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Starting an online wedding business

Interview with...

Carly Flanagan
Age:
26
CV:
Communications graduate, PR, coffee shop, and still works full-time at council
Business name:
Wedding Invitation Boutique
Goods/services:
Handcrafted wedding invitations
Location:
Stockport
Trading for:
Two years
weddinginvitation

Adam Bannister: How much work did you put in before your recent launch?

Carly Flanagan: I've been planning for the last 12 months to gauge if people like my designs. Is there a market out there? Will people pay £3 an invitation? I also needed to stop for a year to put all the infrastructure in place.

AB: How did you raise the cash?

CF: I went to the Manchester Business Consortium last November and they talked about various different routes of financing yourself. It seems like you need to have failed twice to start a business or be on the dole or from a deprived area - so I couldn't find anything.

So many graduates are struggling to find a career and would look at starting a business, but I couldn't really find a lot out there specific to graduates. There's something called flyingstart that's more graduate-based, but I only found that recently.

I did a New Entrepreneur Scholarship at Manchester Metropolitan University. That was a three-month course, two evenings a week, and at the end of it you get a grand and a half.

That's another reason why it took so long, because I had to wait until last July to get the money. I don't think I would have taken the time to write a business plan that was so in depth otherwise, though. It was really quite beneficial.

Originally I wanted to start a coffee shop, but you need thousands of pounds and they've got a really high failure rate - so I didn't think it was a risk I should take

AB: How did the business come about?

CF: After graduating from university I worked at a coffee shop for a year, and then went to Spain to teach English. After that, I wanted to pursue a career in public relations and really went for that for six months.

I got what I thought would be my dream job, but I really didn't like it. I had problems with my boss as well, which put me off working for other people.

So I went back to the public sector and started plotting how to start a business. Originally I wanted to start a coffee shop, but you need thousands of pounds and they've got a really high failure rate - so I didn't think it was a risk I should take.

So I explored what business options I could do while working. I actually looked at a gay wedding planning business, but I realised I didn't really know much about the wedding industry - and I'm not gay and don't know anything about gay weddings!

That's what got me thinking about weddings. I was making some cards one day when I thought about this idea. I looked on the internet and there were only a few companies with professional sites doing this.

But a lot of them, come January, have signs on the site saying they can't accept any more orders until September. So there was obviously a demand out there, but you can only take so many orders when you're doing something handcrafted.

I looked on the internet and noticed there was a wedding fair coming up. I told them I was a wedding stationer - which I wasn't - and asked them if they had any spaces left.

They said they had one space left, so I said I'd take it. She asked what my business name was, so I just made something up and put the phone down. I was like: "What have I done?"

I bought £50 worth of glittery card and stuff and started making invitations. When my boyfriend Adam came home that night he said: "What are you doing?" So I said: "I've launched a stationery business!"

AB: Did you have a long-held ambition to run your own business?

CF: My dad's been an entrepreneur since he was 17. He's set up music newspapers, florists, greengrocers… about 30-odd businesses!

My friends say that when I was a teenager I'd say: "I wish my dad would just get a proper job!" But I think growing up around it, you do realise that anyone can do it. It was only when I saw what jobs had to offer that I realised that maybe I did want to work for myself.

AB: But you still work full-time as well…

CF: I'm lucky because I work for the public sector and finish at half four everyday - and it really is 35 hours a week, no overtime. I have to do that because I just bought a house and I can't risk not being able to pay the mortgage. It means I can take more risks in one way, because if I make a big mistake it doesn't leave me bankrupt.

I work on the business most evenings and Sundays, about 15 to 20 hours a week. I'm going part-time at work as soon as I can possibly take that risk.

AB: Tell us a bit about the products…

CF: They're all handcrafted, using ribbons and gems, paper flowers, twisting wire, beads, using heat embossing… The most popular designs seem to be the simplest ones.

AB: Can you see yourself hiring extra help at any point?

CF: You don't know how much you can trust somebody else, because a lot of it is about service. I really go out my way to help. A recent order came through because someone was desperate for the invitation to match the bridesmaid dresses, and she couldn't find anyone who could do it.

I told her to send me a colour swatch of her bridesmaid's dress and I found an exact match - and that's how I secured her order. So I think if I employed somebody else, you'd have to make sure they could provide that level of service. You'd have to decide how much responsibility to give to them - whether they were customer facing or just did some of the paperwork in the background.

But I don't want to put one of those signs up on the website saying we're full up; it seems such a shame to turn custom away.

My friends have helped a lot and Adam's sister was helping with the fair at the weekend. I felt really big-headed talking about the cards. I thought if people want invitation cards they'll come to the stand; if they don't, they won't.

I'm not really a salesperson. But she came along and was really getting people to respond and to come over. On Sunday she didn't come until later on, so I just tried to take a leaf from her book and pretended I was selling someone else's cards.

AB: What do you enjoy most about running your own business?

CF: The positive feedback from customers. And all the little triumphs along the way: the website being launched, getting the first order from someone, getting orders from the fairs…

What I like best is doing a bit of everything: deciding how I want to market it, deciding what colours to use, what designs to put on… being able to call the shots.

AB: And what about the worst bits?

CF: Trying to find your way. It's so hard to find suppliers. A lot of them are trade only and won't trade with you unless you produce a trade reference - which you can't produce unless you have other suppliers that are trade only.

The worst thing ever was going to the wedding fair this weekend, without a van or a workforce, getting these glass shelving units in the back of a Honda, then with my mum driving, trying to find the trade entrance to the G-Mex. Then you have these little booths and they're really flimsy. My mum put all her weight on one of them and fell through it!

And also, now I've got my new house, I've got my own room, but in the first year of setting up I was just working at home, in the lounge of my old flat.

AB: Would you do anything differently if you could go back and start again?

CF: I'd invest in corporate signage with my logo on for this wedding fair that I've just been to. I really felt like I wasn't a big player without signs like everyone else around me, but I didn't know whether I was going to do these shows all the time.

Some wedding stationers just promote themselves via the internet and register on directories - which can cost you £500.

There's another wedding show at the end of January. It's £900 to exhibit. I really want to do it because the last one went so well - but it's such a big risk to take.

It's such a big show and it gets so much advertising. Everyone pays £8 to get in, so you know they're going to be committed, as opposed to the people who just wander round the small ones.

AB: What's your long-term strategy?

CF: I originally planned to launch two complementary businesses. With the wedding industry you're very busy between September and May-June, and then it can be really quiet over summer. So I bought the domain names BabyAnnouncementBoutique and PartyInvitationBoutique, and thought I could run two businesses alongside it with handcrafted baby announcements and party invitations.

I've also got big plans to add more features to the wedding site - but I'll keep those under wraps for now…

AB: Any advice for anyone about to embark on a business venture for the first time?

CF: Do a business plan. And do go to your local business consortium. I think most places hold half-day lessons where they outline all the funding options available to you.

I looked at business websites for about a year. They're really valuable for tips and advice. You can read about the success stories, how other people did it, and it's really quite inspirational.

And I think it's really important to have some sort of business mentor as well.

AB: Who was your mentor?

CF: Someone from a business scheme. That was an official adviser, but more of a mentor was my dad. He's done it all before and knows what I'm going through. He gives me bits of advice - even though he doesn't really know much about the wedding industry!

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