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BigFatBalloons.co.uk: Sophie Baxter

Sophie Baxter explains how medical complications drove her to set up an online business

Name: Sophie Baxter Age: 30 Business: BigFatBalloons.co.uk (www.BigFatBalloons.co.uk) Type of business: Online gift shop selling teddy bears and helium-filled balloons for special occasions Start date: August 2006

When medical problems got in the way of her day-to-day life, Sophie Baxter took matters into her own hands and set up a business with husband Tim. Using their collective web design experience the couple created an online gift shop

When did you first decide you wanted to start your own business? In 2004, just before Christmas. I was out with my children and a friend when I passed out in a café. I’d had a fit and, consequently, I lost my driving licence for a year and suffered various health problems such as memory loss and severe fatigue. At the time my husband Tim and I were running a website design business and building e-commerce sites for clients. We’d always fancied the idea of running our own online shop. Given the circumstances, it seemed ideal to start something that involved less travelling. We also wanted to build a business that could eventually be run by employees if one of us was unable to work.

Tell us about your business, where did the idea come from? I first came across the helium balloon in a box idea when I received one after the birth of my first child. It was a great gift, unusual, unexpected and cheerful; it also kept my newborn son entertained – not to mention his dad! A few months later, I ordered a balloon bouquet for a friend’s 50th birthday and she loved it. In fact, she still talks about it today. It seemed such a good idea that we decided to look into it from a commercial point of view. After completing a great deal of research, Tim and I decided we could make it work and created BigFatBalloons.co.uk – an online shop selling helium balloons, teddy bears and gifts.

Was your decision to start a business inspired by any other companies or individuals? After leaving university I took a job in a large company. I soon realised that corporate life was not for me and I wanted to do something more flexible and motivating. From there, setting up my own business was a logical step. I am forever reading biographies of entrepreneurs and business books and I have been inspired by many of them.

What makes you think there’s a market for your business? The growth in the greeting card, teddy bear and small gift market has been consistent over the past few years, more and more people shop online too.

Once you’d decided to start a business, what did you do first? I started to look at competitors and suppliers to find out what other people were doing and how easy it would be to source the products. I also looked at what type of margins we could expect and rough running costs.

What research did you do?We looked at published market sector data and presented the idea to as many people as we could.

Talk us through the process of writing your business planRather than writing a formal business plan – which was not necessary as we founded the venture with our own saving – I simply outlined what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it on paper. Planning helps you focus and gives you a vision of what you are trying to create. However, I also think it is important to be quick and adaptable with a new business – we simply review what works and what doesn’t and adapt our general goals on a regular basis.

How much did it cost to start the business? About £4,000, but there was a lot of unpaid work involved as we built the website ourselves.

How did you fund this? We were able to fund the website out of our own savings.

Similarly, how are you funding your running costs until the business takes off? With more savings – although we are aiming to break even, and build the business slowly.

Have you made any provisions for business not being as prosperous as expected? There is no financial pressure at the moment and I currently work part time on Big Fat Balloons – If things don’t go as expected we’ll have to think again and look at how we can move the business in the right direction.

Are you working from home or from premises? I am currently working from home – which is great as getting to work takes seconds rather than hours, so it is very time efficient. However the stock of balloons, boxes and teddy bears for the business is taking up a lot of room, so we will need to move to an industrial unit at some stage.

How many hours are you working at the moment? I’m currently working between 20 and 25 hours a week.

How are you managing your day and what steps have you taken to ensure you’re able to get everything done without working around the clock?We use an outside receptionist service – they take messages and place telephone orders for us. They are a great time saver and allow us to present a professional image at all times – evenings and weekends included.

What about staff, is it just you? There are two of us – it would be great to have some staff to carry out some of the day-to-day tasks so we can focus more on strategy and business development.

Is the amount of red tape that comes with taking on an employee something that concerns you? No, I will make sure I get appropriate guidance and advice.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months time? Working full time on Big Fat Balloons and earning a decent income from it, having built a solid customer base to expand the business further.

What are the main obstacles to growth? A limited marketing and advertising budget is the main hurdle.

How do you plan to overcome these? By being creative – using my website design skills to bring in good search engine traffic and using PR as a more cost-effective alternative to advertising. Patience is also key; no one builds a business overnight.

Tell us about your websiteThe website is our shop window so it is essential to our business. We designed it ourselves but unless you are professional web designers like we are, I would recommend employing someone to do it. We wanted the website to project a fun, friendly image and be simple to use. I spent hours reading about how to build e-commerce websites, studying best practice and surfing through successful sites. Writing detailed product descriptions for over 200 products was hard work too, and we paid great attention to the wording throughout the site.

What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do?Ideally, I want to enjoy what I do and earn a comfortable leaving in the process. I have two small children, so it’s important for me to spend plenty of time with them.

What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you’d done differently? It can be lonely at times, especially when things don’t go to plan, which inevitably happens. But I’d probably do the same again, making mistakes is normal and it’s part of the learning process.

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business? You need to be independent, like to take risks (within reason), be creative and determined to succeed. You also need to be curious and ready to learn quickly.

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