People often ask me how I’ve done it. Bottom line: I owe it to my mam, dad and the way I was raised.
I love crafting. Always have, always will. But if you’d told me when I was a teenager that I’d turn a bit of paper and glue into a global business, I’d have thought you were joking. I’ve achieved a lot of things that I’m really proud of – growing my business, getting nominated for an MBE, staying true to my North Eastern roots – and people often ask me how I’ve done it. Bottom line: I owe it to my mam, dad and the way I was raised.
Growing up, we never had a lot of money and I was always the kid with the four-stripe Adidas tracksuit bottoms on. But my parents were grafters, and they always owned their own businesses. There’s a thing my dad used to tell me, and it’s been stuck in my head my whole career:
“If you’re prepared to work really hard kid, you might as well do it for yourself”.
And that’s what he did.
He had a finger in every pie – literally! He owned a van that would serve ice cream in the summer, and pie and peas in the winter. He’d buy bikes for cheap at car boot sales, and me and my sister would sit and buff the rust off them so my grandma could sell them on. My parents owned the decorating shop in our tiny village, and if a decorator came knocking on the door at 10pm, my mum would open up the shop and start mixing paint. Even now, I live just down the road from the village, and the family shop, which is now run by my sister!
My parents turned their hands to anything and everything, but no matter what they did, they gave it everything. The reward was being their own boss, and that’s something I’ve always held onto – but the turning point came when I got to uni.
I went to York to study management. I had no idea what kind of business I’d run – I just knew I wanted to run one.
I did one of those courses where your third year is spent on the job, so I went to work for this tiny little crafts company. I fell in love with it. My mam used to craft with me a lot when I was little, and I used to crochet granny squares with my grandma, but that year at the craft company really opened my eyes. The craft industry is dominated by hobbyists who have turned their hobby into a business. I felt like there was a real gap in the market for someone to research and then develop products that fill those gaps, as opposed to just developing products that they love.
The first product I invented was called the Enveloper – it was a little scoring board for making envelopes. I took the idea to my dad’s friend in the village who was a joiner, and he made a prototype out of MDF in his workshop. The plan was to then tool in plastic, but when we priced it up, we found out it was gonna cost me £30,000. I was a uni student – course I didn’t have 30 grand lying about!
Instead, my dad’s mate started to mass produce the Enveloper out of MDF. I took the Enveloper to the shopping channel, and they loved it so much they let me come on the show to flog it! Then, I paid a kid in the year below me at uni 200 quid to build a website for me, and that’s where it all kicked off.
I didn’t want my parents re-mortgaging their home to fund my business. What they gave me instead was good advice and a good work ethic. As the Enveloper took off, so did my little business. My mam’s friend Kamala started helping out, taking orders down to the Post Office, sticking stamps on them and sending them on their way. Eventually we made ourselves a tiny office in the flat above the decorating shop, just Kamala and I.
Now, Kamala still sits on Crafter’s Companion’s board of directors. Sharon, my second ever employee, is head of our global Customer Services team. Building a business is such a journey – let’s be honest, it can be really challenging – but it’s so much easier when you have people you trust supporting you.
As Crafter’s Companion has grown, so have I and so have the people who’ve been there from the beginning and helped me along the way. We’ve come a long way from the Enveloper – though it’s still one of our best sellers! We’ve got bases in Europe and a head office in Corona, California, but the bulk of our 240 staff are still based at our HQ in the North East. Over the next three years, we’re planning to grow, but our home will always be here.
If someone ever says that you shouldn’t turn a hobby into a business, just reply:
“Well, why not?”
To succeed in business, you need passion and drive, and what are you more passionate about than the things you love and look forward to at the end of the day?
My life is hectic. I’m running a business, I’m raising a young family and I’m juggling all this with my public career on television and radio. Anyone who knows me will say the same thing: I can’t say no to anything! But the thing that relaxes me and gives me peace of mind is crafting.
The key to my success? People. Treat them with respect, value them and trust them to get on with things. Let them take on the world for you. It’s the staff in this business that made the business successful, not me.