25 October 2023
Every quarter, the Get Ready for Business Growth programme carefully selects 25 high-growth creative businesses to embark on an exciting journey. This initiative, funded by the Arts Council England, is specifically designed to empower entrepreneurs to re-evaluate critical aspects of their business, from marketing strategies, innovating products/services to the entire business model.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Sonal Keay, the brilliant mind behind This Is Silk, who has recently completed this transformative program. Sonal graciously took us on a compelling journey, sharing the inspiring story behind her business's inception and her ambitious vision for its future.
"I’m Sonal, Founder of This Is Silk, a company that harnesses the healing and renewal properties of Silk for our skin and hair. I started the business with silk pillowcases in 2018 after experiencing these healing powers for my own rare skin condition and in 2022 we launched silk skincare and haircare after working with a leading cosmetic scientist.
It represented a personal and professional highlight for me to be back at the British Library for their Get Ready for Business Growth programme, because I had spent many happy hours researching there when I first started the business.
Our youngest daughter had just been born and every spare hour was dedicated to research and reading about Silk. It was at the British Library that I first poured over dermatological and scientific literature detailing the use of Silk as a wound-healer and it was through a mentor there that I’d obtained a start-up loan to start the business.
Five years after that time, This Is Silk was now the UK’s most awarded silk company, winning prestigious beauty industry awards for ‘Best New Luxury Skincare Product’ for our Silk Overnight Oil, coveted Beauty Bible awards and more. When the application for the programme caught my eye, we had just finished working with a leading university to develop a proprietary silk protein. As a sole, largely self-funded founder with no prior business or corporate experience, it is critical that the decisions I make to deploy our precious resources are well thought through and researched, especially on the cusp of scaling the business.
So when I found out I had been accepted onto the Get Ready for Business Growth programme I was overjoyed - it felt like I was coming back home. It was a tough deep dive into both the business and into my own strengths and weaknesses and I took something very valuable and very personal to the business away from all the sessions with the experts. I will implement at least one headline recommendation from each of the experts.
Some of those sessions opened my mind up to possibilities, some emphasised the urgency of making changes and others gently corrected conventional thinking and challenged the status quo.
One of the best things I learned was about myself. There is a lot said about authenticity in the industry, and I had always assumed that as I had come to the power of Silk through my own, painful skin condition that that was the end of the matter. But Mike Waller, Professor of Design & Innovation at Goldsmiths University, helped me to realise that what I had done, and what I feel most comfortable doing is innovating. I am obsessed with the science of Silk and what it can do for our skin and hair, and that is my ‘happy space.’ Mike made me realise that the ability to innovate is a rare thing and that I should comfortably inhabit this space and that the multiple awards the silk skincare has won is a sign I am good at it. So I should make the most of it! To that end, I am hiring to free up more of my time to focus on this.
Mike also encouraged me to use lateral thinking when approaching issues in the business. We are in the middle of applying for B Corp certification and Mike had some incredible ideas about how to weave social good into the company’s foundations.
Another wonderful expert, Uday Thakker, urged me to focus on export and PR as significant levers for growth and I am treating his advice as a business plan to be actioned. Silk has traditionally always been an internationally desired product (the ancient trading routes known as the Old Silk Roads are so called because Silk was desired so much it crossed continents to reach its devotees) so looking abroad, especially in countries that already have an understanding and appreciation of Silk, whilst I build that education here in the UK.
Suzie Campbell urged me to keep a very close eye on my numbers, especially during a growth period, and to keep an open mind for the right investor, who would suit both the business and me and I received excellent advice from Andy who reminded me to communicate everything I know and love about Silk not only to my customers but also to retail buyers at trade shows.
This is an amazing programme I would recommend to anyone looking to scale their business. The roster of experts there take their time to research and analyse your business and their 121’s are stuffed full with incredible advice and the support from Rosie and the team is wonderful.
It is now for me to implement all of this advice and I will report back from the next stage of business growth. I hope to do the programme and the experts proud."
Applications for the next intake of our Get Ready for Business Growth programme are now open, learn more and apply now at bl.uk/grow.
26 October 2022
Come with us as we take you behind the scenes of London's first bean to bar chocolate factory, Lucocoa Chocolate, founded by our previous scale-up programme alumni Amarachi Clarke.
Amarachi founded Lucocoa in 2015, after teaching herself to make chocolate in her home she learned that the bean-to-bar quality chocolate could be much better than that available in the mass market, even than perceived luxury brands. Since taking part in our previous scale-up programme last year, she has had some incredible opportunities come her way.
"Some new stockists approached us that we could only have dreamed of, as well as some high-profile media. Our team has grown a lot so we are now a team of 7 covering production, comms, sales and creative. Previously we only really dipped our toe in seasonal but we now have the capacity to really engage with Halloween, Bonfire night, Black Friday, Christmas, Easter etc. It’s also fun for us to think creatively about how we sell our chocolate.
We’re also looking at a new, larger factory to move to so if all goes well we will have a new Lucocoa home soon!"
Read on to get a taste of what it's like to run your own chocolate factory...
Today will be the most chill day of the week! Looking at the calendar we have a lot to get through so planning is key. I start the day by mapping out what success looks like at the end of the week and then work back from there plotting every key task for me and my team members, that we will discuss at the Tuesday morning team meeting when everyone is in.
We also start by roasting the cocoa beans of the chocolate that we’ll be making in the week, going through stockist orders and planning when we will get them out by.
We have our weekly team meeting, this is a good chance to get the team up to speed with a lot of things that have happened in the last week, catch up on projects and have a chat about how we felt the previous week went.
The weekly stocktake happens and gives us a snap shot of how much product we have. We have a baseline of product we are comfortable with. After the stocktake, we then prioritise the making of products to get to the baseline or just above that.
I had a meeting with Mercury Spirits a fellow British Library scale-up programme alumni. We discussed the possibility of working together on a Christmas product – chocolate and negroni, a combination that never fails!
All the cocoa beans are crushed and winnowed and the machines are switched on. They won’t stop until Thursday when the chocolate is ready. We’re making Natural Blonde and 60% Haiti this week.
Lots of tempering of chocolate today as we have to keep the stocks up!
We were invited to a Black History Month fair in the Aldgate Tower, it was a nice little lunch market for staff in the building. It was great to meet a lot of other Black founders.
I got back to the factory and hopped straight on a call with ITV as I will be baking our signature brownies on This Morning with Alison Hammond and Dermot O’Leary, there are a few things logistic wise that needed to be sorted so I hopped on a call with the guys at ITV to iron those out.
The coconut sugar, lucuma and cocoa butter are all weighed out and loaded into the machines slowly throughout the day.
In the evening a few of us went to a screening of Chocolate War a documentary by Miki Mistrati, highlighting the issues with child and slave labour in the chocolate supply chain. With the amount of money big chocolate companies make, we know they can fix the problem, but haven’t been required to, which is a great shame. We have been working on how we fix this problem and raising awareness on the issue through a campaign and podcast.
Today we were invited to speak at a conference in Brussels by Meta in November which is flattering, we hopped on a call and got some more details.
I caught up with our sales lead on where we are sales wise and putting a strategy together on meeting our targets
We had a request from the BBC show Dreaming whilst Black to have our products placed in the background of the show. I finally got around to signing the contract and sending that off. Now to get the stock ready to go out next Monday.
This is bake day and always a little stressful as Friday which is supposed to be a bit of a winding down day, always seems to be one of the busiest. All the bakery orders that come through online throughout the week are baked and dispatched on Friday for delivery on Saturday.
We had a brainstorm session with a new partner – Glebe Farm, the only oat milk company in the UK using British oat. We have been using their oat milk for our hot chocolate and their gluten free flour for our brownies for a few years now. We got some great ideas down and now to get them rolled out.
We form part of the Spa Terminus market on Saturday so we have the shop fully stocked with chocolate, chocolate gifts, hot chocolate and our signature Bourbon biscuits.
I left the shop early to head over to my Spanish lessons.
Are you a creative business looking to grow and open doors to new, exciting possibilities? Join our Get Ready for Business Growth scale-up programme now!
14 July 2022
Founder and Creative Director, Laura Sheeter spent more than 10 years working as a news reporter in the UK, USA and former USSR - reporting on everything from the fate of abandoned Soviet military bunkers to the villages with only grandparents and grandchildren left behind in the exodus of Eastern European workers to the rest of the EU, the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the rebuilding of New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina.
After a brief career shift, working as a Russian to English translator, Laura and her business partner, Ruth Barnes, set up Chalk & Blade - one of the first podcast-only production companies in the UK - in 2016, before podcasting appeared to be a business at all. Soon the time came to grow their business, so they joined our scale-up programme, Innovating for Growth.
"The British Library’s Business and IP Centre was the first place, Ruth and I went to learn about how to set up a new business. It’s since become a bit of a North Star with us returning to its resources whenever we encounter new opportunities and challenges.
The sessions with the marketing and brand teams have helped immeasurably with the visibility of the business, particularly embarking on a new redesign of the website and relocation of the offices. The Chalk & Blade team is equipped with SEO-super charged ideas and branding tactics to position ourselves as the premium destination for podcast making."
The company makes premium branded content for brands and organisations including Net a Porter, Adidas and the UN, the hugely popular TV companion series Obsessed With for the BBC (now also a show on BBC3), and award-winning, critically acclaimed narratives including In Search of Black History with Bonnie Greer (audible), The Messenger (audible), Hunting Ghislaine (Global) and Taking on Putin - an independent production with John Sweeney.
So what goes into creating all this ear candy? Read on to find out.
It’s a new work and the first in our shiny new Chalk & Blade offices. While the rest of the world came to a standstill over the last few years, the podcast industry has seen a huge boom. IAB saw an ad spend of $1.4 billion in the space last year alone. With such demand across originals and branded content, we’ve been busy growing and developing the team and the relocation was all part of this investment in the next phase of the business.
Previously in a shared co-working spot on Old Street, we’re now settling into a Shoreditch warehouse space with our own front door and freshly brewed organic coffee on tap (high on the list of requirements during the multiple recces!). A new week gives me a chance to check in with a lot of the team’s projects and look ahead to line up meetings with potential creative partners, commissioners and journalists all bursting with great ideas that could lead to a project.
The team is in full swing juggling a multitude of shows this summer. In any one week, we’ve got a BBC show recording for TV and our first foray into visual podcast production (a fascinating experience and, yes, branded cushions are a must!), drafting and refining a very personal show which requires careful briefing, a narrative podcast in pre-production (our office walls are currently decked out with story arc ideas) and talent meetings to unearth some welcome fresh voices into the mix.
The news tells me that we’re gearing up for a heatwave here in London so this afternoon after school pick up I take the boys to get ice-creams (they both choose waffle cones like the sensible sorts, they are). When my co-founder Ruth and I set up the company, we were both parents and so we’ve always been very open about having to juggle the demands of a busy production schedule alongside homework/baking a sponge for the school summer fete or taking the dog for a spin around the park. This is something we’re also incredibly aware of for our team too and want to offer all of them the same flexibility, whether it’s heading to a spin class on their lunch break or needing to take a duvet day when they’ve had a tough week.
I get a text from my colleague, and Chalk & Blade’s Development Lead, Jason who is at the Children’s Media Conference meeting with other production companies and commissioners this morning. Behind the scenes, we’ve been scoping out opportunities for audio ideas for kids. We’re really excited about inspiring young imaginations through podcasts, both as audio experts and as parents who know the value of great content for our kids.
The final episode of our podcast series with investigative journalist John Sweeney, Taking On Putin, is out in the world and I couldn’t be prouder of the team! I first worked with John as his Executive Producer on our hit podcast Hunting Ghislaine so when he suggested we follow Hunting Ghislaine with a series about Vladimir Putin, I was all in. We actually started work on Taking on Putin nearly a year ago. At the time I had to keep checking with my business partner, Ruth Barnes, that it wasn’t too niche or geeky. Russia wasn’t fashionable, and those warning about the threat Putin posed were seen as paranoid, crackpots or warmongers. We never expected it to be headline news.
Taking on Putin has shown the true value of telling serious stories deeply, with character and humanity, because when the world takes alarming turns we need to understand not only the what, but have a trusted guide explaining the why of what’s happening too.
And that’s precisely the kind of stories we want to hear and tell through our podcast productions at Chalk & Blade.
16 March 2022
Female founded start-ups represent a growing share of investment activity – in the UK in 2011, only 11% of start-ups were women founded and by 2020, this number had risen to 32%. In the male dominated space of entrepreneurship, women founders are often underestimated and overlooked; while we have made progress, there’s still more to be done. To mark Women’s History Month, we’re delving into the experiences of two entrepreneurs we’ve supported to learn how they overcame discrimination in business.
“My mum certainly has some stories of working as a black female entrepreneur and as I have entered the business with her in the last five years there are a few things that have brought me back down to reality in terms of the challenges that women face in business.
My mum has worked in the hair industry for the past 45 years. She moved from working in a salon to working from home as a hairdresser when she started her family; part-time availability for hair stylists wasn't a realistic career and banks wouldn't lend her the capital to open her own salon. She worked out of our utility room and bathroom for 30 years and with that income, sustained two children (and our many after school activities), a mortgage and bought a flat in Portugal.
Over those years, the banks slowly offered my mum an overdraft for her sole trader account but she never used it because she had always associated debt with poor financial management.”
When Eleanore was studying for her A-Levels, Teresa also stepped back into her own studies and re-qualified as a Trichologist. Soon after qualifying, she found a retail space that she could run her clinical practice from. However, even though she was a successful business owner for the past 35 years, she was asked for a guarantor to support her retail lease application. Financially independent and in her fifties, she didn't find this appropriate, but was forced to compromise by signing an eight-year lease with no break clause instead.
Upon realising that their business was making enough money to register as a limited company instead of a sole trader, Eleanore and Teresa went to several banks and opened a business bank account. Whilst one bank was happy to offer them a sole trader account with a £12,000 overdraft, the only business account they were keen to offer was with a £2,000 overdraft. They eventually went with another bank that offered a measly £6,000 overdraft and meant that their cash flow was still too tight to invest in growth.
Several years later, Teresa was ready to move clinics and they were in a position to develop their clinic hair care range into a product range ready to be sold to retailers. Despite presenting a business plan in an effort to increase their £6,000 overdraft, the bank turned them down. This made no sense to Eleanore, “I had been offered bigger overdrafts as a student earning nothing, yet here was a successful business that made money every year and had never had to dip into an overdraft, had grown organically year after year, and yet credit options were non-existent.” They postponed development of their range for three years out of fear that the investment would deplete their cash flow, and there were no obvious alternatives to financing that weren't fraught with high interest rates.
Fulham Scalp and Hair has also been operating in Luanda, Angola, which is Teresa’s birthplace. There she has a loyal customer base who have grown with her over the years but many customers and onlookers still don't understand how a business like theirs can generate enough interest and enough revenue to fund a satellite clinic in Luanda. “Rumours of my mother having a wealthy benefactor are always amusing, but depressingly remind me that the expectation for women to run a successful, international business is still questioned.
Last year an investor in Angola who was keen to buy a stake in our Angolan business propositioned us. When negotiations began, it emerged that he was only going to accept a majority stake in all of our business holdings internationally and was going to establish his own solicitor as a business consultant with a 5% stake. The mind boggles at how foolish they must have assumed an older black woman and her younger daughter must be.
This I find is the most common theme being a woman in business, and it hasn't really changed from the time of my mum starting her own business through to me joining and leading it. Women continue to be underestimated in their own businesses, and this seems to be particularly brutal for women of colour or for very young (looking) women. For mum she had been underestimated by so many of the services and employees previously hired, that it was a relief to work with her daughter who she could completely trust and not be on her guard with. Personally, I have had to correct solicitors, landlords and accountants on their own work and have even had one rep from an organisation ask if I need to chat with my "mummy" before signing off on membership.”
Our next business is The Fermentation Station, founded by Amy and Sam who received support from BIPC Liverpool in relation to their trademarking. We spoke to Amy to learn how her experience as an entrepreneur has been different to that of her partners’.
“Being a female business owner has its advantages and disadvantages. In Liverpool, having access to support through The Women's Organisation provides many advantages to being a female business owner in the city, but I believe this is a privilege that many don't receive.
Whilst it wasn't impossible to be a female business owner 30 or 50 years ago, the challenge was much greater than what we see in 2022. Things have certainly come a long way but we still have a lot of progress to make in how we view women in business. I often think my Nan would have achieved even more remarkable things during her working years had gender roles been different back then. She was an outstanding woman with a genetic eye condition that she never let stand in her way.”
It is also important to encourage young girls into entrepreneurship, when Amy was in high school the only future presented to her was one of academia. “We were told that it was a safe route into employment that meant that we didn't need to rely on a man - can you guess I went to a single sex school! Whilst I am eternally grateful for the solid upbringing they gave me, the option of becoming an entrepreneur was not one that I was encouraged to explore. I think often this causes 'impostor syndrome' as we feel we aren't skilled for the role, whilst men are more likely to take the leap without second guessing whether they’re qualified to do so."
Having been a Company Director for six years between The Fermentation Station & H2A, Amy has built up confidence to present herself as a business leader and leave the impostor syndrome at the door. When asked about whether she has noticed a difference in the way she is treated by investors, suppliers or clients in comparison to Sam she pointed out that unconscious bias is always at play.
“I believe that many think that Sam is the driving force behind our business – that's until I open my mouth, and he is often granted commendations for behaviours that I perform regularly. When we have been challenged with difficult customers or stockists, who are unprepared to acknowledge or accept my response, I have now resorted to responding to them by pretending to be Sam; you would be surprised how quickly their tone & response changes when they believe it's a man they’re speaking to.”
Overall though, the advantages of being a female founder outweigh the disadvantages, Amy has been the company director of a mother-daughter team and a male-female team which have both been incredible experiences for her. “I think it's completely dependent upon the personalities of your fellow directors or founders, and with both businesses I held close personal relationships. Sam and I work well together not because we are different genders or sexes but because our working styles complement each other.”
18 February 2022
As London Fashion Week A/W 2022 comes to a close today, we’re feeling like it's about time to update our wardrobe! Stuck in a rut with your wardrobe too? Maybe you're feeling inspired to create runway pieces at home? From shoe making classes to vintage inspired clothing, we have BIPC businesses that are transforming the fashion industry to help pull you out of your rut. Find out how below
The Fold Line is an award-winning online sewing pattern shop. Founded in 2015 and based in the UK, they are the home for people who love sewing and making their own clothes, offering an extensive range of paper and digital PDF sewing patterns plus copy shop printing services. They are on a sewing mission to help makers find the perfect project and create a handmade wardrobe they love. If the designs from London Fashion Week has inspired you to try your hand at sewing, why not try making one of The Fold Line's best selling sewing patterns for beginners.
Co-founders Rachel Walker and Kate Underdown took part in the Innovating for Growth Free Scale-Up programme and with the help of experts' advice, marketed their new online shop to an established community following.
If shoes are more your style, why not try I Can Make Shoes, a London-based shoe-making school for beginners. Amanda founded the business back in 2010 to teach total beginners how to make their own shoes from home. Since we last spoke to the Innovating for Growth alumna, a lot has changed - she spent the first lockdown filming the same course content she had been teaching in-person for over 10 years and released it as an Online Course, this turned out to be great timing as people from all over the world had been wanting to take one of their courses but weren't able to travel the distance.
The past two years have been a very rocky road, as is the case many small businesses, but I Can Make Shoes has come out of it in a great position having had a chance reset the business and find their feet in the world of online training.
Inspired by beautiful bygone eras Revival Retro’s garments have classic style, feminine tailoring and flattering cuts. They are the perfect antidote to the fast fashion and throwaway culture of the chain brands on the high street and are committed to enabling individual style with inclusive sizing (8-28). For the discerning woman who wants a better shopping experience, their thoughtful design and considered approach puts people, planet and provenance first. Clothing that women will choose to wear again and again, that are easy to care for, enabling this desire and therefor lowering impact on the environment.
Since completing Innovating for Growth in 2017 where they learned to create a solid foundation for their business plans, their small business has built upon lessons learned and stayed true to their values whilst navigating the challenges of the last few years.
Sabina Motasem is a multi award-winning bridal boutique featured on vogue.com and in Elle. The entrepreneur and designer behind it is Sabina Ali whose dresses are proudly made right here in London with beautiful craftsmanship by an extraordinarily talented team. Having started in 2007, with a single wedding dress made as a present for a friend, Sabina's presence has steadily grown and she took part in our Innovating for Growth programme in 2012; it's an experience she calls "life changing" as it taught her the value of detaching herself and gaining perspective.
Like so many small businesses Sabina had to close her bridal shop in Islington but she believes it was the right thing to do. Her boutique is now online, becoming one of the first bridal brands in the country to pivot in this direction, and in 2022 she has started offering in-person appointments at bridal pop-up shops in Kings Cross, London.
The Maria Grachvogel brand of Fashion and Luxury is about fit architecture – making clothes exist for the wearer, rather than the other way around. She engineers beautiful clothes, in fabrics that make every shape and size of woman look and feel her most confident, beautiful, and feminine. With a deep belief that cut and fit is transformative to the body and soul, each piece is carefully considered with seams that sculpt the body and fabric that drapes perfectly to move and flow as you do with thoughtful design details to enhance and flatter or allow for many ways to wear and style. The finest craftsmanship goes into every, considered piece so it can be loved and worn for many years.
Watch the latest fashion film by Maria Grachvogel, Genesis - A New Dawn, which premiered during London Fashion Week on 21 February.
B_Boheme’s showcases how vegan, sustainable and ethical shoes can be desirable. The collection is 100% animal-free using the latest innovations in sustainable, plant-based materials, as well as natural and recycled materials. With their latest collection, they’ve upped the ante to create a collection with the lowest possible carbon footprint. It features three key styles that are designed to be bolder and brighter as well as durable and timelessly chic. They’ve focused on styles that women can wear to be comfortable while still elevating any outfit, the elegant flat shoe, the designer sneaker and the utility Chelsea boot.
29 September 2021
As businesses across the country closed their doors in March of 2020, it was unclear just how long these doors would remain closed. Small businesses found themselves facing a frightening and confusing time, having to pivot and adjust to the continually changing landscape. In many cases, however, this pause in time allowed some to reflect on their career goals and even prompted them to launch their own businesses. We spoke to four such businesses, who either pivoted or started up during the pandemic and explored how they were able to grow despite unpredictable circumstances.
For Carolynn Bain, the pandemic and the civil rights uprising that started to unfold in the summer of 2020 highlighted the importance and need for her to start up her Brighton based business, Afrori Books. Afrori Books is an online bookshop that specialises in books by black authors, their mission statement is simple; to support black authors, create diverse bookshelves and be a voice for justice.
As a National Network business, we were able to assist Carolynn by providing local information and resources to help her grow during this time, specifically ways to source funding to expand the business into a physical shop via our Business & IP Centre Brighton & Hove.
"Starting a business during the pandemic is an unusual thing to do. However, I think what had a bigger impact on us was starting a business during a pandemic and during a civil rights uprising in terms of Black Lives Matter – they can’t be separated for us. Many people were at home, reading books and for the first time ever really the world was sitting still, watching these things unfold before them. That had a massive impact on us and, in a positive sense, bought customers to us who previously maybe would not have considered looking at books by black authors. As we go forward, we are in the middle of crowd funding as we are looking to open a physical shop – working in partnership with a charity in Brighton who have given us a shop space. That has also come off the back of the civil rights movement, as they want to see Brighton change and become a safe space for black authors and black people living in the city. It’s all interconnected."
Another National Network business, who recently took part in our Innovating for Growth programme, that has seen growth during the pandemic is The Woodlife Project. The Norfolk based business, founded by Hazel Russell manufactures beautiful, innovative, eco-friendly wooden products for the family home with a focus on meal times. The Woodlife Project, who got support from BIPC Norfolk, mostly sell online on their own website and wholesale through a variety of different retailers, most notably during the pandemic they are now available on John Lewis and, like Afrori Books, will be looking to have in store product space soon too. "Our proudest moment in business so far has been getting into John Lewis, as they were one of our ideal retailers from the offset. We are online at the moment - in the nursery section with our bear, fox and rabbit plates. If all goes well we will be in store soon."
Jennifer Lam also took part in our Innovating for Growth programme, she is the co-founder and CEO of Stitch and Story based in London, which is an online crafting company on a mission to make crafting simple and easy to learn. During the numerous lock-downs, confined to their homes, people were getting back in touch with their creative side which bode well for this crafting business and allowed them to grow despite the uncertain circumstances.
"We’re here to inspire a new generation of crafters with our DIY kits, yarns and materials. During the pandemic Stitch and Story grew enormously. I think we were one of the lucky companies who were able to grow because everybody was in lockdown, looking for a new skill or hobby to pick up at home. Stitch and Story provided many customers with a new skill in knitting and crocheting and so we expanded very quickly online predominantly, albeit it was very stressful!"
One of the biggest changes to Stitch and Story was the team; they more than doubled the team during the pandemic from seven to 22. "We had to recruit everyone virtually at the time and it was stressful as we had no experience in doing that before - the BIPC really helped in providing us resources for this."
Start-ups in London Libraries business, Delmora, founded by Judy Chicangana-Matthews, offers a variety of beautiful jewellery items and accessories for women. Judy launched her first product at the end of February, weeks before Covid hit. "The impact was huge. In the beginning, people were buying the essentials such as food and toilet paper, so jewellery was considered a luxury. Nowadays, many people are concerned about their jobs and how that is going to impact their finances.
Covid also affects my KPIs in terms of delivery. I use the service Royal Mail 24, and I have had severe delays on the delivery of the parcels. To compensate my customers, sometimes I offer discounts as a part of the customer service. This practice has seriously affected my margins, so surviving has been very difficult."
Thus, the need to pivot and test out new business models to grow her business came about. By adding a loyalty program to her business, she was able to ensure repeat purchases and a loyal customer base. "My response has been offering discounts to my customers and creating programs to increase the brand’s recognition. For example, I offer the Delmora Club discount to all my customers in which the members have exclusive access to special discounts and pre-launch of our collections. We also recently created the program named Delmora Brand Champion that aims to get more positive reviews around our online presence."
Despite the devastating effects of the pandemic, we are pleased to see small businesses surviving, thriving and growing through it - it has highlighted the importance of small businesses, which are innovative, provide jobs and support local communities. In turn, there has been an increase in public support for local small businesses, to help ensure they remained profitable - a trend we hope continues long after the pandemic has ended.
12 May 2021
Every quarter, Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups chooses a cohort of high-growth businesses to take part in our 10 week programme designed to help business owners re-evaluate their business across areas such as marketing, products and services and business model.
We caught up again with Sian, founder and director of luxury wallpaper business Sian Zeng to see firsthand the impact of the programme on her business. You can read about the first half of her Innovating for Growth journey in the first installment of her diary. Having finished the programme, Sian can now reflect back on what she has discovered and the improvements she has already been able to put into action.
'Since our first post, we’ve now finished the Innovating for Growth Course. And in that time, my team and I have already made so many changes to how we organize ourselves, what we prioritize and how we present our brand.
Before joining the programme, one of my biggest goals was to find out how accurate our financial figures were; our inventory system often failed us and without an accurate stock figure, it was difficult to gain a real insight into how much profit we were making! Up until recently, I’d been keeping our books myself, which was another pressure on my workload and time I could be using elsewhere.
During the course, I was lucky to have two one-to-one Financial Planning Sessions with Suzie Campbell from The White Space Collective. In these sessions, we discussed the issues I was facing with bookkeeping, how I could improve our inventory system, our wholesale profit margins and worked through our cashflow forecast so that we can make an informed decision on which projects to invest in and people to hire going forward.
On the book keeping side, Suzie referred me to a company that was very well suited to our ecommerce business and was able to give advice on installing a good inventory system. We’ve now switched to an accountant that can fulfill our business needs.
As a creative business owner, I’m always tempted by so many projects I could invest in or hiring more help, but seeing the cashflow forecast with Suzie and the advice she gave me, I’m now a lot more strategic when making these decisions. I now know what to prioritize and when to stop an investment if isn’t working.
When it came to my session with Oliver Henderson, I already had several questions I wanted to ask him specific to my sector. Oliver has great research skills and found valuable market information for me to work with.
During my one-to-one with Dave Vann from ABA Design, I came to realize that some of our branding wasn’t translating effectively on our website. Even though our site is very functional and visually compelling, it lacks the storytelling element our brand is known for as a whole. Dave helped me tease out some of the stories I could share on my site, which is something that I hadn’t thought about before.
Next up, I had a marketing session with Izzie Sully from ABA Design. Using Trello, we went through my marketing plan and it was really helpful to visualise and create it in this way. One of the priorities we discussed was developing a CRM system to help create bespoke customer journeys specific to my business. I have now implemented it for our trade customers and have already seen a massive improvement in how we interact with this audience. We feel so much more organized with a system in place.
Both Dean Wilson and Ophelia Spowers from Fluxx were extremely helpful. I enjoyed speaking to Dean because he often questioned my assumptions. I assumed I needed stock of all my patterns in the new magnetic wallpaper material which we would be launching soon. This would have been a very large financial commitment. He was suggesting perhaps if customers were happy to wait for stock in the past then I might be able to print on demand rather than pay everything upfront. This also means I don’t have to wait until all collections are printed before I start launching this material.
We also discussed that we should have more regular and personal communication with our trade partners going forward, to build those relationships and explore how we can work better going forward. It was suggested that I start arranging catch-up calls with our partners and Ophelia was kind enough to draft a list of questions I could ask during these meetings.
I had a session with Robert Foster from Red Ochre at the very beginning of my course and it was there that we set out a series of goals to guide me through this course and beyond. I was happy to see how much I’ve already tackled. We have agreed on a new set of objectives for the next few months for myself and my team, and I am excited to see where else we are able to simplify and streamline our business.
Overall, the Innovating For Growth Programme has made such a big difference to my business. I feel I understand it on a deeper level and know which systems I need to put in place to not only grow faster but ensure I do more of what I love - painting, designing and creating. I’m very grateful to all the experts for the valuable advice and the British Library staff for organising everything so smoothly, especially during these difficult times.
If you are thinking of signing up for this course, I can’t recommend it enough!'
To find out more about Innovating for Growth and to apply for our next cohort, visit bl.uk/grow.
07 March 2021
Les Enfants Terribles is the pioneering theatre company behind the groundbreaking immersive productions “Alice’s Adventures Underground”, “Dinner at the Twits”, “The Game’s Afoot” and “Inside Pussy Riot” as well as original and innovative stage shows ‘The Trench’, “The Terrible Infants” and “The Vaudevillans”.
Run and co-owned by James Seager and Oliver Lansley, the company was formed in 2002 and together they have pushed the boundaries of immersive theatre, alongside their unique take on more traditional stage shows, always challenging the audiences’ perception of theatrical productions. They took part in our Innovating for Growth programme in 2020.
Their artistic policy is simply to make theatre they love and that excites them. With a large and loyal following for their spellbinding work, Les Enfants Terribles continues to captivate audiences in the UK and internationally.
James is the lead producer and creative director of the company and he also co-directs many of the shows. Currently he is the director for Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure, which is an immersive online show designed to bring the Les Enfants Terribles magic into people's homes. It has just opened and you can find out more at www.sherlockimmersive.com. He shared what a week in the build up to the opening of this show looked like...
The start of a big week – well most weeks are pretty big at the moment due to us launching our new immersive on-line show Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Hung Parliament, but this week is a biggie! We’ve been tirelessly working on this show for three months now and working to build a unique ‘game’ for people to experience. Working in entirely new ways is always very exciting but it has surprised us how similar this on-line show has been in its creation to how we usually plan our immersive shows like Alice’s Adventures Underground which was similarly built on spreadsheets and computers. The beauty of course is that the audience are never aware of the complicated tech behind these shows (nor should they) and just enjoy the show as a narrative creative experience. However, when you are genuinely doing something new you’re bound to hit hurdles and unfortunately our Sherlock show has been slightly delayed due to an issue it took the tech team three days to find and 3 minutes to solve! Of course, this waiting has been quite stressful as we have many sold out shows and an expectant audience for next week when we go live so we have to deliver the ‘game’ by next Thursday.
I start my day going for a run - I started this routine every morning since lockdown one last March and have kept it up for a year and do you know what? I still hate it and it still is not any easier! However, it does I suppose, clears the cobwebs and gets me started for the day. I am lucky that I have a small outdoor office in my garden which psychologically has been great to ‘leave the house’ and try and leave work when I ‘come back home.’ Running a company is stressful at the best of times but in lockdown and trying to create a new show – its doubly so! Monday’s we have a team meeting on zoom which we try and keep to an hour and half but it always runs over. It’s a good chance for the office to connect when we are all apart working remotely and to see what is on everyone’s plate for the day ahead. The big question of the day is when do we expect delivery from of the final product for the on-line show – we hear from the tech team that it will be this week and we remain cautiously optimistic and excited. The ‘rushes’ we’ve seen so far look extraordinary. At 2pm I have an interview with the FT about the technology and about creating theatre in a pandemic. I hope it will be a good piece as we chatted on zoom for an hour and half! Hearing myself speak it really dawns on me how challenging it is for all the office to create a piece of theatre when we are all apart and a piece of online immersive theatre that is genuinely different. The rest of the day I’m looking at schedules for the actors (16 of them) who will be in the show and then I join a zoom about a writer’s programme. The previous week was very stressful but it looks like we have turned a corner and as my head hits the pillow I hope for good news tomorrow.
Ugh another run – still as hard as it was a year ago! We get news from the tech team that they have sent over the first pass at 9.45am which is great. The day ahead looks likely to be a testing day to see if it works for us as we start the morning with a few issues. My team have a call with the tech team at 11am and so we hold off scheduling the actors for rehearsals until we are all happy. The tech team spend most of the day trying to make the small issue go away which is like waiting in a delivery room reception in a hospital! I spend the day trying to put it out my my mind by working on a creative pitch for a large company who want us to create an immersive charitable experience for them at the end of the year. It is based on a book and I spend the day listening to an audio reading of it while creating the immersive idea for it – once finished I send it over to my co-director to get his thoughts. 5pm we are still waiting news on the technology from the tech team who have reported they have fixed the final problem and they need to test it further. The deadline looms! At 7pm I receive a version and have to test it for most of the evening – it’s a late one..
Raining this morning for my run – double ugh. The show development has hit a snag as its only playing 65 minutes and cutting off the final 9 minutes of the show for some reason so its back to the tech guys to see if they can solve the issue before we roll it out next week. We spend the day in zoom meetings discussing options and plans in case we don’t hit the deadline but we hear good news at 5pm that the system is responding well to some ‘care’ and we should be able to test it again on Friday. A long day!
More updates from the tech team and its more waiting our end to see if the changes they have made will work – they need 24 hours so we will get our final update tomorrow. I spend the day on zooms discussing options and then we realise a 6 second piece of video is missing from the content – not crucial – but still missing. I get my daughter to film it as we need a hand holding some birthday cards and then I send it over the editor! Back to working on some head of terms agreements for a secret project that we are hoping to launch next year and we’ve been planning for a further three years.
It looks like we will be able to launch the show next Friday which is great news. We intend to change a few things and then rehearse all the actors next week before going live with the show on Friday. We are all very excited and can’t wait to unleash the show to the public and hopefully give a bit of theatre to people who have really missed it over the last year. The whole day is spent planning rehearsals and logistics.
Saturday and Sunday
I try and not work weekends but that’s tricky! Especially when you are launching a show in a week so I spend some time with the family on a long walk and long lunch and sometime in my office shed preparing for the week ahead. It’s been a busy week but as expected and we can’t wait for the show to open on Friday.
Find out more about Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure and book your tickets by visiting www.sherlockimmersive.com
28 February 2021
Every quarter, Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups chooses 18 high-growth businesses to take part in our 10 week programme designed to help business owners re-evaluate their business across areas such as marketing, products and services and business model.
We have been speaking to Sian, founder and director of luxury wallpaper business Sian Zeng, who is one of our latest Innovating for Growth cohort, to see firsthand the impact of the programme on her business. In this first installment of her diary, we meet Sian, hear about how she started her business, and discover how her first batch of Innovating for Growth one-to-one sessions and workshops have helped her re-evaluate her priorities.
'Hi, I’m Sian, Founder, and Director of Sian Zeng; we create innovative wallpapers and wall decorations that enchant and delight. Reproduced from original artwork, our captivating designs take inspiration from fairytales and the natural world, all with the intention of helping people bring art, nature, and imagination into their homes.
We sell a range of products to cater to different spaces and budgets, with our dreamy designs available as both classic and magnetic wallpapers, as well as our growing collection of removable wall stickers. Our magnetic wallpaper is one of our most unique products that allow users to place magnets onto their wall, like a fridge or radiator. Our cast of magnetic characters and illustrations were designed with this in mind; move our magnets across the surface of our magnetic wallpaper and suddenly it’s not just a wall - it’s the backdrop to a story. Since opening, our products have been featured in Elle Decoration, The Sunday Times and The Telegraph, and in 2019, we were awarded the honour of the Grand Prize at the Etsy Design Awards.
I started my company shortly after graduating from University and as a result, I had very little business experience. A creative first and foremost, part of me always knew there would always be gaps in my knowledge that could be a game-changer for my company. After more than a decade of growing my business organically and at a steady pace, I thought it was time to see how I could accelerate our growth whilst still maintaining our meaning. So here enters the Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups programme.
At the first group session with Rasheed Ogunlaru, Getting Ready for Growth, I met members of my cohort and it was so inspiring to hear their stories as well as share my own. What really resonated with me from that session was when Rasheed said something along the lines of “this isn’t about giving up the part of your business you’re most passionate about.” I immediately thought about how I had begun to outsource the creative side of things recently, becoming more of an art director rather than painter/designer for upcoming collections. This was the reason I had started my business more than a decade ago - to create unusual, beautiful illustrations for interior spaces - but the more the brand grew, the more I felt I should be focussing on other aspects. This was a big light bulb moment for me.
I really like how the course is structured, where each session leads into the next. We began with a business model workshop and then our first one-to-one session, which allowed me to really step back and see my business structure from a bird’s eye view. Then at my one-to-one with Robert Foster from Red Ochre, we delved deeply into my business structure and worked together to create a detailed plan of what to do next.
One of the main things that arose during our session was that I felt spread too thin. As founder and director of a company, it can feel like you have to not only oversee everything but do most of it too, when actually a lot of the tasks could be delegated to my team members. Robert suggested I create a delegation stack to help me categorise tasks into ones I can delegate, automate, divest or outsource. Once I’d done this exercise, I found I’d freed up lots of my time already.
As a high-end wallpaper company, we’ve always paid lots of attention to branding as it is an integral part of the quality and craftsmanship we portray. Our message has always been creating luxury, innovative and dreamy wall coverings for the home. During my workshop with ABA Design, I was presented with the personality archetypes. It was here I discovered there were more elements to our brand personality and I was able to refine it even further, making it easier for us to feed all our designs into our values.
Our archetypes were ‘the creator’, ‘the explorer’ and ‘the magician’. I always felt like creativity was integral to our brand, and with exploration, this definitely ties into the adventurous element of our designs, as well as my constant experimentation with new technologies in the design process of our wallpapers. The magician part surprised me the most but makes a lot of sense; many of our designs contain magical elements, such as a bear riding a crane or flying hands that look like birds in mid-flight.
Over the past few years, I have noticed a clear trend, where our company’s growth is directly linked to the release of new collections. As a result, I made it my priority to release collections more frequently and bring in help to facilitate faster product launches. During my product and service innovation session with Fluxx, we discussed how I could make this process more efficient. They suggested I should write down every step involved in the development of a product so I can see how much involvement is necessary from me at each step. From there, I can decide where I can bring in help, tighten up the process and minimise my workload, so it can be focussed elsewhere. This really helped me to oversee a very integral element of the business that will enable us to accelerate our growth.
I have very much enjoyed the first half of the programme and feel it has already brought tangible benefits to my business. I am more confident about the direction we need to take as a brand and how we can grow with our core values in mind. If you would like to explore our designs and keep up to date with our journey please follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.
In a month’s time you will hear from me again about the second half of the programme.
Until then, wishing you all lots of magical moments!'
20 October 2020
In the Summer of 2019, Aleksandra had just been made redundant: ‘It was a painful experience,’ she says now, ‘and even more painful that I was not able to find a new job. I went to the Job Centre, but they told me they couldn’t help me searching for a job in the field I had worked in before. It was a totally new experience for me.’ Thinking about ways in which she could turn her practical skills and passion for yoga into something that could provide her with a salary, she stumbled across a programme, Start-ups in London Libraries, in her local library in Waltham Forest. ‘I could learn new skills, and get support. I attended all the workshops and it was breath-taking how in no time I learned about all the practicalities so I could move on and test my business idea. So many people have ideas, but they do not know there is a treasure box in the reach of their fingertips. It is free and highly professional, effective and tailored-made for each individual, each business idea.’
Here we spoke to Aleksandra, now the proud owner of the company Happy Stance Yoga Therapy, about her business, her newly discovered purpose in life and her experience of the ‘treasure box’ that is the Start-ups in London Libraries programme.
Can you tell us a bit about your business idea?
My idea was to create a specialised yoga and meditation programme to improve the quality of life for older people. At the moment there are 12 million people aged 65+ in the UK. Among all developed EU countries, the seniors here have the shortest life expectancy and the unhealthiest lifestyle. I definitely thought I could help here. Healthy ageing is the focus of WHO and the UN and they have made a global call to action – for the decade of healthy ageing, 2020-2030. So what better time than now, as we enter into this decade, to create a business that focuses on assisting healthy ageing?
Why did you want to start up a business? What was your motivation?
I really love to help however I can and I like to use my existing skill set, but I also like to learn new things. I can say now that being made redundant was a blessing in disguise. Since I decided not to pursue my journalistic career, it became obvious that I should do something with my yoga teacher role. There are so many already existing yoga studios and gyms, but I have found out from talking to people and a couple of my private students that these venues are usually not age-friendly, the music is too loud, the tempo and energy in the classes is too intimidating and simply not encouraging for the elderly. I thought yoga would be such a nice way to help the elderly stay healthy and socially engaged.
I have always exercised with my grandparents after they suffered from strokes, diabetes, and some reduced mobility issues, and later with my students. Some of who were close to being centenarians! It simply feels good to be able to make positive changes in the lives of older people, their families and their communities.
How did the SiLL programme help?
SiLL was helpful from day one. I gave Sarah [the Waltham Forest Business Champion] permission to remind me of the deadlines for my project schedule we set up together. I tend to get distracted and she was always kind and firm enough in keeping me on track, informing me of any interesting new developments she saw in this field, offering constant supervision and guidance. I was provided with the list of local care homes and organizations I could contact as well as the venues where I could offer my yoga classes.
Defining the process and all its stages were the crucial points for me. I would never have been able to develop my business this quickly without the help of Sarah. She gave me tips for presenting my idea and even kindly offered to go with me to care homes to make an appointment for delivering my trial session as I wasn’t receiving any response. She checked my website, my email signature and my flyers as well as finding and suggesting quiet workspaces in the borough.
Can you tell us a bit about Sarah or the Waltham Forest business community?
I felt thoroughly supported. There was no question I couldn't ask and I always felt that Sarah was really there, in service of the community and I felt complete trust in her guidance and motivation. Her immediate responses to countless emails or LinkedIn messages, networking skills, and also human skills were a huge support for me. She would regularly remind me to take care of myself, have a day off and do something fun and take pride in success I made so far. I would get impatient or unhappy and she would quickly remind me how much I have already progressed, in just two months, in a foreign country, in a foreign language, without family or friends. And then I would take pride in myself and continue my work, my mission of bringing health and happiness to the lives of the elderly.
How did COVID impact your business and how have you pivoted?
Coronavirus affected my business pretty badly. The big studios had resources to adapt much more quickly whereas I was struggling to organise online classes. However, I was able to pivot the business. I opened a Zoom scheduling account to allow me to teach anywhere in the world. This was after years of having an uncompromising belief that yoga requires direct person-to-person connection. Now I see the benefits. My digital sessions focused particularly on elderly people who may have been more isolated than ever during lockdown and centred around mobility and fall prevention to allow for that independence.
What advice would you give anyone looking to start up a business?
I would suggest searching for a mentor is the most valuable asset. Someone who will guide you, support you, but also question your ideas, your strategies, your planning, and priorities. Someone who has soft skills too, to be able not only to instruct you but also tutor, monitor you and tell you that you need counselling if that is the case. Your life experience is also a great asset as you will recognize and accept other people's help and not be too stubborn or too proud to ask for it when needed. Do not be a perfectionist, like me, just start somewhere and work from there.
What are the key things you have learnt while starting up your business?
I have learned that I have strength, capacity, and curiosity to start anew even when the conditions are not very favourable. I must admit that I felt very depressed in summer since I couldn't find a job and I was thinking if I can stay in this country, what will happen with my marriage if I have to go back to Croatia to look for a job. I am going to be 50 next year so that didn't help when looking for a job as everybody was asking for young people. I found my self-worth, I regained self-confidence and I am more engaged than ever with different sectors in the community, searching for the best ways to serve elderly, whom we owe everything, yet they experience a lot of hardship, isolation, even ageism, age-based discrimination, etc. I found out how good I am in networking, doing research and informing people about these issues.
What would you say to anyone looking to go to a SiLL workshop/talk to their local Start-ups Champion?
I would absolutely recommend it. I think of the local start-ups Champions more as leaders since they recognise the potential in everyone, and they offer support during the process, it is not just telling you can do it. They share their authority and accountability, they connect and explore and ask how can we do things better? They listen and they ask the right questions.
To find out more about the Start-ups in London Libraries programme and to register for one of our free workshops, visit bl.uk/SiLL
Innovation and enterprise blog recent posts
- Sonal Keay: A Silk Road to Business Growth
- A week in the life of Amarachi Clarke, founder of Lucocoa Chocolate
- A week in the life of Laura Sheeter, co-founder of Chalk & Blade
- The Women Breaking Barriers in Business
- BIPC Style Guide
- The Pandemic Business Boom
- Innovating for Growth Diary Part 2 - Sian Zeng
- A week in the life of James Seager, Company Director of Les Enfants Terribles
- Innovating for Growth Diary - Sian Zeng
- Meet Aleksandra Horwood, founder of Happy Stance Yoga and Start-ups in London Libraries participant