I met Steph at a Mothers Meeting event, where she was speaking about the merits of using social media to grow awareness of your business, as part of a panel of other entrepreneurial mums. It was a pretty inspirational day meeting lots of mums with exciting ideas, and developing new ways of working that suited their lives and priorities but still pushed their ambition; and a particularly reassuring one for me, as a mum to be, that life goes on post children!
I approached Steph after the panel, to find out more about her business, Don't Buy Her Flowers, a service that delivers gift packages to let someone know that they're loved, in particular focusing on new mums. The idea is a great one, and I wanted to find out more about how it had come about:
Tell us about what you're doing now and your journey to date...
I used to work at the COI (Central Office of Information). I was quite young, but was given a lot of independence and some crazy budgets to manage. My role was to integrate lots of different teams to work together on client projects - from PR to marketing, research, and production. EDF energy had a project for the Olympics, bringing all of those departments together for a sponsorship campaign and I worked on that in a brand and marketing role. I really enjoyed working on it, but then left to have my son, Buster. I went back part-time, during the period when the Olympics was actually happening, and then left to have Mabel and had another year off.
Motherhood came as quite a shock. I was 29, and although lots of my friends had had babies, they don't live in London, and I was one of the first to have them amongst our friends here. When I had Buster people sent me loads of flowers. They're a lovely gesture, but they're so expensive, and I had two vases or something! I lived in a tiny house, and I felt like I was living in a funeral home.
Because I had found it quite hard, when friends had babies, I wanted to care for them a bit and put the focus on them, rather than the baby. I'd leave things on their doorstep if I lived nearby, or I'd send a magazine and chocolates. They were really basic, not luxurious things, but things that were about them. My friends were really emotional about my gifts. One friend even bought me a £70 massage because I'd dropped round and brought them a couple of meals, which value wise doesn't really make sense, but because it was their first baby it meant a lot to them.
I started to think 'why doesn't that kind of service exist?', because that's exactly what I would have wanted at the time. I really remember things that people did for me during that period of having babies, even if it was just a text saying 'you're going to be ok'. Just someone who had a bit of insight into how I was feeling, as you can feel quite lonely and isolated.
I decided I wanted to start a business around it, but needed to work out how to connect with lots of people and start the business. I'd gone back to work by then, but I didn't really care about my job. My role had been about campaigns, and there weren't any live ones, and I was working 3 days a week. It was actually a really good set up to help me work out what I wanted. Money was coming in, I saw all of my old colleagues and it helped me get my confidence back.
I started a blog called 'Sisterhood and all that'. I remember the first post I wrote was about domestic chores being the new foreplay. It was about if your partner could be a bit more aware of everything you're doing and help more, you'd put out more and feel like you were in it together. I wrote honest, funny, emotional posts about motherhood and I was getting a really good response from them.
My husband was watching what was happening, and he really pushed me to do something with the idea. He could see that I was bored at work and he knew I could do it. I was getting a real buzz from people liking my honest approach. When you go to things like baby clubs there are two kinds of people, those who say everything is fine and seem to have everything together, and others who are really honest about just not knowing what the hell they're doing.
It's quite empowering when you own up to that, and you know it's ok. It is actually quite funny (when you reflect on it) that you've done stupid things, or had to scream at your husband.
I left my job a few months later. I spent time writing a business plan, trying to work out what it would look like and what was possible logistically as a new business. I launched in November 2014, having built the website and sourced the products. Before I left my job I had done a piece of research about gifts for new mums. 300 people responded that they received flowers when they had a baby. However, when asked what they would have wanted to receive, the lowest response was flowers.
I had wanted to check that it wasn't just a gut reaction, and this research gave me a real drive to push ahead with the idea.
About three weeks before we launched, we went to see Cook (the food delivery service company) about featuring their service as part of our offer. They're a big brand, with 60 shops across the UK. We didn't even have a website to show them, just a logo, the name, and a package. My husband had managed to get us the meeting, without even telling the guy what we were coming to talk to him about! Luckily, he had 3 kids and as soon as we showed him the idea, he got it. We were so scared about the meeting, we really wanted them, and it was the first time Doug and I had pitched together, never having worked together before. When we came out and we knew it had gone well, my husband had to say to me for us not to high five each other! But we were over the moon.
It was a really overwhelming response when we launched. I had a big following from the blog, and family and friends shared the website. I'd kept the business idea really quiet before then. I think when you tell people they always have lots of ideas to contribute, and I wanted to get the idea straight in my own head.
We had sales straight away, and it's been a steady increase since we've started. Mother's Day last year went mental. We had a package with gin and tonic in that sold really well. I didn't have any staff then and although friends offered to help, they weren't trained to pack in the right way. Now we have a couple of girls who pack regularly and help with admin.
We're still based out of my home, and two rooms at the moment are taken over with boxes. Before I started I thought that the dream was to have an office and a space, but you're talking about an extra £600 a month. For the first year or two it's good to stay close to the roots of the brand, and to stay focused and not be distracted by new things.
It was a year and a few months ago that we launched. In September last year our sales doubled one month and they've kept going up from there. We're still not sure exactly why that happened, I think maybe it was just that we reached a critical mass.
When you finally launched, what made you take the leap to do things differently?
It was a combination of things. I was travelling into London, and with one kid that was do-able, but with two whenever one was sick it just made me realise it wasn't going to work. My husband's job isn't particularly flexible, although he's taken on a lot more since I've started the business, which is good. The danger is that women take on a business but also carry on doing everything else at home, but you just can't work in that way.
Sometimes you see the whole #mumboss culture on platforms like Instagram, and you see Mums still packing boxes at 1am - but I think you'd go nuts if that was all the time. It's great to have aspiration, but I've had to accept that I can't cook some nights, or always do the shopping. We're much more equal at home than we ever were. Two mornings a week Doug has negotiated starting later at work, and that's changed my whole week. It means I can actually fit in things like exercise.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in your new venture?
It happens without you really realising, sometimes it's so intense you don't stop to realise it's going quite well. I remember going for a dinner with my girlfriends about 4 months in and I was so tired. They were talking about how amazing the business was, and asking me if I was enjoying it. I admitted that I wasn't sure if I was. They reminded me that I am in control - and I'm making the decisions.
I think you become used to having a boss who tells you to do as much as you possibly can, but if you approach it like that you never really complete anything or give yourself a chance to say well done. I remember seeing a career coach who recommended doing a little review of each week, with all of your successes, whether it's getting a bit of coverage, or making a sale.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
At the beginning I would have been much more up and down about when we made sales and when we didn't, but I'm not so much now.
I think even if the business came to an end for some reason, it's been absolutely amazing. I never thought I'd have my own business, I've never been particularly entrepreneurial, and now I'm so much more employable, so if I wanted to go and work somewhere, I could. And now that I've started the business, I feel I could start something else if I wanted to. That's not the plan, but I think it gives you more confidence.
I'm not a massive fan of lots of inspirational quotes, but I do like, "What if I fall? But oh my darling, what if you fly?" I think that thought is really important.
You've obviously got a lot happening, with the business, the blog and being mum to two kids. What do you find difficult about managing all of it?
Sometimes I have the guilt that I haven't had as much time for my husband and I as I'd like. We've recently been on holiday on our own, and I think that's important. The kids won't get neglected, and you'll always get your work done. Therefore it can be you or you and your partner that can then suffer.
I read your piece about giving the dregs of yourself to your partner recently on your blog and thought it was great...(check out the piece here)
That had a really good reaction! Like any couple we bicker, but we've become quite good at making time for ourselves, and doing things like 'date night' that actually mean that you get out and spend time with each other.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
I speak to either a best friend or Doug, someone who's going to give me a bit of a power talk. When we first launched, we got quite a backlash in comments on social media from florists, some of which were really personal.
We'd launched on the Sunday, and Doug came home on the Monday and I was in tears, thinking we'd done the wrong thing. He was much more matter of fact about it and made me realise it was because they were scared about the implications for them. Its just business, but inevitably it feels personal to you as well, I've had to become a lot tougher in the last year.
What or who do you find intimidating?
I'm doing the PR for the business myself, and journalists can be quite scary. You feel like they have relationships with other brands, and that you're a bit of an outsider. And will they even think my product is any good?
It's going well, but it takes time, and you find yourself looking at other businesses, but then realising that they've been going for 5 years and so I try hard not to compare. I think with work, motherhood, or blogging the comparison thing doesn't really give you any benefit.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
Some of the feedback we get is really emotional, and people have cried when they get the packages. It reminds you of why we started, and that makes you feel good. The person who's sent the package is grateful too as that's what they wanted the recipient to feel.
Although the service started as gifts for new mums, it's grown organically to other audiences. I didn't know that that would happen, and I want to stay focused on new mums as I think that's where there is a massive gap in the market, but it's great to see.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
It should be enjoying the moment, but it's probably legacy. Building something that everyone is proud of and it's successful. I guess you don't know what the future will hold, so it is about what you'll leave behind. I wish I enjoyed the moment more though, remembering to do that is important. I keep telling people that this must be the most intense period, and that as we grow I'll have people to help, but I am aware that I can't be as close to all elements of the business for ever, so it's looking at which bits you can delegate or where you can add value.
How do you define success now?
I think initially the lifestyle thing is really important. I am available if there are school meetings and that kind of thing and can be flexible.
Success is different for everyone. It might be money, it might be having a career that fits around your family and it's an income. I started wanting that, but now I can see the possibilities, I want it to be a big brand! It changes all of the time, and that's quite a challenge to work out what you want.
Where would you like the business to get to?
This year is quite critical to start to look at potential finance and investors to get to that next stage. I've barely spent any money on advertising, it's just been social and PR. That's really exciting, as it shows there is even more potential. We deliver globally at the moment, but we don't do it through the website. People get in touch directly, so that's a real opportunity.
How do you start your day?
I always exercise first thing, especially on the days that the kids are in nursery.
I'm trying to get out and about more, as for the last few years its been more home based to do packing and admin. Now I focus on meeting new people and doing things like interviews. The social media and marketing takes most of the time, and that's done quite instinctively. It's difficult, because that part is driven by my personality alongside the business. That empathy and emotion and the fact that I'm a mum and really understand is important to convey.
How do you come up with new ideas?
The most important thing is that any idea has a strong insight behind it. I've been approached by loads of companies with offers, but if it's not thoughtful and doesn't encourage someone to take a break, or make them feel better or is a practical help like the food, then I don't want to do it. You have to go back to why you set the business up.
What will you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
Looking back, I felt like university was almost a process you go through to learn to learn and read and put stuff into words, but so much of it isn't relevant to what you end up doing. I think work experience and that kind of thing is important. I was talking to the girls who do our packing and they have no real idea of what jobs are actually available. I want my kids to do something that they're passionate about, but I think lots of working that out comes after university.
What's the single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
Just fucking do it! That was the guy from Cook. We were three weeks from launch, and he said - everyone has an idea, but so few actually do it. That's the one that's stuck with me. I also know one of the founders of Graze, who make the snack boxes. He said when you're 70% sure of something, do it. From somewhere you have to find the confidence. Unless it means bankrupting yourself, or you have something massive to lose, then why not?