Something Beautiful: Louise Parr

After escaping the rat race through voluntary redundancy, Louise Parr fulfilled her ambition of becoming her own boss by setting up Something Beautiful. She tells Startups.co.uk how she did it.

After escaping the rat race through voluntary redundancy, Louise Parr fulfilled her ambition of becoming her own boss by setting up Something Beautiful. She tells Startups.co.uk how she did it.

Name: Louise Parr Age: 29 Business: Something Beautiful Type of business: Handmade Wedding Stationery & Birth Announcements Start date: January 2004

When did you first decide you wanting start your own business?I think it was always at the back of my mind that being my own boss would give me the kind of job satisfaction I craved but found lacking in my employment history. However, like most people, I’d set off on my chosen career path straight after university without any real thought about what I ultimately wanted to do with my life.

Seven years later, I was firmly entombed in the rat race and having built my life around the security of a guaranteed level of income, I just didn’t have the guts to risk failure by changing direction, however much I daydreamed about the possibilities.

In the end, fate stepped in and I was offered voluntary redundancy as part of a mass-managerial downsizing. It was a turning point because it was a real ‘now or never’ moment in my life, and I knew that whatever the outcome, I’d always regret not giving it a shot. So instead of banking the money and looking for another job, I started to make plans for being my own boss – and that’s when the ‘butterflies in the tummy’ excitement kicked in!

Tell us about your business www.somethingbeautiful.biz - where I design and create handmade wedding stationery and birth announcements – is my baby. It’s the culmination of everything I stand for, and the polar opposite of the stressful, commercial, thankless existence of my previous corporate career.

I wanted to do something I loved, where I would wake up in the morning knowing I’d be dealing with real people, living real lives and where I would see the results of my efforts. Effectively, I turned my hobby of making cards into a business and now have the pleasure of helping people celebrate pivotal moments in their lives for a living.

Was it your first business idea and where did it come from? It wasn’t my first business idea, but it was the one I kept coming back to when all my other blue-sky ideas just didn’t seem to have a basis in reality. I knew that I had a finite amount of time and money to make my plans work, and every other idea I considered just had too much risk attached.

To be honest, taking the plunge and turning my hobby into a business was very much a customer-led decision. The more cards I made for fun, the more enquiries and orders I received, to the point where I had to either stop altogether or put my money where my mouth was and go professional.

Was your decision to start a business inspired by any other companies or individuals? Not really. Whilst I hugely admire the Jacqueline Gold’s and other successful female entrepreneurs of this world, self-employment for me was never about setting the world alight and being the next big thing.

There are already hundreds of people out there making wedding stationery for a living, so my idea is nothing new. But to me, small is beautiful and I knew that if I was true to myself and focused on building the kind of company I personally would want to do business with, then there was no reason why I couldn’t position myself in an otherwise crowded marketplace and make it work.

What makes you think there’s a market for your business? Because my customers tell me there is. At the moment, due to the spiralling costs of weddings in this country, there is a growing trend for brides to make their own stationery to save money, which I think is a lovely, personal thing for them to do.

But for every bride who has the time and inclination to ‘DIY’, there’s a greater number who lead stressful, high-pressured lifestyles who are frankly delighted to find someone like myself who will not only take some of the stress and pressure away, but will also inject some style and creativity into their wedding day preparations.

Equally, the birth announcements market is growing steadily since the trend first crossed the pond, with my own share of the market growing solely on word of mouth recommendation. What advice did you seek? I was very fortunate in that my previous employer had a huge support network set-up to assist the vast number of employees leaving the business on voluntary redundancy terms. Part of this involved an optional two-day course on starting your own business delivered by the industry renowned company, DBM, which was invaluable.

I’ve also read widely, using internet resources like Startups and Business Link to give myself the absolute best start possible.

What other help did you get? The other help was the kind of ‘money can’t buy’ emotional support from my boyfriend and friends and family. Whilst self-employment is hugely fulfilling, I think people often underestimate the consequences of such a solitary existence.

In my case, I’ve found working alone can affect both my satisfaction levels and my judgement calls – my friends and family have filled this gap admirably with a wonderful mix of honest criticism and unwavering support.

Does the government need to provide more help to people trying to start a business? I think huge progress could be made if we simply de-mystified the process and started to grow confidence in the self-starter ethos.

I think a particular personality type – the stereotypical entrepreneurial grit which we all admire – is very well served by Business Link, banks and companies like yourself, but as the prospect and reality of redundancy becomes part of the fabric of more and more people’s everyday working life, I think a lot could be done to give people the option of self-employment as one of the choices they could viably make.

Talk us through the process of writing your business plan. Like most people, I did a lot of research, and gathered templates from every available source, but found a lot weren’t relevant to my particular circumstances. In the end, the best business planning advice I was given was from Matt Weston who writes Business Bricks, a twice-weekly newsletter packed with advice for people running their own small business.

Matt introduced me to the concept of the ‘elevator pitch’ which means being able to sell the unique benefits of your company in around 30 seconds. This concept has helped to grow my business far better than my 10-page business plan!

How useful has your business plan been and do you think you’ll stick to it as your business begins to grow? Despite the above, I do believe a business plan is an essential first step, as it helps to crystallise your aims and objectives, and helps to identify knowledge gaps which might hinder progress.

My business plan is essentially a yardstick of where I am, and where I hope to be, and whilst flexibility is important to help me respond to changes in the market, it helps ensure that my day-to-day activities are geared towards moving the business in the right direction.

How much did it cost to start the business? Around £4,500 on computer equipment and stock.

How did you fund this? From my voluntary redundancy package.

Similarly, how are you funding your running costs until the business takes off? I have a very supportive partner who is helping to shoulder the burden, but the business is now rapidly paying for itself, which is fantastic.

Have you made any provisions for the business not being as prosperous as expected? Please explain them. I have a contingency fund, but I love my life so much now that failure is simply not an option. I could never go back to the rat race so I have every possible motivation to make Something Beautiful a success.

When did you stop working? I stopped working at the end of July 2003, and marked the occasion with a bonfire of all my files and a celebratory bottle of champagne. It was a seminal moment. I can honestly say I’ve never looked back or regretted my decision for a second, though I do miss the warmth and camaraderie of my old team who had become something of a surrogate family.

Are you working from home or from premises? Having previously spent upwards of two hours a day commuting, I now have a 10 second journey to work upstairs to the guest room/office studio, although I have indulged in the luxury of setting up a wireless office so that I can hit the garden and work outside when the sun in shining.

The impact on my health and happiness has been enormous and I now sleep better than ever before – though guests are often bemused to find bits of glitter on their clothes when they’ve stayed the night!

How many hours are you working at the moment? Lots, although I’m so happy it doesn’t really feel like work. Keeping the business small and manageable was important to me, because going it alone was ultimately a lifestyle as well as career choice. It’s important to me that I give customers the absolute best service I can and that they feel they have my full attention – an aim not necessarily best served by going all out for maximum market share.

I also wanted to be able to meet friends for lunch when I wanted to, or take the day off when I needed a break, and I’m now lucky enough to have that level of flexibility in my working life.

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?At the moment, my days are dictated by customer orders, meaning some days will see me burning the midnight oil to get an order finished and sent out in time. Time management is a big issue, as I try to adapt to the myriad roles I’m now responsible for – secretary and accountant being the two biggest challenges given my current skill-set.

Once the business is established, it will be a priority to buy-in such specialist resource, but for now, I’m on a crash-course in learning to juggle!

What about staff, is it just you? At the moment it’s just me, with a long-queue of willing volunteers to step into the breach if necessary. To be honest, a business like mine stands or falls on the quality of the end product, so the decision to take on more staff in order to grow the business would not be taken lightly and not without some assurance of maintaining my own standards.

Is the amount of red tape that comes with taking on an employee something that concerns you Not really, since there is a lot of good advice out there if and when it gets to that stage. My biggest concern would be how to find and attract the right person.

What marketing and advertising have you done so far?None so far, although I’ve got my first feature and advert in a wedding magazine later this month. I’m very fortunate in that the business has been built solely on word of mouth recommendation, which has always been my number one priority in terms of growing the business.

Having been faceless for the vast majority of my working life, I wanted to connect with customers above all other goals and, for example, make it a priority to send couples a card on their wedding anniversary and remember their baby’s birthday. A fantastic but unintentional consequence of this has been an increased number of customers approaching me via personal recommendation.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months time? I’d like Something Beautiful to be synonymous with beautiful wedding stationery and birth announcements. Rather than trying to be all things to all people in order to secure every possible order, I hope to have carved out a small, niche market of customers who like my way of doing business and love my designs.

What are the main obstacles to growth? My own time. I provide a physical product rather than a service, with each item being individually handmade, requiring a high level of time and attention to detail. If I continue to grow at the same rate, I would have the choice of turning down orders in order to maintain quality, or recruit staff in order to increase productivity.

How do you plan to overcome these? By having the strength to say no. When you start in business, it’s a natural inclination to want to bang your own drum and try and reach as many customers as possible in order to make the venture a success.

Indeed, there’s probably a school of thought that wouldn’t understand any other approach, but I do believe that a consequence of this can be losing control and spreading yourself too thin. When I reach that level, I will take advice on my next steps, rather than compromise the reputation of the business. Tell us about your website. My website www.somethingbeautiful.biz is hugely important to the business as it’s an online portfolio of my designs, saving me a fortune in printing costs. It was designed by a friend, and I’m delighted with the way it’s turned out and the customer response to it.

What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do? To enjoy what I do – absolutely no contest. I’ve turned my back on career climbing for financial gain, and whilst I’m realistic enough to know that I need a minimum income to be comfortable and financially secure, I will never again be a slave to the bank statement, regardless of how much I earn.

What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you’d done differently?I rushed into a business name which really didn’t suit the kind of image I was trying to project so wasted both time and money having to start again. Other than that, the mistakes have all been learning opportunities, and I’ve greatly enjoyed following the path of self-employment.

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business? I think it varies greatly by industry and some entrepreneurial traits really wouldn’t sit well with the kind of business I’ve tried to build. That said, I think there are some universal qualities such as having self-belief, tenacity, and a strong business vision, which will stand anyone in good stead when contemplating self-employment.

So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business? If you think you’ll look back on your life and regret not having the guts to give it a shot, then you simply have to! Good luck!

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? I’d be happy to.

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