When Deirdre Bounds was booed off stage by 400 people in 1995 she realised her dreams of a career in stand-up comedy were over. "I died on stage that night and that door closed," she recalls. But she says it was probably a good thing as it meant she could focus on her other passion—helping young people take a gap year abroad. "The idea came from my travels around the world," she explains. "I spent four and a half years backpacking and teaching English. When I returned I was working in comprehensive schools in Leeds and I thought there must be a way these youths can have an experience like I've just had."
Bounds wrote a short TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) which her company, i-to-i, offered in schools and to the public as a weekend course. "The only way you could do a TEFL course at the time was to take a four-week course at a cost of around £1,000. I made it affordable and put it on at weekends."
The first trip Bounds organised to Greece was "a disaster" with no one there at the airport to pick up the TEFL teachers. "Suddenly I was becoming a tour operator and frankly I didn't really know what I was doing. It all worked out in the end and I grew the company from there."
With no business experience Bounds learned everything through failure. "One of my biggest mistakes was trying to do too much—and going global too quickly," she says. "We survived because the economy was booming." Finding great people is also challenging, adds Bounds. "I would have gone on a course in how to recruit good people earlier than I did.
But one thing she never struggled with was funding. "Training and travel are both cash-rich because people pay for courses and travel in advance."
By 2007, i-to-i had grown to around 150 staff, with offices in Leeds, Ireland, the US and Australia offering TEFL training and gap year programmes such as conservation and working in orphanages. "I thought, I've created this monster—there must be people out there who are better at managing this than me. I wasn't enjoying it anymore—it had just got too big and it was constant fire-fighting."
The same year, Bounds sold i-to-i to First Choice holidays for just under £20m. "More luck than design, it was at the top of the market," she says. "I was made an offer I couldn't refuse." But Bounds says First Choice bought a good brand. "The great thing about the business, although I didn't make it that way, is it's recession-proof. It's still doing well, even now, because the message is: if you can't get a job in the UK, leave and come back in a couple of years," she says.
Since she sold the firm, Bounds has once again taken to the stage—this time as a motivational speaker—most recently at the Prowess Annual International Conference. "I love it," she says. "I feel confident standing in front of people saying, 'I have done it, so I know what I'm talking about and you can do it, too'. Nobody's booed me off."
The mother of two has also just completed her first self-development book—Fulfilled—and is about to launch her next business, which she is vague about. All she says is that it's to do with children's birthday parties and ethical gifts. "As a parent you try to do the right thing. How can you teach children about morals and what life is all about rather than the consumer gimme, gimme, gimme, throwaway society? I've seen this problem and I've found what I believe is a good solution."
But this time around Bounds doesn't want to run the business. "I've given someone else some of the equity and he's going to run it," she says. Bounds envisages its exit date in three years' time. "I'm good at getting a business to around £8m turnover, maybe £10m this time, and then it will get too big for me, so either somebody else will take over or somebody will buy us out."
With a factory worker dad and a nurse for a mum, Bounds is unsure where she found her entrepreneurial streak. She believes you just have to put yourself out there. "You never know who you're going to meet, opportunities come to you," she says. "If you don't put yourself out there you're not going to get anywhere really."