Hello my fellow venturers. I hope you’re all keeping well. Sorry for the long gaps between posts. My free time and that of my would-be interviewees are not meshing well at the moment! However, I’ve finally had the time to write about the talented and lovely Laura Gibbs of Chatterbox and Button.
Laura and her team recently showcased Chatterbox and Button at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, having been chosen as part of the Conservative Small and Medium Sized Enterprise Engagement Scheme. Her gorgeous oilcloth bags, gifts, aprons and homewares are all handcrafted and as pretty as they are practical.
How did Chatterbox and Button start?
I took a career break from being a police detective after having my second child. I had a pretty oilcloth tablecloth that I wanted to change at the same time as needing more luggage for our expanding family. As we were about to travel to Devon, I made myself an oilcloth bag. Whilst on holiday, I saw a market stall full of oilcloth from two of the best UK factories with great, attractive designs. The bag I had made was just what we needed so I bought some more fabric and began experimenting. From the very start, asking peoples’ opinions has been critical, so I canvassed my friends who asked for practical colours such as navy and beige. I also slipped in some of the bright, colourful patterns I enjoyed and found out that when given a choice, people often chose something bright and cheerful!
You started off on a career break – how has Chatterbox and Button expanded since then?
At first, I just sold to friends and kept re-investing the profits as with a young family, we didn’t have enough money for me to have an indulgent hobby.
This also meant that I was careful from the beginning to run Chatterbox and Button as a business.
The litmus test was to break away from my kind friends and start selling at a Women’s Institute market just around the corner from my house. I would stop in there most weeks with a pram and a toddler to buy plants for our garden and knew that they were a tough crowd. But they liked the products and regularly inspected the stitching and from there my products began to get a local following and through word of mouth I began to be invited to other local events. I was also met the owner of the first shop that we stock.
From there the business grew. We have branched out into the London Duckpond Markets and now sell at Richmond, Ruislip, Pinner and Highgate, capitalising on the tourist market which extends our selling period. We maintain our local presence at regular events, also by stocking a range of shops and with our new website http://www.chatterboxandbutton.co.uk
Then earlier this year, the Commercial Director of the Conservative Party chose us at a London Market to take up prestigious retail space and showcase our business at this year’s party conference. As my youngest started school last year, I had more capacity to grow the business and the injection of support from the SME engagement program has meant that I was able to take on three part time sewing ladies.
Has it been difficult to build the business up?
I didn’t really set out to have a business.
As I had already taken a break from work, every sale was just wonderful with small children. My profits quickly overtook what I had been earning part-time and we were able to manage without expensive childcare. I have worked hard and been self-motivated, but I had the best possible motivation of wanting to find balance between bringing in money and spending time with my children. Chatterbox and Button is now well-known locally and I have it’s reputation to protect! I recently showcased my business at an alumnae event at my old school which went very well and I will be returning to talk to the pupils about entrepreneurialism.
How many people do you now have working for you?
Now I have a book keeper and 3 ladies who sew. I have taken on someone to help with the marketing which is a whole new world I have had to learn and exploit. I also use ad-hoc sales people. For the first couple of years, I did my own tax returns, but I prefer to keep important areas of the business in the hands of a professional. I regularly tap into the expertise of HMRC who have great online resources for people in business.
Has it been easy to find people?
No problem at all! Now that people think I can sew, they come and show me items that they have made and so I can check out their sewing surreptitiously.
It is an absolute joy to be able to offer people work which is flexible around their families.
Last night I took my team out for a meal to thank them for their enormous efforts in the run up to the Conservative Party Conference – such a great thing to be able to do.
What common mistakes do you think people make when they are starting up a business?
I think you have to be very quick to admit your failure, learn from your mistakes and move on super fast. I don’t think that business is a place for arrogance. You have to keep a grip on the numbers. Before I took on anyone to sew, I had made everyone of my products against the clock and created a detailed cost/time analysis for every item in every fabric that we make so I confidence in adding further cost to the business.
What recommendations would you have for someone setting up?
I love uncovering potential in the people around me and thrive now that Chatterbox and Button is a team – being self-employed can be lonely. There is lots of help out there, but you need to be decisive and firm about whether it brings benefit to your business.
I have spoken to mentors and business advisors and their help is brilliant, particularly tapping into their mid and long term experience where I am lacking.
At the end of the day though, it all boils down to finding out what your customer is prepared to spend their hard-earned money on and making that product.