Late last year we launched our Business Booster Fund, to set up a handful of UK-based entrepreneurs with a little boost to take them through 2021. Over 500 applications later, we put the best of the bunch to a public vote and came out with three exceptional winners.
We caught up with each of them to share a little more about their businesses and what they’re going to do with their grant and tailored business advice. First up is sustainable breastfeeding clothing company, The Bshirt.
Working mums Lisa Lessware and Philippa Doyle weren’t always entrepreneurs. The Bshirt was born after they both had babies of their own and went through the challenges that breastfeeding mums face themselves. “We wanted it, so we made it”, Lisa tells us.
Lisa had been an NCT trained Breastfeeding Peer Supporter and worked with lots of other new mums. Research has shown that many women feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in front of other people. Not to mention it’s also challenging, given the types of clothing available.
Although it will take time to change people’s attitudes to make everyone comfortable with breastfeeding in public, the clothing didn’t have to be a struggle. Lisa at first designed breastfeeding undershirts to help make breastfeeding easier. She made these for friends and showed Philippa, whose suggestions helped create the first Bshirt.
Being a new mother and starting to breastfeed is challenging. “Mums lose their identity when they first become parents”, Lisa explains. “Wearing the same scraggly clothes everyday so that you can breastfeed can strip you of your identity”. The Bshirt, on the other hand, is designed to be incorporated into any outfit.
Many of us have appreciated the freedoms that remote working has afforded this year. For Lisa and Philippa, they’ve been able to set their own hours for years. The way they run The Bshirt around having young families shows that a little flexibility can support parents in achieving fantastic results. Their business is “the perfect place for working parents” and they have two other working mums on their team.
Living in an eco-friendly town in Devon, the pair are committed to sustainable and ethical production. They contacted the relevant bodies to ensure the cotton growers they buy from are certified and that they were using legitimately fair trade factories. Both are aware that “profits would be higher if we weren’t sustainable”, but it’s worth the extra cost.
When they first started out in 2015, the duo thought that going to trade fairs and baby shows was the only way to get their products out there. What they encountered didn’t quite live up to expectations and they left dismayed, despite the huge effort they put into talking to as many people as possible.
The consumerist focus was a turn off for them. Pregnant women - whose lives had completely changed, were sleep deprived and going through massive hormonal shifts - seemed like an unfair target for ‘must-have’ consumerism. According to Philippa, “pregnant women aren’t seen as a vulnerable group but they are routinely told that they need this and that in order to be a good mum, or to give their baby the best”. They took a step away from exhibiting and focused on growing through word of mouth and online. Facebook proved to be the perfect place to market.
Social networks allowed them to communicate directly with mothers in their situation rather than relying on distributors to do it. And the mums who now rave about their products got it, even if the buyers at baby fairs didn’t. Targeted advertising on social media, positive word of mouth from a great product, referral codes and discounts made things take off. They have a growing fan base but there is still work to do to increase their brand awareness.
But those aren’t the only networks that were important to their success. Finding the right mentors and social enterprise networks helped them with their launch and later in making sure they could maintain growth. To make sure they could set up an ethical business they looked on the Social Enterprise Network and the Department for International Trade.
Their advice is to look for the schemes, networks and help available to you because there’s a lot out there. In the next town over, the Dartington School for Social Entrepreneurs was where they got fantastic support and a start up loan to launch the business. They have spent a lot of time seeking out different funding sources for their growth “You’ll get ten nos but then you’ll get a yes”, Lisa tells us. Perseverance is crucial.
Grants, start-up loans and other kinds of finance are all obviously important. But when they were put in touch with a CFO of a fashion brand through UnLtd, they understood the importance of advice. “Thanks to our mentor David, we got a handle on the finances”, and learnt how to properly read a balance sheet and understand what financial planning they needed to put in place. It’s thanks to this mentor that a successful business has been able to stay that way and invest in their growth.
Being an online business, COVID-19 didn’t require a big pivot into ecommerce for their brand. Even their supply chain was relatively unscathed, with the ethical factories they use in Asia shutting only once in the Spring of 2020. Luckily they had enough stock to cover the initial delay but their sales were impacted as people weren’t venturing out as much.
Buying clothing to make breastfeeding in public easier simply wasn’t a priority for mothers during lockdown. Luckily they’d taken steps to expand into Europe last year and these sales helped to make up the sales shortfall in the UK.
“We’ve just had such a weird year, it’s been so unpredictable”, Lisa explains. They’ve been used to seeing growth year-on-year, so the set back from COVID-19 was frustrating. When the Bounce Back Loan Scheme launched last Spring they jumped. It’s helped to boost cash flow and cover the slowdown in business.
When they started growing they had to come to terms with the fact that growth costs. “We were getting ahead of ourselves”, Philippa says. But it’s a classic issue that businesses of every size experience. Selling large quantities of your goods is great until you run out of stock and aren’t able to place orders. If you want to keep selling more, you need to keep buying more. And making a loss wasn’t something they were prepared to do, so they cut back on unnecessary expenses and really understood their balance sheet. As a result they still own 100% of the company between themselves.
So what does the future hold for The Bshirt? First of all, they don’t want to be about a single product. So they’ve got three new products currently in production and another three in prototype phase, hopefully launching later this year to cover different stages of pregnancy and early motherhood. They’re hopeful that an umbrella of products will appeal to their consumer profile and improve their return rate.
With the MarketFinance Business Booster grant, they’re able to inject some extra cash into the business to support this growth. With the cost of advertising shooting up, particularly on social networks, it’s getting harder for small businesses to be seen. We wish them luck in this next stage and are looking forward to helping advise where we can!