Growing Your Business - An interview with Lisa Forde

I'm really pleased to share this interview with Lisa Forde of The Card Gallery - she's made a great success of her two online businesses and has some fantastic advice.

I know that many crafts people and designers dream of turning a hobby business into a successful full time job. In this interview Lisa shares advice on how she took a small business and transformed it, becoming a leading supplier of custom invitations and cards. If any of you are considering starting a handmade business, selling craft online, take on-board this great advice from Lisa - Be brave and start making some serious business decisions!

1. First things first – can you tell us all a bit about yourself?

Hi there, my name is Lisa, I’m 39, am married with 2 small children and live in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. I’m supported by a fantastic husband and team of staff, without them, my business would not be where it is today. Like most people who run their own business and have children, I spend most of my day dashing around but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

2. And the inspiration for starting The Card Gallery – where did that come from?

I’d always wanted to set up my own business for as long as I can remember, but never knew what business to open! After my husband and I got married we went travelling for a year and were on the look-out for potential ideas as we travelled. After returning home, we realised how obsessed British people were with sending cards, whether it be for birthdays, as a thank you, or for weddings....and from there the idea of a card related business grew...and grew. Making cards was never a hobby of mine, it was always a business idea, so I always viewed it as a commercial venture.

3. What would you say was the most difficult part about starting up your own business?  (I think it’s fair to say that a lot of crafting startups are hampered by a few key problems, and it’d be really interesting to know what they were for you, and how you overcame them…)

I’d previously worked for large corporate companies, across a mixture of vocations before starting The Card Gallery so thought I had a good base to build on. I found there were 2 main difficulties, 1) Where to begin and 2) I had to learn about, and carry out, every single area of business, including the areas I’d avoided such as Finance.

I booked myself in for a part-time course run by our local Business Link which was free of charge and offered lots of invaluable advice on all the aspects you need to learn about in the early stages of setting up a business – I was amazed at the wealth of information and help/grants/support offered to new business – if you’re setting up I’d definitely recommend finding out what’s available to you.

Networking was also key to helping me learn what to do and perhaps more importantly what not to do – I asked lots of advice of other new start ups and had some friends who ran their own businesses – whilst they operated in different markets the theory of what we were all doing was the same.

4. If you could go right back to the beginning and offer yourself any one single piece of advice, what would it be?

To be braver! There were several decisions that I spent too long on, when the ability to move fast was one of my biggest advantages compared with many of my competitors. I was always too worried about the financial cost of my decisions even though I’d thought it through, done a business plan and thought it through some more….I dithered too much!

5. Can you talk us through the process of upscaling? How did you go from a small startup to a leading supplier of custom invitations and cards?

I quickly realised that our success and growth was dependent on the success of 2 key factors, 1) how much we could sell and 2) how much we could dispatch in any given day. If we couldn’t sell enough or couldn’t dispatch orders fast enough then we wouldn’t survive.

If we were to upscale, I had to employ staff as otherwise the business would be too reliant on me (and with a plan to start a family this wasn’t going to be viable). Employing others meant I could step away from the ‘doing’ of the business and allowed me to work out the areas where we could upscale.

We went into new markets, growing our range from weddings to include baby and occasions. We also penetrated the wedding market to a greater extent by improving our online and magazine visibility as we found after testing various selling channels that these worked best for us.

6. Speaking of upscaling, what would you say was the most important thing to remember when trying to grow a business?

Try to grow your business a little at a time so you can keep up with the challenges you may face as a result of that growth. If you expand too quickly and your customers’ service suffers, you may be faced with bad reviews which are difficult to undo.

Also consider how big or how profitable you want to be. My aim isn’t to become the biggest, but instead to be as profitable as possible. A bigger turnover can mean more headaches and not necessarily more profits.

7. I think one of the most difficult aspects of marketing handcrafted wares is identifying the correct price point, could you talk to us about how this process works for you?

That’s very true. No one appreciates the time and attention to detail that is required to create handcrafted products so pricing is a difficult issue. We keep a very careful eye on the competition so as to ensure our price is competitive (but often not cheaper) than others and strive to aim best value for money. We believe in the product and the service we offer, and that the cheapest option isn’t always the best.

8. Could you talk to us about identifying designs with commercial appeal as well? Is there a specific formula that you have when it comes to choosing which pieces you’re going to focus on?

Neutral designs/colours are often the designs which work best commercially as they appeal to the widest audience. If a design is very specific to a theme or colour, then it’s likely to only sell in small volumes. That said, we find that offering a range of designs to suit all tastes is the best method, so even if a customer doesn’t like one design, there are lots of others that they will like.

You must have dealt with some fairly difficult clients before, particularly through your custom design work, any hints or tips for dealing with situations like this?

We’ve been extremely lucky and have worked with very few Bridezilla’s during the past 10 years! We keep communication as open as possible through phone and email (we find it’s always much more effective to talk to a customer who’s experiencing difficulties than communicating via email) and we send samples of artwork so the customer can be sure of what they’re going to receive. We also keep all artwork for several years and keep samples of bespoke orders for when customers come back to reorder more products.

9. To round up on a slightly more positive note; what would you say the most enjoyable moment in your journey has been?

There have been lots of highlights along the way, but the proudest one is probably the fact that we celebrated our 10th birthday last week, it was a sense of achievement and relief that we’d made it so far...I wish everyone starting or growing their own business lots of luck and happiness...Lisa x