Diving into business - Five things I've learnt along the way
I was hugely privileged to have recently been invited to speak at not one but two industry events to share what I’ve learned over the past twelve years of running my own business. The first was a day aimed at helping new greeting card publishers to get started in the industry (this was particularly special as I was amongst them at the same event twelve years ago) and the second was hosted by the Giftware Association to help and support women in the giftware industry.
I’m not a natural public speaker so I’m always a little nervous at the run up to these events, and never sure that what I’m saying will be useful, but I had some lovely feedback and thought I’d distil my speech into a blog post in the hope that it might be helpful to more people thinking of starting a business or already running one of their own.
1. Define your vision and your values
When I first started Wrendale I had a secret ambition - I wanted to build a brand that would become a household name and I wanted to have a stockist in every town in the UK. For the first five years this vision drove me forward but it was pretty much just in my head and to be honest I would probably have been too embarrassed to say it out loud. A few years ago we did some work with a brilliant business consultant who helped me to refine and expand this into a clear vision and to develop a strategy on how to achieve it. We now share our vision with our team and it really helps to keep us all focused on making sure that every decision is driving us towards our goals.
Again, I always had a good idea of what my personal values were and the values that defined the standards of the business, but it made a big difference actually defining them and getting them out of my head and on to paper. It really helped us to make the transition from a small business, where I was involved in every decision and knew pretty much everything that was happening throughout the business to having department heads with their own teams, making their own decisions. Having our values defined and making sure that all of the team shared these values has meant that it is much easier to make sure they are upheld across the business. It has become second nature to ask the question when we are meeting someone new to the business, whether it is a new supplier or someone coming for an interview - do they share our values? Are they a ‘Wrendale person’? The result is a team of lovely people that are passionate about what they do and create a lovely, happy place to work.
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff
I think it’s an inevitability when you run a business that things will definitely go wrong. And things will definitely happen that will discourage you. One of the first agents that I contacted and sent a sample of some cards to posted them back to me a few weeks later (along with an order from one of his customers) with a letter saying that he didn’t think they would be a success. I can’t tell you how deflated I felt that someone with years of experience in the industry thought that my business would fail. I’ve also made countless mistakes, many of which have been expensive. We’ve had typos and font fails and I’ve painted designs that I loved and have totally bombed. I used to let these things get to me far more than they do now - if I feel myself getting sucked down the rabbit hole stressing about things that seem big at the time but in the long run are small fry, I remind myself to suck it up and move on, and not to waste energy or time worrying.
3. Know your why
When I first started Wrendale, I knew exactly why I was starting the business. We had no money, I was bored to tears in my job that I was struggling to juggle with raising two young babies and caring for my mum with terminal cancer. I urgently needed a job that provided me with some enjoyment and flexibility and I felt that working for myself was my best option.
Over the years, my ‘why’ has changed and now there are two key things that get me out of bed in a morning and both of these ‘whys’ are about purpose rather than profit. I studied zoology at University and have always had a strong affinity with nature, and over the years we have increasingly focused on how to make the business more sustainable. We’ve met the criteria for B Corp and are currently going through the assessment process. More than this, the success of Wrendale has enabled us to turn our unproductive, low lying family farm into a 300 acre rewilding project and we are now in the process of using the profits we have made from Wrendale to purchase some more unproductive land to return to nature. I am absolutely passionate about this and am so proud to be able to give back in this way.
My second why is about my team. Other than my painting, I am all too aware that this business has very little to do with me any more - its success is down to the amazing people we employ and I see it as a way to make their lives better. We do everything we can to make Wrendale a place that people want to work. As part of this, we introduced a four day working week with no pay sacrifice after a six month trial that resulted in better physical and mental wellbeing. It sounds like a cliche but our staff refers to themselves as the Wrendale family and this is just how it feels.
4. Be kind to yourself
Starting your own business, whatever industry it may be in isn’t easy. The last ten years have really felt like being on a rollercoaster and while there have been so many amazing highs, they have come along with some awful lows where a bad review or a passing comment has sent me spiralling down, thinking that everything is about to collapse around me and suddenly the weight of responsibility - the families of our staff that rely on us, the stockists that have invested their trust in our brand, the customers who have spent their money on our products - seems very heavy. But then like an addict seeking the next high I find myself pushing onto the next challenge to deliver the next exciting thrill. It’s not an easy way to live and I wish I’d taken a bit more time off and been a bit less punishing to myself when things had seemed hard.
5. Enjoy it!
Giftware is a wonderful industry to be in because gifts touch people’s lives at significant moments so it means that you are sharing something really special with people you have never even met. I have received so many lovely messages from people when a design had resonated with them at a time when it meant a lot to them and this is an incredible privilege. It’s too easy to focus on problems and not spend enough time enjoying the lovely feedback that we receive about our service, products and designs. It’s good to have a little reminder to pat yourself on the back and enjoy the good things occasionally!
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