The Wise House opened its doors 5 years ago and I wanted to share with you a ‘warts and all’ account of my experience of running a small business to date.
Where did it all begin?
It began with an ending, when I left the corporate health company for whom I had worked for 13 years in a number of roles - fitness instructor, gym manager, events manager and marketing coordinator. I taught aerobics, took groups of employees away to events like the Corporate Games, wrote countless tender documents and took thousands of blood pressure readings. I enjoyed the creative side of marketing, but was just too impatient (& cynical!) to spend hours in meetings discussing things like pantone colour. That particular shade of blue was to tip me over the edge, and with two small children at home tugging at my heartstrings, I decided to take a break.
At around the same time, online shopping was starting to become a real ‘thing’. My friend Heather had started her online bedding business, Quick Brown Fox of Dulwich, and I was totally inspired and intrigued by her business, from the hand sketched fox logo to the gorgeous bedding prints that she designed and produced. Even before I left my job, I had designed a logo for ‘The Wise House’, as I had decided my own online shop was to be called.
A great designer, Niki, brought my ideas to life and designed the first set of draft logos. My best friends remember my asking them to choose their favourite designs. One version was a house with a chimney and smoke, but as my friend Lucy pointed out, this probably wasn’t the best choice for a business that hoped to adopt an eco stance!
Once I had left work, I underwent a total detox from anything work or computer related, and as such I hardly checked my e-mail for months. The logo was put to one side, and I enjoyed a year off with my children, which was blissful.
However, a holiday trip to Ile De Re with all of its natural beauty and shopping inspiration, reignited my interest and I decided to source some French Sandrine storage tins and placemats. It was a bit like a hobby in the beginning; set up a basic website, sell at a few local fairs, and see what the local community think of my wares.
This simple start to things set me off on a fairly slow and organic path with the business. There certainly wasn’t an epiphany or defining moment. There was no plan as such, no absolute decision to go it alone, no real marketing research. I just felt a quiet momentum take over me...
What are the significant changes and moments of the last 5 years?
The placemats sold quickly to local customers and the storage tins sold well online, the quirky Sandrine brand enjoying a healthy collectors market. I continued to grow my product range with my focus (and tagline) being ‘cheerful, quirky and (mostly) practical gifts and things for the home’. Early customers will remember the Hampton Hipster Bag and Bless This Home print, still being sold today.
I had a limited budget, and no dedicated workspace. The spare room in the loft started to fill up with bags and boxes, much to the consternation of our regular house guests! I worked at the kitchen table (until last November) and did my wrapping and packing at the island unit.
In the early years I was guilty of stocking anything that looked ‘nice’, without much thought to the business case behind it. It meant that my resources were stretched thinly, both financially and time-wise. My attention would go on the newest thing, and I would neglect products that had only been in stock for five minutes.
Heather & I at the Dulwich Fair My daughter Rose and her friend An early modelling pose with a
pedalling our wares Izabelle model the Hipster Bags wicker shopping basket, still a bestseller!
Over the years I was able to see the negative effect that this lack of focus had on the success of the business, and I gradually began to stock products that fit a tighter brief - eco friendly, ethically made, useful, innovative, able to be given as gifts (and they still had to look the part).
The business steadily grew over the next few years, with a few good pieces of press, including a great feature in Sainsbury's Magaizine, to push things in the right direction. Returning custom and word-of-mouth has always been high. Facebook has proven to be a brilliant platform for spreading the word, and Facebook advertising has also been an effective tool due to the ability to define customers so precisely. Despite this, I know that in my heart I was hanging on for that one ‘magic’ product that would give my sales a real boost and The Wise House greater exposure.
Along came Bee’s Wrap! I discovered Bee’s Wrap via a US site called Food 52 (great blog and shop) and it struck me as a product with a great story; swapping clingfilm for a sustainable replacement seemed like a no brainer, and the excellent branding and packaging meant it fit nicely into the gift bracket too.
Shortly after the Bee's Wrap range was launched in 2015, a blog that I had written went viral on Facebook and sales took off. It was then featured in numerous household mags like Country Living, as well as on many green blogs. More recently, BuzzFeed launched one of their videos on Bee’s Wrap and things went beserk. The success of this product considerably bolstered business in general, and allowed me to make the biggest step of all...move out into a new garden studio.
After operating a ‘kitchen table’ business for 4 years, throughout which I had made many thousands of trips up and down the stairs in order to fulfil my orders (excellent for weight loss but totally exhausting), I could finally access everything I needed in one place. In November 2016, I held an opening ceremony for my new studio at the end of the garden (with the lovely Ellie Crisell doing the ribbon cutting). I am now thoroughly settled in ‘Her Majesty’.
I had to use bribery for this Ellie officially opens the new An eco-geek gift set, you won't find
family photoshoot! garden office named 'Her Majesty' anything like it anywhere else!
What are the best bits (and worst bits) of running your own business?
Having total creative control is lovely; you think of something and you can action it, without having to persuade anyone else of its merit (no boss to impress!). However, you are constrained by your own creativity to an extent, especially when you find yourself staring vacantly into space with nothing and no one to break the silence! To counteract this, I regularly bounce ideas off of friends and family, and ask for feedback from customers too. I also read as much as I can, and I find Instagram a great source of inspiration.
It is very freeing to have the flexibility to work around domestic and family responsibilities, as well as doing indulgent stuff like enjoying a birthday cuppa and cake with friends or going off for a swim. There is a pay-off; the lines can become blurred and there are times when work and home (or should I say family) just don’t mix. I’m the sort of person who struggles to work with any distractions at all, so I find it really hard to focus in the school holidays when the children are off school. What makes it easier is engaging the children in the business; Rose (aged 9) now helps with address label writing and Will (aged 11) is my social media adviser.
I have found my confidence (and sanity) severely tested at times. In the early years, days would pass without an order, and I would convince myself that I would never sell another thing. The very sight of all the stock (especially when it was in the loft) would fill me with horror, and I wanted to blame everyone around me for letting me get carried away with this business lark! I have been lucky enough to have a great mentor in my friend Heather (Quick Brown Fox of Dulwich). We’ve always shared our darker moments through the medium of humour, and a problem shared is a problem halved as they say!
Looking ahead to the next few years, my focus will be to continue to build a strong collection of accessible products that offer people a simple way to live and give more sustainably. I would love to expand our range of tailored gift sets, as I believe these offer a really unique way to give a thoughtful gift whilst introducing people to natural, ethical products. I aim to take on a part-time employee, possibly an apprentice, to help with various aspects of the business, as well as signing myself up to do some training and mentoring. Letting go of any aspect of the business is difficult when you are used to being jack-of-all-trades, but in order to grow I know I need to tap into the expertise of specialists in certain areas.
In the end, running a business is what you make it. If you stick at it, keep trying out new ideas and ‘doing’ with integrity, I believe success will follow. The word ‘entrepreneur’ is often associated with people making big bucks, but I think many small business owners have smaller ambitions. I now pay myself a conservative monthly wage and I am content with having achieved this aim through a business that I enjoy and that allows me more freedom and time with family.
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