Clare Harris’s ‘career pivot’ happened in her late thirties. After studying psychology at Bristol University, Harris landed a job as an engineer at software company ICL, working on the first computerised supermarket till systems, before joining IBM. Over the next decade, she moved from engineering to sales: ‘I loved it and worked hard – but ultimately I wasn’t fulfilled,’ she says.
Harris started to reassess her life. ‘I imagined myself at the age of 80. I wanted to be able to tell people that I’d run my own business. I’d always dreamed of being an entrepreneur; my father owned a successful clothes company in Scotland supplying Marks & Spencer. I was cross with myself that I hadn’t even tried.’
Harris’s initial idea was to open a stationery store, so she quit her job at IBM, rented out her spare room to generate extra income and spent the next six months working as a sales assistant at London department store Liberty to get vital experience on the shop floor. ‘It gave me real respect for retail and taught me just how tough it is to run a store – I could just imagine myself stuck inside my own shop for six days a week without any customers.’ When an offer for a shop on Fulham Road fell through, she decided to change her business plan.
Harris had always loved hosting themed dinner-parties, where the focus had been less on the food and more about the decorations on the table. And so, in 1999 at the age of 39, Harris launched Talking Tables, selling ‘posh partyware’. Using personal savings and a £25,000 loan from her father, Harris sketched out her first eight products and found a small manufacturer in China to make them. ‘After that, it was a case of detective work – from tracking down the names of buyers to working out where to buy boxes. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the things you don’t know – but I just gave myself two new things to do each week. That was my coping mechanism.’
John Lewis was the first customer, ordering sparklers and party poppers made in Harris’s living room. With millennium celebrations fast approaching, other retailers were quick to follow, including Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and Harrods.
In 2000, Harris’s husband Mark joined the business and a year later their son Sam was born. ‘We’d split the week between us so one of us was working on the business and the other was looking after Sam,’ says Harris. ‘Running our own company gave us that flexibility.’
The pair ran Talking Tables from home for five years (‘It took over three rooms. We had to do a loft conversation to give us more space!’) before moving to offices in Clapham. The business, now based in Stockwell, employs 65 people and turns over £16m, with revenues expected to hit £20m next year. Harris has so far resisted bringing in the VCs: ‘The business is ours; we’re not answerable to other people. We’ve been able to accelerate at our own pace.’
While Britain still accounts for the majority of Talking Tables’ sales, Harris is now focussing on expanding overseas with a particular focus on the US and Germany. And she doesn’t think Brexit will be a disaster: ‘I voted to come out of the EU,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t comfortable with some of the dictates and rhetoric coming out of Brussels. We’re a very independent-minded nation and yet we were being bullied. I’m an eternal optimist and think we’ll come good.
‘I just hope the politicians don’t mess it up.’