Sophie and Grace Lingerie: Michael Huber

Michael Huber wishes that he had started running his own business 10 years ago instead of attempting to scramble up the corporate ladder when his heart wasn't in it. However, he has now put the web skills he learned in industry to good use by setting up Sophie and Grace, an online lingerie business.

Name: Michael Huber Age: 30 Business: Sophie & Grace Lingerie Ltd Type of business: Online Lingerie sales Start date: October 2005

When did you first decide you wanted to start your own business? I have always known that I would work for myself. Although I went to university and set out along a career path I never felt right doing this. I never liked the idea of someone else getting more reward for my hard work than me.

Tell us about your business. I sell high-end lingerie via my purpose built website. My last job was in search engine marketing so I knew that online sales were the way I wanted to go. I chose lingerie for a couple of reasons, low bulk and weight for storage and postage reasons, high value and high online search volumes to tap into.

Was it your first business idea and where did it come from? This was not my first idea but it was the first to have great potential in an expanding market along with relatively low start-up costs and overheads. The huge search volumes of people looking to buy lingerie online rather than just to ogle triggered the first thoughts.

Was your decision to start a business inspired by any other companies or individuals? I was inspired by older family members, including my parents and in-laws who had succeeded in self-employment starting from much more disadvantaged positions than myself. They had begun without qualifications, support or anyone to advise them, but now enjoyed fantastic control of their time and lives.

What makes you think there's a market for your business? I can see other people being successful when only doing an average job. So by using my skills and doing a better job more efficiently I know I can rise over them and become a market leader.

Once you'd decided to start a business, what did you do first? I research to discover if there was a market and what niche was not being catered for. Then I asked myself if I could fill it and how much it would cost me?

What research did you do? I searched online databases, government statistics sites, spoke to people in related but not competitive lines of business. I even viewed a similar business with a view to buying it in order to ask questions and get tips.

What advice did you seek? I used business link and found them good for asking questions of your plans not approving them. I found I had to chase them a lot and I suffered from being in an area that was not well resourced, but they put me on to a number of grant schemes and helped me avoid a few potential banana skins.

What other help did you get? At the time of starting, my mother was selling her business and looking to semi-retire. She joined the business as an equal partner and oversees all the accounts, legal issues, tax, PAYE and VAT, as she has done these things for a long time. This takes a huge weight off my mind and gives me someone to bounce ideas off - self-employment can be very lonely at times.

Does the government need to provide more help to people trying to start a business? If so, what should they do? They could make it easier to start-up. You have to register with so many bodies, all threatening fines for failure to comply with things you have no idea about. I was lucky to have an experienced person with me, but we still found it a bit of minefield.

Talk us through the process of writing your business plan. I wrote my business plan using a free pack I got from the bank. I also read plans that had been submitted to competitions online for guidance. It forced me to address difficult questions and prepare for scenarios. It was hard work and took a while to write but was worth the effort in the end.

How useful has your business plan been and do you think you'll stick to it as your business begins to grow? I find it a good reminder to focus on what I set out to do although it should be a constant work in progress as things change very quickly and reality can be very different to the theory. The principles and theory still stand up though.

How much did it cost to start the business? £40,000

How did you fund this? My own savings and equal investment from my business partner.

Similarly, how are you funding your running costs until the business takes off? My overheads are very low so we started to cover our running costs by month three, however this does not include my wages.

Have you made any provisions for business not being as prosperous as expected? I have my remaining savings to live off until I can afford to pay myself. I find the fear of losing my money and somebody else's a huge motivator to succeed each day.

When did you stop working? I stopped being employed straight away and began doing freelance work in order to generate an income as well as giving me greater flexibility with my time. When this was thin on the ground I filled in with a bit of decorating and manual work to keep my bank balance ticking over. I was able to work on the business during the evenings.

Are you working from home or from premises? I began working from home but found this hard due to constant distractions by family when I was trying to make calls etc. I knew I would need somewhere to hold my stock as well. I discovered a disused office above a butchers shop which was in a terrible state. I got two months rent-free due to the state of the place. However, a couple of gallons of paint later and I have clean and dry place to work and keep my stock there for £140 per month.

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? I have a big list on my desk of things that need doing. I do the most urgent things first and the rest gets carried over until tomorrow. Anything that involves bringing in money is always my first priority. I currently work between 40 and 50 hours a week but I have the ability to be flexible. So I drop my children off at school and nursery in the mornings and I am home at tea time so I am there to put them to bed. After that I do another hour or so.  

What about staff, is it just you? I work alone on a day to day basis, I hope to get busier in the future and then I will need staff. Working alone is something I find hard at times.

Is the amount of red tape that comes with taking on an employee something that concerns you? It is a concern, but as my partner is an experienced employer it is a reassurance.

What marketing and advertising have you done so far? Mainly online, through Google adwords, Overture and Shopzilla. Our long-term focus is good natural search listings through search engine optimisation.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months time? Earning a salary and looking seriously to grow the company's presence in the UK.

What are the main obstacles to growth? Search engine rankings.

How do you plan to overcome these? These are being addressed through a long term Search Engine Optimisation program which looks very promising so far. 

Tell us about your website. The website is the business. It was built and designed by a team of guys I had known for a while. The site was built to be ultra search engine friendly, every piece of content, colour and image was considered. The site was even built in the same programming language that Google itself is built in. All this had to be incorporated without affecting the design, feel and functionality of the site. There is no point attracting lots of traffic if you are unable to convert it to sales.

What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do? The main drive behind being self-employed is to create a good work-life balance. I would like to get a situation where I can provide a suitable income combined with the flexibility to enjoy free time with my family.

What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you'd done differently? The whole process has been difficult but I suppose that's why everybody isn't self-employed. The only thing I wish I had done is to start this ten years ago rather than play corporate ladders, chasing a career I didn't really want because I thought I shouldn't let my degree go to waste.

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business? You need to be self motivated, hard working (no substitute for this I'm afraid), focused on what you want as well as why you want it.

So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business? I think you mustn't be afraid to fail – this will stop you doing anything. Be prepared to work harder than you've ever worked before for less money than you've ever earned. Above all you need to believe in yourself and everytime you suffer a set back and we all have loads, just stand up dust yourself off and keep going because nobody else will do it for you.


(will not be published)