Charly Lester is experienced in the art of entrepreneurship, Lumen is her third business. Previously she established international awards for the online dating industry, and she is the co-founder of A League of Her Own, a learning platform designed to encourage more women to become entrepreneurs. She is the author of two books for entrepreneurs – The Female Entrepreneur and Modern Marketing for Start-Ups. Charly regularly appears on TV, radio and in the press, talking about entrepreneurship, dating and equality. Charly teaches classes in marketing and entrepreneurship at The Guardian newspaper. She is the former Global Head of Dating at Time Out, and began her career in the dating industry as Dating Editor at the Guardian, after her blog ‘30 Dates’ went viral. Outside of work, Charly regularly competes in Ironman triathlons, runs marathons, and she recently ran Marathon des Sables – six marathons in six days across the Sahara desert.
My first job ever was…Working as a waitress and ‘chef’ at a cafe at age 15. I would make a fried breakfast in a microwave … who knew that was even possible?! (I wouldn’t recommend it)
My career as a journalist has helped me in my entrepreneurial journey … in more ways than I ever expected. When I first launched the Dating Awards – my first company – I did all my own PR. Knowing what made a good story and having contacts who were journalists allowed me to get early coverage for the new business, completely free. In fact, I only realized how unique a skill it was for an entrepreneur when friends running other businesses in the dating space repeatedly asked who my PR company was!
I did a Masters’ degree in Broadcast Journalism and it’s so useful these days as a tech founder. I regularly do national TV and radio interviews and having the confidence to do a live TV interview with the questions coming via an earpiece from the other side of the world, or to review the papers, talking about topics I know nothing about, has been a real help. Media is a big part of modern entrepreneurship.
My proudest accomplishment is… paying my bills all thanks to my own ideas for the last 6 years! I think that’s the dream of every entrepreneur – to create something which is not only sustainable but which can actually provide. The first time I took home a paycheque working for myself that was larger than my salary working for someone else – that was a big moment!
My boldest move to date was… starting my first ever company. I didn’t know any other women my age who were running their own businesses. In fact, I can remember really doubting myself and my capabilities at the time – specifically for that reason. But I had an idea which I knew could work, and a business model which would make profit within just a few weeks. So I took the plunge … and here I am, six years later, running a business worth probably 100 times more than that first company.
I surprise people when I tell them… We do all our marketing in-house, with just a team of two of us working on the brand. Lumen’s adverts have made headlines and been debated on national TV. We don’t use agencies for the ideas, or to create the adverts. Every advert has been either my idea, or my Head of Brand’s (Liesa Stecher), and we use a crack team of trusted friends and freelancers, who we have met across our careers to deliver the finished results.
I’ve always been a fan of doing stuff in-house – when you start out small, you become so used to doing every job under the sun, that you learn which things you are capable of, and which things you should outsource.
My best advice to people starting out in business is…You need to be passionate about what you’re doing. Too often I see people making assumptions that a certain industry or company is going to make them rich. But business is about so much more than that. And if you’re going to be working on it 16 hours a day, 7 days a week … which sometimes you do have to … then that business needs to be something you care about. These days the world is all about authenticity – customers seek it out. The reason The Dating Awards worked was because I had been a dating consumer myself. I knew what it was like to use dating apps and websites, and so I knew what was important to consumers. I genuinely cared about which dating apps or sites won the Awards because I wanted to steer consumers to the best products and services. Now, running a dating app, I genuinely care about our members. I have a profile on the app, and literally chat to at least fifty different members all around the world, every single day.
“I got into the dating industry by writing a blog about my love life, and I’ve always been a bit of an open book! I imagine most parts of my life can be found somewhere on social media!”
My best advice from a mentor was…To find your niche and stick to it. I almost left the dating space a few years ago to work in broader tech. My good friend Ellie Ford, who was working at Time Out at the time, told me to stick at dating. Two years later we got funding from the owner of Bumble to create Lumen.
I would tell my 25-year old self… That you’re doing the right thing! At 25 I went backpacking around the world for a year. I remember being in a hostel in Costa Rica and bumping into the younger sister of someone I went to university with. When I emailed him to tell him we’d met, his reply was really scathing ‘I don’t really understand what you’re doing’ – because I was travelling while the rest of my graduating year were pursuing careers in law and management consultancy. But I always knew I wasn’t designed for an orthodox career. And a few months later I got my first taste of entrepreneurship. I ended up living in Whistler during the Olympics, and set up a first aid school there when I realized the nearest place you could qualify as a first aider was in Vancouver. To this day I still get emails from people asking if they can renew their first aid license with me!
My biggest setback was… Genuinely, nothing stands out. But I think that’s because entrepreneurship is often about how you frame stuff. Sometimes you can feel like you’ve failed massively, only to realize no one else has even noticed because no one else knows what you were trying to achieve! The key to being a successful business owner is recognizing when something isn’t working, and then adapting. I’ve had heaps of failures across my career, but I’ve never viewed them as failures. They were tests or learning points, and I’ve always come out stronger because of them.
The best thing about what I do is… I genuinely use all the skills I’ve amassed over the last 36 years, in a whole range of different ways. No experience is wasted. Having a Swiss Army knife array of skills can be a real asset as an entrepreneur, as it means you don’t have to constantly hire other people to do things. And every day is different. I always said I couldn’t see myself sitting behind a desk. Creating Lumen takes me all over the world, and when I’m back in the UK I’m often on photo or video shoots, or speaking at conferences.
The most challenging thing about what I do is… Convincing other people it’s a real job! Particularly when I was first starting out. My Dad was an entrepreneur, but my parents died when I was in my teens. So it was my friends’ parents who were around when I launched my first company and for years, every time I returned home, they would ask me ‘when are you going to get a real job?’. They didn’t understand what I was doing, and were genuinely worried about me. A key part of entrepreneurship is learning which voices to listen to.
If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… Probably sleep! I’m super nocturnal – I’ve always worked best late at night – but then tried to also keep normal ‘office hours’ which means during the week I don’t get lots of sleep, and then I’m forced to catch up at weekends. If I slept more during the week, I might actually get up for a park run on a Saturday morning!
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… Not much at all! I got into the dating industry by writing a blog about my love life (which went viral, and was then picked up by The Guardian newspaper), and I’ve always been a bit of an open book! I imagine most parts of my life can be found somewhere on social media!
The one thing I wish I knew when starting Lumen is… Just how fast things would move! We launched in the UK in September 2018. Then in Ireland in November 2018, Australia and New Zealand in February 2019, America in 2019, and Canada, France and Germany in September. The last 18 months have absolutely flown by, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I stay inspired by… Surrounding myself by women who inspire me. Some of my friends are achieving such incredible things. And always raising my personal bar that bit hire – not just in business but also in my personal life. I love sporting challenges. I’ve been running marathons for years, but last year I completed my first Ironman triathlon, and this year I completed Marathon Des Sables – 6 marathons in 5 days, across the Sahara Desert. Every time I realize just how achievable something is, I raise the stakes for next time.
The future excites me because… It’s down to us to make it!