do it when you feel like it.
"I think the biggest thing within the industry [is that] there's no consistency."
What were the main challenges in getting to this point?
Well, cash is just everything. Your invoice terms might be 30 days, but you get the business then you do the work, and then you invoice and then it's 30 days. Or maybe you start talking and six months later you get the work. I don't have a massive amount of outgoings as a business but there are monthly overheads to cover, so that's a really big thing.
The other thing is, it's about my identity. It took me a long time - and I would say it's only in the last six months - that I've really understood who I am, what I'm about, and I've got more of a clear message. And because of that, or because I didn't have that before, people were telling me what I should and shouldn't be doing. I tried some business coaching classes and things and none of that really fitted with how my business works, but everyone was saying this is how you should be doing it. At one point, someone nearly convinced me into franchising and changing my business name. When you don't know who you are, it's very easy to be swayed by people who maybe have the best intentions, or maybe don't.
"When you don't know who you are, it's very easy to be swayed by people who maybe have the best intentions - or maybe don't."
And how did you get clear on that?
I started seeing a coach. It’s more on the personal development side, but she does cover business and she's been fantastic. She's helped give me a lot of clarity. I was never a big believer in coaching and stuff, but she's Glaswegian, straight talking, wouldn't take any nonsense. It's great.
What I've learned from her is, you know, she's qualified in psychology and she's got all the credentials - whereas there's a lot of life coaches out there that have maybe done a weekend course. There's a big difference, but I think they all get kind of put in the same bucket. It's a bit like what I do. I get pigeonholed into either data or something else and that's not really what I do. I get asked to fix people’s computers. That's not what I do!
"I get pigeonholed. I get asked to fix people's computers. That's not what I do!”.
Could you give one tip and one thing to be avoided if somebody is thinking of doing what you've done.
I would say be careful who you trust. Not everybody is there to help you.
It could have been very different for me, you know, but I'm pretty stubborn and independent. At times I felt very lost and, you know, you're just looking for that magic answer - but someone else won't have it. It’s got to come from you.
You have to be comfortable. I mean I've got a really good friend who’s done some copywriting for me and she's a fantastic copywriter, but it's not my tone. You know, it's not me - and I can feel that in it. I guess you have to have a mixture of everything, you know, you just try people and see what fits.
"At times...you're just looking for that magic answer - but someone else won't have it. It's got to come from you."
Oh – ghosting. [absolutely no hesitation in this answer]
It is so frustrating when you build a relationship with someone, you're talking for months, and then they just completely disappear. They don't return your calls, they don't reply to emails, and you're left wondering why. It goes back to the example of, you know, don't trust everyone. A couple of sales coaches were saying “oh well, you're asking the wrong questions” or “you're doing this” or “you're not doing that” and then you think it's your fault. You did something wrong. Then I found out that this particular one that really affected me the most, has happened with someone else too - so it's not me.
You know, we're not big businesses - we're little people - so that one project would have taken up my whole time. I had planned my workload around that, and then it didn't happen. So then I had no work, and then I couldn't get any work because it was Christmas - and then it was January and then I was totally screwed. So, yeah, it had a massive impact. Don't ever rely on something until you've got the work.
"Don't ever rely on something until you've got the work."
Is there any pattern to the ghosting?
It could be anybody. Most of the time it could just be that circumstances change. It may be that they're too embarrassed to tell you - especially if you've built up a relationship - but that’s even worse. More than once I’ve been led up the garden path a little bit but, you know, you learn. You learn to not take it too personally as well. It has to just be another job.
There’s a great guy who calls himself the UK’s most hated sales trainer. He says that when you're approaching customers, always go in with the mindset that you've got a million pounds and you don't need their business. I mean it's really hard to do that all the time but I try now to kind of have that mindset that, you know, I don't need your business. That way it might not hurt so much when you get slapped in the face.
"I try to have the mindset that I don't need your business."
What do you think it is that sets your business apart?
There isn't really anybody that is doing what I do as a stand-alone business - it's always part of another service. I specifically offer it as a stand-alone service.
And then also me, you know. I'm making data interesting and fun. Hopefully my passion shows through. I think I do bridge that gap between the technical world and other people, because I think it can be very dry. Data is so amazing what it can do for businesses, but people are scared of it. People have been made to feel scared of it by all the big fancy words that are used, whereas actually everybody should be able to know their data at a very basic level. Even if you're not looking at it every day, you should be able to do certain things to check that the data is right.
Errors filter up. Suddenly dashboards are made, and people are making decisions based on that wrong data - which could be catastrophic sometimes. Just because someone down in a department thinks nobody will notice, you know, whereas data is everybody's responsibility. Every single person that works with it has an impact on everything related to that data. I'm trying to make people aware of that, that it doesn't matter who you are - you have an impact.
"I'm making data interesting and fun."
"Data is so amazing what it can do for businesses, but people are scared of it."
Would you do it all again?
What would you change?
I don't think I could change anything because it's got me to where I am now. I've learnt to become who I am and what I am. Even having a first failed business didn't put me off.
I guess if I could change anything, it would be to have more money. And possibly not waste my time on those clients that weren't really interested.
"I've learnt to become who I am and what I am."
What does the future hold for the business?
I want to be an expert within my area. I'm getting there with that - I think people know who I am now. I want to do more speaking events and just promote data in a fun and interesting way. I want to grow my business, and I want to be the go-to person for data accuracy.
"I want to be the go-to person for data accuracy."
How do you plan to get across the “fun and interesting” angle?
Well, “dirty data” is a great phrase for that – and people like the way I say it in my Scottish accent.
There's not one person that you will speak to - particularly in the world of data - who does not have dirty data. So when you use that as a tag, they’re in. I think that's why my early webinars did so well.
I’ve found LinkedIn to be a great option for getting it across too.
I’ve got to say that LinkedIn is a fantastic community. I don't have any issues with trolls or any of that, and the people in my network are really supportive and want to help each other. It very much feels like a team thing.
I think certainly within the last year there's been a huge shift towards data accuracy, data quality, data issues - and it was never really there before. It was always an issue but people weren't focusing on it, and now people are focusing and talking about it.
For the first time in my life I was ahead of the curve. I literally had no connections. I had an idea. And, you know, people thought it was a good idea but we all know there's loads of good ideas out there. It's actually getting them to work and it's taken a while but I really feel like, you know, something came from my head and it's working. It's amazing.
I think as business owners - I really hate entrepreneur, I don't feel like that's what I am - as a business owner, I'm always focusing on what I've not done right. “I'm not taking in enough sales, I'm not doing this right, I'm not doing that right”, and I never really step back and think about what's going really well. But I've definitely had that moment over this weekend where I thought “I'm awesome.”
"As a business owner, I'm always focusing on what I've not done right......and I never really step back and think about what's going really well."
Do you have any LinkedIn tips you could share?
There can be really fun, interesting things in data - and because I open up about it and then share it, then other people share their stories too.
I try to do a mix of informative posts, informative videos, fun videos, and kind of inspirational stories. You’ve just got to keep it different.
Actually some of the best posts I do are when I talk about the work I'm doing.
People could do what I do, but it would it would be very slow and not as good. I've got software and I've got my own process that would be much faster, but I want to make that knowledge available to everybody so if they can't afford it they can still do it. I plan to do more videos in Excel so that it is more accessible for everybody, and more detail about how I classify.
I don’t worry about giving away too much. I can share all my tips, but I'll still be the guru.
"Don't worry about giving away too much.
I can share all my tips, but I'll still be the guru."
What emerging trends are you seeing?
It’s data, data, data. Data quality, data accuracy. There's more focus on analytics and dashboards - and then it becomes obvious when the data is not right.
What would you like your legacy to be?
Making data fun, and accessible, I guess. I never thought I would have a legacy.
How do you go about dealing with uncertainty?
I thrive on it, I have to say. I think I said before, I don't like routine and consistency of work. Unpredictability - and the who-knows-what-the-future-holds kind of approach - are what I love. I don't want to have a set plan for like five or ten years. I want an idea, but things can change so much within such a short time. You know, from now to three years ago when I set up the business - if I’d had a rigid plan I might not be where I am now, because it didn't fit in with my plan.
I have to say I have set some targets this year for the first time - which was to do one speaking event and one webinar, and I've done those things. So now I'm going to push myself to do more.
Targets don’t have to be financial, because that is not the driver for me. It never has been. I'm thinking a lot about one day doing a book - but that's maybe down the road. I don't have time for that right now. There are a lot of people doing books, and I don't want to just jump on a bandwagon. It's a future thing.
"Targets don't have to be financial, because that is not the driver for me."
How do you make a decision, and do you ever go back and review them?
Not in a formal process, but definitely I review in my head what's gone on and how it's gone. I would say a lot of it is gut. Most of it is gut. Even times when there was no business coming in, and I was getting so much interest on LinkedIn, my gut was telling me that this is the right thing - whereas my gut with the shop knew it was time to call it a day.
If I went with my head I'd probably have monetized this business and made it something bigger by now, but I wouldn’t enjoy it and then what's the point?
"If I went with my head I'd [have made this business] bigger by now, but I wouldn’t enjoy it and then what's the point?"
How do you stay on top of it, day to day?
Like a swan. All cool on top and freaking out underneath. I am organised and methodical but when it comes to business and plans and things, I'm not. I don't have like a day for admin, you know, I do it when it needs to be done. I'm pretty rubbish in that sense.
I'm thinking if things continue the way they are, it’s worth investing in a bookkeeper or something. I've held on to being a sole trader as long as possible because just from a financial admin point of view it's so much easier and there’s less cost involved. The plan is to go limited at some point. I think sometimes businesses would prefer to work with a limited company, but I'm in a position where there's not many people doing what I do, so that’s less of an issue.
"[I'm] like a swan. All cool on top and freaking out underneath."
How do you see your competition in the future?
There's going to be loads of people doing what I’m doing, but I just have a different perspective on it from other people. I really do think it's because I've crossed industries. I've worked in a business, I know how it runs, and I know how that applies to the data.
There could be lots of people out there that are experts - and they could be better than me - but they're not talking about it. They're not out there. There will definitely be people coming through who want to claim they are, but I'd like to think that by the time that happens I'll have established myself as the go-to person.
I've seen people try and follow my path and it’s not really worked for them. I worked so, so hard on building my brand for the last year. There's so much effort and time gone in to it, and I don't think people appreciate that. It's like they say “that overnight success took five years.” It's the groundwork behind it - it really is true.
"It's like they say: “that overnight success took five years.”
It's the groundwork behind it - it really is true."
Where do you find you get your best ideas?
In bed - right before sleep. Always. Some of my best [LinkedIn] posts have come from just pre-sleep. Most of the time I remember - I tend to remember posts and ideas. It's when you're trying not to think about it.
Or it might be, you see an inspiration from other posts, or you have conversation and it might be inspiration from that.
What makes a good plan, and is a plan even necessary?
I’ve never had a business plan, not for this business. I think you need to be flexible. You have to be flexible because, you know, things change - there are opportunities that you might never have really thought about before.
I have a rough idea in my mind, but I don't have anything written down. I'm not big into writing down your path, because I'm kind of one of these people that has to follow the rules. If I was cooking I would have to follow the recipe step-by-step. I won't deviate from it. So if I had a plan, I would have to stick to it, whereas if it's in my head and I know roughly what I want to do then I'm more flexible with it.
"You have to be flexible because things change.
There are opportunities that you might never have thought about before."
Quick Fire Questions
Instinct or facts? Instinct
Cost or quality? Quality
Plan or improvise? Improvise
Tea or coffee? COFFEE
Sweet or savoury? Savoury
Start early or finish late? Early now
Carrot or stick? Definitely carrot
Risk lover or risk averse? Risk lover
Compete or collaborate? Both
Summer or Winter? Summer
Do it on paper or do it on screen? Screen - I have a paperless office
Cat or dog? I'm allergic to all animals, pretty much. Would probably be a cat.
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