Interview with Sue Nelson, CEO of Breakthrough Funding

Find out how, fed up with working for organisations that valued company politics and long working hours over how good someone was at their job, Sue Nelson started her own business, Breakthrough Funding.

What is your career background?

I started as a designer in a London advertising agency but gradually moved into more mainstream marketing roles, until finally becoming responsible for marketing and communications at a strategic level.

Did having kids affect your career development?

I had two children in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Companies weren’t as enlightened as they are now and I had some terrible interviews for demanding director-level jobs – basically panels of men who asked what my childcare arrangements were and how could I guarantee my children wouldn’t be ill! After a couple of those, I decided to never admit I had children.


Sounds ridiculous now, but I worked in some pretty male-dominated industries and I just never, ever mentioned my children at work. They all presumed I was childless because of it, which at the time was fine by me.

What inspired you to start your business?

I was fed up with working in places that seemed to value the ability to play company politics and work long hours over how good someone is at their job.

I wanted to create a culture where people can thrive and reach their potential, as well as having truly flexible working practices.

In my company no one is allowed to work over their 37.5 hours a week or to access their emails at weekends and on holiday. It makes people much happier, we all make less mistakes and no one ever seems to be off sick.

What does Breakthrough Funding actually do?

It was inspired by wanting to see innovative businesses succeed. We help UK companies to claim the R&D tax credits they’ve earned through innovation – so many tax issues are needlessly complicated and often people don’t even realise that what their business has done qualifies as research and development.

One of my favourite clients was a woman who wanted to create allergen-free meals for her grandson, a fantastic project born out of necessity. Mums tend to be great at creating problem-solving products, without realising that they’re now tech innovators!

What is the biggest challenge facing women in business today?

This is a generalisation of course, but there are still too many women who underestimate their experience and ability and too many men who overestimate theirs.

This is made worse by the fact that even if women do know they’ve got what it takes, they don’t put themselves forward, whereas men almost always will.

The biggest challenge is the same as it’s ever been: developing your confidence and not being afraid to explain (quietly and factually) how good you are and why you should be allowed to take the next step up.

What’s the key to getting new business?

There still needs to be a culture of talking, even in this digital age. I do get depressed at the number of school leavers and millennials we interview who seem incapable of communicating face-to-face.

It’s still essential because business is now, more than ever, about making and building relationships with people, be they clients, colleagues, suppliers or partners and this is where women are so-ooo good.

I have just set up Breakthrough Women, a relaxed quarterly event over lunch where we get some really inspiring women to explain how they’ve managed to be successful and we all just listen, learn and network. The noise levels in the room are phenomenal (I’m glad to say!).

Who inspires you and why?

Dame Stephanie Shirley, who came to the UK as a five-year-old refugee. She set up her company in 1962 but had to call herself ‘Steve’ because no one would answer the phone to a woman and certainly not to a woman at the cutting edge of new technology.

She employed women in top roles, introduced job sharing and pioneered women in business, even though at the time, the law dictated she could not set up a bank account in her own name – only men could have bank accounts then. On top of that she has given away £69 million to charity. Wow.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give to an aspiring entrepreneur?

Getting new business is everything, because if you don’t, you won’t survive. Marketing efforts should have only one clear, common goal and that should not just be about creating buzz around your idea or product.

Some business owners get obsessed with social media follower numbers, but really that’s just vanity. Twitter, LinkedIn, magazine articles etc are just steps on the way to achieving the one and only outcome that really matters: sales.

If something isn’t working (by which I mean delivering new business), why are you wasting time and money on it?

Do you follow any business gurus?

I get very uneasy around people who describe themselves as a business ‘guru’ or business ‘consultant’ when their past track record doesn’t really stand scrutiny.

Why do they think they can give advice if they’ve never been successful themselves? Instead of shelling out serious money to see these people (who are generally well past middle age, white and male and not connected to the massive changes that have occurred in the business world in the last five years), find a mentor.

Ask someone you admire if they would mind giving you some time. Their listening skills and individual advice are gold dust.

Find out more about Breakthrough Funding on their website