Overcoming the Challenges of Starting Out
I set up Joseph Joseph in 2003 with my twin brother, Antony. Needless to say, launching the business wasn’t plain sailing. In fact, the toughest challenges we faced hit us right at the start.
Joseph Joseph sprang out of the family manufacturing business. After working as a product designer for the likes of The Body Shop and Dyson, I took a post-grad business course and the romance of running my own business started to bite. I wanted to be entrepreneurial. I’d run a poster business at university and published a student magazine, so I’d dabbled before.
My father advised me that if I wanted to set up my own business I’d need to learn how to sell, so I took a job as a territory sales guy for him. He had an industrial glass business and one of the spin-off products was a glass chopping board. That chopping board was the seed that got us into housewares. Antony and I separated that single product from my father’s business, took £10k of stock, found 50 small customers in the UK and started what became Joseph Joseph.
Setting up was difficult – when we launched our initial range of four products, three were a disaster. That nearly felled the business at the first hurdle but luckily at the time we were able to visit the bank, get a loan extension and work our way through it.
It was also during Joseph Joseph’s early days that we won a listing with the now-defunct Allders department store. Their buyer was extremely supportive and we became encouraged to focus on a single product – chopping boards – rather than our other early lines, such as clocks. Our friendly buyer told us that if we made more boards, she’d buy them, and we thought success lay in concentrating on one product.
Our boards started to sell well so we went straight to John Lewis – the pinnacle of the UK market. If we got in at John Lewis then our credibility would skyrocket and great things would follow. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite that simple. John Lewis, like many retailers at the time, said: “Look guys, we like what you’re doing but you’re too small – you’re effectively a one-product company. We’re too big an organisation to list you.”
With our strategy in tatters, that was a big knockback and it took us 12 months of working away to build a product range to eventually get listed in John Lewis. It was a real chicken and egg – we were too small to get listed, but how do you become big enough without the sales?
As it turned out, the answer lay overseas. We looked abroad for new business and took a very proactive approach. We didn’t really consider it export, simply finding new customers. We were able to open up sales in Germany and France before we started to operate with John Lewis and other large accounts in the UK.
It sounds easier that it was! It was a case of packing the car full of samples, furiously ringing round, making appointments, knocking on doors and being prepared for plenty of rejection. I remember a two-week trip when we travelled out through Germany, down through Switzerland, into northern Italy and back up through France. We sometimes slept in the car. But it was exciting. We were motivated. We had to open up new business or die. In the end we won two or three accounts that, like Allders, were prepared to deal with us as a small organisation. We gained momentum.
John Lewis is now a very important client for us in the UK and we’ve got a great relationship with them. And today we have a large export business in 104 different markets.
Our story goes to show that success does not come easily. Knockbacks will happen, your initial business plan will need revising, even ripping up. It’s the ability to keep on travelling through rough seas, your stamina, your skill at navigating around storms that defines the life of an entrepreneur.