‘What’s the worst that can happen?’
It might not sound like the most positive of mantras, but that simple question lies behind Sonya Barlow’s astonishing success: one of 2020’s Most Influential Women in Tech, a top 50 BAME entrepreneur, LinkedIn’s Changemaker 2021 for Gender Diversity and Inclusion and Marie Claire’s Future Shaper 2020.
Her determination to learn from failure and her remarkable resilience have not only driven her career as an entrepreneur, they’re what made writing a book possible for someone who started to shake at the idea of writing 1,000 words.
In this conversation, she talks candidly about what it took to overcome that fear and write a book. Because if you want something badly enough, the worst that can happen is that you don’t give it a go.
Sonya on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sonyabarlow/
Sonya on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sonyabarlowuk
LMF Network (coming 2022): https://www.lmfnetwork.com/
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2022: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
The proposal challenge Christms gift voucher: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-gift
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Sonya Barlow, who is an award-winning entrepreneur, founder of the Like Minded Female Network, diversity business coach and TEDx speaker. She works with clients like Google, Vodafone, Barclays, The Financial Times, PWC, and was named as one of 2020’s Most Influential Women in Tech by Computer Weekly.
She’s a TechRound top 50 BAME entrepreneur, LinkedIn’s Changemaker 2021 for Gender Diversity and Inclusion and Marie Claire’s Future Shaper 2020, and she hosts The Everyday Hustle radio show for BBC Asian Network.
Her work has been featured in Metro, Business Insider, The Telegraph, BBC Radio Five and BBC Breakfast.
And she’s the author of Unprepared to Entrepreneur. So welcome to the show Sonya. I know, there it is look, isn’t it gorgeous.
Sonya Barlow: Thank you, trying to be on brand with the red and yellow. So here it is.
Alison Jones: I know, we were just talking in the green room. The red lipstick and the yellow earrings come on when you’re celebrating the book.
Sonya Barlow: Absolutely. I think it’s about brand recognition. So because we have a reddish color, I tend to at least have one item of red on, be that nails or lip or the outfit, and just bring it back to the book slightly and it’s association of, okay, that’s her brand or her brand color and that’s her book and you bring it together, if that makes sense.
Alison Jones: I love it. No, it’s brilliant. And clearly I’ve got some work to do here, but I’m going to take that away as a learning. Every day’s a school day. I love it.
Sonya let’s start off by talking about your own entrepreneurial journey, because it is, obviously it’s core to the book, but it’s also absolutely fascinating and hilarious.
So just tell us how you kind of stumbled into entrepreneurship and particularly those early days, just tell us a little bit about how that all came together.
Sonya Barlow: Yes, thank you. And thank you for having me.
I love the use of the word stumble because that’s definitely how I leaped into it. So, but you know, for some background context, I am first generation immigrant, arrived to the UK at the age of four, kind of grew up in a very working class background. My parents hustled really hard to make sure that all four of their kids had a great kind of future ahead of them.
So all they really said is go get a degree. That’s all they really said to me. And I was like, right, if that’s all it takes, I can do that for you. So worked pretty hard, went to business school for my undergrad to graduate in 2015 and enter the world of technology. And I was like, right, I’m an adult now, I’ve made it, right? That’s what my mum told me, is you’ve got a degree, you’ve got a job. You’re good. You’re good to go.
Enter the world of work and actually I realized that I just wasn’t ready for it. Everything from the lack of understanding on how to be a professional adult, to how to write emails, to how to manage politics in the office. Those are actually core life skills that no one teaches you. And I think I just went in a little bit naive being like, I’ve got the degree and I’ve got the experience, so I’m ready. Ready to go. And I fully lost myself.
So I took myself off social media and I was like, right I’m just going to work and work and work. Around 2018, I find myself slightly lost and a little bit insecure let’s say in the workplace, because I wasn’t quite sure how I was to progress or how I was to have difficult conversations around money or negotiation or how to just have, you know, I didn’t really have my group of people to talk about life, career, managers, conversations that you don’t necessarily want with your colleagues.
And so I started Like Minded Females and it was just a brunch club, it was nothing more than that. It was just a bit of avocado on toast with random people that haven’t met before.
And the ironic thing is, and this is really where it all begins, is I was very excited to start it. Remember I had no social media at this point, so I reactivated my LinkedIn. I made an Eventbrite. I was like cool, people are going to show up, like why wouldn’t they? And for the first three brunches no one showed up.
Alison Jones: I mean just lets have that sink in a minute, because you had 12 confirmed bookings, didn’t you?
Sonya Barlow: I had 12 confirmed bookings, where are they? People, I’ve been talking about you at every show that I possibly can, if you were the first 12 who didn’t show up, let me know and tell me what why.
Alison Jones: But I mean it is staggering. And I read that a couple of times, because it really, I know how hard it is to just get people to show up. And I think it’s one of those dirty little secrets is that we see everybody else making it work. And to know that here you are, the head of a really successful network, and for the first three brunches, no one showed up and you kept going.
I just think if you get nothing else from this podcast, people: that!
Sonya Barlow: A hundred percent, right. And thank you, it’s all about the idea of failure, but actually if you flip it around, I didn’t fail, it was you learn from what you don’t know, and you learn from things and opportunities and occurrences that kind of happens.
So an example being, why would someone come and have avocado on toast with me? They don’t know me. I don’t have a social profile. They don’t really know what they were coming in for. Had I made that clear, had I made it clear in the copy? Had I made it clear in who I was inviting? Did I even follow up with those 12 people before the event to say, Hey, are you actually going to show up because the Tubes aren’t working, so this is an alternative route.
You know, these small things that I could have done to be more inviting, but in hindsight, you’re in your mid twenties, you’re probably going through some kind of quarter-life crisis. You’re not having a great time at work and you’re thinking, right so it must be me. And I think that’s what we tend to do as people, is we internalize it and say, right, it must be me. It must be something I’ve done or something I’ve said or et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
And often I get the question. Why did you carry on? Actually I was in such a, not so great place in my own life with work and career and my future, that I was like what’s the worst that can happen if you carry on, right?
Like, it’s not going to get any worse. Eventually someone will show up. And that eventually really did happen. So the idea really started around April, May. It was August, September that we had our first real brunch show up. So that was, I believe it was around 18 people and I remember going up early and I was like, no one’s here. And then an hour later people started trickling in. I was like, well, firstly, I shouldn’t have showed up an hour early because just going to panic.
If anyone is listening, don’t do that to yourself. And secondly, so people showed up, you’re having a great time, you’re asking them for feedback, you’re validating your idea. You know, one thing that someone said to me was really true. They were like, why are you not on Instagram? I was like, well I don’t see the point of it. And I’d never used it at that point. They were like, well, you’re creating a network where you want to show people having a great time and being together and empowering, you need to be on a different platform. So that’s what I took away from that conversation.
Fast forward to 2019, I was working in a company that didn’t really suit me and I don’t think I really suited it. And so when we decided to part ways in November, October, November, 2019, it really struck me. So it caused me to go on sick leave for eight weeks. It caused me to go on my own kind of spiral of depression. It was an element of why doesn’t somebody want me? And I think again, you went through those same motions of, oh, well, nobody showed up to the same brunch. No one wants me at work. You face this like constant rejection feeling, which I think a lot of us go through.
And at that point I kind of took a step back and I led into this network. So by that point we had a network, we had a community, we were delivering workshops, we were having a great time and people were like, okay, well, Sonya, you are being called upon. This is your time to do something for yourself.
You know how to build a community, you know how to recover from failure. You know how to build resilience. You understand how companies can be more inclusive, do something in that field. And I thought, okay, well, why not? And so I had a conversation with my family and my partner. I said, look, I’m going to go and attempt to build a business for the next 12 months. Give me 12 months. If it doesn’t work, I’ll go back into the corporate world. But this is what I’m thinking.
Jan 2020 came around, started my business, which was Sonya Barlow limited, so under my own brand name. March came around so the pandemic hit and you know 75% of your income gets wiped out unfortunately, like most people, but again, that’s the third rejection I’ve really, really had. So it was like, okay, well, I’ve been here twice before and I’ve been able to come through it.
So I do something that I’ve always wanted to do. I started a podcast, and I’m not a great editor or producer, but I like to communicate and talk to people. That was really stepping out your comfort zone. After 10 episodes, I was able to share the initiative, build my brand online, LinkedIn and Instagram, talk to great people, connect with people over the internet. And I went into one workshop. And I always, when I facilitate workshops, I ask people what are your goals. And I said, one of my goals is to write a book and that workshop must have absolutely smashed it. It was a masterclass on LinkedIn that someone afterwards contacted me and said, well, you know, our publisher is looking to speak to potential authors. Would you like to have a phone call?
And I was like, yes like it’s a phone call, what’s the worst that can happen. Right?
And that’s my mentality. My mantra is what’s the worst that can happen. I don’t believe anything is a no, it’s just a not right now. So when I jumped to the phone, I was really blessed to have a great commissioning editor, who was listening to my story and understanding why I want to write this book which I wrote. And they gave me a book deal. And within six weeks of a proposal, I was ready. I had signed the dotted line and I was like, okay, now I have to actually do the work.
And Unprepared to Entrepreneur really was a guide that I wish I had when you are thinking about building a side hustle, starting your passion project, or investing in yourself and choosing and figuring out your identity or, and starting a business. The idea that you want to become an entrepreneur, one in four of us do, actually there’s no how to, what to, where to, guide out there. Especially not one that has over 30 diverse authors and contributors.
So fast forward to a day in 2020, that one decision to not go back into the corporate world, that extension of rejection that I’ve faced so many times, multiple times, got me into the TED talk stage where I delivered a talk called Failure Comes Before Resilience because fundamentally that’s my story. And that’s the story of most of us.
I have won numerous awards, including Marie Claire’s 2020. I was shortlisted for Forbes 30 under 30. I have a book. I have a radio show on the BBC called The Everyday Hustle, which is the first business show on the Asian network. I have a community of over 40,000 social following for Like Minded Females. It has absolutely grown internationally. We have launched the largest mentoring program in the UK. Because mentoring is one guaranteed way of supporting women in the workplace. And it’s something that I wish I had. So we mentor anywhere between 600 to a thousand people each year, with a hundred percent success rate. I have launched two very successful businesses. And now I’m actually on to launch my third, which is going to be a software business called LaunchEDI that comes out in January 2022.
But more than that, I have found myself again. And I think that’s really why I’ve written this book is because it was a journey of finding yourself through numerous attempts to figure out who you were. Putting yourself in uncomfortable situations and acknowledging it’s okay to not be okay. And when I look at business books and when I look at non-fiction especially, I don’t see a lot of cool books written by young professionals who want to say something honest about launching your own business. Who want to think about how social media can be the world of opportunity. And most importantly sharing the bad stuff. There’s a lot of bad stuff that’s happened, including our website getting hacked, our Instagram getting shut down.
You know, bad things happen all the time and you need to share it for other people to learn from it.
Alison Jones: I mean, it’s an incredible overview of your journey to date, the things that really, well there’s so much there, one of the things that really stands out to me is the way that your personal stuff is so inextricably bound up with the professional stuff and that is entrepreneurship. Isn’t it?
You can’t separate them out and that, I love the pandemic pivot and what got you the publishing deal is what you did before, in a sense, it’s your story, but it’s, yes, it’s the rejection, but it’s your response to that, it’s the founding of the network, it’s the creation of the podcast, it’s the community, it’s the sense of purpose and so on.
So I think that for anybody listening, who is like, oh, how do I get a book deal? That’s how you get the book deal. You do the stuff and you build the community and you build the profile and all that great stuff. Entrepreneurship generally, and your example is a really good sort of case study here in a sense, people become entrepreneurs for all sorts of reasons, don’t they?
And usually it’s not that they are born entrepreneurs, who’ve kind of always wanted to do it. I mean, that sometimes happens, but often it’s: this isn’t working out, this happened and I don’t really want to go back to that place. What is driving, do you think, the itch towards entrepreneurship today and what’s enabling it? And what do people need to be aware of when they take that decision?
Sonya Barlow: Yes, it’s such a great question. You know, I have a lot of conversations with founders and entrepreneurs and the one common thing, I guess, that we all have is that it comes from a place of desperation. It doesn’t come from a place of, Hey, this is going to be fun to do where we’re going to really enjoy it.
It comes from a place of, we need this to work because we need to be able to put food on the table. We need to be able to manage our own calendars. We need to be able to do something that we really believe in and that we’re passionate about. You know, the UK is made up of, so the UK economy is 99% small or micro businesses, medium-sized businesses that exist.
One in four of us want to be entrepreneurs, one in three of us are giving it a go. 85% of us are unhappy with our current working situation and of those 85, around 68% actually want to build their own business or start their passion project.
Alison Jones: Those are staggering figures, aren’t they?
Sonya Barlow: Right. This is based on examples being like figures from Forbes. These are from Business, Insider, from LinkedIn’s Great Resignation Report. That the point is that a lot of us want to take the wellbeing, the financial wellbeing and mental wellbeing back into our own hands. My need to be an entrepreneur didn’t come from, oh, I’m going to leave this great salary that I was in and I’m going to take a risk on myself, right. Because really, I was like top one, top 5% of earners in the UK. That’s a great figure not to leave. You’re like, oh, okay, you’re kind of sorted, right. You’ve got a stable income. You’re having a great time.
Mine was because I have chronic migraines and depression. And I wasn’t able to manage them with my work, with my workload because it wasn’t flexible. Mine was because I was in a job role that didn’t really serve me. And I don’t think I served it correctly. And it got to a point where it just was frustrating.
Mine was the fact that I could see all these gaps that businesses had, people had, and I was like, great, I can go and fix that. I can share my wisdom and I can potentially use my power, which is my voice and my understanding and ability to educate, to fill these spaces and ensure that these are filled stepping stones for the next generation, for the future generation of entrepreneurs, leaders, or business people who want to really build their careers.
So you’ll hear me, I don’t use the word job. A job is temporary. A career is for life. So this is about building your career for life. And most importantly, being happy in what you’re doing. If the pandemic taught us anything, is that most people are not happy, right. And I think that’s such a waste of life to be working in a position within which you are not happy.
Now, I come from a working class background, so I understand privileges and opportunities and experiences that many have or many gain. And by no means, you know, to your latter question, am I suggesting, Hey, leave your job and go and give this a go. What I’m saying is if you are passionate and if you are wanting to do something, okay, start saving for that on the side, start building your side hustle, your passion project, while you have a stable income and test it out. I did not build this overnight. It was 18 months of morning calls, lunchtime calls, after work, not really having a life, working on the weekends, not having a weekend.
Go and ask people for their advice, ask as many questions you can and figure out if that’s even what you want to do. And then don’t wait to ever have the perfect product because that doesn’t exist. Just put something out there, get some feedback, see if it works and iterate and iterate and iterate until you’re at that point where you’re like, right, I can leave my day-to-day and I can sustain this for 12 to 18 months. I’m not afraid to get hard rejections, I’m not afraid to work hard. I’m not afraid to hustle. And then I’m happy to see where it goes from there.
And most people forget that everyone who’s entrepreneuring is doing something in the background that they’re just not putting out in the front. So this isn’t, Hey, you’ve written a book.
This is 28 years worth of experience, you know, seven years of working in corporate. Having great times and also really bad times, working in retail on the weekends as a student, making sure that you’re having these conversations with your family, splurging or having no savings all the way to getting finances wrong.
Like there’s a lot of good and bad that has come to this point. But again, when you go on social media, everyone just thinks it looks pretty and perfect. And that’s not the truth.
Alison Jones: And again, it’s that mix of the personal and the professional stuff, isn’t it? It’s how your personal circumstances feed into all of that and your personal resilience and also your, as you say, it’s so interesting, isn’t it, that the corporate world is still so poorly set up to support people.
And it must be hemorrhaging talent because people who can get up and go, get up and go and do something that suits them better. Really interesting.
I want to talk about the writing as well Sonya, because people listening will be, you know, there’s a black box there, it’s like oh, I was told to write a book and then here’s the book. Tell us a bit more about that.
Sonya Barlow: It was the hardest thing in world. If anybody wants the truth of it, it was difficult. So something that everyone, you know, I am not afraid of a challenge. But if you said, Sonya, go and speak to a thousand people, I’d be like, yes, cool, I can do that in five minutes, I’ve no issue. But if you said Sonya put down a thousand words, I genuinely start to shake. I get anxious. I feel like an imposter. I don’t know how to write things down.
And I talk about this in the final chapter, which is my eleven kind of learnings, right. Or the method of madness to the entrepreneurship game. But one of the things that I realized is, so I had six months really to write this book, for the first two months I did everything except write the book. Like I learnt new recipes in the kitchen. Absolutely. I started jogging, I was like, I’m going to be a jogger. I changed my hair style. I did everything you could, and what I realized right was one I’m a productive procrastinator.
Alison Jones: Oh, yes, I mean, that’s great procrastination skills.
Sonya Barlow: A hundred percent, right? So it was like, right, let me write down a list of things to do, everything that isn’t like work related, but is personal, like even write that list down so every time I can’t write, I’ll do that.
The second was my mind actually felt like it was not broken, but stuck. I had brain fog. I had cloud on the right side of my head. And I didn’t really understand the experience either. So what I had to do was take myself out of the writing and go and do something fun, go and spend time with loved ones. Take myself out of that process.
The third was, I would just challenge myself to be like, right, just give it a go. So it really was as simple as write down 200 to 500 words a day. Now, again, all I’m saying is write, I didn’t say structure. I didn’t say sift through, I didn’t say audit, it wasn’t fixed. It was just write what comes to your mind and brain dump everything.
I also found that, so I wrote a lot of my book on Google Docs and they now have the audio transcript function. So I would speak out loud and let it transcribe and then go back and kind of, you know, fix the punctuation and grammar. And the first draft I did was not great. So I’ve done seven drafts so far, but my top tip and I think my most favorite thing that I’ve done so far is and I did this for my TED talk as well, is for every chapter I had two to three different people check it from all around the world, to make sure that it was accessible, it was inclusive. The language was where it needed to be. And that it made sense.
So it’s not just something I was able to do, it’s I was able to bring people into the mix, which is what I’m all about. I was able to be authentic in my writing. It was very conversational. It has over 30 diverse contributors and 10 case studies for that reason, because it’s not my voice, it’s everybody else that we should be learning and hearing from. And I was able to really provide an honest experience as to what’s happening whilst I was trying to build it.
Because you want it to be as authentic, as honest and as factual as possible as it’s nonfiction. And personally, I was just tired of entrepreneurs pretending or not looking like myself or not sharing the bad stuff because actually if you shared the bad stuff, it would’ve saved me from doing the bad stuff.
Alison Jones: It’s the negative data that you don’t get that saves you from making the same mistake. And what I love about that is that you are walking your talk, you’re translating your own values, what you’re good at as well, you know, community, inclusivity, giving a platform to other people’s voices.
And you’re doing that in your writing. And it’s such a, I mean, that synergy, that kind of flywheel of what feeds you, what nourishes you and making that work for you in the writing of the book, which as you say is not a trivial thing, it’s not an easy thing. I’m guessing that that was a source of energy for you.
Sonya Barlow: Yes, people are a great source of energy. So since I’ve been younger, I’ve always been told, Hey, you talk a lot or you love to talk. And I was like, yes, absolutely, right. But wouldn’t it be great if somebody, when I was younger, could’ve said, Sonya, you have great communication skills. Let’s massage them a little bit and let’s pick the careers that you can do in the future.
If they were to give a little bit more support as to what you’re doing, right? Why didn’t anyone tell me when I was seven, that you could be a radio presenter when I grew up, it would have saved me all the hassle of what I went through so far, but more than that, it’s about acknowledging your skills.
And what I realized is I love to communicate and I love to talk because I have a superpower, which is I’m able to listen and I’m able to teach and I’m able to educate and I’m able to help fill those gaps, bridge the gaps and provide you with the resources, tools, frameworks and confidence you need to go and achieve your definition of success.
And it has to be your definition. It can’t be mine. And I think that’s what we often do as people is, we’re like, oh, Sonya has that success. And now, I want it…
Alison Jones: Yes – how does she do that? What’s step one. Yes.
Sonya Barlow: Absolutely. But if I tell you that, actually, my definition of success is, I mean, before this podcast, I baked chicken patties. My definition of success was: don’t break.
It wasn’t deeper than that. I was like, just come out looking nice and I’ll be really happy. And it’s really those small steps that are big wins. And I have to give all my gratitude to the community and to my sponsors and to my allies and to my mentors and to my family and friends who stuck by me and who reminded me of why I’m doing what I’m doing, especially in the dark days, because when you’re writing and when you’re becoming an entrepreneur, when you becoming an author, there are more dark days than good days, and you’re constantly firefighting everything. From getting your prices right, to figuring out why your invoices haven’t been paid, all the way to selling yourself and self promoting in a way that you have to be your own PR person, your own marketing person, your own social media person, all the way to your own accountant.
At the beginning of my journey, I literally had a fake member of staff that was in my email signature. Because it made it easier for me to communicate and negotiate than it did under Sonya, which is crazy because now I actually have a team, but you know, it’s little tricks like that, that no one really teaches you.
But when I say that people are like, oh, we do that too. I’m like, okay. But why, why have…
Alison Jones: …did nobody tell you that? Because they can be really hard nosed, right? It’s not your fault.
Sonya Barlow: I’m like, oh no, whatever my talent manager said, it’s completely fine, please respect his wishes and a hundred percent it was always pretending to be a man. And it was about embracing the masculine energy. It was the facts and figures where you’re like, actually men can negotiate better and they are more confident and, you know, it’s acknowledging that there is a lot of learning to do, and you should be your best version of yourself, but I needed to have that experience for me now to be firm. And for me to know what I want. And for me to know when to say yes and no, but in the first 12 to 18 months, you’re just excited that somebody wants to work with you and so you say yes to everything.
Whilst I was writing a book, I had two businesses on a run. I was freelancing for three other companies, and there was a point where I was doing five or six interactive workshops a day. And the writing in the evening whilst the world was sleeping, that’s not sustainable as a lifestyle, but that’s what people don’t see in the background.
Alison Jones: And I love that sense of almost making external that part of you that you need to build up, because, we’ve got those resources within us, but some of them are easier to access than others and creating a kind of persona for the one that you really need to develop is it is a really good tip.
And I do feel a bit greedy here because we you’ve given us so many brilliant tips. I particularly love that one about starting off by speaking. But are there any, if I had to sort of hold a gun to your head and said, right, what’s your one best tip for somebody who’s where you were and having to write their book?
What would you say?
Sonya Barlow: Go for it. I’m a big, big, big believer of fail fast, break things really fast. I tend to break things really fast and I’m okay with it. I’m a breaker. And what I mean by that is your first, second or third attempt at anything is never going to be great, right? Because you don’t know what you’re doing and we’re learning.
And I always bring it back to an analogy of kids. I’m very blessed to have a beautiful niece in my life. I think she was a blessing when she arrived, because it taught us and it reminded us that when you are a child, you don’t know anything and you are willing to learn. So now I see her jumping and falling off and getting hurt and doing the same thing, but realizing, oh, I’m not going to do that thing because I got hurt and I’m going to try it a different way.
Or I see her trying new food. And I think it’s the most brilliant expressions when you’re having like a lemon or orange, but you’re still wanting to go back for more. And I think that’s the point, right? Is when you’re younger, when you’re a child. You’re not afraid of anything. And I think it’s only when we get older, that we place a lot of fear and barriers in ourselves.
What’s the worst that can happen. Give it a go. You know, learn how to crawl, learn how to walk, learn how to write, learn how to position sentences together. And if you don’t know, okay. Well, fail fast, fail better in a way and what I mean by that is when you do it, you’ve attempted it. If you still don’t know, then go and ask questions, go and ask for help, go and lean on others, go and read the book and, you know, invest in yourself.
But don’t do that until you’ve given yourself a go at doing something first. And that would be my biggest advice and tip is I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t taken a chance on myself and an idea which everyone at the beginning was like this actually not great. What are you trying to do? What is the purpose of it? What are you actually going to talk about? Who’s going to show up?
Now if I had listened to them, I wouldn’t be here and I’d be unhappy, but if you have something which is so ingrained in you and it is keeping you up at night and you are mesmerized by the idea, the worst thing you can do is not give it a go.
You just go and give it a go and see what happens because you will always learn, you always grow, you always evolve and isn’t that the point of human evolution is to keep going.
Alison Jones: And I love you know, our forefathers sort of on the Savannah going, what’s the worst that can happen? It’s such a great mantra, isn’t it? Give it a go, because it’s actually not going to be as bad as all that. And you know, you might’ve said what’s the worst that can happen, nobody turns up, here you are, you survived, you know?
Sonya Barlow: They won’t turn up. I had such an amazing book launch last night. And in a week we had 36 people signed up, which is amazing. But even then, and I’ve been doing events for the last two years, and I can get anywhere between, you know, kind of 30 to 300 people in the room. So that’s not an issue, but even yesterday I was like, right my measure of success is three people show up and sell one book, that was it.
Nearly 30 people showed up, stayed for three hours and I sold 10 books and I was like, wow, that was beyond what I was hoping for. But in that moment, everyone feels unsure and uncertain, and that is the joy of entrepreneurship.
And that is why you become an entrepreneur in the first place. If you’re going into this expecting it to be smooth sailing and everything to be good, then you’re in the wrong profession.
Alison Jones: I love that. And obviously apart from Unprepared to Entrepreneur, which genuinely, seriously you should read, I always ask people to recommend a book, something that’s perhaps meant a lot to you or something that you feel entrepreneurs or people who are thinking about writing a book should read, what would you recommend?
Sonya Barlow: Yes it’s such a great question.
One of the things I say in chapter one is take my book, read a little bit of it, put it down and then pick it back up.
And what I mean by that is, I don’t think nonfiction in my personal opinion, can be read in one go. I think you have to read it in chunks and digest it, absorb it, learn from it, and then go forward. You have to really process it.
So what I really like doing is I like listening to storybooks and fiction because it provides you with an element of storytelling that you don’t necessarily have in non-fiction books. How do you engage someone in that story? How would you get them wrapped up in what they’re doing?
How would you then, you know, what’s the climax, what’s the end goal? What are you kind of learning and sharing from them? And so I’m just going through my Audible list at the moment as an example. And I think one of the first books I read a couple of years ago was Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. And I really liked the fact that again, it was storyish, but it was nonfiction, which is amazing.
Alison Jones: He also is very open about his vulnerabilities and how he kind of just stumbled into it really at the beginning.
Sonya Barlow: A hundred percent, right. But then you go back to basics like Roald, Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson, books that you’ve read as a kid that maybe you didn’t quite get as a kid, but now you want to reread them because you’re like, Okay there’s something there, there’s something magical, there’s an element that I didn’t quite understand of surprise.
How can you put that element of surprise back into your books? And I’m again, of the mindset that I kind of put down and pick up a number of books just because that’s how I like to read. So the couple of books that I’ve read right now, oh, sorry that I’ve read them the last couple of years have been amazing, Such a Fun Age and The Ice Cream Girls by Dorothy Koomson.
Alison Jones: I’ve not read either of those.
Sonya Barlow: So Such a Fun Age is, I can’t remember the author and that’s really bad of me as an author, but I’m just going to find out actually, by Kiley Reid. So that was really cool. So I hadn’t heard of Dorothy Koomson until I went on holiday and I had no books with me. So I went to the hotel lobby and I was like do you have any books laying around?
And they’re like, yes, there’s this massive one. When I was like, I don’t know who this author is, but I’m going to read it anyway. And I was into it. I couldn’t put it down and it was a storytelling. It was a novelty. It was really the engagement.
And the last one I’m kind of reading, so as you can tell, I probably have like four or five books at a time, the last one I’m reading right now is The Power of Nunchi which I actually got from the Albright by Euny Hong, and really simply it was about exchanging perspectives, learning from others and putting yourself in positions where you are understanding what’s going around, but not necessarily putting yourself in one’s shoes. And I think that’s really important because how can I put myself in your shoes when I don’t understand you, your upbringing, your intersectional experience and all the other elements that make you you? So it’s about taking yourself and being more empathetic and listening and listening being one of the most important skills that you can have.
So I apologize I’ve shared five books there, but that’s just how my mind works. It’s very frantic.
Alison Jones: And actually what you’ve shown beautifully is that there’s there’s a role for the craft of writing. Just that sense of, how are people doing that? You know, when they make me feel like that, how they’re doing that? And reverse engineering that as a writer. Really, really powerful. And also the importance of, as you say, diverse voices, you know, not just sticking to what you know, but reading books that come at you serendipitously, or actually going out and seeking new perspectives. I love that. Thank you.
Sonya Barlow: It changes everything. From my writing experience, I’m going to be really honest here. One thing I took away from my writing experience was a lot of the books that I’ve read as a child have not been by diverse authors and it wasn’t until I went through my experience. So I thought, well, where are the brown people, and the black people in my bookshelf?
And there wasn’t, so a great book that I read was Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla and The Good Immigrant and Not About the Burqa. And for me, it was just about being able to take myself out of the picture and think right, if I am writing or speaking or presenting to diverse communities, to people who maybe come from different backgrounds, how do I make it the most basic in layman’s terms?
How do I make sure that every voice is represented? How do I make sure that I can better myself as an individual? And it was really through the writing process that I acknowledged my own lack of diversity in my own reading. And now I’ve started to do something about that.
I think you need to go through that experience and there may be people listening, being like, oh, well you do diversity inclusion. How can that be a thing? Well, it’s completely different. It’s you don’t know what you don’t know. So you know, the last time you did history or geography at school was when you were 13. I’ve really always studied business or technology or something along kind of that sense, in that scene or sociology
So it’s about taking yourself out of your day-to-day and the problem is, especially when you live in London, everything is so busy. People are so busy, people are running, right? Your days are running past you. How do you make time for yourself? So now through the writing process, one thing I’ve done is I’ve done. Okay, Fridays are no laptop days. I will read, I will go to gallery. I will do something different, but I won’t be on line.
I’m learning about SaaS at the moment. So I try and read three articles a week and I actually make bullet points on the key points on a notion page so that I can go back to it and just think, right, what’s the three things I learned from here.
And it’s just what’s the three things you’re learning from anyone, from everything. Write them down, take notes. You have your phone on you all the time, absorb information, and then go and share it with the world.
Alison Jones: Love that. So take responsibility for your own education, because actually you can’t rely on what you’re taught at school. It’s changing fast and there’s, as you say, you don’t know what you don’t know. So putting yourself in the way of new stuff is really important.
Sonya, I could talk to you all day.
This has been absolutely amazing. I’m so conscious of the time. If people want to find out more about you, more about Unprepared to Entrepreneur, where should they go?
Sonya Barlow: So Unprepared to Entrepreneur is on Amazon. I’m very blessed that within the first month it was trending between number one and number a hundred and the best selling for Small Business and Entrepreneurship book. So great, great stuff there. You can also buy it from Kogan Page, Waterstones, Target, Walmart, honestly any online. Absolutely wherever you buy your books.
If you’re in a Waterstones in London, you might actually find me selling it to you because that’s what my new thing is, is go to bookstores and pretend I’m not the author and trying to sell it to people. It works.
Alison Jones: Don’t look on the back panel which has my picture on it. Don’t look at that.
Sonya Barlow: Honestly, I’ve done it to a few people. I’m like, oh, this book is life-changing. I know the author personally. I would recommend it. That is the hustle. Absolutely.
But you can connect with me on Instagram, on LinkedIn, on Twitter, whatever social format, you use.
It’s @sonyabarlowuk, so at S O N Y A B A R L O WUK. And you know, I’m really embracing the power of social media. I’m building a personal brand. So DM me, some of my best friends right now are people from the internet. I’m always, I’m always looking for more.
Alison Jones: Love it. So I’ll put those links, also the LMF network, put those up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, along with the transcript of this conversation, what an absolute joy to talk to you, Sonya, I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you for your time.
Sonya Barlow: Thank you for having me. Thank you for everyone who’s listening and you know, just remember, believe in yourself and follow your dreams. And a no is never a no, it’s just a not right now.