I try to stay away from blogging about business whilst on holiday, but I'm in Vietnam for half term and I'm so inspired by the local tribeswomen that I can't help it. We arrived four days ago having only booked our first night's accommodation, rucksacks on backs and Lonely Planet in hand. It's a what-to-do-as-a-single-parent-with-a-teenage-boy type of holiday. I thought we should try something a little more adventurous than taking the ferry to our cottage in Brittany where he would definitely have grumbled about missing his friends and retreated to his room, headphones on.
I've wanted to visit the hill tribes of North West Vietnam for years and now that Toby can carry his own luggage and, as I found out today, drive me round on a hired moped, this seemed like a good opportunity to get away from work and bond. Watching these resourceful and tireless businesswomen, often with a baby strapped to their backs or toddlers incongruously playing on tablets as they sit in the gutter next to the market stall, has got me thinking about our lot in the UK.
Life here is pretty tough with very few real jobs so most people seem to be in business. I wonder if my advice would be at all relevant? Probably not, in a subsistence economy there is no need to remind people to...
1) CONTROL YOUR CASH FLOW
It doesn't matter how great a business is, how good the design, how fantastic the service, even if your order book is full to bursting, unless you have complete control over your cash flow your business will fail. So start by forecasting where you will be in terms of your finances in 18 months' time. We have a three year forecast, which we update on a monthly basis. This is even more important for a start-up business, as they are likely to have bigger cash pressures than an established one with the ability to dip into a working capital overdraft.
2) SUCCESS ISN'T ALL ABOUT DESIGN AND TALENT
Being supremely talented does not necessarily make you a good business person. If growing a successful company was just about great ideas or skill everyone would do it. You need a combination of solid numerical analysis coupled with great designs or service. If you have one of these skills, team up with someone offering the other. We would never design without analysing the previous sales figures and carefully estimating growth. Producing gorgeous clothes is important, but getting them in the right place at the right time at the right price, is the tricky bit. If I was starting out now I would look for a friend with complementing skills who could, in an ideal world, share the work and the childcare with me.
3) RUNNING YOUR OWN BUSINESS IS NOT THE EASY OPTION
As a working mother there is no point kidding yourself that giving up the 9-5 job makes life easier. You may think you can work around the children, but if the business takes off it will be more demanding than a regular job. If you're willing to sacrifice 'me time', be low maintenance, forfeit the cinema with friends and survive on not much sleep, then you will be ok. As for the children, I spend a lot of time working from home (often after a long day at the office now they are older), so they understand that whilst I love them, work is important too.
4) BRAND CONSISTENCY ACROSS ALL CHANNELS IS VITAL
Whatever your business, it's so important to be sure your brand is recognisable via all channels. In our case whether a customer walks into our stores, logs on to our website or social media or reads the catalogue, they need to know they have found JoJo Maman Bébé. We are all a little tribal about the brands we subscribe to and your specific identity needs to be clear and always in your mind when briefing others if you outsource to other companies. Only you really understand your brand identity, but it's always worth getting constructive criticism on whether you are getting it right. Engaging consistently with your customers is essential to keep them on board.
5) HONEST WORKING RELATIONSHIPS MATTER
When the credit crunch hit in 2008, we had to ask our suppliers for extended credit terms - the bank was not there for us when we needed them. Our loyalty to our factories over the years ensured their loyalty to us when we needed it. Putting your work out to tender each season may find a cheaper supplier or service in the short term, but building up good long term relationships will insure your company for longevity. It's a joy dealing with the same teams over the years; many of our factories have grown alongside us, one in particular started with just a dozen or so tailors and now offers 600 plus permanent contracts with great working conditions to a happy team.
It can't be easy for these Hmong Flower Tribeswomen - every day a new tourist customer arrives, probably people they will never see again. Some days they sell nothing I'm told. I'm amazed at their good nature, enthusiasm and "just get on with it" attitude. The little ones seem content, understanding their mothers need to work. I saw no tantrums and was never interrupted as I chose lovely textiles to bring home. The babies and little ones come to work with their mums on a daily basis until they go to school, I know my children would have preferred this to being left at home with the au pair - it was me who found it too stressful.
Maybe we Western business women should make a trip here just to put into context how incredibly lucky we are. Never again will I complain about juggling childcare with my job, although strapping Toby to my back is most definitely NOT an option anymore!