Innovating for Growth: We Built This City
We Built This City is a London-based business that specialises in selling unique souvenirs that represent the famous city. Their mission is to revolutionise souvenirs by giving London's artists and designers a platform to showcase their talents and provide customers with creative and long-lasting souvenirs. Having grown at an incredible rate at the very beginning, We Built This City quickly made its mark on the souvenir market but founder Alice Mayor was still ambitious and wanted more. With the help of Innovating for Growth programme, she was able to achieve her scale-up wishes and went from a pop-up to having a permanent home on Carnaby Street in London's trendy West-End. We caught up with Alice to talk a little more about her journey from idea to super success and how the Innovating for Growth programme helped with this.
How did the idea for a new kind of souvenir shop in London’s famous Carnaby Street come about?
In 2014, London was still basking in the glory of the Olympics and had just become the most visited city on the planet with the annual tourist footfall figure at over 16 million. With so many international visitors heading to the capital for creative and cultural experiences, my lightbulb moment was riding past one of the many souvenir stores in London on the bus and thinking ‘surely we can do better than that!’
My overriding priority in bringing to life the concept of ‘Revolutionising London Souvenirs’ was to find the right location for the store. I really wanted to avoid a scenario where we had the very best artists & designers to represent but didn’t have the footfall to prove the operation a success.
As such, I was determined We Built This City should be established in the West End. I walked the streets on the weekends to try and identify the best location but each time got more fearful about the barriers we were going to face with rents and rates. At the end of what seemed like a very long 4 months, I finally tracked down a landlord on Carnaby Street.
I created a detailed pitch outlining my vision for the product, interiors, and marketing campaign. Within a matter of days, they offered a 2 floor - 3000 sq ft store on Carnaby Street with just one caveat… we had 3 weeks to bring it all together and would need to launch for Christmas!
What challenges has the business faced along the way?
The main challenge for us at the start was being a temporary pop-up shop and having to move stores over 6 times in 18 months. We were always moving to a new store on Carnaby, so the location wasn’t the issue, it was just the sheer labour involved in moving shops and setting up processes all over again. Luckily we have an amazing team who stuck with us no matter how many times we told them we were on the move!
More general challenges are that at any one time we can be working with 250+ London artists, designers and makers - with so many partners and suppliers on the books the sheer volume of admin involved can be a daunting daily mountain to climb! It’s worth it though, to see so many artists represented and supported in store.
Lastly, our core mission is always to support London’s creative community to drive sales and sustainable careers in the city. Running the business from a prime retail unit in the West End isn’t always an ideal marriage as it can be difficult to achieve margins which are complementary to both scenarios. We wouldn’t change the exposure Carnaby offers our artists for the world though!
What has been the business’s biggest achievement so far?
Our biggest achievement to date has undoubtedly been securing a permanent lease on Carnaby Street. We’re very proud to have made the transition from pop-up to a permanent retailer in one of the world’s most iconic shopping destinations in such a short window. A permanent unit for us has freed up so much resource and time to focus on growing the business. As a result, we’ve been able to grow the consultancy arm out to helping other London landmarks open including a major curation project for Battersea Power Station’s new Design Store.
Picking up awards for the shop along the way has been an unexpected and exhilarating experience too - when we were awarded ‘Best Shop in Soho’ by Time Out readers in our first year of trading, we spent the next week pinching ourselves!
What advice would you give to any small business owners thinking of going into retail and even opening a shop?
Having a unique point of difference is critical for a new retail brand or business - especially if you’re joining a competitive market (fashion, food etc.) You need to work out the one thing that’ll set you apart and work out how you can tell that to your customer at every part of the journey - and even before when selling the concept to a landlord, investor etc.
I would also highly recommend creating a pitch presentation to set out your vision and to share it with anyone who can help you make it happen. It’s easy to become scared of people stealing your idea, but I found it incredibly helpful to get early-stage feedback and access to new contacts - many of whom ended up becoming our artists, advisors, partners and even our shop team!
Lastly, really interrogate whether you need to open a physical bricks and mortar store at all and what you want to learn from even a temporary pop up shop. It’s important to establish your objectives early on and stick to them. My parting advice is to never romanticise the idea of a shop as it’s an unbelievable amount of work, money, and energy - and if you’re open 7 days a week the sheer volume of operations can easily leave you with little time to nurture the creative side of the business.
What are the challenges of growing a business and how has the Innovating for Growth programme helped?
When I applied for the Innovating for Growth course, I was really lacking the headspace to work ‘on’ the business - not just ‘in’ it. The programme has been indispensable in giving me the opportunity to stand back from the day to day and take time to start strategising from afar.
An invaluable learning from joining the programme has been the opportunity to look at all factors that contribute to the running of a successful business - not just those that are in your existing skillset or comfort zone! Deep diving into these elements with the guidance of the coaches, guides and guest lecturers on the programme has been invaluable to analysing the business’s strengths and weaknesses in equal measure.
The real take away from the programme for me though has been the opportunity to meet entrepreneurs at the same stage - going through the same issues, problems and being able to share advice. It can get lonely and especially tough when you’re scaling - mentors are great but it’s meeting and sharing with those sat next to you on the same rollercoaster that gives you that belief to keep building!
* Innovating for Growth is a free three-month programme to help you turn your growth idea into a reality. Find out more information about the programme here.
This programme is fully-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the British Library.