The last laugh: Deirdre Bounds

'Shall we talk in the igloo?’ says Deirdre Bounds, teetotal ex-comedienne on the Northern nightclub circuit and founder of Horsforth-based travel business i-to-i.

Positioned in one corner of the open-plan office, the igloo is covered floor to ceiling in white fur. A couch lines a wall, facing a sixties-style pod chair. ‘Too much for you, is it?’ Bounds asks in her strong Scouse accent. ‘Ok, where d’you want to go then?’

Bounds may like to crack a joke but she is now a seriously wealthy woman. In February she sold her business, which has offices in Australia, Ireland and the US, for £13.6 million to First Choice Holidays, a publicly listed company. Another £7 million is on its way post the earn-out.

The deal, it should be noted, was supposed to be signed in January but to the dismay of both her own and First Choice’s advisers she opted instead to go to Uganda and film a documentary series for Channel 4, joining a group of entrepreneurs as they attempted to help the locals.

‘Some of the more successful entrepreneurs were doing absolutely the wrong thing by giving money to people. I helped build a potato store and a hotel,’ she explains.

Needless to say, the advisers were pleased to see her safely return three-and-a-half weeks later to sign on the dotted line. The trip demonstrates how Bounds likes to toy with expectations (as she does by using the igloo as a meeting room).

Fortunate enough to be able to borrow £1,000 from her parents to start i-to-i in 1994, Bounds started running the company from a bedsit in Leeds. As an organisation, i-to-i is presently unrecognisable compared with its original incarnation 13 years ago.

‘I just feel great, like I’ve climbed Everest – I’ve fought through the wind, rain and snow, but I’ve made it to the summit. It’s been horrible on the way up, but I’ve stuck it out,’ she says.

A winding road

It’s been a long journey. She was in her mid-twenties, bored by her job in marketing and with a failed relationship behind her, when she decided to study a month-long course in teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL). In 1990 she left for Asia.

For the next four years, Bounds roamed the world, teaching English in Japan, working as a volunteer in China and driving backpackers in Australia; she ended up as a tutor in the mountains of Greece for 18 months. ‘It did change me,’ she says. ‘It gave me a huge amount of confidence, through the whole experience and the people you meet.’

Come 1994 it was time to return to the UK, where she perhaps felt she had a point to prove to both herself and others. ‘The problem was that wherever I went, I found myself following me,’ she admits.

Back in Yorkshire, she rejected corporate life and found a job as a youth worker: ‘The kids I helped would always ask me to tell them stories about my travels. Then they would say they wanted to teach English. I told them they’d have to do a course and it’d cost £1,000.’

Upon reflection, she wondered why a TEFL course cost so much and took a month to complete. She went to Leeds Education Authority (LEA), saying that the number of young people wanting to travel abroad would be huge in the near future, and that many would want to teach English.

Although not taken by her notion about gap-year travel, LEA instead offered to put Bounds into inner-city Leeds schools, teaching immigrants how to teach English so that they, in turn, could share what they had learnt with their own communities.

Playing for laughs

Life as a trailblazer took off from there. Short weekend TEFL courses, at rates cheaper than the competition offered, were the way forward; soon the students were finishing their studies and asking for information about how to get jobs abroad. The only distraction was Bounds’ other life, performing in nightclubs as a stand-up comedienne.

On returning from her travels, Bounds somehow also found time to study stand-up comedy at a local college. A fortnight into her course, the tutor said she was a natural and sent her on a comedy circuit in the North of England.

As i-to-i evolved, it became trickier to rehearse properly. ‘You can’t have two absolute passions, not even as a female multi-tasker! I can do many things at once, but I can’t be hugely passionate about two things,’ she concedes.

Failure wasn’t far away. She flopped in front of 200 people at a gig in Nottingham. ‘I jumped on stage and it was a complete disaster. They booed me off and I cried from the sheer humiliation. I cannot describe how bad I felt going back from Nottingham to Leeds in the car,’ she recalls.

The curtains closed on comedy and Bounds realised her sole commitment had to be i-to-i, where the money was starting to come in: ‘Running the business was almost like having some obsessive-compulsive disorder. You have to be so obsessive to make it work: no one was going to stand in my way.’

And work it did. She opened her first course in Birmingham, basing her choice of location simply on driving through Spaghetti Junction and thinking: ‘This city is so ugly, people must want to get out of here.’ Within three days of advertising, she had filled the course with 20 people.

Global network

In order to get work experience for her students, she sent faxes to English schools around the world and eventually one in St Petersburg showed interest, asking to come to the UK to see the school.

Bounds didn’t have a school for them to visit. She phoned the vice-principal at Notre Dame Sixth Form College in Leeds, where she had been providing courses, asking if she could be VP for the day and pretend the school was her own.

‘The Russians arrived and wandered around the school; we shook hands and then they went back to St Petersburg. A year later, I said: “I’ve got to be honest with you, it wasn’t my school”. They said: “Deirdre, we knew that, but we liked you”.’

Offering young people the opportunity of volunteering to work abroad proved to be another success: they could pay to go and, for instance, plant trees in the Amazon rain forest, as opposed to lazing around on a beach.

She began to hire tutors, and in 1997 she moved to a couple of Portakabins at the Notre Dame college, then to the student area of Leeds, above a pizza parlour. Bounds’ gall and ingenuity kept fostering growth. For example, back in 1999 she saved thousands of pounds by working with a student from Manchester University to make TEFL courses available online – creating a ‘big cash cow’ in the process.

The business currently has a staff of 70 and a turnover of £10 million. Every year it sends more than 6,000 paying travellers to work on 300 projects in 24 countries. TEFL remains the core profit-earner for the company, attracting around 15,000 students every year.

Balancing the books

Bounds says that finances and recruitment have proved the toughest challenge for the business, freely confessing to being ‘rubbish at finance’ and urging up-and-coming entrepreneurs to take a course in financial management. ‘We must have burnt a lot of money here because I didn’t know what I was looking at and didn’t know the right questions to ask people,’ she reflects.

As for the people issue, she admits mistakes were made, notably when recruiting for the US office. ‘It’s all about finding the right leader. That’s one thing I have learnt,’ she says, noting that the office in Denver is presently the fastest-growing part of the business.

She thrives on an unconventional approach: ‘I don’t dress like a businesswoman. I enjoyed business meetings – often I think that sometimes guys came to meetings and thought I was just some floozy. ‘I used to like seeing people’s faces as I drove a deal. I saw them squirm and think: “Hold on, this isn’t what I thought it would be”.’

Around three years ago, Bounds started to consider an exit: ‘Management of a larger business requires different skills – it’s all spreadsheets, KPIs [key performance indicators] and nonsense. I can’t stand it. There are much better people than me to do that.‘I’m a meddler: good at start-ups, but not a strategic thinker.’ She pauses, thinking about what she’s achieved. ‘Although maybe I am,’ she adds.

Bounds will become a non-executive director from September and the earn-out period lasts for another year. Her mind is already wandering as she ponders her next move.

There are plans to learn horse riding, play the piano, and even stirrings to study a philosophy course; there is also the possibility of becoming a business angel.

Closer to home, she wants to spend time with her two young children, Frankie and Ava (a nod to Sinatra). ‘I don’t want to get to 60 and think: who are my children? Why was I so driven that I missed things?’ she comments.

The sense of relief at what she achieved with i-to-i is palpable: those points appear to have been proved. Don’t, however, bet on the restless Bounds sitting down to idly enjoy her wealth for too long. That other passion, comedy – or, at least, entertainment – hasn’t lost its allure.

Forced to choose between success in business or entertainment, it would be the latter every time: ‘If I honestly thought I was that funny and wouldn’t be a huge failure on stage then I would’ve preferred to have been a successful comedian. Making people laugh is a fabulous skill to have.’

Expect to see her on a screen near you soon.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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