By Caprice: Caprice Bourret
The self-taught entrepreneur on breaking through stereotypes and battling with overseas expansion
You’d be forgiven for assuming that building a lingerie line is simple when you have the backing of a successful modelling career and a name that is synonymous with luxury underwear. However, moving into business at the age of 30 was no easy step for model-turned international entrepreneur Caprice, who battled against damning stereotypes to get By Caprice to where it is today.
Learning from the bottom up, Caprice has had to overcome challenges with growth management and overseas expansion, at one point she saw products delivered a month late and £500,000 worth of stock returned to the UK.
With products including swimwear, bedding and nightwear now stocked in over 70 stores across 13 countries, Caprice agreed to pass on some of her business knowledge to our followers in a Twitter Takeover.
But first, we caught up with the shrewd entrepreneur, who started By Caprice in 2006 after accepting that her name was not going to be ‘hot’ forever.
You gave your name to a Debenhams range of lingerie in 2000. What part did that play in inspiring you to start-up your own business?
I knew I needed to think of something because I was in my thirties and modelling wasn’t going to last forever, but first I wanted somebody else to take the risk, so I suggested a licensing deal to Debenhams and they went for it. They took a calculated risk and made a fortune.
Other people started to jump on board with licensing deals and I didn’t know how much longer they were going to keep investing in me, because my name wouldn’t be as hot and they could get anyone else they wanted.
I also saw how rich they were becoming off the back of my name and thought, “I want to do that for myself”, so I bought back my license and Debenhams started buying from me and that’s when I started By Caprice Lingerie.
What were the biggest challenges you faced during the start-up phase?
I was ignorant really. I learned from the streets, I had no formal education and I didn’t access the consultants that were available to me. So I had to learn as I went along and it was an expensive lesson – there was one season where the fits weren’t right and the styles were rejected, because I didn’t pay enough attention to the fits.
I put in a lot of hard work and I educated myself. I now know every single intricate part of my business.
You received an exporting grant to support your business early on. Is this something you would advise to other start-ups?
We all pay taxes for God’s sake, why not access it? You’re crazy if you don’t. It’s just lazy not to; go online and research the one that’s applicable to you. I researched for a few months and then it took me another few months to get it.
How did you go about designing a range?
Initially I just designed what I liked, which was very naïve and it didn’t go down very well. So then I started to access the trends and I went to Paris to see what gorgeous laces and embroidery and bows were used. I also listened to my customers to see what they liked. I would look at weekly sales figures and see what blocks were working.
You outsource your factories to China, why did you decide to do this? Any bad experiences?
You get so much out of China: great service, great price, great product.
In China at the moment the workers have just been getting up and leaving, so I had to find a new factory. A different factory asked to sample for me, so I went with them but they let me down badly – production was late.
Luckily my old factory has opened up a new one and started paying its workers more, so I went back to them.
How do you exercise quality control?
I travel out to China four times a year. We have a quality control manager in China and I regularly chat to them on the phone.
What is your strategy for securing deals with retailers and other department stores?
You have to stalk them, get a meeting and then get them to love your product. At the beginning it was a disaster, because everyone stereotyped me – they were like, “Oh Caprice the model, now she’s selling underwear, this’ll last a year – OK next.”
My numbers eventually convinced them. I was selling a lot for Debenhams, so other department stores went with it and they sold really well.
You’re now stocked in 13 different countries. Was overseas expansion a challenge?
It was very challenging, different countries have different protocols and they can get away with more. It was especially challenging in South Africa – it’s like the Wild West over there. £500,000 worth of stock went over there and then they decided to retract the order. You have to pay taxes in England and you have to pay taxes over there and then I had to pay them coming back.
I’m looking to do a license deal over there now; I just need to find somebody that knows how to deal with them. There is tons of money to be made out there. It doesn’t matter that I wouldn’t be getting the maximum money – I’m not a greedy person, I just want my brand out there.
What advice would you give to other small businesses about trading overseas?
Have a rep. I have reps in many of the countries I trade in. They understand the country because they’re from there. They take about 10-15% of the deal, but they get the products in, they secure distribution and they make sure everything is going alright.
How does trading online compare to having your product stocked on the high street?
It’s all about online. Even the high streets’ biggest stores are online – this is now and it’s the future.
Stocking in shops is expensive and the reaction is not as fast, so you can’t reprint it fast. It’s just so much cheaper and more efficient to do it online.
You’ve expanded into swimwear, nightwear and bedding. Did you always want to be a multi-product brand?
I had no bigger plans other than to be the biggest lingerie company in the world and make a fortune, but you have to keep on exploring and expanding.
Would you consider expanding into a sector outside of female fashion industry?
Right now, no way. It takes so much work and time and money to educate yourself. However, I’ll definitely keep expanding in this sector – I want to move into hosiery and maternity.
How do you manage the growth of the company to make sure you don’t push the company beyond its limits?
When I first started I messed up and I expanded way too fast. I took on a huge store (Nordstrom in America) and I couldn’t facilitate it. I delivered the product a month late because I didn’t know what I was doing.
So now I’m just doing it slowly, taking the baby steps and doing it right, because that’s longevity at the end of the day.
How do you manage your finances?
I have 100% equity and I pay for everything myself. I have a great in-house full time bookkeeper and accountant. We carefully monitor everything and it works – we’re making money.
What are the key metrics you like to keep at your fingertips at all times?
I keep an eye on weekly sales to see what’s working and what’s not. I like to know what’s coming in and what’s going out in the next eight months before I implement a big marketing campaign.
Our biggest marketing campaign is around Valentine’s Day and if I have to cut down spending on something else so that I can support that, I will.
You’ve had the advantage of your modelling career to give your company a marketing boost. How do you continue to market yourself?
Initially my former career was a great boost, as it helped me with marketing to launch the brand but now it doesn’t help me as much, because there’s no new story.
I continue to do shows such as Style Wars, where I was a judge, but I don’t really care about the fame side, I just care about marketing my company.
For me I find social media to be much more useful for marketing and everyone can access that – it’s free marketing for everyone. If you want people to take notice you have to be creative.
How involved are you with your business on a day to day basis?
I am in that office every day, micromanaging and making sure everything is running smoothly and when I bring somebody new on board I train them personally.
What do you look for in your staff?
I need somebody educated and excited about the brand.
Experience is everything to me. I used to take on people right out of uni, or people entering the lingerie industry for the first time, but it doesn’t work.
Go for experience – you’ll pay more for them, but you’ll make more.
Have you found it hard to assert yourself as a woman in business?
We’re still living in a man’s world and initially it was difficult – now it’s not so difficult because I have the numbers, so if somebody wants to stereotype me I just think, “How stupid are you? Do your research.”
How have you adapted to suit the change in buyer attitudes since the recession?
I give my customer what they pay for and then some.
You can’t take that extra 15% margin – you have to chuck it back into your brand. You’ve got to have real brand integrity now, because that’s longevity. My margins are only 38-58%, so I have loyal customers.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m not actively looking for an investor, but I think in the near future, I will give a bit of equity away.
I would also expand even further overseas. It would be good to get an investor from overseas. I don’t need their money so much – it’s more their expertise.
We just have to keep on moving, expanding and growing. You cannot afford to stay stagnant, otherwise you die.
Here are some of our favourite tweets from Caprice’s Twitter Takeover
@GaryWayment: I have started to sell my photographs to family and friends and want to know how I can take it further.
Caprice: It’s all about having the confidence to just go for it and don’t forget about a business plan – refer back to it constantly.
And don’t forget your objectives. Look at Wedding Photography too! Go to all the local fairs and sell yourself!!
@BuyMyWardrobe: What is the value of celebrity endorsement for a brand and what’s the best way to approach getting celeb endorsement?
Caprice: It has to be the right celebrity for it to be successful. 1) the media are interested in them, and 2) brand fit. But with the right mix it can have a huge impact on sales!! Once you have someone in mind approach the agents / management.
@farnazkhan: @fitbritches is an innovative underwear brand. Our mission is to be on the hips & lips of all women. Any tips?
Caprice: Wow looks interesting! You’ve got to get your name out there and get into key UK stores.
PR and Marketing is a huge ingredient + building long lasting relationships with your clients is key!
@chloelouise286?: What gave you the confidence to believe you could build a lingerie business yourself?
Caprice: Babes, I came out of my mom’s tummy thinking I could rule the world.
I believed in myself and you can achieve anything you put your mind to if you are positive and are willing to work for it.
Caprice is the founder, designer and CEO of By Caprice products (including By Caprice Lingerie, By Caprice Swim, By Caprice Bedding and By Caprice Sleep).