How to grow a mum-owned business: Julia tells us her story

I’m Julia, owner of www.kidstravel2.com which specialises in children’s luggage, travel games and family travel accessories.  Helen kindly featured me on Business Plus Baby back in August 2010 and you can read all about how I started up here.

Over 3 years later and KidsTravel2 is still going strong and we have just launched The Happy Skylark (www.thehappyskylark.com) offering holiday gear and unusual travel gifts for grown ups.  Helen invited me back to chat about how I’ve grown the business, the challenges I’ve faced along the way and share any useful tips for other mums setting up and growing a business around bringing up their children.

I think to start with I was so excited by the growth of the business, relished every new challenge it threw at me and just enjoyed watching the sales grow.  I still am today but there’s been a distinct shift from it being a fun work at home opportunity to the more serious side of running a business with financial commitments to make it succeed. I’ve had to learn a lot, fast and make decisions to help grow the business.

Challenge 1 – Plan for growth

There came a point when I realised I had to plan for growth to manage the business effectively and to really think about where I wanted to take things.  The first of these decision points came when we outgrew the homegrown nature of the business.  Orders had grown to the point that it was no longer viable to have stock at home to pick, pack and post myself.  I was making multiple trips to the post office a day with 2 children in tow.  The operations side of the business was in danger of letting everything else fall flat!  I had to outsource all the warehousing and fulfilment.  Suddenly I had warehousing bills and a fulfilment team to pay.

I have learnt not to feel pressured to always say yes!

Challenge 2 – Step back, be critical and focused

Paying for warehousing sharpened my mind to really look critically at which items were selling well, and which were languishing on the warehouse shelves.  This made me more selective about what products to pick for the future.  With our growth came customer expectation of a broader range of products – this feedback was clear from our customer surveys and post sales feedback.  My immediate reaction was to look at sourcing to meet customer demand and offer a broader product choice.  However, this has to tie in with your core product strategy and your knowledge about what sells best for you based on sales history or you’ll end up with a lot of peripheral, low profit margin products that you pay to warehouse month on month.  I learnt to step back and ask the question ‘Does this fit with my core product strategy?’  Linked with this point is the challenge of dealing with suppliers who will always try to encourage you to stock their latest lines.  I have learnt not to feel pressured to always say yes!  You can always take smaller quantities of none core product to test out.

Challenge 3 – Acknowledge when you need help

Closely tied in with planning for growth is the realisation that you can’t do everything single handed if you want to grow your business.  This may be due to not having enough time, the right skillset or both.  To start with I felt I had all the skills I needed to run things single handed and it was what I wanted to do – my chance to exercise my brain around bringing the children up.  I’d worked in a variety of marketing roles all of my pre baby life and had lots of experience of copywriting, budget management, business & marketing planning, creating & delivering marketing & PR campaigns, online marketing, website management etc.  I’d also worked at a senior level hand in hand with sales teams, operations teams, business development teams and I’ve always loved a challenge.  Running my own business fuelled all of this and I loved being right at the coal face.  However, I’m also a firm believer that you can achieve more as a team and acknowledge that there’s a difference between working ‘in your business’ and ‘on your business’.  The business had grown to a point where I was drawing on all my working life experience and was having to gain new skills at a rate of knots.  For example, I recognised pretty early on that if our sales pattern continued we would soon exceed the VAT threshold of £77,000.  I appointed an accountant for a monthly fee to help manage the financial side of the business and now also have a freelance bookkeeper.  I felt comfortable doing this as I had run the books myself for a period so feel I really know how things work.  You can still oursource these areas so long as you truly understand the financial health of your business and keep your finger on the pulse of it. It feels refreshing to let that side of things go now and focus on the areas where I feel my skillsets lie more naturally.

The challenge with going VAT registered is an interesting one.  You don’t have a choice if your turnover hits a certain level but many businesses decide to purposefully trade below this limit so that they don’t have to tackle all the issues that come with being VAT registered.  The key one is that 20% of all your sales have to be paid over quarterly to HMRC – eek!  You can claim VAT back on goods purchased though so it’s not all doom and gloom.  Check the HMRC website as there are different VAT schemes or do as I did and consult an accountant!  The challenge you will face as a small business though is that in terms of price there will be many independent sole traders out there that can be more competitive with their pricing.  Exceeding the VAT threshold is a personal thing for each business to decide.  I decided that I wanted to truly grow the business so we have.

Challenge 4 – Limited company or not

I nearly didn’t include this as a challenge but I know it’s one that many small businesses wonder about.  We traded as sole traders for a long while but once I had decided to really grow the business & go VAT registered I wanted to operate as a limited company.  There are loads of websites that will explain the pros and cons but after talking things through with my accountant decided it was the best option for KidsTravel2.  There are costs associated with it but there are benefits too eg The first £10,000 of a limited company’s profits are tax free.  I also like the professional image it gives to customers and suppliers.

Challenge 5 – Cashflow

So far we have always grown organically – we started with a small purchase of stock at the beginning and reinvested as we’ve grown. I’ve had limited support from the bank eg an overdraft to help with cashflow.  I have also tried to operate a Just In Time strategy where you order in stock as you need it to meet customer demand.  This means you are only outlaying cash as and when required and keeping the cash flowing smoothly through your business.  However, operating a JIT strategy can sometimes fall flat – when you go to re-order stock your suppliers may have sold out and you could be waiting several weeks or months before their next delivery.  If your business, like ours, has seasonal windows of opportunity this can represent a real risk to your business.  The alternative is to negotiate ring fenced stock held with suppliers (often difficult unless you’re a big player!) or to bite the bullet and buy in your core product lines in bulk, up front and face the cashflow challenge.

I was making multiple trips to the post office a day with 2 children in tow.

Challenge 6 – Where to next?

This challenge may be different to the growth you experience at the outset of a business when your goal may simply be to grow a small business to allow flexible working while you bring up your family.  I’m a believer in a business plan else if you don’t know where you’re going how will you know when you’ve got there?  It forces you to really get to grips with your aims, how you will achieve those and to measure your progress against them.  It’s something to come back to and review as your business evolves.

I was bursting with ideas for when my youngest started school of how to develop KidsTravel2.  When I reviewed them all the most sensible way of growing the business was to initially extend the business into offering holiday gear and unusual travel gifts for grown ups.  Rosie started school this September and I’ve literally just launched The Happy Skylark which I will run side by side KidsTravel2.  It took me right back to the beginnings of KidsTravel2 starting off with defining the brand, the values, what we stood for and what would make us different and stand out.  Right through to the excitement of ‘pressing the button’ to go live, the anticipation to see how it would be received and the thrill of the first sale.  All that is still there and makes me realise that in spite of all the challenges I have faced since starting up I love it and want to continue to grow things further.  I’d love you to join me on the journey there and if you run your own business or are thinking of doing so would love to hear about yours.  You can follow us on facebook facebook.com/TheHappySkylark and we’ll be launching a blog to support things soon too.

Why don’t you come and try your hand at our competition?  To celebrate our launch we’re giving away 2 x £20 gift vouchers to spend on The Happy Skylark on anything you like and a fabulous oh so useful CabinZero cabin bag in the colour of your choice. Click here to enter.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this Helen and Julia. I remembered doing a website review with Julia a while ago now, and we learnt alot from her feedback and hope that our feedback for kidstravel2 was useful.

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