I don’t know about you, but I’m always intrigued by the stories behind how businesses start and the owners history. So I thought it was time to start writing about mine. There’s so much to write about, 35 years worth! I don’t expect to cover everything in this one blog post (we’ll save that for the book!) but I wanted to share some of the key turning points for me and this journey called life.
From as young as I can remember I have always made things, whether it was learning to knit with my mum and grandma, carving wood in my dads garage with my brothers, when he didn’t know we were playing with his power tools (shhh don’t tell him) or gluing bits of tissue paper and glitter to anything I could get my hands on. I have always been a maker and creativity has always oozed out of me. In school all I wanted to do was make things, obviously I choose any subjects that would allow this, Art & Design and Textiles were my chosen subjects at GCSE and A-level. On a slight curve ball I added an AS level in Psychology to the mix, and I wanted to fit business studies into my curriculum but the college schedule wouldn’t allow it. I find it such a weird twist of fate that I now have a business, which has combined creativity with mental health. I have somehow managed to combine all of my school subjects, even the ones I didn’t get to study, into one entity. Maybe my 16 year old self was onto something!
Moving into adult hood I had the invaluable experience of 17 years of retail, most of which were in management, which had its own high and lows, but wow the things I learnt. I started my working career as a 16 year old zero hour contract with Dorothy Perkins, before I was 18 years old I had a set of keys and would ‘hold’ the store during lunch hours when all the manager went to lunch and the week I turned 18 I was the official Sunday key holder when no-one else wanted to work, but I loved it! I was also working in the same store as the ‘shoe manager’ which meant I was working 6 days a week, but I didn’t care, I was a boss! I would re-merchandise the store when new updates would come in, I would complete and file all the admin and paperwork, count up all the money and do the banking, I would hire for the shoe team, do my own stock takes, send transfers, plan the scheduling, deal with staff issues and more. I learnt from a young age the principles of profit and loss, how to create a commercial IRL store and how to start influencing people. My shoe department was the most profitable on the area and I had the tightest payroll performance, the highest account card numbers (yes I possible sold you PPI on that DP’s store card - sorry) my area manager would often call on me to go and support other stores and revamp slow performing departments. This was all at the age of 18! I also understood the need for a work life balance early on, as I did my own schedule I would always have a Monday off work, Sunday nights out in Torquay at the time were absolutely incredible! I would spend my Monday’s sleeping and hungover from the night before. Balance.
The Topshop brand conference 2008 where we got to party, meet celebs and all the drinks were free! Good times!
A couple of years later and I was the deputy store manager of the small Topshop in my town, before being progressed by my area manager to the Plymouth store as Topshop Deputy Brand Manager, I was in charge of the visuals and commercials on the Topshop side of the store. This is where I really flourished. I loved combining the visual and commercial elements of the business and seeing the instant results of the changes we would make on the shop floor. It was in this role I met two of my now, best friends. One that I recruited to work for me as my visual supervisor (partly because we had the same last name, but mostly because she is just a friggin amazing human being) and the other one who worked on Topman as a supervisor and we just hit it off. Working together in a retail environment for years can solidify friendships for life. I progressed into my first brand management role as Topman Brand Manager, we absolutely smashed it, I wont brag anymore than that, but I couldn’t have done it without my team, Perry you are the best!
One of three meetings in Phillip Greens board room, where we got to tell him everything that was wrong with the company!
I decided I wanted a taste of the big smoke, maybe for a year or two, so I applied for a role at the Stratford Westfield Topshop Topman, I didn’t get it, but I was offered the same role in the White City store. I took it. I had no where to live and I knew literally not one person in London. I was 24 years old. I’ll save all of the juicy details of my full experience with Topshop Topman for another time, here is the highlight reel… White City Topman Visual Deputy for a year, was progressed to a role too big for me in Westfield Stratford as Topshop Brand Manager, this was in 2012 during the olympics, my first ever Topshop brand manager role, I had a team of 120, the turnover was huge. This lasted a year, it was a tough year and I met with my General manager to admit defeat, that the role was too big for me but that I was grateful for the experience. This is where I was introduced to Juliea Ballantyne, the most supportive and empowering boss I have ever had, she was the London area manager and is one kick ass female. I interviewed for the role of Marble Arch brand Manager, I went all out knowing that I had to get this role. I became the Topshop brand manager of Marble Arch on oxford street in 2013, this was a whole other type of pressure, with the threat of (not qualified to be a Sir) Phillip Green could walk in at any given moment, and he did.
A year later in a failed attempt to leave the company and go to New Look, Topshop offered me a counter position as Store Manager or my choice of two stores and a 30% pay increase. Obviously I took it. My first store manager role was in Bromley, Kent, we were close enough to still be classed as London but far away enough that the threat of big Phil walking in was slim. It was a £5.5 million turnover store and a huge square footage, but yet again with a fantastic team who wanted to work with my vision for the store we absolutely smashed it earning maximum bonus in the first full financial year. I also found time whilst managing that store to oversee the Selfridges Topshop department during November and head up a digital project with a head office team, I was entirely blessed with a team who I trusted to run the store without me, the goal of any store manager. 18 months later the next stop was Brent Cross in North London, a notoriously tough store, on the door step of the company’s CEO Ian Grabiner. I was lucky enough to have Becky as my Topshop Brand Manager, another very close friend still to today, together we took that store apart and built it back up again from the ground. We secured £100k investment the day that Ian the CEO visited, we started a company wide campaign called ‘answer it’ because we could never get to the phone in time 😂 which looking back now is hilarious, but at the time it was all very serious business. Again we smashed it, thinking outside of the box was natural when I worked in Topshop, they encouraged that kind of mindset and were always looking to push and develop their teams further.
I then went on to become a Gerenal Manger for one of Topshop’s flagship stores in Bluewater, my team was 150 people strong, the turnover was £12 million, the store was 20,000 sq ft, this was the point at which I departed Julieas team and had a new line manager. Who I’ll say now I struggled to get on board with, we did not see eye to eye, I found him egotistical and confrontational for no reason other than ego. Alex if you’re reading this… there’s some constructive criticism for you! He was the reason I left Topshop, a life long relationship with the brand I loved and grew up in was over. I went to the dark side… Missguided. With their unrealistic expectations and over salaried management team - myself included. Safe to say that was a struggle, a brand that did not know how to do retail, wasn’t listening to the (entirely ex-Topshop) management team who really knew how to do retail. After 18 months,, and too many missed birthdays and weddings, I left Missguided and retuned to Devon. I quit with no job to go to but a true confidence that I would find something, what was the worst that could happen.
The day we secured £100k store investment from Ian Grabiner Arcadia CEO. Left to right Juliea, Ian, Me, Becky and Dan.
Fast forward to September 2019, I was working in a big brand (I’ll mention no names but the first word starts with an H and the second an M) back in Devon as a store manager and struggling, something inside me was in turmoil, I had no enjoyment in life anymore, I didn’t look forward to anything, every day was tough and I wasn’t happy. I’ll go ahead and say it, I hated this job. I had enjoyed 16 years in retail, mostly in management prior to this and had loved it, I loved my team, I loved the pace, I loved it all. I won’t go into depth about why this was so different, but I realised how a lack of autonomy and a team around me that were not only on a different page, but were reading from a completely different book, were the crucial factors in my retail career demise. Now I know that the true reason for my depression episode was because the life I was living was not in line with my core values anymore.
The breakthrough came one morning when I received a text msg from one of my team saying that a head office visitor was in store and wanted to speak to me when I got in, I burst into tears and rang my mum “I just can’t do it anymore” here was her ‘strong AF’ daughter who could handle anything and everything, reduced to tears on the end of the phone, “I think you’re having a breakdown” she replied. She was right. Up to this point I had not spoken to any one about how much I was struggling, only that I didn’t enjoy my job. Not that I was feeling completely trapped, I dreaded every new day because it held a new shift, I though about it all evening so couldn’t even enjoy my free time, it took over my life. I got to a point where I would rather do anything else but work there, but i neede the money to cover my bills. I called my boss (which was awful) I had to face my reality, I was depressed and stressed all because of my job. I spoke to a doctor who signed me off work for four weeks - I could breath for the time in a while.
London in the Summer (heart eyes)
Now I HAD to come up with a plan - I had no choice. This was not going to be my life for another minute. The first thing I did was look for other jobs, but being a highly experienced store manager living in a rural part of the country, my options were limited. Then I started thinking outside the box. A light bulb moment came, I could create my own job… I started making. The week I returned to work I handed in my notice. I had applied for a couple of part time admin roles and felt confident I would get one of those, turns out I had to negotiate my way into a role which was a third of my salary because I was ‘over experienced’. I walked out of that hellish (well paid) job with no leaving cards, gifts or last hurrah, it was one of the happiest days of my life! In the space of two years I had reduced my salary by £40k. This really had to work.
For the first few months I lived on the breadline, I literally was only earning enough to cover my bills, nothing else. Any fun activities had to be free or I couldn’t come. I became really good at managing my money, because I had to. No more credit cards or loans, because I didn’t know when or if I could pay them back. I called all my creditors and put all my account on hold, freezing my interest and cleared a lot of my debt. At this time I was probably earning about £400 a month from my business and the rest from my part time job, things were really tight. Then one Sunday evening I received a random call from my employer, this was March 2020, I was let go from my life line job. Covid had arrived and their business had reduced over night, suddenly I was unemployed. I had never been unwillingly unemployed in my life. WTF do I do?! I instantly went into crisis mode, applied for universal credit, dumbed down my CV and sent it out to everyone and anyone I could. When I was out approaching supermarkets for part time roles, I received a call from a friend offering me a job in Pharmacy, I took it and started the next day. Simultaneously Boris told us that mask wearing would become mandatory in all indoor spaces, that night I made, photographed and listed 10 different mask designs on my Etsy shop and instantly started getting orders. Covid proved to be the catalyst for my Etsy store, going from maybe 10 orders a month to 150 overnight. Safe to say I did not get bored during lockdown, I felt enormous envy for those that were furloughed and spending their days relaxing in their gardens, and later on the beach, while I was working my arse off.
One of my original Bababumpkin fabric banners
It was later on in the pandemic, that September that I decided that I wanted to pivot the direction of my Etsy shop which at the time was called Bababumpkin and selling nursery gifts, prints, banners, bunting and masks, a real hodgepodge of products. And if I’m honest, I didn’t really resonate with the audience that I was trying to cater to, I dont intend to have children and my brand was all about that, there was again, a real disconnect with my values. I wanted to move into a field I could truely relate to and really understand my customers needs. I decided to share my love of creating through selling craft kits and supplies, something that could also be more scalable and would ignite my passions in a genuine way meaning it was easy to maintain without loosing momentum or energy.
So here we land at the present moment, I have simultaneously eradicated the source of my depression and re-connected with the source of joy in my life. I am utilising all the knowledge and experience I gained through my years in retail, but this time its for myself not a greedy business man. After a hiatus of creating through my retail management years, I was making things again, I was using the creative part of my brain again, I was enjoying life again. All thanks to something that I knew as a child I loved and had just stopped doing. Silly adult me!