Sisters are doing it for themselves!

Passionate, driven, dedicated and brave… These are just some of the adjectives that spring to mind when describing the talented, extraordinary SW London women who take risks every day to step in to the unknown and start their own business. Whilst it’s easy to be seduced by the idea of being your own boss, calling the shots and running your own schedule, the reality is more like hard work, long hours and relentless pressure.

Georgina Blaskey caught up with the entrepreneurs who inspire us every day, whose businesses we love and couldn’t live without.

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Sisters are doing it for themselvesRochelle Milligan, Bambino Merino

bambinomerino.com  020 8877 1111 

“My son was born at 28 weeks when I was working as a buyer for Homebase,” recalls Rochelle. “I left on Friday expecting to come in on Monday but I had a baby in between and never went back!” After 12 weeks in hospital with her son, Rochelle dropped her career and dedicated herself to motherhood. “I knew part-time wasn’t going to be an option so I took voluntary redundancy and use the money to start-up my business.”

Rochelle comes from New Zealand, where Merino wool is widely used by all ages. Many mums are concerned with overheating and SIDS, and Rochelle was even more so having such a premature baby. “I was looking for natural fibres which are good for regulating body temperature. Having worn Merino in my adult years for skiing and outdoor pursuits, I know it was the ideal material and I wanted to bring it to the UK.”

Turning her business plan in to a reality was immensely challenging. “I went to the bank thinking I was prepared and I was turned down twice,” recalls Rochelle. “But I got there in the end.” However, everything takes longer and unexpected bills and charges did put the business at risk early on. “Importing charges, such as duty and VAT, there are always more costs than you imagine. I didn’t think I was naive but looking back, I was.”

Bambino merinoDSC_1558Starting a business with a newborn at home had its own set on challenges. Despite having flexibility, working every evening from home left little space for work/home separation. “My husband did get annoyed when I would go running to the spare room to answer emails! But in 2009 I got an office and that has helped.”

Rochelle embraces many of the issues that others would find excruciating – working with foreign currencies, theBambino merinosand-travel-baby-sbag2 implications of buying off-shore – and for her the most exciting part of the business was the start-up phase, even when things went wrong. “Early on we had a supply issue and we were out of stock of everything. The lead times were two months and I thought we’d lose all the momentum we’d built up. There was nothing I could do. I wondered what it had all been for…”

Bambino Merino came through it and now Rochelle has designers, pattern cutters, foreign exchange brokers and import agents involved. “Our best-selling product is sleep bags nought to two years which can be used all year round. I have a work/life balance that I love. My office, home and school are within half a mile of each other, I leave at 3pm to pick up my son, it’s all quite relaxed these days! It’s so rewarding hearing back from customers and I am so proud when people recommend us. It makes all the work worthwhile.”

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Lisa McGarden CentrephotoLisa McCormak, The Battersea Flower Station

batterseaflowerstation.co.uk  020 7978 4253

“Opening a garden centre during the coldest winter on record was undoubtably tough,” muses Lisa, owner of The Battersea Flower Station. “It looked beautiful but with no customers, at times I wondered what is was all for! At the start, some days only three people would walk in. You pay everyone else and you pay yourself last – it’s frightening.” Now with a successful business firmly established – the local priest has even congratulated them on making Battersea feel like a village – Lisa can look back on that tough first year, reflective yet proud.

With many satisfied clients, an amazing team, great reviews and the work/life balance she’d always dreamed of, Lisa has no regrets. “I have no commute, no office politics, no nasty boss; I pick the kids up from school and we provide a valuable service to regular clients – it’s great!” After working in marketing and advertising to a very senior level at Virgin Media and Age UK, Lisa felt the children were growing up fast and she wasn’t around enough. She initially went freelance but after five years contracting – which was neither relaxing nor stable – Lisa walked past Tooting Garden Centre one day and saw it had closed down. Then and there she knew that’s what she wanted to do. “I wanted a business that was tangible, that could make a difference, something local that the kids could come and see and understand.”

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After three years searching for a site (virtually impossible in London) and losing out on possible locations, Lisa found her plot. By then she’d also found someone who could provide the missing link – green fingers. “I met my business partner John Scofield in  2010 and we launched in December 2012. With the choice of busting a gut to open in December or waiting for the spring market, we obviously did the sensible thing and opened in December!” laughs Lisa. Having downsized her house and saved up everything she could, it was a stressful time, but her family were supportive – so much so that her partner Scott joined the team soon after the launch. “You need passion, commitment and, crucially, the understanding of people around you.”

Gardencentreherb shopThe site is a long alleyway with virtually no high street presence, an issue which Lisa has worked hard to overcome. “In winter we place more stock near the entrance and there’s a florist there too.” The team offers a free garden consultation service plus window box/balcony planting and delivery as well, visiting customers and bringing the garden centre to them, which accounts for about half their business. They even have long-standing, regular customers who have never visited them!

 “We listen to our customers and get ideas from them, but there’s always more you feel you should be doing. Sometimes you just need to take a pause and enjoy it!” says Lisa. 

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diDianne Bennett, The Lemon Tree

lemontree-london.com  020 7228 1020

“You can’t buy facials and pedicures online, so in that respect I’ve been lucky!” laughs Dianne, owner of The Lemon Tree and beautician extraordinaire. Since age 15, Dianne has pampered, plucked and pummelled her clients, working up through the ranks until she taught beauty therapy and became an examiner. “It was never my intention to run my own place,” she remembers, “but after a long time working in South Africa, I got home, walked past this unit on Webbs Road and thought, You only live once, just give it a go!”

Dianne walked in to the bank “on a wing and a prayer” and got a loan. “Eighteen years ago it was a different time, getting a loan was easier. With a builder friend fitting it out and another friend helping with the advertising, I was ready 12 weeks later. I put a poster in the window and a client rang and left a message. That was it!”

It wasn’t all plain sailing at the start. “I lost a stone and a half before I opened, I was so stressed and I wasn’t sleeping, then on the first day my new receptionist didn’t turn up!” I ran over to the newsagent opposite and their daughter came over to help for the day – she stayed two years!”

Loyalty is a word that keeps coming up during our conversation – from her staff (“One temp stayed 14 years”) and her customers, many of whom have been there since the start. “I have a great landlord who hasn’t priced me out the market and Webbs Road is ideal for us – it’s calmer, people know where we are and parking is easy.”

Dianne’s biggest challenge was during the recession. “Beauty treatments are a luxury and they’re the first thing to go,” she says. “I notice a big drop when things are tough and I worry. Every day for two years at the start I would panic if we were ever quiet and think, this could be it! I’ve gambled everything I have on this business, and sacrificed my social life along the way, but I was brought up to just get on with it, so I never complain even when it drives me insane!”

Reception Pano

It wasn’t all plain sailing at the start. “I lost a stone and a half before I opened, I was so stressed and I wasn’t sleeping, then on the first day my new receptionist didn’t turn up!  I ran over to the newsagent opposite and their daughter came over to help for the day – she stayed two years!”

Loyalty is a word that keeps coming up during our conversation – from her staff (“One temp stayed 14 years”) and her customers, many of whom have been there since the start. “I have a great landlord who hasn’t priced me out the market and Webbs Road is ideal for us – it’s calmer, people know where we are and parking is easy.”

Dianne’s biggest challenge was during the recession. “Beauty treatments are a luxury and they’re the first thing to go,” she says. “I notice a big drop when things are tough and I worry. Every day for two years at the start I would panic if we were ever quiet and think, this could be it! But I don’t do it for the money, I do it for the love. I’ve gambled everything I have on this business, and sacrificed my social life along the way, but I was brought up to just get on with it, so I never complain even when it drives me insane!”

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hanaHana McEwan, Flotsam and Jetsam

flotsamandjetsamcafe.co.uk  020 8672 7639

“At the start, I was here from dawn, seven days a week, serving, cooking, talking to customers; I would lock the door at 6pm and then go home and catch up on the business side of things,”explains Hana, 29, owner of SW London’s hottest cafe opening in years. “I was exhausted.”

Following the expiration of her two-year visa in 2014 after working as head of social media at Heathrow airport during the Olympics (“I love sports so this was a dream job as it was the host airport and I got to welcome all the global teams”), Hana returned home to Wellington, New Zealand for five weeks to research her business while waiting for her Entrepreneur Visa to come through. “Independent artisan cafes are huge at home and I wanted to bring that to London,” she says. With friends running popular establishments where she grew up, Hana worked on her business plan and perfected her vision – to create a local neighbourhood hub that served great freshly brewed coffee and the kind of antipodean food that her countrymen queue round the block for.

One problem – she didn’t have a site. “That was probably the hardest moment. I would cycle around every day looking for sites near where I live in Putney. When I called agents they didn’t take me – a young Kiwi girl – seriously. Once I found this site, I came every day, checking local movement and the customer base.”

Hana’s persistence paid off. “Using my savings and financial support from my dad, in November 2014 I finally had the keys! After a ten-week fit out, we did a ‘soft’ launch in mid-Feb 2015. We weren’t prepared! There was a queue outside the door for brunch and I didn’t have enough staff. I called friends, anyone I knew, to help!”

With 23 staff now on the payroll, including locals like Matt the chef who lives down the road and answered an ad in the window, Hana’s parents are still involved. “They moved over here to join me and my boyfriend (an architect who was instrumental in the fit-out phase and still helps fix things up when needed). Mum – Stephanie – actually developed many of the recipes and trains the kitchen staff.”

Stephanie’s cakes are a big draw on the huge green-tiled counter, where it’s virtually impossible not to give into temptation as you wait for your coffee. But it was a kitchen nightmare for the first few weeks F&J was open. “Basically we didn’t have enough power capacity to run everything in the kitchen at the same time – which we discovered one week before opening – so we had to schedule everything. We baked before service, we ran the dishwasher when the oven wasn’t on… It was a juggling act! Then one Sunday at 2pm the power went out and we had to send all our customers away. We shut for three days while they did the (very expensive) structural work necessary to get us more power.”

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Now Hana is looking forward and connecting with her customers. “We run barista courses, we’re doing a Christmas wreath-making night, supper clubs… Sometimes someone calls in sick and Dad will find himself washing up in the kitchen to fill in, and there are stressful situations which can lead to heated moments with family, but I couldn’t do it without my parents. They been there through the good times and bad. The main thing I’ve learned is that Mum has taught me to be more solutions-focussed; I don’t worry so much about the little things. And I’ve learnt to make a really good cup of coffee!”

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