Saturday, 8 October 2011

Me, a bit of history and how (not to) open a shop

I get asked quite a lot about how Cottontails 'came to be', so I thought I'd write a little bit about my story...

I have worked in retail since I left college, never anything managerial or anything just normal shop work. To be honest it was the only thing I knew to do. I had a degree in Sociology but that didn't exactly lead to an obvious career, and I didn't have much confidence. Besides, I always liked working in shops and was quite good at it, 'good with people' as they say.

(In fact maybe the story goes back even further - as a little girl my favourite games always involved playing shops. I am an only child and my long suffering mother must have spent years being my only customer!)

I worked in a few shops but my favourite shop was definitely Waterstones where I worked for a few years as a bookseller. I ran the children's department at Stratford upon Avon for quite a while and loved that.

But about 10 years ago I started to get itchy feet and wanted to try something else. I tried a few office things but wasn't happy. I despaired of myself at the time, but looking back now maybe some of it did have a purpose - for example I worked part time at a little design agency and also spent 12 months teaching myself web design - both of those things are really useful today.

Around the same time someone I knew opened a little shop selling second hand films and music. Not my kind of thing at all but I helped out there some times, and I guess more than anything it made me realise that opening a shop was possible.

In 2002, feeling more lost than ever, I decided to give it a go. I had about £1000 in savings and put together a business plan to get a bank loan for the rest. My full start up budget was £10,000. (I extended the loan a couple of years later and am still paying the damn thing off today...)

At first I was going to open a nice bedding and bathing gift shop with a nursery section and looked for premises in lots of small market towns, but when I eventually found a nice empty shop in Pershore there were too many 'general' gift shops already there. As such I amended my plans - took the nursery element of the original plan and added baby and children's clothes.

We opened in 2003, but to be honest I had a pretty appalling first year. The relationship I was in broke up, I was a mess and not really coping. I didn't know if the shop was a blessing or a curse but at least it kept me going.

For the next six years Cottontails traded at 60, High Street, Pershore. My mum worked in the shop with me (often more than me!) and we sold mainly baby clothes and some gifts and toys. I started selling surplus stock on eBay and in 2005 I launched the website to sit along side the high street shop.

And it's about here that Cottontails started to look more like the business it is today. The toys sold really well on the website - much better than the clothes. I was selling a lot of Moulin Roty toys - remember this was only 2005, the internet was a lot less saturated.

Over the next few years it became clear that the shop was barely supporting itself / losing money whereas the website was (a bit) more successful. Early in 2009 I took the decision to close the shop and focus my energies online. At the same time I took a p/t evening job as a receptionist to help pay off a massive VAT bill (a nightmare story - guess who crossed the threshold without realising and had two years of back pay to find) and bring in a little extra cash.

For a short while I worked from my home in Pershore, then in Summer 2009 moved over to Herefordshire to move in with my partner Mike. He works from home too (he is a cider maker - and didn't really fancy sharing a working space with me (not to mention my enormous stock of soft toys), so the office in the garden was built and that is where I work today.

I don't have any storage facilities apart from the office which is packed to rafters with toys, and some space in the garage for the big items, and I don't have an IT department or a marketing department or anything like that. Oh what a dream that would be! But it is a lovely space, and although it has its challenges and I miss people, it's nice to work from home. Also I am able to 'use' the garden and the surrounding countryside for inspiration. Since moving here, Cottontails has become a lot more interested in nature!

I work on my own apart from Humphrey. He is my rabbit, who I have had since 2004 and who I love to bits. He is a house rabbit but I carry him over to the office every morning and he mainly hangs out under the desk. Every so often he hops out to try and nibble something. He is also a huge inspiration. Rabbits have been a passion of mine all my life and I think that is obvious in Cottontails.

There are some people who support me though and who are a big part of Cottontails:

My mum, who was there from the beginning, picking up the pieces when I was falling apart during the first year of Cottontails and quickly pretty much managing the shop, even though just weeks beforehand she had been terrified of using the till. What a star. These days she still helps out in the busy few weeks before Christmas.

Tamsin - who has been my web designer since day one. I knew her as the woman behind Rabbit Rehome - a website she had set up to help rescue rabbits - and emailed to see if she would help with Cottontails. We have never met! We do everything by email and she is amazing for general technical support too.

And, more recently, Kaitie at Leaff Design, who has just worked with me on my first catalogue for Cottontails. She has been lovely to work with, has really 'got' the Cottontails brand and it has been an absolute pleasure to have help with something. I am so used to having to do everything myself - it has been such a novelty to have someone quietly getting on with something in the background.

As for the future, well sales are growing steadily each year which is something given the current economic climate (although believe me, it continues to be a bit of a struggle financially) and my plans for the future definitely include more handmade and ethically produced toys. I dream of making some toys of my own too... it might happen.

Finally, I get asked a lot specifically how I set up the website, how I find stock, how I manage the marketing. Well I don't want to give all my secrets away and obviously things have evolved for me over nearly 10 years, but here is a quick general guide - and honestly, anyone can do this.

1. Probably do not open a high street shop!
2. Look at other websites / shops for brands you like
3. Work up a brand and proposition for yourself - a name, look, feel, make a mood board, logo. put a little creative proposition together to take to potential suppliers
4. Contact the manufacturers directly - ask if they supply wholesale
5. Also go to trade fairs to source stock from bigger suppliers - they are free to attend if you register as a potential business. Top Drawer is my favourite.
6. Start selling on market places like eBay - save any email addresses of your customers to make a database
7. Based on your eBay sales decide on one or two areas or brands to do really well - to be really good at - it could be a brand (like Moulin Roty) or an area (like toy rabbits!)
8. Get your own website designed - I can't recommend Tamsin enough for this, she is friendly and reasonable
9. Email your database to promote your website
8. Use Google adwords to drive traffic to your website for the specific things you do well in
9. Use Twitter, Facebook and a Blog to promote
10. And, well, that's it really!

Of course there are hundreds of details to think about, but this is the essence of it really.

If anyone has any questions, do email me - I am no super businesswoman and will never be a millionaire but somehow, amid the personal crises and mistakes, I seem to have created something that just about works and I am happy to share any experiences and help anyone.


Unknown said...

It fascinates me what makes people start their business. Your shop looked lovely but working from home looks very cosy! I work from my bedroom...but dream of a space in the garden. I love everything about Cottontails and I wish you lots of luck for the future. xxxx

Sue said...

How lovely to find out a bit of history about you and your lovely business.

I did something similar (twice!!) and now I'm collecting eggs from chickens, but missing my gorgeous little shop like hell. Every time I see an emprty shop I start making plans :-)

I didn't go down the business loan route, instead I maxed out on my credit card to stock the shop and lulckily paid it all off in the first six months.

So as you say anyone can do it, you just need access to a bit of start up cash, a bit of confidence and lots of energy for all the hard work. And lots of retail research and know how helps if you want to make a profit (I was a shop manager for 12 years).

(I niftily stayed under the VAT threshold so no scares for me thank goodness!)

Sue xx

Charlotte said...

Thank you Caroline and Sue...

Yes the shop was lovely and gosh it was hard to let it go, particularly because my mum loved it. But she didn't like seeing me stressed and worried all the time, and even she got fed up on days when it was oh so quiet. In the end it was absolutely the right decision... within a couple of days of actually closing, I wished I'd done it long before.

And these days I don't miss the shop really. Although what you say about empty shops rings a bell Sue - yes I sometimes think, oooh it would be nice and have to remind myself no, it wouldn't!

The vat thing was a disaster. I was (and am) dreadful with money. I knew I was in the zone of the threshold and in 2008 went right over it and thought I'll have to register, and when I started doing the rolling 12 month thing to track back, I'd been over the threshold for two years. That was two years of VAT to pay. Thousands and thousands. I considered staying quiet, just registering and not mentioning the past two years, but my conscience wouldn't let me and I wouldn't have been able to live with the worry. (I've de-registered again now by the way - it was the joint shop / web sales that did the damage!)


magpie bessie said...

Wow, what a wonderful and interesting read this was! Fantastic blogging! Thank you for sharing your experiences!

Simply H said...

What a lovely and informative post Charlotte. Lots of the blogs I follow are by people setting up little cottage industries and small businesses so it was really interesting to find out all the history of Cottontails baby. I had no idea you had a bricks and mortar shop before! I am so glad your online shop is doing so well for you - I just saw a post on your catalogue on someone elses blog and it looks gorgeous! xx

Crafty Green Poet said...

It's very interesting to read your story. Such a shame you had to leave the shop, but it was obviously the right decision.

Charlotte said...

Gosh. I am really surprised at so many comments - thank you so much Magpie, Simply H and Crafty - I thought the blog was probably too long and and am touched that people have read it. I'm really glad I wrote it now as had been wondering about it for a while. Thank you. Charlotte

LissyLou said...

Hi Charlotte, great blog post. Lovely to find out more about you and your buisness. Also thanks for all the tips. They will really help me when i start setting up Poppy and Daisy properly next year xx

Pomona said...

I am glad that your business is going well - it is always good to hear an inspiring story!

Pomona x

periwinkle said...

Thank you for that little insight , lovely to see where you started and where you are now . Good luck for the future x

Julia Logie said...

Charlotte, it has been lovely reading about you and how you built up your business.
I have been buying soft toys and other lovely items from you since you first started.
I now have four children and they have loved all the beautiful toys I have given to them from 'Cottontails'.
May your wonderful business continue to thrive! xxx

Ruby & Rose Interiors said...

Dear Charlotte ~ thank you for sharing your story. I really enjoyed reading the progression of your business. I could sympathise with a number of things you mentioned! As you know I have just closed my shopfront to focus on my website ~ so I feel some hope reading your story. I will follow more chapters via your BLOG. Mx
PS: I adore Humphrey!