13 November 2018
We couldn’t resist asking the Queen of Shops herself, Mary Portas, a few pressing questions before she takes to the stage at Inspiring Entrepreneurs: Work Like A Woman with Mary Portas.
Some of our Innovating for Growth programme graduates and Ambassador, Julie Deane OBE, picked Mary’s brain on surviving in business during a challenging economic climate, the rise of digital and more. Here's what they asked...
Alice Asquith, founder and creative director of Asquith:
With the closure of some key High Street stores, what advice would you give to someone starting out in this rather challenging retail climate?
It depends on where you want to place yourself. The future of great High Street retail will be around experience, knowledge and incredible service. If you can put that at the heart of your business and you believe your offer is unique and relevant to that market and you’re not being screwed over on rent, you have a chance. There’s so much more I’d ask you but these are the first things you should be asking yourself. Why would somebody make the effort to come to my shop? if you can cover the above you have a chance.
Where would you recommend for women to network if they’d like to meet other like-minded retail business owners?
There are hundreds if not thousands of great networking groups across many sectors. They all offer different things so it’s totally dependent on what you’re looking for right now. If you can’t find one that’s giving you what you need, start your own.
What would you say are the key ingredients and factors to successful collaborations with likeminded partners?
Understand the word collaboration. A symbiotic relationship where both parties benefit and support each other. Collaboration is about being better together than apart. Often collaborations are done with one thinking about their benefit alone. You need to consider your collaborator’s reputation and how they’ll benefit too.
Julie Deane OBE, founder of Cambridge Satchel Company:
Should businesses concentrate on establishing themselves in their home market before casting their eyes overseas?
Absolutely. And especially when you’re selling something that’s connected culturally to your market. I’ve seen too many business who’ve gone international and the power of their brand back home has eroded.
Rowena Howie, founder of Revival Retro:
Up and down the country there are small specialist shops providing a remarkable in store experience whilst trying to respond to a digital economy. What advice does the Queen of Shops have for bricks and clicks micro-businesses trying to pay a living wage, offer flexible working and create opportunities for amazing people, whilst still paying rampant rents, unfair rates and facing competition on a global level? Where do you consider the focus should be for small retailers looking to grow and create opportunity?
Focus on community, customer experience and identity. If you nail those three you stand a chance.
If you missed Mary's talk, you can catch up on our YouTube channel.
07 August 2018
Finding your niche in any market can be tough; who is your customer? What do they want? What are your competition doing? Amanda Overs, a graduate of the Business & IP Centre’s Innovating for Growth: Scale-up programme and founder of I Can Make Shoes, set up a shoemaking school after being unable to find a course to make shoes, without the need for heavy machinery.
“I was sick of being told ‘you can’t do it like that’” (by traditional shoemakers). With the demand for slow fashion and a resurgence of sewing and crafting, Amanda decided to put a positive spin on the negative backlash and eight years later has gone from running classes in her living room by herself to employing five part-time members of staff and running workshops almost every day of the year in both London and New York.
Research was crucial in finding out exactly who I Can Make Shoes’ customers were. Amanda says, “There has been a lot of trial and error over the years, but what I have found is the fastest, most efficient way of doing research is to actually ask your customer what they think. I regularly do surveys when I have a new idea to see what my audience think of it and recently started a Facebook community so that I can see for myself what it is that my students and customers really want and need.”
Amanda is always looking at ways to improve I Can Make Shoes’ offering and the business is always changing and improving. Something Amanda says is “key to staying ahead of the competition”. Not only do they run workshops for members of the public, but they also have online shoemaking instructions, sell components, and train designers from major high street brands such as ASOS, River Island and Adidas.
The Innovating for Growth programme has helped Amanda take I Can Make Shoes to the next level, “It’s helped me to step back and reassess the business as a whole and identify the key areas of potential growth. I started in a bit of a whirlwind and have been treading water ever since, so to have fresh (very experienced) eyes and non-biased opinions on my plans for the future has been absolutely priceless”.
What tips does Amanda have for finding your niche? “Trust your gut. Don't overthink every detail. Fail fast, learn faster and move on to the next thing.” Amanda lives by her rules, due to popular demand she will be offering a new sneaker course launching soon...
Apply now for over £10,000 worth of business advice!
If you are already running a business and are looking to take it to the next level like Amanda, our three-month Innovating for Growth programme can help turn your growth idea into a reality. Applications are now open, so find out more here and apply now!
This programme is fully-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the British Library.
14 November 2017
During 2017’s Global Entrepreneurship Week, The Business & IP Centre hosted our flagship Inspiring Entrepreneurs: Question Time event. Amongst our panel of innovative entrepreneurs was Polly McMaster, the co-founder of The Fold, a contemporary womenswear label created for the professional woman. Founded in 2012, Polly’s vision for a feminine brand that created stylish yet appropriate outfits for the working environment and smart evening wear has gone from strength-to-strength. Today this high-growth brand can be found in over 20 countries and counts the Duchess of Cambridge and Samantha Cameron as customers. With such impressive progress in just five years, we caught up with Polly to hear how The Fold has been able to achieve much traction in the market in such a short space of time.
The Fold is described as ‘a contemporary new label that embraces and inspires the modern, professional woman’. How did you identify this gap in the market?
This was me! I worked in consulting and private equity – where a suit is the dress code for men. I really struggled to find clothes that made me feel confident, stylish, smart and contemporary. I did a lot of research with other working women and found that this really touched a nerve with so many of them, so it was a very compelling thought to create a brand that was relevant to women like myself and addressed that problem.
Have you always had a passion for fashion? And if so, did you think this passion would eventually become your profession?
Absolutely, way back to school days where I did dress-making classes in the evening, and made my own clothes, to Art A Level and work experience in an amazing couture brand. However, I am definitely quite left-brain / right-brain and also love problem-solving, analysis, etc. – so I took an unconventional route to fashion via science, business strategy and investment. It’s helped me have a more rounded view of the business, but it’s amazing to be able to bring together so many areas that I’m passionate about.
Fashion is a consistently popular area for new start-ups, but starting and growing a successful fashion business is tough. Whilst the UK is a centre of design creativity, fashion businesses often face a high failure rate. If you could give one piece of advice to a budding entrepreneur entering the fashion world what would it be?
I entered this world with a completely different perspective, and I think that has been helpful. I approached it from quite a commercial angle – which was to provide an amazing product to a niche group of women after identifying a gap in the market. That has influenced everything in the business from both the creative side through to the business side. By having that clear vision, it’s helped us to be more competitive. It is a very tough industry, and it also takes a lot of resource in terms of both cash and expertise to navigate it. As we’ve grown, I’ve certainly leant on the support of very experienced Chairman, investors and advisors who’ve helped us learn, adapt and survive!
What has been your proudest achievement in your business journey to date?
Recruiting a great team and great investors have been the most important thing in the business. I’m really proud that we’ve created a brand that has attracted so many talented people, and that I get to work with them every day. That feels like huge progress and makes the future very exciting.
I’m also really proud that we dress amazing women for work every day – it’s very inspiring to receive messages from them to say that they nailed a job interview, or gave a powerful presentation and felt that they’d had an extra confidence boost from wearing The Fold. That’s when I know we’ve done what we set out to do.
What do you think the future holds for The Fold and Polly McMaster?
The Fold still feels like it’s at the beginning of its journey! We have a lot of exciting plans – we are opening a new store concept next Spring, and also continuing to build our online presence in both the UK and the US. Our customers are truly international so we are excited for The Fold to become a global destination for working women. For me personally, I’m learning every day, and loving balancing being a mum with running the business. I’m excited to grow with the business through the next chapter!
Watch Polly's talk at Global Entrepreneurship Week's Inspiring Entrepreneurs: Question Time here:
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