My supplier stole £30,000 from my business – now it’s worth over £1 million

Founder of Dotty Fish, Helen Chapman tells us how her Amazon shoe business became a global empire - and the fraudster who nearly toppled it.

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Starting an ecommerce business with no experience may sound daunting, but it’s not impossible. My own journey is a testament to this. As a mum wanting to spend more time with my kids, I set up a business called Dotty Fish; a range of leather baby shoes and accessories that are stylish, affordable, and suitable for little feet as they grow and develop.

I knew first-hand that finding baby shoes that look good, are practical, and are reasonably priced can be a challenge for parents. After receiving leather baby booties as a gift after my son’s birthday, I was in love but during competitor analysis, I found that similar, high-quality shoes were too expensive.

I took matters into my own hands and decided to research how to design and make a more affordable shoe. Like many women, I bootstrapped Dotty Fish and started with just £1,000 in savings. Once I found my first supplier, I ordered the first 500 pairs of shoes, creating my business on the living room floor.

Over the years, Dotty Fish has evolved and reached new heights. We now sell worldwide and turn over £1 million in annual revenue. But every entrepreneur knows that starting a business comes with challenges and you must be adaptable. I had to learn that lesson the hard way.

“My supplier stole £30,000 from me”

Dotty Fish was ticking along until the 2009 financial crisis. Like millions of others, my husband and I had a mortgage with Northern Rock, which collapsed in the crisis.

Essentially overnight, we found out we somehow needed to cover the damages ourselves. My husband was concerned that I would need to go back to work, but I felt sure that my business plan could work and bring in the extra cash.

After sourcing a factory to scale up production, I began selling shoes for a low price. However, in 2010, another disaster hit – my supplier told me that he’d lost my latest order and it would take longer than usual. Next, his wife died. Then, he said he’d broken his back.

It soon became clear that he’d taken my money – over £30,000. 

I effectively had to start from scratch. It was an incredibly challenging time and I had to think of new ideas and avenues to keep cash flow positive; knowing that I couldn’t cut any corners.

During that dark period, I held onto the reason I first started – which was to be my own boss and spend more time with my family. My view is that if you adapt you will survive and that’s exactly what we did.

“We realised Dotty Fish would change our lives”

I knew I had to be more careful about who we worked with. I took out a £45,000 loan on the house and had a rule that I wouldn’t use a factory that I couldn’t see in person. Now, I make sure to visit any factory I use multiple times throughout the year.

In 2010, we converted the garage and recruited our first member of staff. We also doubled down on attending baby shows which helped get our products out there. Then, in 2011 we began selling on Amazon – which was a game changer for our growth.

Online is the go-to place for many shoppers today. As a small business, having an Amazon store is a great way to broaden your reach, improve your delivery options, and export around the world.

I was introduced to exporting to the EU through Amazon in 2012 and it practically took off overnight. The surge in demand from Italy and Germany was crazy and we soon realised that Dotty Fish was going to change our lives. Today, Amazon accounts for 75% of our sales.

“Don’t be afraid of selling abroad”

I’d advise small businesses not to be afraid of selling abroad. When I first started I didn’t realise the power of the internet and never thought we’d get to where we are now. But we’ve managed to answer a real customer need – and that’s one of the most important things you need to start a successful business.

Being customer-focused is essential for operating abroad. To attract buyers, first consider what they’re actually looking for in their customer journey, rather than what you think they might want.

I have also found that it’s important to remember that different markets may prefer different products, so always think about how to present your listings when expanding internationally. As a global business, our UK listing can’t simply be replicated for another market – we ensure our product offering is targeted.

Ecommerce is exciting, fast-moving and ever-changing. But with the right driving force, and the ability to be agile in your thinking, the online world is your oyster.

Helen Chapman square
Helen Chapman, Founder and MD of Dotty Fish

Helen Chapman founded Dotty Fish which sells leather, podiatry-tested baby shoes and slippers in 2006 with just £1,000 in savings and no ecommerce experience. Helped by Amazon, Helen strategically expanded Dotty Fish's reach worldwide, transforming it into a thriving million-pound business.

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