Alice Caroline Ltd: Helen and Alice Sturdy

Sisters are doing it for themselves! Helen and Alice Sturdy tell us how their new fashion accessories business is going

Name: Helen and Alice Sturdy Age: 24 and 28 Business: Alice Caroline Ltd Type of business: Handbag and Accessory Design Start date: 10/02/04 Website: 

When did you first decide you wanted start your own business? We decided to set up the business in January of last year. Helen had just finished a law degree and Alice was finishing off a PhD in breast cancer research. Alice had made some handbags and sold them at the student union in Sheffield and had done really well. We’ve both always been very interested in fashion and design and both wanted a change from the course we had been on.

Tell us about your business We sell handbags and accessories to retail customers via the website and also to trade customers via shows and our brochure.

Was it your first business idea and where did it come from? It was the first time either of us had decided to set up a business from scratch. Helen had had some experience in the retail trade, becoming a partner in a Florist in the year after she left university. It came partly from the confidence we got from the small stalls Alice did in Sheffield but more importantly from feeling like we knew what we wanted to make and knew we could design and make it well. Alice is an extremely good artist and has also always been good at predicting trends as well as having a good scientific brain. Helen has creative strengths but is also good at problem solving and finding a way to make things work.

Was your decision to start a business inspired by any other companies or individuals? Our father is a farmer and a businessman and so we grew up open to the idea of entrepreneurship. Helen’s partner Pete is a successful entrepreneur as well so we certainly did have quite a lot of positive business influences around us. Another big inspiration and guide was a book Alice found called “Anyone can do it” by Sahar and Bobbi Hashemi, the creators of Coffee Republic.

What makes you think there’s a market for your business? We wanted to make a product that we and our friends would want to buy and would be able to afford. We love handbags and just really thought that there is always room for well designed, original and affordable handbags and accessories.

Once you’d decided to start a business, what did you do first? We decided to register as a limited company fairly early on, knowing that that limits our liabilities as individuals and it also lends a bit more credibility to the name. We then decided to set up the website and begin buying fabric and working out how to get the bags made up on a bigger scale than doing them all ourselves.

What research did you do? We already knew a lot about the fashion and shopping side of things. We always read all the fashion magazines and know roughly what’s out there. Likewise we knew a fair amount about sewing and designing having always done it for ourselves.

We also did some research into how people market their products both to trade and retail customers. A friend of Alice’s works in PR and was really helpful on that side of things. She now does all our PR.

What advice did you seek? We heard about business link and did ask them a few things but mostly we wanted to know specific things about manufacture etc which they found it fairly hard to answer.

We talked to local fashion colleges and read quite a few entrepreneur books – Richard Branson’s autobiography is great in terms of making you feel better about any problems you encounter, his were so huge! We did have quite a strong feeling that we didn’t want to talk too much to business advisors etc because we wanted to do things our own way and to discover how to do things based on our own research and discoveries rather than what someone else told us.

It does mean at times it feels like we’re reinventing the wheel but it also means we have a very strong understanding of what we’re doing and of the reasons behind the steps we take.

What other help did you get? The internet is obviously a brilliant and completely essential resource. Talking to lots of different people is also good really good as long as you have confidence enough not to always listen to them.

Does the government need to provide more help to people trying to start a business? Business Link is a really good government resource and I think really probably covers about as much as you could expect the government to do in terms of advice. Financially they provide a bit of a break in that they don’t charge corporation tax on the first £10,000 profit you make which is also good.

The Prince’s Trust is another vital and really good resource for start up businesses in terms of money and advice.

Talk us through the process of writing your business plan. We just worked out what we wanted to know in terms of very roughly how many bags we would have to make to make any money and how much money we might have to invest to begin with.

We also looked at gross margins and cost of sales figures to try and work out whether what we wanted to do was at all financially viable. We also estimated all the potential outlets we could sell to (taking into account the fact that you can’t really sell our sort of product to more than one shop within a given area).

How useful has your business plan been and do you think you’ll stick to it as your business begins to grow? It was definitely useful to begin with because it gave us the confidence to start and feel like we could potentially make something work. We have a reasonably strong picture in our heads of what we need to do next to keep up and on top of things so our plan is constantly evolving in our heads. Financially, our initial business plan is less and less useful since it was based on figures really plucked out of the air.

We had no idea what our actual sales would be and what would affect those figures. We keep re-doing it every so often, inputting new figures and looking at new possible scenarios.

How much did it cost to start the business? Our initial investment was relatively low, owing to the nature of the business. There were no large capital investments to make really. Our initial outlay was on the fabric and the manufacture of the first lot of bags which came to about £2000 if that.

We have invested a lot more than that since then but it has always been an outlay and then some kind of return from sales, never a huge capital payout.

How did you fund this? We funded it mostly from our own savings and also from a loan from our father. We were very lucky to have had that backing from the start.

Similarly, how are you funding your running costs until the business takes off?In the same way. We also have a nice bank manager and an overdraft facility.

Have you made any provisions for business not being as prosperous as expected? We did a worst case scenario sales projection to see what state we’d be in financially if we sold very little. Because our initial outlay didn’t need to be too big, we have been able to build up as we go along and have never really had a massive debt hanging over us. Thankfully our sales have been a lot better than our worst case. If they hadn’t been then I guess we would have had to keep borrowing and keep a close eye on why things weren’t doing so well..

When did you stop working? Helen stopped working in February last year to work full time for the business. Alice has just started to work full time for the business having been working as a PhD student. Working for yourself is great in so many ways but I definitely don’t think it’s for everyone. For a start it’s pretty lonely a lot of the time. It’s just got to the point where we have taken someone on to come in a couple of times a week to help with packing orders etc but up until now, we’ve been doing everything ourselves, on our own.

Are you working from home or from premises? We currently work from Helen’s home in Northamptonshire. Working from home is great in lots of ways, you get up later than you would normally have to since there’s no travelling to do and you can cuddle the kitten at lunch time etc!

Ultimately as the business grows, we will have to move to an office somewhere if only for the sake of more space. Alice has quite a long drive to get here as well which is far from ideal.

How many hours are you working at the moment? We work about 45 hours a week at the moment – things are fairly quiet. We have worked a lot more than that when we’ve had a lot of orders to get out and when there are shows on. We’ve gone through periods of not having a day off (ie. not even weekends) for 3 weeks at a time. We’ve also had periods where we could have a day off a week – it varies a lot.

How are you managing your day and what steps have you taking to ensure you’re able to get everything done without working around the clock? You have to be fairly good at switching off at a certain point. We started off putting so much pressure on ourselves to do things immediately but now we have trained ourselves to be able to leave things that could be done now but could also wait til the next day. We have recently had to take on someone to help out a couple of times a week.

What about staff, is it just you? It is just us, Julie who helps out a couple of times a week, and the seamstresses who make up some of the bags for us who are all self-employed.

Is the amount of red tape that comes with taking on an employee something that concerns you? All the people we employ are self-employed which means we don’t have to have a PAYE system. This is not a particularly difficult system but it does cut out one more level of work not to have it.

What marketing and advertising have you done so far? We have not paid for much advertising so far but have tried to get free editorial coverage in papers and magazines. We have someone brilliant who does our PR for us and we send brochures and samples to lots of different people.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months time? We hope to expand our customers and build up an equally strong wholesale and retail side to the business.

What are the main obstacles to growth? Cashflow is always a bit of an obstacle – in order to grow you have to have money which you will hopefully get back but you need to have it there to invest in the first place.

How do you plan to overcome these? We have always tried to let the business grow steadily and have tried not to let every day budget worries obscure the big picture. This is obviously easier said than done but I think one of the biggest things is not being afraid of getting into a manageable amount of debt and also expect to lose some money to start with until things start to get going.

Tell us about your website. Our website is very important because it is the only way in which we get retail sales. It is also the first thing that people look at when researching your company and products.

We designed and made the website ourselves. We thought it would be good to be able to update it as and when things happened and also thought it would be a good way to learn a new skill.

What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do? Our main ambitions in starting the business were to be independent , to be doing something that inspired us and that we really enjoyed and also to make money! The more we get into it, the more we realise that making money on a big scale is quite unlikely and even if it is possible, you have got to enjoy what you’re doing on the way because it takes a long time and a lot of hard work.

What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you’d done differently? The hardest thing has probably been getting contacts and establishing the processes involved, having known nothing about the industry before we got into it.

We have made mistakes, inevitably but we don’t really have any big regrets, yet!

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business? You have to have common sense, not be afraid to try things and take risks and believe in your product. You also have to be prepared to work really hard and to really want to get it right.

So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business? Don’t be afraid. If you believe in your product, don’t be put off by other people and their horror stories!

I would only ever go into business with someone I knew very well. Having more than one person involved is a really good idea, though, because it is great to be able to share the worries and difficult times as well as the really good ones.


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