I used to edit a magazine called Childrenswear Buyer, covering the fashion and gift market for kids and babies. As a mum of two young children, I also have a vested interest in this area of retail, so when I heard that Laura Tenison, the founder of Jo Jo Maman Bebe was visiting Harrogate to give a talk, I just had to go along.
Laura was passionate and enthusiastic about her business as well as refreshingly candid about its slightly chaotic beginnings – all of which was hugely inspirational to the mainly female audience of business owners and budding entrepreneurs. Here’s what she had to say:
Eighteen years ago I was an idealistic entrepreneur and wanted to make fashionable clothes for mothers and babies. I wanted it to be a middle-market, global brand and I had £50,000 to invest in it, which I had made from my first business. But my business plan was all wrong and my bank manager told me to go away and come back with some reasonable financial predictions as I had been rather over enthusiastic. Looking back I think that young naivety was an advantage in some ways. I was starting out and I had nowhere to fall from. I was unmarried with no children. I wonder if I would be so brave now. But I have always had huge amounts of energy and a determination never to accept no for an answer.
In those early years things were quite disorganised. The sales were building and demand began to outstrip supply. Needless to say I had to start fielding calls from people asking where their stuff was and I was still the only employee. I can remember trying to give the impression that we had several staff and transferring people to another ‘department’ then picking up the call myself and pretending to be someone else. It was great that sales were going through the roof but it was a horrible time because we just didn’t have enough stock. I hadn’t kept an eye on the financials and eventually the VAT man paid us a visit and ended up staying two weeks sorting out our chaotic (but honest) system. Finally he said, “I don’t know how you’ve done it but I owe you £50.”
Then the stock market crashed and the business became insolvent and I had to remortgage the house. We had been going for four years with plenty of trade but we hadn’t been making any money. I had also spent a lot of money on off-shoots and the time had come to have a major re-think and look at the parts of the business that were making money and focus on them. It’s a good lesson: stick to what you know and don’t get distracted.
Today we still own the company, we’re self-financed, we’re profitable and we take few risks. There are no Porsches or villas in Spain because every time my husband suggests it I say, “but I could open another store instead”. It’s an expensive habit of mine but we’re growing the business safely and we open around ten stores a year. We want to stay niche, we’re not another Mothercare.
My mantra is good values equals good business. I’m no saint but I subscribe to good ethical business practices and a non-hierarchical management style. I think that the person who starts work first gets to park next to the front door – there are no reserved spaces for directors in our car park. Everyone eats communally in the staff canteen and I like to walk around the warehouse at 7am and talk to people because it’s the best way to find out what’s going on in your business.
Eighteen years down the line, there’s not that much difference between that business start-up and our business today. But there are some things I’ve learned that you need if you want to succeed.
Firstly, you need Innovation.
You don’t have to have the one and only of something but you just have to do it better. Take the example of one of our all-time bestsellers: the pocket highchair. This idea came to me when I used to go to cafes with my child and there wasn’t a high chair so I used a scarf to tie my baby to the chair. There are lots of other versions of this product but ours is a simple idea that works.
Secondly, you need to have Inspiration.
It’s not just about inspiring your customers or even the press but you’ve got to inspire your teams. How many sales assistants know and understand the finance of the business or even the store they work in? We encourage our teams to take on extra training such as NVQs. It’s really important to stretch people’s imaginations and I strongly believe in promotion from within especially through re-training.
It’s also about giving people new ideas and experiences and trying to encourage staff to do different things.
Thirdly, you need to have Imagination.
It’s really difficult to keep coming up with new ideas so I give different creative people a term to look at the design of the catalogue, the look of the windows, the marketing strategy etc and it really helps to have a fresh pair of eyes. I even get the managers to step back sometimes and let juniors take a turn to use their ideas. Putting people out of their comfort zone sparks inspiration. 20% of our customers buy from us more than ten times a year because we keep them fired up. There’s always something new and fresh coming up.