Sarah Whalley, Oh So Cherished, Gatcombe
I had built up a business as an online personalised gift retailer, buying from wholesalers and selling to the public.
“But I had something like 80 different suppliers, so I held a lot of stock. That meant a lot of money tied up in the stockroom, and it was slowing us down. Big online players began cutting prices and I realised that trying to compete would ruin us.
“I was in a specialist area – gifts for special occasions like weddings and other celebrations. I was buying small amounts from each supplier, so I couldn't get much discount.
"I decided to shrink by finding craftsmen and staff who could make the products for me in our studio. Taking control like that meant that I could design the products and create a consistent brand.
"It has worked out very well: orders are growing every year and the team are great. It has freed up our path to future growth enormously. But it wasn't always that easy...”
as published by IW County Press, Column by Dave Simon, continues below.
Encourage Our Entrepreneurs
Commentary by Dave Simon
We need entrepreneurs – their initiative keeps the cogs of commerce turning.
But much of the publicity about entrepreneurs builds them up like fashion icons, pop stars and sports personalities. TV programmes like Dragons Den are distracting. They glorify the tycoons in the chairs rather than those seeking to fund their ideas.
Entrepreneurs are rarely glory-seekers. They are often the quietest person in the team. And probably the hardest working too – they have the drive to see their idea become reality. So they have to build the team to build the business.
They think differently to most of us: they can feel like outsiders. But they find new products where others see problems. They pivot their business to use new opportunities.
The economy is improving. Now is the time for entrepreneurs to build new businesses. They need courage and determination, friends and funds. And they need to stay in business long enough to succeed.
Very few entrepreneurs are Oveners. Our real hope lies with Islanders driving exciting new experiments. We need to encourage them because they create jobs, optimism and wealth – which all helps the Island.
Sarah Whalley continues:
The Most Important Thing
I'm not money-driven as such. I just love designing and creating beautiful products.
But you can't do business without gaining profit. It is the most important thing.
I do have big plans, I hope to expand and employ lots more people, so I need to save up a good profit to finance this.
I think a decent profit also confirms that people like what we do and hopefully they will continue to buy from us. This means I know that I can stretch to sell more products when the demand is there, and I can employ more people in production.
How I Started
I held three jobs after Art School, in London, working for design agencies over a 15 years period. They were the jobs I had aimed for, so I could have said I was successful, but I got more and more frustrated.
In graphic design, companies were invited to do the work in competition with other agencies. If the clients liked your pitch they paid you. If they didn't, you'd wasted your time!
In my senior post, I felt I was winning a lot of the work. But one day I was refused the same pay as my male colleague. Disheartened, and speaking to my sister afterwards, she said “Stop complaining and do something about it!”. And that was it! From that day on, I started sorting out how to go it alone. I suppose you could call me contrary, and determined. I just felt I had to act to follow my dream.
That dream started as a feeling – a sort of “I wouldn't do it like that” opinion. I didn't have a light bulb moment that showed me the finished vision of my new business-to-be. The actual shape of it grew very slowly.
In fact, it almost started by accident. Someone had admired my designs and asked me to create some wedding invitations. That went well, and soon other people were ordering my designs. I set up a very basic website and things started to speed up. Within a year I had to choose whether to continue to do this 'on the side' or to branch out fulltime on my own.
I quit my job, and I felt the freedom I'd always wanted. Such a reward!
Over the next eight years, the business grew tremendously. I took it slowly and we've managed without any bank loans, which has made the cashflow easier. Growth has happened nicely, although Christmas is always hectic. Every year I plan for larger sales and every year it has been larger than I planned for! As a result I have tripled my staff and we are now a team of 10.
It hasn't been easy. Part of the job I gave myself is to be the geek. That's not straightforward for a designer! So I check the speadsheets and I watch my competitors online. And that's where my challenge was – in the e-commerce trends. Major shopping channels like Amazon and ebay were attracting customers by cutting prices drastically. I realised I couldn't win by competing on price so we had to adapt somehow: we had no choice but to find our own USP. That means finding something that makes us unique and attractive to customers.
It was personalisation that separated us from them. They could sell huge bulkloads of products, but they could not individualise everything because each item would have to go back through a manufacturing process. I changed what we did and got us into that niche instead.
So now we design everything here – on the Isle of Wight – and we encourage customers to personalise their purchases. We do that work here too, so it's all under our control at low additional cost and with no noticeable delays. That's the Oh So Cherished brand.
Owners Must Be Thinkers!
I want to grow a business I can be really proud of. As the owner, it's my job to decide how things are done and where we are going. I carry a notebook with me everywhere, not just for product ideas, but for any business ideas. A lot of that work isn't terribly glamorous – it's invisible most of the time.
I do think coaching is a great thing if you can afford it. Getting an outside perspective is amazing sometimes. And it’s a good way to challenge what you take for granted. I didn't have a coach, but really can see the benefit.
Coaching could help employees too, and job-seekers more. When I'm recruiting I see candidates who have little idea on how to present themselves in interviews. In fact, sometimes their presentation actually hides their fabulous talent! I know, I've regretted turning down people who showed enormous talent elsewhere! They could do with coaching on CV and letter writing, and talking in interviews.
I'm always reading business books. It's fascinating to see how other people have made it. And knowing that even successful people find it difficult – Alan Sugar and Richard Branson had huge downs before their more famous ups! The desperation makes you even more determined.
Advice I wish I'd received in the early days? Some advice about eggs and baskets might have helped. It can be very tempting as in our case to use one key supplier. It’s a good idea to avoid too much dependency to ensure your safety longterm. You need to find diverse markets, and diverse suppliers too!
Also, a warning about how much time you would need to invest in a business. Being a fulltime business owner (and mum) means I work about 12 hours a day! I'm very hands-on with finances, trends and product development, so I work many evenings researching on my laptop in front of the telly. And I still wake up in the night with new ideas – and sometimes worries.
Local AND Global
The internet allows us to supply all over the world. British-made products are in high demand, especially in the USA. I take the opportunity to promote the Island by describing our products as “hand-made in our studio on the Isle of Wight”. It works, people like it.
I feel the Island's economy is a bit gloomy. I feel someone (I'm not sure who - the Council? the Government? the Chamber of Commerce?) should be doing more to make the Island far more attractive. And not just for tourists – attractive for people who want to start businesses, and for talented youngsters to stay here instead of emigrating to the mainland. There seem to be too many opportunities missed, sadly, and they need an entrepreneurial perspective on occasions.
We have big plans to expand far more over the next couple of year, I hope this will be our small way in helping the Island's economy with valuable job opportunities."