By Michael Northcott Friday, 04 January 2013

My Week - Lee Morgan of Jolee Tablecloths

While researching the textiles business, Morgan and his wife discovered a growing demand for 50s-style plastic coated tablecloths. With a collection of funky patterns, he's cashing in with this household staple.

We are about 10 months in, and we only launched our e-commerce website in the summer of 2012, so it’s very early days. At the moment, my week is taken up almost entirely with marketing the business online and trying to strike the best deals with the Oilcloth suppliers. 

First thing in the morning I check how many orders we’ve had in – to begin with, it was very slow, but the numbers are growing every month now thanks to our website and also a lot of eBay selling. We’ve got a freelance web designer who I meet with twice a week to talk about tweaks to maximise sales. I’ve also got a photographer on board who sorts out professional-looking images of our products. We’re continually trying to get new stuff in – next is our summer collection – and I’ll be talking to him directly after this interview to arrange the next ‘shoot’. 

I spend a huge amount of time talking to courier companies and trying to negotiate lower and lower postage costs. It’s one of the principle overheads of the business, and we have a long term plan to sell more overseas, so finding good value in couriers is essential.

We decided to start a business because we have always wanted to do our own thing, but when I was made redundant last year and it spurred us into action. Originally we were going to try something in the curtain-making market – my wife is a seamstress and curtain maker – but through our research and meeting a lot of industry reps, we found a strong market for the ‘Oilcloth’ tablecloths. It’s the same stuff that you now see handbags and aprons made out of - Cath Kidston has made millions with her kitsch take on these products - and we have adopted the funky patterns to tap into its popularity. 

It’s a very small family business at the moment, just me, my wife and my son. But over the next year or two we would like to grow our stock levels quite quickly – we’ve traded abroad a little bit and would like to push that further. Since we got started, sales have increased by an average of 20% per month. In May last year, we were scratching around for an order or two here and there, but now we’ve got to think very carefully about the logistics to make sure we can carry out all the orders.

I’m not expecting to become a millionaire out of it, my preference would be to keep it in the family, and keep it small enough that my work-life balance is intact. I’d prefer it if I could just make a good living and that the business didn’t become some huge thing that’s really hard to run.

The best thing about the job is the control. Having worked for a large organisation (a local authority) before, I found that you could make decisions but ultimately they would become diluted as they travel up the chain of command. In this business, if we make decision, we live and die by it. If we want to take the business in a certain direction, or push turnover to a million pounds a year, then we have the freedom to do that (with hard work and the right break, obviously).

The hardest thing about the job is how to increase sales at this very early stage. My father ran his own business and a piece of advice he gave me was: there is a minimum amount of money you have to earn each week before you can even pay the bills. Don’t imagine business is booming just because you’re ‘making rent’, so to speak. The other tough thing is that postage costs are going up constantly, and in tough economic times, customers want products to be cheap: protecting our prices from cost increases can be tricky if we want to keep a decent margin.

If I had to give advice to any other entrepreneurs? Plan carefully, but be prepared to rip your plan up when circumstances change. What we were doing when we launched 10 months ago is not the same as how we strategise now.

Don’t be too rigid just because you think you’ve got a good business plan. Flexibility is key.

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