Women in Business Q&A: Hannah Russell, Co-Founder and CEO, Layer

Hannah Russell

Hannah Russell is the co-founder and CEO of Layer, a curated online marketplace for preowned design and vintage furniture.

Hannah has been instrumental to the growth of technology companies large and small in London, Berlin and New York. More recently, Hannah spent two years living and working in Berlin for ebook startup Blloon before returning to London to found and head up their London office.

Hannah currently resides in London and she is part of the Girl in Tech mentoring programme, a scheme that brings together industry leaders, entrepreneurs and investors.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I've always been very independent and was a bookworm as a child. I would literally devour books - my Dad was sent on daily expeditions to the local library to keep me happy! I was, and in many ways still am, hungry for knowledge. I would read anywhere I could including at the dinner table during family meals.

Later as a young adult, I wanted to travel to see the places I'd read about and so I took myself off on my own to India at 18. It was a big move, which I don't think I realised at the time. My experiences travelling have absolutely shaped me - I think the necessity of getting yourself from A to B, of feeling like just a small person in a very big world and of the compassion you experience from the people you meet are all huge influences on me today.

I've always wanted to build and nurture something myself - both my parents have built successful companies, and I guess it was always instilled in me that anything is possible. If you're told something enough as a child - you really do believe it.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Layer?
The majority of my experience has been working at the cross-section of what is quite a traditional industry - publishing - and the cutting-edge developments that are shaping it - namely technology, and in this specific case, ebooks. I think that this has given me quite a clear understanding of how important it is to make smart forward looking decisions - you never want to be the person holding onto the ship as it's sinking. At the same time though, I don't agree with change for change's sake - change doesn't necessarily mean progress.

Working for a number of small, growing companies has given me experience of 'all hands on deck'. You might have a job description but in reality, you just need to jump in and do whatever needs doing. At Layer we strongly subscribe to this - just make it happen!

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Layer?
It's so hard to choose! Building something that you are so proud of and which reflects exactly what you had in your mind is quite something. It's particularly rewarding when other people are so excited when they discover us!

Tangibly though, selling our first piece of furniture that had been listed by an individual was brilliant. It proved what we had been saying - that the way to grow our business is to allow anyone (not just professional traders) to sell quality second hand design furniture pieces through Layer.

In terms of difficulties, translating what can be a very personal, significant offline moment into the online realm has been challenging. People often associate buying secondhand furniture with where they were at the time (this cute little flea market in Provence, for example!), so we've replicated some of this charm with our stories and the content that accompanies the marketplace. You can #MeetTheTrader behind the product in our feature interviews or read about markets all over the world. We like to think that we're so much more than just a transactional eCommerce marketplace - we add in the story to the purchase and celebrate its history!

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
For women looking to start an online business, there is a huge amount of support out there and my advice would be to seek it out and take it all!

Get in touch with women who have worked in similar spaces and ask them for advice. My experience has overwhelmingly been that people are exceptionally generous with their time - and some of the biggest learnings for me have come from conversations with external people. Sometimes you need a totally fresh pair of eyes to see something you are simply too close to!

I feel lucky that I haven't ever experienced situations where being a woman has clearly disadvantaged me in my career. Of course, there are times when you are the only woman in the room but I do think that we're beginning to stand tall as women and we are moving in the right direction.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I really believe that you should be willing to get your hands dirty. And by this I mean, do the work that might not be the most fun rather than passing it off to someone else. Some of my biggest 'aha moments' have come when I'm knee-deep in an Excel spreadsheet that I really didn't want to sort out. In the same way, I think getting your hands dirty means you have to have an understanding of every part of your business. If you aren't sure, ask questions.

Secondly, empathy. Business is dealing with humans, not computers. Try to genuinely understand what is motivating or troubling your colleague, customer or boss rather than just railing against it. It'll make you much more likely to be able to find a solution. At Layer, we strongly believe in offering a personal and interactive service - we're an online business in a digital age but we want customers to be able to pick up the phone and speak to a human!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Not that well at the moment! We have just this year moved into office spaces, and that has actually made a huge difference. The physical separation of work from home means that I don't walk around with my laptop permanently attached to my hip when I'm at home.

Running is my saviour as well - if I can fit in a run home from the station instead of getting the bus then I know that I'll be in a better frame of mind for the rest of the evening.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I've never thought that I was lacking in confidence - but I do think that as women we need to just 'leap' more. We think about things deeply in a way that perhaps men don't, and sometimes over analyzing can hold us back. Yes, make measured, smart decisions in the main - but sometimes you just have to leap with your heart and believe you can do it!

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It's been a huge influence for me - particularly in the last six months. I've been mentored as a part of the Girls in Tech inaugural mentoring scheme and have had the chance to meet remarkable industry leaders, entrepreneurs and investors from the likes of Google, TechStars, Spotify, Amazon etc. I really wouldn't have been able to make the decisions and have the confidence to pursue my dreams so unashamedly without these sessions.

Particularly for women, I think having a mentor who has done what you're trying to achieve (or something similar) before is so reassuring. So many role models in our society are men - it's as if men were the only people alive in our histories. So we need to find our own current and relevant role models.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
If people ask me about inspiring women I've worked with, I always think of my boss at my last job in Berlin. I learnt so much from her and I hope to lead others in the same way that she did - by example and with an open mind.

What do you want Layer to accomplish in the next year?
We hope to add thousands more products to our catalogue whilst maintaining our curated approach so that every piece will be quality. In particular, we're looking to attract more individual sellers who are looking for an alternative to eBay.

The bigger picture is that we want to build Layer into the very best and most exciting destination online for lovers of home design. We believe that Layer's marriage of content with commerce means that people can be completely satisfied in one destination!