Helen Keenan is the founder of toddlers and children's clothing range Little Punk London. A driven and tenacious woman, Keenan uses the lessons she learned as a turnaround specialist in the Greater London Authority to overcome the multiple hurdles she's faced in setting up a niche retail business.
Here, she tells us why the government must be harder on the banks, how difficult she found tracking down manufacturers to work for her, and why Boris should be doing more to promote small businesses.
What were you doing before launching Little Punk London?
I spent 10 years working in the public sector, and just before I took a career break to have children I worked for the Mayor of London's office as assistant director for health and communities. It basically meant I ran all the social policy teams for the Mayor; sport, health, youth, culture, diversity – so a really wide brief and a big area of the Mayor's remit.
When London got rid of the London Development Agency and all the funding that used to flow through there for business support went into the Greater London Authority, we took more responsibility for the delivery of programmes.
My job over the years turned into a business turnaround person – they used to fly me into a project when it went pear-shaped and we'd either turn it around or exit it.
One of the subject areas that I kept throughout the 10 years was the cultural and creative industries brief; do you remember the skinny models crisis with London Fashion Week a few years back? I was at the helm at the time, and spoke to the British Fashion Council about keeping London Fashion Week up there in the international stakes – that was really awesome.
What was the starting point for your business?
I gave up work 18 months ago to concentrate on being at home as a mum; our daughter's adopted and one of the things I wanted to do was give her the best start in life that I could. As time goes on, you realise they don't need to be beside you all of the time and actually it's better for their social skills and for them to find their own way.
But I still had this itch to do something – all my life I've always thought I'd like to own my own business, but was struggling to come up with a good idea.
As soon as I had my daughter you come up against all sorts of silly little issues as a mum that spark ideas. It was her that gave me the idea for the t-shirt – my daughter hates getting dressed, so we had to make it more fun. I thought 'all children love stickers', so we tried to turn getting dressed into a game.
One of Helen's designs
I tried regular stickers first but then thought, why don't I try making some fabric stickers, then she can choose what she wants to wear and I know it'll look okay. I think kids like it because they can create and play, and it's them designing it, not you.
It took a little while to come together – that initial thought was around a year ago. It's surprisingly complicated to work out how you can turn that idea into something that is child-friendly and look nice. I eventually worked out the best way to do it was with embroidery on felt as it became more like a 3D character, and the stick on parts weren't overly stiff.
How did you go about deciding what materials to use?
The first thing I did was I went to a haberdashers type shop and bought some different types of felt and backed them with Velcro. From there, turning it into what they look like now, I always thought you could print and cut in one operation, that the technology must be there to do it, but you couldn't do that unless you made thousands of them in China.
I got on the phone to various printers and laser cutter companies and ended up going up and down the country without finding anyone who could do it. Very few people will even entertain you if you're not talking about manufacturing big numbers. Fewer still will knock up some samples for you.
That must have been frustrating.
It drives me mad, the attitude in this country is I'm not getting out of bed for any less than whatever – in China people will see that while you're not placing big orders today but if it goes well, that relationship will be good for them. That enthusiasm to help people is really rare in this country – it frustrates me.
I've sourced everything now but it was such a big hurdle - it took six months from coming up with the idea to producing a hurdle. The solution came from my dad – he was in the clothing business and in the end we used a family contact to do the work for us.
Now we're looking at bigger numbers so it's not so much of an issue, but it must be something which stops a lot of younger people getting their first big start.
How did you fund your business?
I funded it all with my own money. That wasn't the original plan, in theory, you should put 50% of your own money forwards and 50% of the bank's. But I can't believe the experience I've had with banks.
I'd been speaking to our NatWest business manager over the six months and adapting my business plan as it evolved – I'd even written it using the template they had given me, and I'd invested in a relationship with my business manager, with the implicit understanding they could help.
But when the time came and I needed a bit of a buffer I put the application in, it automatically got rejected. I asked why, and was told it was because I was a start up, with no contracts in place and I was working in an industry I had no track record in. I just thought 'but you knew all that when I started'.
After I applied as a business, they suggested I applied as myself, which I did, but the same issues were thrown back at me. I've come to the conclusion they're just creating themselves an audit trail to show the government they're trying to lend to small businesses. It's got to stop.
It makes me furious; not only are they not being helpful by not lending, they're being detrimental because they're giving you a track record of declined applications. The issue with the banks could be solved quickly, even if they did nothing else but be honest at the beginning and stop companies having so many declined applications on their records.
Another of Helen's designs
I went back to Boris's team and said to them they needed to do something about it, and I've been trying to get in touch with Number 10 because I'm sitting here having been a policy writer, and I know how the public sector deals with what they see as market failures.
Luckily enough now we've gone to the next stage of funding – we've been fortunate that the products have stood up on their own and people are noticing us. The characters come in packs of five usually – we’ve got 16 designs coming out this year. We've also got ambitions to bring out a book so that you get more value from the felt stickers by sticking them in the book and creating your own story.
There is an educational point to all this too – there was a big campaign a few years ago aimed at raising literacy levels to kids, and there’s research now that talking and playing like this with kids at a young age impacts positively on their literacy later. If you're playing with our animals, you need to learn what a lion, or an elephant or a giraffe is.
You hired a PR team quite early on in your process, presumably you think marketing's important even for small brands?
We aren't going to be in shops for another six to 12 months and I’d need to create awareness before that, and PR is the way to do it.
There is some interest given my background with Boris and the fact the item is unusual, but Twitter and the internet are so useful for creating awareness and reaching people you couldn't reach before. Translating that into sales is a different game though.
What other struggles did you face?
The general attitude of the reserved British people. The caution that people feel in this country – you have to be so belligerent and strong willed if you want your product to succeed. You need a lot of self belief, especially in this climate. I kept going because I was convinced it was a good idea.
When I couldn't think of how I was going to execute the idea, I couldn't see a way of producing it all cost effectively. Before I cracked the embroidery route I nearly gave up on the whole thing. But it's turned out alright in the end!
You have to problem solve all the time as an entrepreneur – you come up with the idea in the first place because you're problem solving, and then you continue doing that all the way through. I bet if you looked at the characteristics of entrepreneurs I'd bet problem solving is a common trait.
I think they also have a sense of creativity. The UK's known for its creative industries – we turn out people in digital media, and all the gaming people and so on. Innovation is the way to get us out of the stagnant economic situation we're in.
What's been your proudest moment?
I did some Christmas markets this year and at the first one I did a lady came over to me and said 'what've you got there?' - I hadn't even unpacked the first box, but I talked her through it and she said 'I've got to have one'. That first bit of money made me so pleased with myself. I felt chuffed when I got my first online order too.
Now we've got an angel investor so we're able to move onto the next stage. This year our target is to be into a couple of premium retailers by the time we have our autumn/winter collection.
Our online presence needs to grow and we're pushing a big campaign for the summer collection. And we want to take it to the US quickly. I've got a real feeling from looking at our online sales that the whole 'London' branding goes down well over there and we’d like to be there and in Japan quickly to capitalise on it.
But it's about more than sales – we need to own that stick-on market; the sooner we take it out to the States, the sooner we'll get an international presence, and then it won't matter if people do something similar. We want to be known as the first, and the best at it, and there's no point in waiting.
You talk about having a gut feeling – is that symptomatic of you as a businessman?
Yes, but I do surround myself with experts, which really helps. I run focus groups on a regular basis, and I send out all our designs in progress and get intelligence back in, which we feed in. But I would say I'm resolute on some things where I'm comfortable. Otherwise you'd just wax and wane wherever opinions took you.
Although T-shirts are the only products on offer currently, Helen plans to expand into picture books
What more could the government do to help? Given you've been on both sides of the fence, I'd have thought you'd have a good idea about its limitations too...
What the government really needs is some small practical interventions to help businesses along the way. Social media isn't something policy members think about because it's not something many economists would advise public money goes into, but for businesses like mine it's a brilliant way of reaching out to new customers.
People like Theo Paphitis who do competitions to promote small businesses are brilliant, but that could easily be the basis for a government funded project. Boris has 500,000 followers on Twitter – it's bonkers that resource isn't being tapped.
And look at Not On The High Street.com – they take a huge percentage but they provide a shop window for small businesses - again, nothing to stop the public sector doing something like that.
Initiatives that the government are pursuing, like championing pop ups, are being done to save the high street – which in my opinion is just wrong; that's a market failure which shouldn't be propped up.
The people who are making the decisions of what to invest in to help businesses aren't the sort of people that understand the real power of social media. There was a huge debate internally about whether David Cameron should go on Twitter, as an example.
There's a need for up-to-date injections for the ministers so it's not just the same old hands offering advice. They should invite 10-20 entrepreneur start ups around the table and listen to what they have to say.