As I celebrate ten years of entrepreneurship and I reflect on the who, what, why and when of the past decade, what becomes obvious is that this isn’t all about me.
I couldn’t have done this without the support of my friends. I am lucky to count amongst my friends members of my family, people I’ve been close to for over twenty years, past colleagues with whom I have more in common than our past employment, and latterly people I have met since starting Revival: customers, suppliers, neighbours, staff past and present.
All of these fabulous friends have helped me to get where I am today.
As an entrepreneur, when you come up with ‘the big idea’, you must first convince yourself of its worthiness. But more important is that next step: getting your friends to believe in it. These are the people you trust most in the world, whose opinions you respect, and whom you hope will rally round you in support. I didn’t need every single friend to be on board but having a community of people I could trust and rely on and who I knew would be my champions was central to my psyche, if not to my actual success.
Which brings me on to the meaning of ‘we’.
When I’ve been asked about the business I’ve always responded with ‘We …’. Long before I hired any staff, even when there was only me (officially), I think part of this was referring to the support community behind me. There are people who have always got my back, people who care if I succeed or fail. That’s the ‘we’.
Many of us have a small and immediate circle of very close friends who we’ve known for a long time, people who we don’t need to see regularly to know that they will be there for you. But lots of us have a larger, more extensive network of friends gained through work, hobbies, sports, events, etc, who we enjoy the company of and spend time with on a regular basis. This was certainly the case for me when I first moved to London in 2005 and discovered a love of swing dancing that brought me a wonderful network of friends via our shared passion.
For me there was a huge overlap between friends and customers when I set up my company. I did lots of market research with my swing dance friends before I took the plunge, ensuring I had a good handle on what I perceived to be the problem and the potential solution. This research was largely a sense check for me, but it also acted as marketing – giving me great insights while also creating sales leads.
I started the company by buying £500 of stock of specialist swing dance shoes on a credit card, feeling fairly confident I would be able to sell the majority of them. If proved right I intended to bootstrap from there.
In a swing dance class you rotate around, dancing with a partner for a few minutes before moving on to the next person in the circle. As I moved around in dance circles, I became known as the girl who sold the swing dance shoes. Each dance with someone new was an opportunity to talk about my business, and the more people that knew of its existence, the more sales enquiries I received.
I became widely known and instantly visible, turning up to dance class with Ikea bags full of shoes for prospective customers to try on. Soon I created a Facebook group with the catchy (ha ha) title ‘Swing Dance Shoes for Londoners; Rowena’s Try Before You Buy Service’.
As I became known for the swing dance shoes, I also became the ‘go to’ person for related requests, particularly clothing you could dance in. Original vintage outfits were very popular in London at the time, but dancers needed hardier clothing. Pieces that wouldn’t rip at the seams as they moved, that they could easily wash when they got hot and sweaty from the exertion. ‘Repro’ vintage fashion brands were just beginning to take off, especially in the States, and I saw an opportunity to bring my pick of 1940s styles to the swing dance community. Because I was dancing with, talking to and hanging out with my customers, feedback was everywhere. My company could grow based upon customer demand.
I began to sell clothes alongside the shoes, which led to selling parties in people’s homes. One friend would invite a group of others round and they’d enjoy wine and nibbles while trying things on. It became common for me to lug a suitcase of garments to somebody’s home and have a drink while acting as someone’s personal stylist. It was great fun!
Eventually though, those suitcases and Ikea bags became too big and too heavy to take on public transport (I don’t drive). After a year or so, I had to ask people to start coming to me. Half my bedroom was wall-to-wall stock, and it was getting bigger than I could handle.
Word was travelling as well. Now that I was selling clothing rather than just specialist dance shoes, friends and acquaintances were admiring my new style. Eventually I heard it repeated often enough that non-dancers liked the clothing and would wear it beyond the dancefloor. That was when I knew this business had a chance to scale.
While my business was spring boarded by my customers and friends in the swing dance community, it never could have been what it is today without appealing to and being able to cater for a wider audience. What hasn’t changed though, is the way my friends act as my champions. Many of them are customers, yes, but it is their belief in what I was trying to achieve that created the word of mouth that allowed me, two years after my first stock delivery, to open The Revival Retro Boutique.