Published on BITCH online in March 2012
‘Personal concierge’- the phrase may conjure up images of misbehaving footballers, super rich bankers or tabloid celebrities. Think again. Duda is here to help London’s entrepreneurial women balance those tricky work-life scales. I had the pleasure of chatting to her over coffee and finding out more about the woman who does it for us.
From the moment I met Duda, one might say sparks flew. Whether or not the feeling was reciprocated, I for one was immediately impressed by her energy and enthusiasm. Wearing a fabulous and cosy fur-lined coat, she instantly makes a spooling admittance of her love for beautiful fabrics, of how she feared a stuck-up, self-absorbed female journalist would turn up, and that she tends to get on with men better than women in general – despite her business being prominently aimed at women.
“Do you open your mail regularly? No. Do you have time to run errands? No. Everybody needs at some point, even for an hour, some sort of help.”
Duda speaks of her personal concierge business, Duda Does (www.dudadoes.co.uk), with an unmistakable tone of passion. Why does she think there has been such a growth in this industry in recent years? “In general people work longer hours…any spare time they have they want to spend that with their families or their friends. All of us are struggling…Do you open your mail regularly? No. Do you have time to run errands? No. Everybody needs at some point, even for an hour, some sort of help.” Her company helps to organise everything from house bills, grocery, gift shopping and other mundane domestic to-dos, to admin support for small businesses. The list of tasks that she can do for her clients is infinite, and completely customisable from client to client.
German born, Duda was brought up in Croatia, and had an extraordinary up-bringing as her childhood home often buzzed with political figures and intellectuals, what with her father being a political prisoner. “I did have a really great education, I was always a good student and I started with law.” She begins to laugh unexplainably, but it all becomes clearer as she goes on; “I didn’t like it because it’s dry, there’s no creative room, but it’s clever. If the system worked I’d probably be a lawyer, but I didn’t trust the system so therefore I wasn’t going to do it.” Growing up, Duda followed her first passion of music and was a professional singer until the age of 22, then after her stint in studying law, she moved from Croatia to Germany, before she decided she didn’t like the mentality there and made her move to the big smoke.
Duda tells me how London is far behind other international cities like New York and LA in the personal concierge business. “It’s old news in New York, they’ve had it for decades, it’s not a big deal. But here I think it’s conceived as a posh thing, something for celebrities.” So it seems that the ‘keep calm and carry on’ mentality of the British has transcended generations of war-time workers and become instilled in today’s city professionals; “I think that the English are very polite in asking for help. They don’t understand why they would ask somebody to do this for them. They don’t complain, they don’t moan. It’s the culture. They will think ‘I feel bad, I can’t ask for someone to come around and open my mail’, whereas American clients see it as a positive thing.”
“I was a pessimist! In some ways I still am. There’s no going back. I think I became positive and I believed everything is possible.”
Duda’s road to starting up her own business was in no way a smoothly paved one. She started her life in London with her partner at the time, he came from a privileged background and Duda integrated herself into his well-off family and social circle with ease. “It just came naturally- I knew I loved organising for people.” Duda explains how she would volunteer to help without a second thought, whether it was filing paperwork, or organising the cleaners, gardeners and nannies. Duda became the go-to girl of the family. “I naturally started to organise things for people, as they were disorganised. His mum loved me because she’d say ‘I can’t do it!’, so I’d say ‘I’ll do it!’ ”
While Duda was taking on projects for free at home she had made a successful marketing career for herself, working her way up from being on the phones in a call centre to becoming the marketing manager of that very same media company , all in just three years. She was flying high, but in the space of one year she lost it all. Her partner broke up with her out of the blue, and she was then made redundant from her company. It was only through the dark times, that she was able to find the light within; “I ended up on my friends couch. With £2000 in my pocket, I invested £1900 in my brand and my website.”
It’s at rock bottom where, rather than become more destitute, Duda simply let go. She is obviously such a magnetic, positive energy, I ask her if that’s what brought her through? “No I was a pessimist! In some ways I still am. There’s no going back. I think I became positive and I believed everything is possible. The idea that the fear of a situation is bigger than the actual situation, I believe that.”
“I will move the mountain for you. I’m resourceful, all my clients will say ‘If Duda can’t find it, it doesn’t exist’.”
It’s never going to be easy-going as a start up; after several years of trading Duda has hit the ground running with regular long-term and short-term clients. She explicates what makes her company different to the others, “I actually work with the ‘career elite’: women who have started their own businesses, men who are focused on their careers, hard-working couples who don’t have enough time to spend together. A lot of what other companies like mine do for their rich clients is more of an add-on. Whereas what I do is a necessity. I’m a niche within a niche.” The more she speaks of her company the more fired up Duda becomes, she appears confident and completely sure of what she can provide her clients, “I will move the mountain for you- it doesn’t matter if you want tickets for something or your child needs to get to school tomorrow. I’m resourceful, all my clients will say ‘If Duda can’t find it, it doesn’t exist’. It’s a lot of common sense, personality and initiative.”
But what drives that initiative- who inspires her? “Steve Jobs is my big idea, he’s the only person I admire, it took me a long time to find somebody and it’s him. I relate to that spiritual part of him, which is very similar to a personal development journey; you have to learn about yourself, you have to challenge yourself. If you think ‘No I can’t do it’ you will not do it, but if you say ‘Ok let me try’ then you grow as a person. You test yourself and it’s like ‘Ah! I didn’t know I could do that!’.’’
“I had a request to sleep with somebody. I had to explain to him that’s what Duda doesn’t do!”
Duda Does has around 15-20 long-term clients, which Duda is managing now that she has two assistants, and she also has from 5 to 50 short-term projects coming and going at a time. She admits she has only had to let two clients go, “One didn’t pay me for months and that was actually my first client, who was one of the most difficult clients I worked for.”
Amongst organising private jets to Miami through Icelandic Volcanoes, one of Duda’s more interesting requests was from a client who wanted her to help with his dating life. “I had to go through all the dating agencies, I had to go through profiles he liked and didn’t like, it was bizarre because he was this business person I’d just met and we were just sitting there discussing really private stuff.”
So what doesn’t Duda do? This is the question on which she takes the longest pause to think about: “I had a request to sleep with somebody. I had to explain to him that’s what Duda doesn’t do! We’d become quite friendly because with time you do become friends with clients, and they confide in you. But having a one night stand with a guy I work with…no! Well I can find it somewhere else, let’s put it that way.”
Like an acrobat of busy schedules, Duda performs a balancing act, ensuring her clients are kept happy, along with the services that she regularly uses and depends upon. “I build relationships with services, I have services that I recommend to clients, and if I see that a client is always complaining about everything and everyone, and asking for unreasonable things from that service- then it’s a difficult choice. You might lose a client. My integrity is a natural strong part of me.”
“I want to stop this bonkers ‘superwoman’ crap, I mean what the fuck is that!”
Duda’s target market is career-focused women, she explains why she think it’s so important for women to have access to a service like hers, “Women are the natural organisers. Men are so used to getting someone to do it for them, either it’s a PA in his office or it’s his wife or his cleaner, they find it very easy to delegate, whereas women are feeling guilty all the time”.
Since the increase of women in the workplace, and the ever growing community of female entrepreneurs, the notion of the ‘superwoman’ has been heavily promoted: the woman who must not only have a successful career, but also a smoothly-run family home filled with perfectly dimpled children, and on top of that is expected to dress like she’s just come off the set of Desperate Housewives. Duda’s malcontent is clear. “I want to stop this bonkers ‘superwoman’ crap, I mean what the fuck is that! It’s wrong! I think it’s made to satisfy the men’s world. I think women are just slightly silly not to recognise that they are actually putting a lot of pressure on themselves. Stop it! Why do you want to do everything on your own?”
Her confidence is refreshing. To hear a woman happily say “I think I’m great!” without an ounce of arrogance is music to any forward-thinking ears. “If you say ‘I’m doing really great’ it always comes out like bragging, but I honestly believe that I do great stuff. Why shouldn’t I say that?” She goes on to talk about how she feels women are brought up with a different mindset to men from a schooling age; “For girls it’s like, ‘If you work harder’. If. But for boys I don’t think they’re brought up in the same way, their egos are fed with ‘You’ve done well’.”
“I never had maternal instincts. I think it would be wrong to have my own if I can help somebody who is already on earth.”
So how does Duda measure up to the social ‘pressure’ she speaks of as a woman? With a successful business already under her belt, what else would she like from her life? “I’m single. I do have an interesting sex life but I’m happy single and would probably like to stay that way. I might have a man in my life for certain times, or maybe for a lifetime, but I will definitely deal with everything on my own. If I’m lucky to find a person who I love and will love me for the rest of my life then he can buy a house next to me! But he will not live in mine, I think that’s quite cool and I think it’s quite healthy.” What about children? “I never wanted to have children, I would love to adopt a child, since I was very young. Probably an older girl who’s aware and has been through something, I would like to give her a little bit of joy. I’m very feminine and I’m great with children – they’re also one of my passions, I forget the world around me when I’m with them- I never had maternal instincts. I think it would be wrong to have my own if I can help somebody who is already on earth.”
It’s clear that her other passion, Duda Does, has become the love of her life. She almost shrugs off the time she puts into her work, “I work 12-16 hours a day and I don’t feel it, sometimes I’m sleep deprived but it’s become normal. When I have an 8 hour day I think something’s wrong, I have time on my hands!” Despite the long hours of juggling clients and services, Duda’s sleep is worry free; “I never wake up thinking I’ve had enough. I go to bed thinking it was all worth it.’