Friday, 6 June 2014

Kitchen table to a million

"This story was written last year; a year on and  it's amazing to see our shops are still developing and growing at pace.  In six years we've come a long way and the next stage is really exciting. We are now working with Get Set For Growth Cornwall to help us take some more big steps to grow our businesses.  One thing I know is that customer focus and satisfaction is key to everything: that's my mantra."

It was the summer of 2008 when the company Kate worked for went under.  With a big mortgage and bills to pay Kate didn’t know which way to turn.  Five years later and the online business she started on her kitchen table is set to turn over a million.

Kate and husband Chris had just took-out a new mortgage to extend the bungalow so that their two teenage daughters could have their own rooms.  They could afford it then.  Kate thought she had a job for life. 

“The construction company I had worked for since 2001 had quite recently made me a Director, but all that changed overnight.  All I could think about was that, with only one income coming in, how could we keep going.” 

Chris, who also worked in the industry as a project manager, knew the building business was getting tough, but Kate’s redundancy came like a bolt out of the blue.   Kate quickly made up her mind and that night told Chris that she was going to start up her own business.  Chris was very supportive. 

“I was devastated by Kate’s job going, but knowing Kate’s tenacity and drive to get things done, I knew that when she said she wanted to set up her own business it would work.  I was, and still am, 100% behind her.” 

Setting up a shop on the web appealed to Kate.  She had always had an interest in e-commerce and could see the way the high street was going with more and more people shopping online. After talking it through with Chris and some market research Kate opened her first web shop selling greeting cards through e-Bay.

So why cards?

“Well, for a number of reasons really.  Since losing my job, I couldn’t afford to pay £4 or £5 for an everyday card anymore and it made sense to me that other people would be in the same boat.  I thought that, if I could get hold of some quality cards for good prices and charge as low a price as I possibly could for them I’d be onto a winner.  To be honest I also felt that the big stock of cards I’d need to run the business wouldn’t take up too much space in our home...”

With Chris in a secure job, a few maxed-out credit cards and what was left of her redundancy money, Kate financed the business start-up and her adventure into e-commerce began.

It’s wasn’t very long before the business moved off the Kitchen table and stocks of cards and gifts started filling up the garage, garden shed, loft, hallway and even the bedrooms.  The two of them worked long hours in the evenings when Chris got home from work and at the weekends to make sure orders went out on time. Something Kate’s renowned for. 

That spring Chris and Kate went looking for new stock at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, a visit that gave entrepreneurial Kate her next big idea...

“I saw some great gifts at the Spring Fair and really wanted to buy them, but they didn’t really fit the Kate’s Cards & Gifts business profile.  By the time we’d driven out of Birmingham and down the M5 I’d decided to open another online shop.  This time selling gadgets, gifts and gizmos.”

Handy Ideas | Fun-packed solutions to life's everyday puzzles...

When she got back home Kate bagged the domain name and Handy Ideas was born.  In the run up to Christmas the business was busier than ever.  After her tricky start-up year things were looking up for Kate and her new gadget business was now making a useful contribution too.

“In the first year I was encouraged by the sales and getting more confident than ever that it would work.  I knew I was taking a chance from the start and made a small loss in the first year, as it is with most new businesses, but that didn’t trouble me much.” 

Kate was right to press on and by the end of the second year she’d made her first profit.  Much of which she’s ploughed straight back into the business.

“I’ve invested heavily since I set up on my own.  The first really big investment was the move to a new 1500 sq ft warehouse and offices and buying the acres of racking needed for stock. There just wasn’t the room to run the business at home anymore and that’s making life a lot easier for all of us.  We’ve also spent a big chunk of money, more that £10,000, on improving the way the sites work for customers and how they look and feel.  A hell of a lot’s changed since I ran Kate’s Cards & Gifts from our Kitchen table.  All our hard work is paying off and we’re really excited about it all.”

By year three Kate was getting an income from the shops, and enough for her to pay herself a proper wage at last.  The business is now on target for a half million in sales this year and the year after that the combined businesses will be pulling in a million.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Kate though.  Christmas 2012 was incredibly busy and working seven days a week for six weeks made her realise that the business was just getting too big for just the two of them to manage. Sending out and administering orders worldwide on this kind of scale manually isn’t cost effective long-term.  Something had to change.  

“I decided to take the plunge and invest in new state-of-the-art software to integrate multi-shopping channels with e-bay, Amazon, and Play.  I also decided to streamline the websites.  All this speeds up distribution and leave me free to spend more time developing and marketing the business online.” 

Kate’s also investing in local people too.  Chris now works with Kate full-time and she’s employing more and more people in the busy periods with staff being lined up for the big Christmas trade period right now.   

So with business getting busier and busier where to next for Kate?  Well, as you will have guessed by now, the online operation isn’t standing still.  With a brand new stock control and distribution system now in place, Kate Cards & Gifts is about to re-launch as Love Kate’s and there’s a brand new website for Handy Ideas too. 

Love Kates | Cards & Gifts with love

“The new-look Love Kate’s and Handy Ideas online shops, e-Bay, Amazon and Google Play and are now fully integrated.  Managing customer communication, stock levels, ordering, and, above all, processing sales quickly and efficiently is really important to our customers.  We’ve spent the last 6 months setting up the new websites and integrating the new software with our existing systems to make sure everything runs smoothly. We’re there now. The system works and it’s been worth every penny.”

The businesses have come a very long from that Kitchen table in 2008 stacked (and I mean literally stacked) with cards, gadgets and gifts.  With the new software and strategy in place at Love Kate’s and Handy Ideas and sales growing exponentially year-on-year Kate says she’ll be taking on more people locally this year.  
Talking to Chris and Kate Malt the two of them seem as driven as ever to succeed. The business looks unstoppable, but no matter how big the business gets Kate always has one eye of the future. 

“Working for ourselves is a dream-come-true for us. We’ve put in long hours, many a weekend and evenings sat at my PC over the years, but it’s been worth it.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but Love Kate’s is and always will be, a customer focused business.  It’s taken me five years and a lot of hard work to target a million in sales, but now that the new systems are fully implemented and all our additional market places and websites are up and running, I can now look forward to achieving that in just one trading year.” 

Kate set up her online business to provide financial stability for her family and to make sure that what happened to her in 2008 doesn’t repeat itself.  Today her youngest daughter Georgia, while studying Business, IT, Media and English is getting involved in the business.  As the business continues to grow maybe there’s a job with Mum for her too?   

Love Kate’s and Handy Ideas have done well because we listen to our customers, know what they want and deliver it on time at the cheapest price possible.  No matter how the business develops in the future, no matter how big it all gets, top-rate customer service is something that will never change.”

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