This interview series features inspiring female entrepreneurs who have launched and run successful businesses. Through our peers’ experiences, we can learn practical lessons and insights to empower us on our entrepreneurial paths. Crucially, storytelling de-risks entrepreneurship so we believe it is an essential pillar in closing the opportunity gap for female founders.
Firstly, tell us a bit about you?
Emily: We have been friends for a very long time, having met at school aged 11. We then lived together in a flat share in our twenties and now live a few streets apart in New Malden. Our kids even go to the same school!
Sarah: We’ve both always loved books and it was while we were in that flat share that we started our first book club, with a group of like-minded friends. That ‘grown-up’ book club is still going strong 11 years later and the many ways in which we continue to benefit from it have definitely informed our business.
Tell us about your business, how did you come up with the idea?
Sarah: Parrot Street Book Club is a monthly book subscription for children aged 5 to 11. Each month a subscriber receives a parcel containing one-chapter book to keep and an activity pack that we’ve designed which is inspired by the content of that particular book. Everyone in each of our two reading groups gets the same book each month, so everyone will be trying something new or different over the course of a few months – like a real book club!
Emily: The idea sprung from a chat over coffee about how great it would be to start a business together. Sarah had just cut down her hours in her publishing job and I was at home with my youngest daughter full time. We were both looking for something that would allow us to better balance our families and careers going forward and our mutual interest in books and encouraging a love of reading in our own children provided just the spark we needed.
What was the moment that everything changed for you? Describe that moment when you decided to fully commit to your idea and the first few steps you took to make it possible.
Emily: The idea of a subscription book club came up during that initial chat and it was later that afternoon, having pondered it further, that I started to feel strongly that it was too good an idea not to act on. My head told me it wasn’t the right time to launch a business – I had a 9-month-old baby, a 3-year-old and a 5 year-old – but my heart said we had to go for it!
Sarah: We started by looking at other subscriptions on the market and trying a few out ourselves. We also spent some time exploring the academic research around reading for pleasure and the importance of encouraging children to read, which informed our product development. Once we were happy with what we were offering it was time to run a trial with paying customers and that felt like a big step. Not only were we pushing ourselves to commit to producing 3 packs to a deadline, but we felt it was important to trial the product with paying customers, not just friends and family, to get the most honest feedback. Of course, we did have friends sign up but when we had our first order from someone, we didn’t know it was thrilling!
What were the initial challenges you came up against and how did you overcome them?
Emily: Squaring my available time with my ambitions for the business has remained the biggest challenge for me since the beginning. My youngest only goes to school full time this September (hopefully!) so I’ve had to find pockets of time to work. That’s where Sarah’s skills and business experience come to the fore – she’s taught me a lot about time and expectation management!
Sarah: We also quickly realised that a lack of marketing know-how was proving a challenge for us. Whilst our budget didn’t allow for extensive consultancy, we thought quite carefully about how to access the support we needed around social media strategy, email marketing and advertising. Joining a local network of female entrepreneurs and winning entry to Theo Paphitis’ #SmallBusinessSunday community gave us access to resources and support that proved invaluable in those early days.
What was the first win that made you feel you were onto something?
Sarah: Having customers sign up and pay for our 3-month trial was a huge confidence boost. Building on that, we attended a number of shopping events and markets in the run up to Christmas that year (we launched our first box in January 2018) and speaking to potential customers, hearing them say that we answered a real need for them and signing them up there and then made us think we were heading in the right direction!
Did you take the investment route for your business or are you self-funded? Can you share some insights on your decision and the process?
Emily: We are self-funded. At the very beginning we took time to write down our values and what was important to us both – our own vision of success. Creating a business that worked around our family commitments was and remains a priority, so we wanted to retain control of the pace and rate of business growth. We didn’t want the extra pressure of investors and are extremely thankful that we were able to fund those (expensive) early stages between us.
What has been your best investment?
Sarah: Without a doubt, it’s been retaining and building a relationship with our graphic designer. She not only designed our logo (which we get a lot of compliments on!) but brings the content we create each month to life in the activity packs. For a long time, paying her invoice each month was our biggest expense and hit our bottom line hard, but we’ve always felt it important to create a high quality product for our customers and think this has positively impacted our sales.
Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? If so, can you share with us?
Sarah: We’ve had a few close calls when it comes to having the right quantities of stock for each month’s mailing but have always managed to pull things together in the end, even if we’ve gone a little greyer in the process.
Emily: With hindsight, given the way we’ve been able to scale the business in the past few months, you could say that perhaps we’ve not been brave enough. But the flip side to that, as we said before, is that we’ve wanted to stay true to our own vision of success – creating a sustainable business that works with our family lives – and so we’ve gone at our own pace!
What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt since starting your own business?
Sarah: In the early days we were both finding our way with the business and we each did a bit of everything. As time has gone on, we’ve gained a better feel for where each of our strengths lie and have started to take more responsibility for different areas of the business. Of course, we still strategise together and are always there to bounce ideas off, but it means we’re able to work more coherently and each improve our skills in different but complementary areas.
Emily: We’ve also learned the importance of having a good support network. We’re lucky that we’ve had each other from the start but over time have added other business owners, specialists and mentors that we can call on for advice.
Can you tell us one of your goals for 2020?
Emily: We have seen significant growth during lockdown and are thrilled that more and more young readers are accessing the (often undiscovered) stories and voices that we include in our monthly book parcels. We want to maintain that momentum and particularly nurture the growing community of advocates we have.
Sarah: We’ve also got plans afoot to improve our gift offering at Christmas, so getting those successfully launched is an important goal.
What advice would you give anyone about to start a business?
Emily: It sounds trite, but I’d say just go for it! We could have spent a long time meticulously researching the landscape we wanted to launch into, building our networks and perfecting our product before ever producing a product for customers. Instead, we chose to test our product with a trial which gave us valuable insights and meant we were ready to launch a good (admittedly not perfect) product.
Sarah: I think the fact that we were in this together must have helped us be a bolder with this. If we were working alone it may have been easier to hide behind those research stages, but we pushed each other to just give it a try… and I’m so glad we did
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About your author
Leah Williams is the Blog Editor for Found & Flourish, working with Founder Lara Sheldrake to ensure every piece of published content is empowering, inspiring and well presented, just like the women we work with.
I’m Samantha Jameson, the Founder of British hand, bath and body care brand, Soapsmith.
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