What was the hardest part about launching your business and surviving the first year?
I started London-based concessions company Hallett Retail Services in 1999 following a career with Arcadia. My idea was to give emerging and boutique brands a presence in major high-street department stores. At first, the toughest part was negotiating fees and then chasing payment. When you’re starting out, it’s hard to fully understand your worth and have the confidence to pitch for deals at the right level. Look carefully at your competitors, assess the market and tailor your fees. If you have to drop your rates to win a contract in the early days, make sure you specify when your prices will go up. And put absolutely everything in writing. Make sure there are no grey areas.
What financial/funding challenges have you faced – and what advice would you offer other budding entrepreneurs?
We created a model that didn’t require large amounts of capital investment: department stores provided the space and fixtures, and the clothing labels paid up front. All I needed to get the business going was a £1000 bank loan and a couple of computers. Since then, we’ve grown organically. If you’re pitching for finance, put yourself in the investor’s shoes. Would you invest in the business? If the answer is no, go back to the drawing board and come up with a better business plan.
What were your biggest mistakes?
When we were going through a period of rapid growth, I assumed I should hire highly-paid directors to help us cope. But they struggled to understand the culture and concept and we had to let them go. In retrospect, I ‘panic-recruited’ and expanded the senior management team far too quickly and unnecessarily; I should have invested more money in the lower levels of the business instead and then promoted from within.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from being your own boss?
The first is to admit that you can’t do everything. Work out where your gaps are and then employ people who have the skills and talents you don’t. Back in 2007, I was finding it increasingly hard to juggle the company and the kids, so my husband left his job as a director at an IT consultancy and joined the business, bringing in much-needed finance and tech skills. That was one of the best decisions we’ve made. Secondly, don’t beat around the bush. If something needs saying, then say it. At first, I found it very hard to give constructive criticism. I was far too nice. When you’re the boss, be friendly but keep a professional distance.
What tips have you learned from expanding overseas?
We dipped our toe in the market in Italy but realised we’d have to invest heavily in infrastructure and factories out there. So, with the exception of Southern Ireland, we’ve kept our focus on the UK. If there are big opportunities to exploit in your home market, don’t rush overseas.
What’s been the most pivotal moment in your career?
Starting my own company. I spent 13 years at Arcadia, where I progressed from graduate trainee to area manager, overseeing Topshop’s Oxford Street flagship store. I loved the job but redundancy gave me the push I needed to build a business of my own. Running Hallett Retail Services gave me the flexibility to be the mum I wanted to be. I’ve learnt so much and have had loads of fun along the way.
If you weren’t running this business, what would you be doing?
Growing up, I wanted to be an actress and was always involved in drama groups. Every time I go to the theatre, I secretly wish I was up on the stage! But there’s a real element of performance to running your own business – from pitching to clients to public speaking.