Signature Balloons: Rachel Brown

Inspired by her entrepreneurial brother and frustrated the lack of recognition in her job, Rachel Brown decided to set up her own balloon gift business

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Name: Rachel Brown
Age: 34
Business: Signature Balloons –
Type of business: Gifts by post
Start date: Via Internet – April 23rd 2004

Inspired by her entrepreneurial brother and frustrated the lack of recognition in her job, Rachel Brown decided to set up her own balloon gift business.

When did you first decide you wanted to start your own business?

Over the last few years I began to think that the only way to be truly satisfied is to work for yourself. I didn’t like the lack of recognition for my effort so when I took maternity leave in October last year, I thought it was high time for a total change!

I have also been spurred on by my brother who has achieved his dream of becoming a millionaire before he was 40 by working for himself.

Tell us about your business

Our core business is sending out helium-filled, foil balloons with gifts such as chocolates, teddy bears and gift vouchers for every occasion – birthday, new baby, anniversary, graduation, good luck, to name but a few.

The gifts are delivered anywhere in the UK by Royal Mail’s Special Delivery service, guaranteeing next day delivery.

We also offer a decorating service in the Southampton/New Forest areas, decorating venues from Country Hotels to Village Halls and we organise balloon releases/races for fundraising or to celebrate an important occasions.

Was it your first business idea and where did it come from?

My husband and I had considered a variety of franchises but were put off by having to pay a fee to a third party. We wanted to be directly rewarded for our efforts.

The idea of balloon gifts was born when I was looking for something different to send to my friend who had just had a baby, just over two years ago.

I saw you could purchase balloons to carry a message, such as a huge baby foot shape with “It’s a boy!” on it and thought “What a neat idea!” and my friend’s reaction confirmed it.

Adding a box of chocolates and/or Mothercare vouchers and/or a wrist rattle made the gift so much more substantial – something for baby and something for the new parents.

What makes you think there’s a market for your business?

The fact that I sent my friend a bouquet of balloons when her son was born and she then sent a balloon to her friend who sent one to her friend and so on…. It’s a snowball effect.

Once you’d decided to start a business, what did you do first?

Contacted both Business Link and HSBC, my bank for many years, for advice.

What research did you do?

It’s very difficult to get any facts and figures as many of the companies are not limited and many are ‘one man bands’ and a lot of balloon companies specialise in decoration only.

However, we talked to lots of people in the industry and trawled through many websites of other balloon and gift companies. Having said that, our decision came down to a ‘hunch’.

What advice did you seek?

Did you approach any of the government advice centres such as Business Link? Yes. I approached Business Link a few years ago and was given a lot of information on start-ups, such as case studies, which I found very interesting and encouraging.

However, in full-time employment, it was hard to make a step into the self-employed world and ended up sending out balloons and decorating venues more as favours in my spare time.

That changed when I took maternity leave. I went back to Business Link and was offered a grant to create a website.

Although I applied for the grant in 2003, the decision to offer me the money wasn’t given until early January 2004 – just a week after I’d had my baby!! I was then given an 8 week deadline to get the website up and running in order to secure the funds. Does the government need to provide more help to people trying to start a business? I think free access to Tax/VAT advisors for SME’s would be really helpful. For instance, at our local library, there are tax advisors available to discuss personal issues for a couple of hours each month.

How much did it cost to start the business?

Approximately £12,000

How did you fund this?

From savings and from a government grant.

Are you working from home or from premises?

I’m currently working from home so that I can work around my baby. So far, it works well although the house isn’t as tidy as it used to be!

I work from our spare room and with a non-geographic (0870) number, I don’t think anyone questions it. I make calls when the baby is asleep or with the child-minder.

As business increases, we’ll have to consider premises as our house won’t cope with the number of boxes we’d ideally like to be sending out.

How many hours are you working at the moment?

Every spare moment possible in between eating, sleeping and caring for my daughter!

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?

Thankfully our baby is in a good routine but even so, work has to be fitted in around her and that means working until the work is done – whenever that may be.

What about staff, is it just you?

It’s just me at the moment with a lot of support from my husband. The only difficulty I find is in answering the telephone and sometimes I have to wait for the right time to call back. Thankfully, 99% of our business is via the internet so calls are minimal. As orders increase, it may be necessary to take on someone to fulfil them.

Is the amount of red tape that comes with taking on an employee something that concerns you?

Yes. I’d take every bit of advice going from Business Link, Job Centres, my husband who is in HR and any other sources.

What marketing and advertising have you done so far?

We have both online and traditional marketing strategies. We’ve signed up to several search engines and have ‘Pay per click’ accounts with Google and Yahoo. We have also had 60,000 flyers printed and some of these have been distributed in newspapers. A flyer is also put in with each gift, offering the recipient £2 off their first order.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months time?

Perhaps in our own premises, with an employee to fulfil orders. We’d also like some corporate business – perhaps advertising agencies or new home builders who would like to use balloons to thank the new owners.

What are the main obstacles to growth?

Costs – we can only grow as fast as our income allows as we’d like to avoid borrowing.

Time – With my husband in full-time employment and myself essentially a full-time mother, growth will inevitably be slower than for a business that has 100% undivided attention.

Tell us about your website. How important is it to your business?

The website is essential to our business – our ‘shop’ is now open 24 hours and day, 7 days a week. It was designed by Zeta Commerce Ltd in Weymouth – a company recommended by Business Link.

The site needed to be fun without being tacky as well as professional to appeal to both the ‘corporate’ and ‘private’ market. It needed to show what we sell which means lots of images but we had to bear in mind that images can be slow to load for many people so we had to strike a balance.

After just a short period of time, we’re finding we’d like to make small changes such as perhaps having a more sales focus. For instance, bigger ‘Order now’ buttons and perhaps special offers or packages on the front page. We’d actually like the ability to change areas of the home page in order to keep visitors’ interest, however, this is likely to be costly.

What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do?

I think I’d like to strike a balance. My ambition is to make the same amount of money before I took maternity leave. However, if we can achieve the salary equivalent to a part-time job and see my daughter develop, I’d be pleased.

My ideal would be to take enough money so that my husband could quit his job and we could be in business together – I think we have complimentary skills.

What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you’d done differently?

I wish the timing had been very different! The difficulty has been coping with the tiredness and the steep learning curve of having a baby and meeting the deadline imposed by Business Link for receiving the grant.

I also wish there hadn’t been such a short time limit to creating the website as that coincided with the early weeks of parenthood when we were experiencing long nights and much crying! Having said that, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise in that had that deadline not been imposed, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today as there’s always a reason to put things off!

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business?

To see everything through the customer’s eyes, to be persistent, positive, have faith and above all retain a sense of humour.

So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business?

Go for it! Get as much advice as you can from as many sources as possible. Expect the worst and anything else will be a bonus.

Thanks a lot and the very best of luck. Will you come back and tell us how you’re getting on in six months’ time?

Would love to.

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