Innovation and enterprise blog

26 May 2020

A week in the life of… Rowena Howie, founder of Revival Retro

This month's week in the life of follows Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups alumna, Rowena Howie, founder of Revival Retro, a London boutique reviving 1920s to 1940s glamour in its vintage-inspired and reproduction outfits and footwear. Her diary takes place during the week everything changed and includes details of what's happened since. Here's Rowena...

You never know what’s coming next when you run a small business. Least of all a global pandemic!

I’ve been asked to write ‘a week in the life’ of a small business owner. The week I shall describe was both life changing and, actually, nothing out of the ordinary. Responding to challenges, overcoming problems, finding a path to a better future is in our entrepreneurial DNA.

Rowena Howie, founder of Revival Retro
Rowena Howie, founder of Revival Retro

Tuesday 10 March was one of my favourite kinds of day: I got to be creative, I was at the culmination of a project and we were getting ready for launch, it was exciting. I would be working with a group of talented and highly skilled freelancers. I’ve worked with many of them for years as I value and admire them. As we all know each other, it’s less tense and more fun, the stakes are still high on a photoshoot, we have to get the shots we need but the team knows what’s expected and I know I can rely on them to deliver.

During the first three hours of prep, as hair and make up starts on our models for the day and the photographer, runner and I set up, we fall in to our usual easy rhythm of chat. This time, however, there’s a new hot topic Coronavirus.

This is the week when everything changed, awareness, attitudes, actions. It was before the government announced any lockdown plan it is essentially when Coronavirus changed from something everybody talked about as affecting other people to the realisation that this would change our lives, our businesses, our behaviours, our economy.

That Tuesday we talked about the video that had just been released exposing how bad the situation was inside Italian hospitals. We talked about what had been happening in China. I explained how this was going to affect our supply chain and how this might affect our Autumn/Winter collection and therefore the work that we might be able to collaborate on in six months time. My team were impressed that I had even been interviewed for The Sunday Times and Radio 4 Today programme about this.

Model in Revival Retro outfit

All of our talk was of a distant and remote problem, one that didn’t really seem to affect us directly. I asked the team lots of questions, what do you think? Is this a threat? What are people’s perceptions vs reality? No-one was worried, except me, and mine wasn’t fear it was endless questions with no answers.

As a business owner you need to be working several steps ahead, planning, preparing ready to bend and flex, willing to change which path you take as long as you keep your destination in sight. On that Tuesday the shoot was fun and forward looking. We sanitised our hands, fist bumped rather than hugged and followed the current advice. We were productive and positive about the collection and the campaign launch, everyone thought the garments I had designed and made were fantastic, everyone imagined they would sell really well.

Wednesday was a busy day with a long to do list. Events like photoshoots are all-consuming and you can’t get anything else done. So, my inbox was full, I had breakfast and lunch engagements and there was a trade show that I would need to get to (I was still in normal buying mode). I even had a date planned that evening, a rare prioritising of personal over professional life that I was still managing eight weeks after enacting a new year's resolution.

Our award-winning boutique is ‘not just a shop’ it is the heart of a community, it is a place where you are welcomed, where we connect people, products and passions. As such my bricks and mortar shop is my pride and joy, it’s also a place where I can get very little work done! Being in the shop is fantastic for collaborating with the team, getting feedback from customers, and working on joint projects but it’s the worst place to be when I need to plough through a to do list.

The Revival Retro Boutique shopfront

I’m a perfectionist and an ideas person and I only have to raise my head from my laptop to see something that could be done, to catch a voice through an open doorway to remind me or suggest something to me. Being in the shop, even the back office, just adds to everyone’s to do list! On this day, I had headed to a local co-working space for some solitary and silent work production. There was still lots to do for the upcoming launch. Getting everything prepared to go live in our online shop by the Friday deadline meant I had to help make this happen whilst staff in the shop were busy receiving stock deliveries in the boutique and processing these ready for the shop floor.

I was so engrossed and hammering through the list I almost forgot the trade show and had to rush over Marylebone for the final hours of the show. I ordered fabric samples for the next collection and addressed a difficult situation with a trusted supplier where they had delivered 300 metres of inferior fabric, which had not been returned at point of delivery but already been made in to garments. There’s no clear resolution to this it depends on your relationship and your negotiating skills.

It was on the whole, a pretty good day.... Until everything fell apart! Late in the afternoon the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, had delivered the Budget and despite the intention to help businesses mitigate any impact of Coronavirus my small business had effectively been excluded from help. The criteria for business rates relief had been based on the open market rent valuation of your premises, not turnover, not the number of staff, not profitability. A measure that was intended to help small businesses was being withheld because of the cost of doing business in London.

I’ve learnt over the years that toddler type tantrums can be helpful and cathartic but should be conducted away from the eyes of all employees, customers and pretty much everyone so the next 24 hours didn’t go as planned. Despite all the deadlines, this was a disruption I didn’t need but it wasn’t just the rates relief, this challenge was representative of many of the problems you encounter as you grow and scale and take bigger risks and manage bigger overheads. However, I find that metaphorically ‘throwing your toys out the pram’ can bring clarity as you mentally knock down everything and start again. When you know what’s important and what is of value it is possible to look more objectively at what you can do without, what you can change and what to focus on.

Thursday Sometimes fresh new ideas occur but mainly I believe that with a business that has been going a certain amount of time, that has a strategy and knows its purpose, that you come out with a sense of resolve and focus.

I had created something I was proud of, that the team believed in, that initial feedback had shown customers wanted. This was the future, my own range of products, our first summer collection, consistency in our range, exclusivity rather than price competition, better margin, we decide delivery to market, we have greater control over a whole range of commercial factors that will benefit our future viability and profitability.

Everything was back on track for the launch of our new collection.

Model wearing Revival Retro outfit

Friday Today I would send out wholesale line sheets, I would prepare for a sell-out private launch party for customers on Sunday, everything needed to be ready to put the whole collection live online for e-commerce sales on Monday. We also needed all the photography from Tuesday’s photoshoot retouched and formatted to create the visuals for web and social media along with product shots for the webshop.

90% of production had been delivered and was being prepped for the shop floor by the team. We were ready. Months of work had brought me to this point. But the news was changing.

Saturday In three days the coverage of Coronavirus had amplified, changed its tone and pace of reporting, the news of what had been affecting other parts of the world now seemed very much closer to home, the threat was real, the evidence credible, the tension palpable.

Whereas the discussion on Tuesday had seemed to place peoples perception of the problem at maybe a three out of 10, Wednesday, plus the budget, had moved it to four, reaction to the help (or lack of it) announced in the budget and new data had raised it to five by Thursday. Now difficult questions were being asked everywhere with obviously no satisfying answers from government or experts making it a seven out of 10, as I shopped for prosecco and cake at the supermarket on Saturday.

My launch party was tomorrow and despite the media frenzy, it looked like everybody was still enthusiastic to come.

Sunday As I journeyed through empty streets to the shop to set up, I passed a newsagent and I saw the headlines. I stood still, I took stock, I saw that everything on this grey March morning was different now. People would be scared, people would stay home, people would not be buying new clothes, people would not be responsive in the way they would have to our lovely photographs, they would be distracted by bigger issues and thinking about protecting their near and dear. It didn’t matter how much work I had done to get to this point.

A couple of hours later the apologies and cancellations started to come through, people couldn’t or wouldn’t make the event. That Sunday seemed like the day where the true extent of the pandemic revealed itself to the UK. As people spent the day at home and consumed the media it seemed to sink in, we began to realise the implications of how this was going to affect us. Questions still didn't have answers yet but we began to plan and prepare mentally. A change happened.

Some people did turn up to that little party, some of our most loyal customers and as I expected, they did love the collection and we did get some sales. More importantly though, between the reasons given for peoples absence and the chat over tea and cake with some of our most enthusiastic supporters I was able to take a measure of how my business might be affected in the coming weeks and months.

Everything and nothing happened on that Sunday. But I could take the resolve I had found on Thursday to direct my response to this challenge. I would use the insights I had learned from customers on Sunday. I would gather my team on Monday to discuss and then help focus our response. I needed to direct everyone on how we would overcome problems so people didn’t lose heart, I would find a pathway through this to ensure there is a future for our much loved small business post pandemic.

Model wearing Revival Retro outfit

Monday It was a quiet day with virtually no customers. There was still work to be done with the online launch of the collection, but we were already wise enough to what was coming to hold back stock and revise our plans.

I received a call from my full-time member of staff, they had symptoms. Updated Government advice made it clear Charlotte would be distancing for the next 14 days and suddenly what seemed like ‘just a cold’ carried a weight of worry, a concern for our colleague and even more questions about our safety, our work, our lives.

It’s important to remember that your business is nothing without people. Quite simply, tending to the mental and physical needs of employees is, I believe, of paramount importance. Those of us in work that day talked and I reflected on priorities.

Tomorrow I would not require any staff to come to work and I would run the shop tending to any customers who happened to come. I would consider our next steps and wait for a much anticipated announcement from the Government at a new daily evening information broadcast that was about to start.

My week in the life ends there. It feels like a lifetime ago, so much has happened since.

One of the reasons I work with the British Library is my passion for innovation. Some people think innovation is purely technical/digital or product development but it’s not it’s just as important to your business strategy. A resilience measure, it can be about understanding change happening around you and being able to pivot accordingly, changing your processes and practices to overcome the challenge. The Business & IP Centre have asked me to add to my week in the life to tell you what happened next…

One week later

In just one week sales had fallen away to virtually zero but despite this vacuum, the pace had quickened. I immediately began to review all cash flow forecasts and financial planning for the year. I updated the business and marketing plan and wrote a contingency plan. I knew all of these documents would be required if I were to apply for funding and I needed to focus my mind.

I was also mindful of the needs of my staff right now, lockdown hadn’t been announced yet but I decided to close the shop to the public because the news was now concerning everyone.

Revival Retro staff

Communication was vital; with staff, with suppliers, with other business owners. Understanding the landscape, not just our own experience, was vital to navigating our way through it.

Two weeks later

Chancellor Rishi Sunak had made further announcements and I moved swiftly to furlough all our part-time staff to save jobs long-term. I had defaulted on my rent and my landlady hadn’t answered any of my proposals. Business had dropped off a cliff edge, including web sales. People were stockpiling and on a long list of discretionary spending, fashion comes last in people’s priorities when all they will do is stay at home.

I had decided not to launch the entirety of the new collection, the demand simply wouldn’t be there to achieve sales through and seeing future gaps in my supply chain I figured it was better to hold back stock and release some items as new in Summer 2021.

Lockdown had been officially announced and I was working from home trying to access finance. Major problems with the new Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) had brought about press opportunities and I appeared on all the major news channels, radio and print media about the plight of my small business.

Three weeks later

Getting nowhere fast with my CBILS application I couldn’t see how the business could even make it to the end of the month (April).

I think it’s important to note the toll on the mental health of small business owners: Not only is this your dream obliterated due to something beyond your control, but there’s also the responsibility that people’s jobs and livelihoods rely on you, if you care about your customers then failure seems like failing them too. It’s a lot to carry, whilst at the same time having no money to pay yourself, support your family and keep a roof over your head.

Still determined though and still believing in the long-term potential of the business, I’d brought one member of staff back to work and we were working on future facing projects. I was also actively networking online and participating in all kinds of small business support zoom calls, webinars and online learning.

In one of these calls, I heard about the Pay It Forward Crowdfunder campaign and that Sunday, unable to enjoy a scheduled day off as all of this is whirring around in my head, I decided to map out what that might look like for us.

Four weeks later

I’m very proud that we have so many loyal repeat customers. I work exceptionally hard to create a fantastic experience at Revival Retro and build genuine relationships with our customers, not just automated interactions.

Going the extra mile and encouraging my staff to do the same had paid off.

We had launched our Crowdfunder and in week one had already raised more than £12,000 for our small business. It was incredible!

It wasn’t just the money either, alongside the pledges were endless messages of support, promises to come back and shop with us, love for what we do and why we are important to people. This got me through an incredibly tough time and I am immensely thankful.

Customers were happy to buy vouchers now to redeem later, which turned around our cash flow position. Followers and fans were all too happy to champion our brand. People far and wide donated anything from £5 to £500 to save a high street hero much loved by many.

Model wearing Revival Retro outfit

Seven weeks later

By the end of April we had met and exceeded our £25,000 Crowdfunder target. Our small business was saved (particularly as we were excluded from Government grants and the CBILS loan money was still not available). We were able not just to meet payroll and necessary obligations, but pay what we owed to other small business suppliers and plan for the future.

The success of the Pay It Forward campaign for Revival Retro was transformative. We would not be in the position we are today without it. Many small business owners have asked my for tips on how they might run a successful campaign and I’ve written a blog about this which you can read here.

From resilience, we can now begin to look to recovery. I am encouraged that our customers see us as “not just a shop” which offers opportunity as we shape the future of the brand. It’s going to be more important than ever to innovate for growth.