Like a lot of people, we first came across ‘woman and van’ service Van Girls on Dragon’s Den. As a female-run company ourselves, we loved the idea of a removals service staffed by women, and were hugely inspired by the passion and work ethic of CEO Emma Lanman. We caught up with her to talk about how she got the company started, how she selects her amazing team, and how she’s found success despite all four Dragons saying “I’m out.”
Hey Emma. You started Van Girls back in 2011 – is it something you’d been considering for a while?
I don’t come from an entrepreneurial family at all and it never really crossed my mind to start my own business. I was focussed on going to university and starting a career in the arts. The twists and turns of not being able to get a good job in the arts and then deciding to join the fire brigade opened my mind up to the fact that I could do anything. Then watching programs like Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice must have sewn a seed of entrepreneurship that has finally found its time for me.
What inspired you to start the company?
Working as a firefighter I often got a really excited reaction from people when a woman turned up in a fire engine. So, when I was trying to think of something to do to supplement my income in my days off I thought, let’s turn man and van on its head, people might like it. I then spent about a year procrastinating and thinking of silly names for the company with friends in the pub before settling on Van Girls and buying a van.
How did you get Van Girls started? How did it grow?
I had a suspicion that there would be a market for this concept, as I knew there had been a rise in female tradespeople, and that this had been well received by consumers but really, I didn’t know. So, I just took a punt, bought a second hand van and started it up in my days off.
I told everyone I was starting it and the word spread, bringing in our first few jobs. Since the beginning we have just grown, as I was asked to do bigger and bigger things, until it was time to leave my job. My start up money was basically my savings from working and from inheritance. We have continued to grow with a pretty minimal marketing spend, just up-scaling as demand outstripped supply.
What kinds of reactions do you get from telling people what you do for a living?
Ever since joining the fire brigade I’ve had a bit of a reaction when I answer that question. People are intrigued and want to ask a lot of questions. The reaction now to telling them I run Van Girls is usually very positive and followed by a sequence of questions about running a business and how it all works.
What kinds of people use Van Girls?
I would say our largest demographic is young families – either couples who are expecting a baby very soon or who have young children. But honestly there is a real mixture of people who book us, much wider than I expected. Men, women, couples, the elderly or their children on their behalf, parents on behalf of their children, and the LGBT community all seem to like the idea and are keen to book us.
The two reasons we hear most often are that they want to support companies offering women this kind of work, and that they have a perception that women will be more sensitive and take more care of their possessions than men might. This is not something we would ever say, but we can’t deny that it is a perception that brings people to us.
What did you want to do for a living when you were a kid?
When I was really young I spent hours scribbling ‘notes’ on A4 paper sitting at a desk. I think I wanted to be a secretary. Then later I spent years wanting to be either an interior designer or an actor. What did I know?!
Tell us about some of the women working for Van Girls.
In the early days, they were my friends from my rugby club and the fire brigade primarily – they were ready made – strong, practical and enjoyed physical work.
As we have grown, this has widened to friends of friends who have heard about us and wanted to come and be a part of it. We’ve also had people who’ve seen the vans out and about or come across our website when looking for manual work. We haven’t really had to advertise so far.
Amongst the girls we have a lot of firefighters, we have police officers and paramedics, we have ex army and RAF, premiership rugby players, ex England footballers. But you don’t have to have that kind of pedigree to make a great mover. Other previous jobs include carpentry, painting and decorating, running a café, IT sales, the list goes on.
They share a love of sport and physicality and there is a great feeling of camaraderie.
Do you have any men working for you at the moment?
We have a male mechanic and accountant who are both very dedicated to making a success of Van Girls but, as yet, no men directly employed by us.
Are you allowed to advertise specifically for women under UK employment law?
Whilst it might seem unfair that you can’t choose to only employ women when you are trying to provide both an employment option and a service option in an industry that doesn’t currently offer it, sex discrimination employment law is there to protect us all and can’t be got around.
Removals work is not exempt from this legislation. People often read our brand name as an employment policy when they would never assume that a company with Man and Van in the title could avoid employing a woman, if she met their selection criteria.
Our brand name represents how the company started and what it will always be able to offer, but doesn’t mean that men who wanted to work for Van Girls, as we grow, wouldn’t be given a fair chance to form part of a mixed crew, if they matched our ethos and fulfilled our selection criteria. There are scenarios where people might specifically request an all-female crew and we will always maintain ratios of staff to be able to meet that need.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best parts of my job are meeting different people all the time, out on jobs, and every day being different. Also, working in a group of like-minded people and loving what we do.
The worst parts are when you’re exhausted and overworked and buried in admin and you think, I only wanted to drive a van around and lift stuff, what’s happened?! Then I have a new idea about marketing or something and I snap out of it and get excited again.
What was it like being on Dragons’ Den? What effect has it had on the company?
Utterly terrifying. I didn’t get any investment, fundamentally because none of the Dragons had experience in the removals industry and whilst I knew a brand like mine wouldn’t be a low margin business once it grew, I couldn’t back that up with the figures of other larger brands. However, despite not getting investment it has been an invaluable experience.
I got some great feedback from the Dragons and since the show we have been inundated with enquiries from potential customers, from potential investors and from other companies in our industry wanting to enlist us to help them to be able to offer female crews to their customers. All together a fantastic endorsement of what we’re trying to achieve. And I now know I can memorise a pitch, which I never thought I’d be able to do in a million years!
If you could give your younger self some advice, what would you say?
Have the confidence to stand up for what you believe in and stand up to things you disagree with, regardless of what people will think of you. I’ve only just reached the stage where I feel able to do that and I’ve created my own work environment to enable me to feel confident enough to do it.
All images courtesy of Van Girls