Jo Milmine, a great friend who very kindly agreed to head up my first profile, spent 6 years in the RAF as an Airspace Battle Manager, after which she did some defence consultancy, taught English and did Third Sector Project Management for the Santa Shoe box project, all in South Africa.
Now she has 2 ventures, the Golden Skein which is the place to find exclusive, custom dyed yarns from independent dyers across the globe and the Shinybees podcast, the podcast for those who like their knitting, yarn and comedy in equally large measures. The podcast is currently up for two awards in the UK podcast awards which is great! I love talking to Jo because she has such a great accent. You can hear it yourself on the podcast, but if you’re familiar with the kids’ cartoon the Little Princess – well Jo could be the voice over for the Little Princess, that’s all I’m saying.
What made you choose the Golden Skein as a venture?
I had quite a lot of ideas for different projects. I did a few iterations of planning in my head but had never taken really taken that step to turn the ideas into reality until Golden Skein came along. I think the reason why I did take that forward was that I was a little bit scared about what would happen. With the Golden Skein I had a business partner initially and I just needed a bit of external accountability to make me just get on with it. It was a good idea. I hadn’t done it because I was a bit scared about what might happen if it went wrong, like most people.
Obviously it’s not gone wrong, how long have you been trading now?
Two years. We started at the end of 2013 with the Trial Club which was the first proof of concept to see if people were interested in what we wanted to sell and interested in the concept. They were thankfully! We went into our first full year in 2014 and then this year as well. It’s been pretty good.
Would you change anything about the way you set it up with the benefit of your experience now?
I would be less accepting of working for nothing. It’s something I come across a lot when I talk to people. They don’t value their own time enough and they don’t value their product enough. They are too scared of asking for what their product is worth or what their time is worth. Bizarrely – well not bizarrely, it’s a good product! – we had to put our prices up in 2015 by 20% and we had more customers at the new price point than at the old one. We had to put the prices up to keep the quality high. It wasn’t just us, Royal Mail had put the prices up, the wholesalers had put the prices up, the dyers had put the prices up, so we couldn’t carry on at that price. I think what I would change would be not to be frightened to ask a proper price to start with.
What do you wish you had known before you started?
How much easier it was than I thought it was going to be. You put up a lot of barriers – will my thing be as good as everyone else’s, will people buy it, will people like me, will the customers complain, what happens if my website goes down?
Everyone will find a reason not to do it, because that’s human nature. We don’t want to expose ourselves to the chance of it failing and actually if you’re not failing, you’re not learning because you’re not trying anything new.
It’s a mindset change, particularly given the work I was in before where failing has potentially life ending and catastrophic consequences. It makes you quite reluctant to try something unless you’re very sure and confident in your abilities. But you’re never going to build up the confidence unless you do it. It is a lot easier than you think.
Are you still partners with Kate, your Golden Skein partner?
No, I bought Kate out a couple of months ago. When we started she was a part-time University lecturer, but her workload has increased as she went full time and she got promoted. She didn’t have the time available so we decided that I would keep the business and buy her out. I still ask her questions from time to time and she still has an input, but obviously for her when she has a high pressure job outside of this, it’s different to when we started.
Was that a scary moment, knowing it was just you?
It was a bit like party time, you know, woohoo, I can do whatever I want now.
I can go buy a yacht. Well, a small yacht.
But it’s having your own business can be quite lonely at times, so having someone else there to bounce ideas off, it’s fun. But obviously there are times when you won’t agree on things which is completely normal and a good thing. It was a bit scary but it’s been good fun.
Did Shinybees grow out of the Golden Skein?
No, I did it the wrong way round in a lot of ways. I picked up the knitting needles when I left the RAF and we moved over to Wales and it grew out of the craft. I started to get interested in knitting and people were doing these things called podcasts. I started to listen to some of them and then one day I just decided it would be quite fun to do one. I did one as part of knitting and crochet blog week and everyone was just saying, oh, go for it, go for it. I was in South Africa and it was all quite interesting – I had a boomslang living in my garage and warthogs on my lawn – it was just a way of communicating with the community out there. I was on my own in the middle of nowhere but there were all these people on the internet that I could talk to. The Golden Skein business grew out of that because I had an audience. I had people that I talked to and people that I entertained. I think that’s what made the launch of the Golden Skein go so well to start with.
Then the consulting side of the Shinybees grew out of the Golden Skein Empire. So I had the podcast and my little brand – Shinybees was the name my granny gave me , she called me that all the time and she was the one who taught me how to knit so that is where the name came from. The consulting side came out of dealing with dyers a lot. It’s a lot of ladies – some blokes do it as well – a lot of one man bands in their kitchens, in their sheds, everywhere making this stuff. And they were really busy and they didn’t necessarily know all of the ins and outs of marketing or project management or planning your time and being strategic. I just saw an opportunity to help people. There’s nothing more exciting to me than planning a business. It’s been an evolution, it’s not been planned at all which is almost the antithesis of what I tell people!
In terms of consultancy, how much time do you spend on that versus the Golden Skein and the podcast?
It varies, depending on who I’m working with and what’s going on in the industry and what projects they have going on. There are some people that I work on for a retainer for a certain number of days per month. That’s great because you can get really involved in the business and build up that relationship. I’m pretty much left to get on with what I want because I know what needs doing which suits me down to the ground. Other people I work with on a project basis, for a launch or if they’re starting a business so it will vary. I do some writing and I have sponsors with the podcast that involves some extra stuff there. So I guess that it’s probably quite a lot of time is consulting 40%, 20% Golden Skein, 20% podcast and 20% new ventures.
Anything in the pipeline that is new then?
There is, there is. I’m working on a website concept. I want to build a directory of people that are Forces spouses, or dependents, or veterans who run their own businesses. So when you move around you’re not relying on the wife’s page to find out who can cut your hair, etc. It means if I want a web developer I can find one because it will all be geo-located to the bases. I also want to do a membership site so we would provide a new training package every month – like how to manage Instagram, how to manage a launch, graphics, copy writing. If someone’s wife or husband is away and they’re stuck in the house with the kids at night, they can access that. They can’t go to Business Gateway during a day for a full day on a set date to get it for free. My website can have it at an affordable rate. I’m doing a lot of research on that. As part of that I’ll be coming across a lot of people who are ex-Forces or are dependent on the Forces but have left another career because a lot of people have left quite high profile careers.
So many people have left Careers for a variety of reasons, most of them haven’t left to set up their own business, they’ve left and set up a career. I find that quite interesting that these are not people that have set down with this big grand scheme and their 5 year business plan, it’s grown organically. They’ve not gone down the traditional route, but they’re successful. Have you invested much in the traditional advertising of that old business model or have you done more on Face book, Instagram and new media?
It’s been nearly all new media. With the internet the landscape of how you do business and where and who with has changed dramatically. It’s possible now to be very niche and still have a decent audience and a decent income. At the Golden Skein we are incredibly niche, but we’re making a decent turnover. By virtue of the fact we have that niche audience I can afford to spend less on advertising and target it more effectively because I am crystal clear on who my customer is. I know where they are, I know where they shop, I know what they like and I know where to go to find them. If I can go and sponsor someone’s podcast I know that I am in their ear for at least 2 minutes of their show and I know that if that person presenting has a good relationship with their audience, which generally they do, then they’ll listen to that. And it’s been proven that podcasts are one of the most influential and best return of investment of advertising. I’ve done one advert for a publication for a show that we were heavily involved with, which makes sense that you put yourself to the top of people’s minds, but it’s been very, very targeted. Instagram has been our main way of doing things, because it’s a very visual medium. It used to be about Twitter a lot, now all the crafty types are on Instagram. I’ve heard it said from people, who are meant to be social media experts, that Instagram is only for young people and it’s all about putting a filter on things. Most of my audience are baby boomers that have spare time and spare money and they want to knit beautiful things. They don’t fall into that demographic! When we launched, I did a special deal with a lot of podcasters. They got the trial yarn at preferential rates because we couldn’t afford to give it away for free. That seemed to work really well.
How much do you think your ventures have grown from word of mouth? Is that very important in what you do?
Yes, very much. Pretty much all the consultancy has come from word of mouth. It’s only very recently I’ve put it on the website that I do that work. Most of it has come from clients which is good because they’re obviously happy with what I’m doing. With the Golden Skein, it’s the ‘gimme gimme’ factor. You know, you see it on Instagram and you’re like, I want that, what is that, I want one of those gold shiny parcels and it was very carefully designed to be that way. Those gold envelopes are the most expensive envelopes you can get. I don’t care because I want you to see the postman walking down the street and for you to be jumping up and down at the window. It has to have the right thickness of tag. If it doesn’t feel expensive then I’ll pay more to have a more expensive tag, it has to have black paper because that makes all yarns look good because it doesn’t throw any tones on it. I even went to the point for the one skein package, it didn’t feel right in a bigger bag and I’ve been searching for the perfect bag so it got the same level of squish. Because that’s what you’re selling as a high end product – you’re selling that excitement, you want it to feel like you’ve got something that nobody else has got. Once they start hitting the deck, Instagram is covered in pictures of gold parcels. We have this rule that you don’t show the yarns until everyone has got them. It’s like this inner club, inner circle. They get treated better; they get first option on everything. But when people are doing that for you, you almost don’t need to do it. They all know each other, they all meet up, when we go to wool shows, there’s this community around it.
What are the challenges that you think you face going forward?
I guess keeping it novel. And over-saturation. We send these yarns out and people can’t knit them quick enough. But then a lot of my customers are collectors; they might not know what they want to do with them straight away, but they like that potential sitting in their cupboard. So that could be a challenge. I guess balancing two businesses and strong thoughts of a third, action on a third, it’s managing all of that. The next big thing will be to bring people in to manage the day to day tasks. I advise people on doing that but when it’s you, you’re a bit more nervous about doing it. You never take your own advice! I think the next big challenge is how to outsource certain elements of all three ventures.
What is the number one piece of advice?
My number one piece of advice – if you’re thinking about it, you should have already done it.
Hope is not a method of getting things done!
If you’re thinking about it, that’s an indicator you should be doing something about it. Equally get help in before you think you need it. I know so many people that have reached capacity and things in their business have started to go downhill because they’re so thinly spread before they ask me for help. Whereas if you do it before you think you need it, everything is in place so you can continue to grow rather than taking a wobble.
Thanks to Jo for being the first of what I hope is many profiles. What do you all think? Does that chime with what you’re thinking about for your Venture ideas? Does it give anyone a bit more confidence about just going and getting something started?