Self-confessed 'shoeaholic' and mum-of-three Andrea Alli is enjoying great success with her handy product, the 'Flexi Shoe Rack' (www.flexishoerack.co.uk). In this exclusive interview, London-based Andrea, 38, shares with other budding mumpreneurs how she found her feet in running her own business.
“Like a lot of women, I love shoes. The problem was I had 200 pairs and a lot of space in my house I simply couldn't use. Corners of rooms, gaps under the stairs or recesses in the laundry room just weren't compatible with the shoe racks available on the market. It frustrated me to buy a shoe rack that was of a fixed width and height with no flexibility built-in. The product just didn't conform with the space I had to play with.
Since leaving my job as a computer programmer in 2003, to have my second daughter, I'd been actively on the look-out for a business challenge to get my teeth into. I'd previously sold designer handbags on eBay but by the turn of 2008 the supplier had run dry and I didn't have anything else. The shoe rack space problem proved the stimulus for a new direction.
I started development of the product in February that year. Designing the shoe rack was relatively simple thanks to having studied engineering at university. I already knew the market from my past run-ins with rigid shoe racks so I was confident of a Unique Selling Point that would appeal to women like myself. My husband offered his support but it was up to me to take care of the essentials of getting my business off the ground.
The first hurdle I overcame was getting a patent for my product. I know that a lot of women will baulk at the cost of doing this and it did cost an arm and a leg, but by doing my own DIY patent I had the peace of mind in knowing my idea was safe and secure.
A working prototype was ready by July and then I flew out to China to try and find a manufacturer. I came back empty-handed and stuck in a recession. My husband thought I was mad pursuing a business at such a difficult time but I was driven on. I hear successful business mums talk about needing determination to succeed, but I disagree. It wasn't determination, but desperation that drove me on to eventual success. My husband lost his job – a victim of the recession – and income was obviously a concern. Especially with three children to raise. I had to go on, spending nights on the phone speaking to potential stockists or manufactures, or scouring the internet learning new skills to make my business a success. For me the biggest challenge was in getting to grips with marketing. Setting up in business was a walk in the park compared to sustaining growth year on year. I identified an area of weakness and promptly set about addressing it.
I showed my product to Lakeland and they loved it, agreeing to stock it. That was a huge incentive to keep going. I eventually found a UK manufacturer and production started in earnest in March 2009. Come the official launch in July I had a website designed and ready to go live in support of the shoe rack. I was fortunate in the sense that my background in I.T. made building a site relatively straightforward, but I can't stress enough how important it is for any mum going into business to address the online side of their enterprise. There is training available if you don't know your bits from your bytes, or you can call on a professional website design company.
A few more stockists came on board but my main goal was to get the product on the high street. Last September I approached Argos about including the Flexi Shoe Rack in its catalogue. They turned it down simply due to the retail price of the product. They told me if I could halve the price then they would reconsider, but that was absolutely impossible due to the costs of manufacture. Knowing the importance of securing a high street stockist I cast my eye once again on manufactures outside of the UK. After a lot of research I found a company in China whose involvement would bring my product very close to the target price. I have now transferred all production to China, and just at the right time, as my UK manufacturer has recently gone bust.
I went back to Argos and represented my product to them. This time I met their needs and the upshot of this is that the Flexi Shoe Rack will be included in the Autumn catalogue. As far as I'm concerned I have reached my ultimate goal. Getting a store like Argus to offer the product is like getting an official stamp of approval of its viability and worth.
To be still here in 2010 and about to hit the mainstream is the most rewarding feeling I could imagine. There have been lots of challenges along the way – some I've been prepared for, some that have knocked me off-balance – and there will be many more to face in the future (importing my product has taken things to a different level in itself). But I have taken things one step at a time and have been OK.
I think my success has come down to that real sense of desperation to make something of my business. You could almost call it obsession. Determination isn't enough – you need to pursue every aspect of your concern doggedly and unrelentingly. I think there's a certain element of luck involved as well, but without a relentless hunger in your belly you won't push through the hard times and capitalise on those golden opportunities when they do come along.”
• For more information visit www.flexishoerack.co.uk