Julia Grinham set up bespoke shoe designer company Upper Street with her sister three years ago after being inspired by sister Katy's experience with hand-made shoes in Hong Kong.
Here, she details the travails of working with Chinese tradesmen, her frustrations with her high street bank and why she turned down investment from venture capitalists in the early days of her business.
What were you doing before launching Upper Street?
I've always worked in digital media, and I started at Reuters on the business side and I was always interested in the mix of the media and technology. I did four years with Reuters working on marketing projects, business development and managing clients such as Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank, which was a good foundation for the rest of my career.
But ultimately I found it frustrating working for a big company; I wanted to be able to make a difference. I wasn't interested by the financial services industry, but I was fascinated by the internet and seeing all these dot com start ups succeed.
I saw a job advertised for a business manager for UpMyStreet.com – it got bought by Zoopla in 2012 – but when I joined it was during the boom days of dotcom and it was great fun. There were lots of very bright, young people really making a difference and I loved that.
The company was bought by uSwitch and they asked me to run it as a subsidiary, and that was where I learned to cut my teeth running a business. I did a mix of advertising, ecommerce, running the sales team and so on.
After that I ran the consumer part of Hometrack the property company for about a year, and it was during this period I knew I wanted to do my own thing, I just didn't know what that was. I knew I wanted to run a business, but it got to the point where I had one child by then and I knew I had to do something different.
I was really fed up with working for ego-centric men and men who did nothing but beat their chests and talk crap, and treated their staff like shit. I'd had enough.
So I set up my own consultancy after that and worked for a few different businesses helping them to commercialise more effectively online. During that time I also worked with a small venture capitalist firm looking at business plans and working with the companies they invested in as they were getting them off the ground – that was a fantastic experience.
When did you decide to set up a shoe business?
One day my sister came and visited for dinner; I was pregnant with my second child at the time, and noticed she had the most amazing pair of shoes on. I asked her where she got them from, thinking they were some designer brand, and she said 'oh, I had them made for me', and told me this story about how she found somewhere to get shoes made.
She's got quite large feet – she's a size nine - so she went into an old fashioned little shop where she lived and went through all the swatches and really enjoyed the experience because not only did she get shoes that fit her, she didn't have to go around all the shops looking for shoes that didn't exist and she could order them at the beginning of the season and be on trend.
So over dinner we thought, that'll be a really good idea for a business in the UK. My sister was working for Morgan Stanley at the time in Asia and was ready to move onto something else too – she also wanted to start a family but knew that in Hong Kong where she lived you only got three months maternity leave, and there was no such thing as part time working, so she always knew she was going to get out of banking at that point.
We had a lot of naivety initially, we weren't coming in as 20 year olds knowing nothing, but we knew nothing about making shoes and we didn't know the first thing about fashion, but just thought it couldn't be that difficult.
We wrote up a business plan and met in Dubai, half way between the two of us, and sat by the pool for a week and looked over the plan because we knew we needed to step out of our normal working lives to concentrate on it.
One of the things we underestimated was how long it was going to take to create a consumer brand. That was almost three years ago now. The first idea was five and a half years ago.
It took so long partly because we were busy having babies, but also because there was a lot of research needed to find our suppliers, finding our web development agency, finding our PRs… A lot of product testing was needed too as there's so many different variables involved in making shoes. The web development took the best part of a year to design and build too.
Talk me through setting up the production side of the business…
We started with a couple of little shops in Hong Kong on the production side, including the man who was already making my sister's shoes. It was really bloody hard because Katy didn't speak any Cantonese or Mandarin, so we had language and cultural differences.
We also found everyone initially laughed us out of town – 'who are these two women who have no track record in the industry', they thought. We were told we couldn't possibly sell bespoke shoes online, that we couldn't make the shoes entirely bespoke – but for them we were a small sideline for them. These production guys would do runs of 500 to 1,000 so they didn’t think we could make any money on bespoke shoes.
They were also surprised when we asked for contracts with them; they laughed and said they didn't do contracts so we had to go on blind faith with them. It's only really in the past six months that I've felt confident about the production side. We've actually brought it in house now – working with external suppliers was really challenging; when they were working with other clients which were ordering 500,000 shoes, we were always bottom of their list.
You must be laughing now though, right?
When I think about how we achieved it, it was all down to my sister working her arse off at building a relationship with the supplier. It was great that the first main supplier was willing to take the risk with us though; we got lucky.
Having said that, there were times where we almost had the rug pulled out from under us. Twice he said to us that he was going to stop working with us after the next three months were up and both times we thought 'What on earth are we going to do?' We didn't have a back up supplier. But both times he didn't actually finish working with us – what we learned was there was a lot of game playing in China, it's just the way it works there.
On one meeting my sister had to go an visit a snake skin factory while she was eight months pregnant, and she had to sit there and graciously eat the snake meat so as not to offend anyone.
My sister's definitely had the tougher end of the business. When we started we worked together on everything, but as the business grew we had to separate our roles and specialise.
Given she was in Hong Kong that meant all the supply side and logistics fell to her, which isn't the glamorous bit of work at all.
Is working with your sister difficult?
I love working with my sister. We've always got on really well. We're quite similar, but we bring different skills to the business. It's very rare that we disagree, but where we do we're able to work it out quite rationally. We share the same vision, which is the key thing.
I'm more the natural leader, perhaps because I'm the older sister, so me being the chief executive was the natural thing to do. I love being the face of the business because I'm a bit of a show off. My sister prefers to be in the background and has a real eye for detail, which I can't be bothered with. She's also got a real creative flair.
It's hard sometimes to keep our personal relationship separate from our professional relationship, but we work hard to make sure we have some time together as just us being sisters.
How did you fund the business?
We funded everything ourselves, we put all our savings in and took out a small bank loan. Getting the agreement from the bank was quite frustrating – I had to put it against my house, and even with all this talk about government backed loans, you don’t qualify for them unless you don't have any assets.
It does scare the crap out of me. It's not that I'm not prepared to put everything on the line, but at the same time if it doesn't work out, that's a massive problem.
We've got a two-year repayment rate, which is helpful, but all the paperwork took up far too much of my time, they tried to mis-sell me insurance that I didn't need and by the end of it I hated the whole process. My relationship manager left part the way through too, but we weren't given any details about who would replace him – it's like they don't give a monkey's.
Would you change anything?
It's important to learn from your mistakes, but if I'd known about some of the things that were going to happen we'd have been too scared to start the business. I wish we'd known more about the marketing budget we'd need to build the brand.
We've been fortunate in that we had enough money to put into the business, but we'd never have imagined how much it would need. Had we not had access to those savings it would've changed everything. We wanted to have control over the business and to work how we wanted to, and if we'd had capital partners earlier on... (we might not have been able to do that).
We were approached by a few VC partners early on, in the first eight months or so, and we didn't even known what venture capital meant. They came over and were terribly excited and said things like 'we wouldn’t spend any less than £5 million with you' and I almost went out an bought a new Mulberry handbag!
Then we sat down and thought, no this is ridiculous – we don't even know what we'd do with £5m yet. They'd have taken the soul out of our business – they told us we'd have to launch in the US and move into handbags, and we were like 'Woah, you don't even know who our customers are yet'.
There was a point where our husbands were questioning how much more money we were going to pile into the business though.
Any other mistakes along the way?
One of the biggest mistakes we made was not being on top of the finances as much as we should be. We're not bad with numbers, but we're just not interested enough in them – it's always at the bottom of my to do list. I've always been more of a delegator and wanted to outsource all the finance – which we did at the start.
But that was a mistake because it meant I wasn't close enough to the numbers, and I've had really crap experience with book keepers, which has really set us back. My business mentor has agreed to be a part time finance director and I'm only now really starting to feel in control of where we are with cashflow.
We've made some mistakes with some staff we've employed too, but there's nothing that's been business critical. We're getting better at nipping problems in the bud with staff quicker. Katy and I have had to learn how to do that – we're the sorts of people who always want to nurture and see the best in people, and we've had to become a bit harder which was difficult for us to do. We want to be liked! But actually you have to learn that you won't always be liked, and actually if a member of staff isn't working out it's in nobody's interest to keep them.
What have been your proudest moments?
When we did the shoes for a designer called Jasper Garvida for London Fashion Week on the Vauxhall fashion stage, that was pretty special. I was sat on the front row looking at my shoes going down the catwalk! That was pretty cool.
We had Tess Daly wearing some of our shoes on Strictly Come Dancing on Christmas Day 2011, that was good too. But most of the proud moments come from all the lovely emails we get from our customers. They really gush – it's not just 'thanks very much for the great service', we get essays, almost with tear stains on them – you really feel that for some women it's almost changed their life – these women have struggled to find the shoes they love and for them it's really life changing, these shoes make them feel amazing.
What does the future hold for you?
We do want to be a global brand but we want to do it at the right pace. Our idea was not about being a mumpreneur, it was about wanting a global brand. The next 18 months will be about building the brand in the UK. We're looking at retail collaborations, some celebrity endorsements; we're hoping to make a lot more noise this year.
We've done three years, we've proved that it works – now we're just looking to scale up. International expansion will probably involve another round of funding. For the first round of funding we're looking for £500,000 to £1m, which I suspect will come from angel investors, and the next round will probably be venture capital.