Ooh La Laa: Elena Souto

Elena Souto's lingerie business is just one week old

In a new addition to Startups, we’ll be going straight to the hub of the action by speaking to entrepreneurs who have literally just started up.

We’ll find out what made them decide to start their own business, how they got it off the ground, the obstacles they’ve overcome and the barriers they still face. We’ll look at their hopes and aspirations for the future, and then, in six months time, we’ll go back and find out how they’re getting on.

Our first profile could hardly be any more recent: Elena Souto’s Ooh La Laa is just one week old.

Name: Elena Souto Age: 26 Business: Ooh La Laa Type of business: Lingerie for the bigger busted lady Start date: September 2002

When did you decide to start your own business?When I left Enfield County School 10 years ago, I knew I wanted to start my business. I was determined to work for myself and set my own challenges. It was just a case of finding the right idea and getting the necessary skills.

Tell us about Ooh La Laa Ooh La Laa provides quality top brand lingerie for the bigger busted lady. Our products are available by mail order from our catalogue or via our website (www.oohlalaa.com). We also offer a gift service so that people can buy our goods as presents for other people.

Was it your first business idea? No, I’m half-Spanish and thought of using my bilingual skills to start up in translation. I also looked at opening a coffee shop, but my heart wasn’t fully in it, so it never happened.

So how did you get the idea for Ooh La Laa? As someone with big boobs I know how hard it can be get pretty lingerie in big sizes. The deciding moment was probably when I went to Mexico and saw all these women bursting out of their underwear. I realised this was a huge problem, both at home and abroad, so I thought, yeah, why not?

What research did you do? I started researching and reading up about starting a business, first. I mostly read magazines and used websites like Startups.

I then went to my local business link in Enfield and enrolled for a number of courses. I did an introductory business course to see if I was suited to running a business, then one on sales and advertising, and one on writing a business plan.

The courses were really helpful, and at just £10 each, were great value. But I found the people I met just as useful as the courses themselves; everybody is in the same boat and you can share advice and use each other for inspiration. My friends have all been really supportive, but only people going through the same thing can fully appreciate your concerns.

I also spoke to other businesses for advice and joined a number of online forums to meet fellow entrepreneurs.

What did you do next? The next step was to write a business plan. A session with one of the Business Link advisors helped with this and I also bought a copy of Palo Alto’s Business Plan software.

How did you raise the startup costs?I got a £5000 interest free loan from Business Link , I sold my car, used my savings and borrowed some money of my mum. My husband is also continuing to work full-time to help support me.

What about the banks? I got rejected for a business loan by one major bank. They didn’t seem interested in me and didn’t believe in the business. But there was no way that was going to deter me, as I’d already done my research by then and had the backing of Business Link who’d took the time to listen to my idea properly.

Being rejected by the bank isn’t the end of the world and didn’t make me change a thing.

What other help did you get? None really. I joined the Business Link mentoring service as part of securing the loan and simply researched anything else I needed to know, myself.

I registered Ooh La Laa as a limited company myself to save money. I didn’t know how to do it, but just read up and taught myself. It’s totally unnecessary to pay anyone to do this for you.

When did you stop working?As soon as the Business Link loan came through, that was it. It was a big moment, knowing I was finally going it alone.

You’re working from home at the moment, why?I want to keep my costs as low as possible and carry as much stock as I can. I also don’t need premises at the moment; I have a second bedroom that I use as an office. I’d eventually like to move into warehouse space, though.

How many hours are you working at the moment?I get up early, at about 7.30 and finish working around 10 at night. There’s such a lot to be done, and I do that six days a week. I try to take as much time out as I can, but it’s difficult. When you’re in the pub you can’t help thinking if the round of drinks you’ve just bought should really have been spent on the business. You just have to do your best to strike the right balance, but it is very difficult.

What about staff, is it just you?Yes, I’m the only full-time member of staff but my 17-year-old sister is helping me out part-time and my mum also lends a hand whenever she can.

Are you looking to take somebody else on?Yeah, I think I’ll need to once the business takes off. It can be difficult trying to be in two places at once and it’d be better to have an extra pair of hands, even if it were just to answer the phone.

Is the amount of red tape that comes with taking on an employee something that concerns you?It’s not something I’ve thought about, but as I don’t know anything about it, yes, I suppose it is.

What marketing have you done so far? I’ve sent out 250 press releases to various press sources to get as much publicity as possible. I’ve also been putting in a lot of hours giving out our catalogues and fliers on the street and outside stations.

In the future I’ll probably enrol the help of a marketing company or adviser, but at the moment I can’t afford it.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months’ time?Big enough to have moved into a warehouse unit with more stock and more ranges. I’d like to expand into swimwear.

What are the main obstacles to growth?Money – everything simply costs so much and you have to be realistic.

How do you plan to overcome this?By planning ahead and treading carefully. You can’t do everything at once, but I’ve set myself an advertising budget, a marketing budget, a budget for print costs, and I’ll do my best to stick to them.

I’ve also kept a quarter of my startup funds back and put them in a high interest account in case the business gets into trouble or I want to expand.

Tell us about your website The website is immensely important to the company, as we don’t operate from a shop. I didn’t have a clue about website design and decided it was one thing I couldn’t do for myself, so I invested a lot of my startup money into paying someone to design it.

I’d seen a lot of homemade sites that, frankly, looked homemade. We needed a goodlooking site to give the company a professional image, so I thought it was something worth spending a decent amount of money on.

What have you found difficult about starting up? People are very reluctant to work with Startups and can make life difficult. Suppliers are very wary about working with you and want paying up front. Even BT want you to pay in advance. There’s just no trust.

Should the government be doing more to encourage people to start their own business? Yes, definitely. They should be going into schools and telling kids that they can do it. I didn’t receive any education at school about starting a business and think many people believe it’s an option that’s not available to them.

It should be as big an option as going on to university or doing an apprenticeship.

So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business? Research your idea and do plenty of planning. If you’re still absolutely sure it’s what you want to do, then go for it and don’t let anything or anyone get in your way.

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

If you’ve just started up and would like to feature in one of our profiles: email matthewt@crimsonpublishing.co.uk

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