Judith Totten launched Upstream Working Capital in 2011, and has enjoyed strong growth since then, expanding operations from Northern Ireland to support businesses across the UK with loans of up to £2.5m.
BLM talked to Judith about her journey from ‘taking a punt’ in the early days, to her passion for supporting business – and why she’s learned she’s ‘a bit of a rottweiler’ at times…
Can you tell us about Upstream Working Capital?
I started the business after a career in banking in about 2011, with nothing. I had no cash, no customers, no staff, but I knew there was an opportunity because the banking crisis was at its height and I realised a lot of SME companies were going to struggle for working capital.
So I went out and raised some money from friends, family and fools, as they call it, and I remortgaged the house and frankly took a punt. Today we have over 100 clients, we have over £100m out the door, and I have 12 full-time staff.
Was there a ‘lightbulb’ moment which convinced you to leave mainstream employment?
I guess not a lightbulb moment, it was more a big birthday! Turning 40 made me realise that if I didn’t try something different – maybe I never would. I was also seeing a looming bank crisis impacting my ability to help customers do what they wanted and required in order to progress – I know I would have struggled with that.
How big were your ambitions at that time?
Honestly, I had no concept of what I was going to do, what I wanted to achieve and even whether I could actually do it. I just felt instinctively that I could do things differently and make some small difference to business owners.
How hard was it to get others to buy into your vision?
Once they got over the initial surprise of me leaving a secure job in the bank, I got nothing but support and help from everyone I asked. The hardest part was finding a funder to back me on day one. Eventually after presenting to many potential providers – some of whom I had never even heard of in those days – the last one said yes! And it only takes one, after all.
What was it that gave you such confidence you would ultimately succeed?
The market I started in was challenged and constrained as a direct result of the banking crisis, and the customers approaching me needed my help. Many business owners had good, solid trading businesses but had hit some stormy waters – I listened and felt they needed a chance to rebuild and regroup. So, I’m not sure it was as much confidence, it was more faith in the business population that they would show their customary resilience and make it out the other side. I wanted to help them do that – and also by this time I had a wonderful team of amazing people around me, who had all left secure roles to be with me, so I just get the head down and work hard. Simple really.
What has this taught you about yourself?
The journey for me was transformational. In my banking days, I would have been an individual who, if they had asked me to change desks, I would have to think about it for a few months. When you become self-employed and you start to run a business and start to employ people and make decisions, you realise that actually you
can do it.
I think the one thing I learned about myself was that I’m a bit of a rottweiler in some respects; when I see something and I have a dream, I’ll go for it, and while it’s a windy road sometimes to get you to that end point, you’ve just got to be tenacious and learn not to take no for an answer.
How have you found it as a female CEO in a traditionally male-dominated sector – and what advice would you offer to other women looking to break through in finance?
I’ve never really suffered any prejudice and having always worked in predominantly male teams, I can ‘hold my own’ as the saying goes. Sometimes it can be daunting to be the only female in a room of ‘suits’, but ultimately, I respect honesty, integrity and professional behaviours regardless of gender or anything else and that is mostly reciprocated.
I would say to a woman starting out on an entrepreneurial journey: Do it. Go for it. Don’t be afraid. When you’re starting out there are lots and lots of people who will give you advice, and there will be doubters and people who will say to stay where you are, don’t change. But don’t be afraid of failure; if you’ve got the fire in your belly and you’ve got a dream, follow it, do it – and if it doesn’t work, do it again.
Can you give examples of businesses you’ve been able to help which have given you particular pride or satisfaction?
I can’t name names of course, but certainly many of the clients who came to us in the early days are still here, and often they will say ‘if it wasn’t for you guys, we wouldn’t be here today’. The businesses who have come to us as new starts or restructures, and who then flourish, fly and succeed are the most rewarding. But if I were to pick one standout example, I have one guy, a man in his late 60s who came to me in great distress.
He had a successful business which had got into some difficulties through the property collapse, and his home bank was refusing to support him through a restructure. He had been in business for 40 years, had great pride and integrity and he was broken. This poor man cried in a coffee shop as he told me his story and no-one should ever feel that way – he was worried for his staff and his family and at no point did he ever bemoan his own fate, which really struck a chord with me.
Long story short? I took on his business, restructured his debt and six years later, he is back and exceeding his previous successes. He is one of my strongest advocates in the marketplace and he and I are firm friends. It really wasn’t that hard to listen, care and take action.
What is your ambition now? Where do you see yourself and your business in ten years’ time?
We have recently bought out our original funders and brought in new debt and equity partners who are ambitious for us to scale across the UK and Ireland. I am excited to see what the next few years bring as we plan to diversify and widen our product and sectoral range to bring new, innovative and exciting structures across the market. Watch this space.