“I had a fulfilling career as a Maths teacher for 15 years where I also ran a boarding house. I had an artistic side and was always looking for creative projects for the girls to enjoy. Baby hats were an ideal way to teach them to knit. I started making hats for friends’ babies and selling them at school fetes and the feedback, even from strangers, suggesting I turn my passion into a business became too much to ignore. Although I’m not a great risk taker, I decided to push myself into a new venture hoping that, with a little faith in myself and my products, I could make a success of it.”
Read Su Cowell’s inspiring story below.
What does your business do?
I set up CobWebKnits (www.cobwebknits.co.uk) in 2008 and am its creative director. The company is based in Dorset and produces handcrafted hats and tops for children. These unique, original and quirky designs are available in dozens of designs based on fruit, vegetables and flowers. Last year I has introduced a range of stripy hats which are always popular with the added appeal of tassels or tails. This year’s soon-to-be-launched range includes knitted hats with ears (bunnies, monkeys, bears, koalas and dogs) and a range of cotton sunhats for the summer. As well as the botanical themes, the clothing range includes zoo, farm, bug, seaside and play-day ranges. And grown-ups can now treat themselves to something special following the launch of our teacosies, eggcosies and beautiful vintage inspired aprons.
What made you decide to start your own business?
Now the creative director CobWebKnits selling handmade baby hats in the shape of luscious fruit, flowers and vegetables, but this wasn’t always the case. I had a fulfilling career as a Maths teacher for 15 years where I also ran a boarding house. I had an artistic side and was always looking for creative projects for the girls to enjoy. Baby hats were an ideal way to teach them to knit. I started making hats for friends’ babies and selling them at school fetes and the feedback, even from strangers, suggesting I turn my passion into a business became too much to ignore. Although I’m not a great risk taker, I decided to push myself into a new venture hoping that, with a little faith in myself and my products, I could make a success of it. And I like to think I’m proof that a new business can be a success in a harsh economic climate. The company has recently won 2 awards. As well as being shortlisted in the Best Small Business category of the Women in Business Awards, I was the overall winner for Best PR Initiative . The company has also just been awarded Website of the Year 2011. Organised by Serif who have been developing and publishing award-winning software themselves for nearly 25 years and with over 2,600 entries received from all over the world, competition was tough so I was thrilled to hear news of our success.
What have been your biggest challenges so far?
I had very little in the way of start up funds. It was vital that the company had a good business plan and that my concept would succeed given that handmade products are not easily profitable. From the start, I established my start up, production costs and overheads and during this time I realised she would have to sell my products online because of their labour intensive nature and had no choice but to design, construct and manage my own website. I wanted to be sure that company was branded strongly before launch and also to tie in the botanical theme with my packaging. As a result I designed rustic presentational boxes to complement the range. Whilst many might consider CobWebKnits’ market to be new mums, I carried out my own research and tested the market to quickly establish that grandparents, friends and relatives were my real demographic. Since then I have focused predominantly on the gift market. CobWebKnits has only been trading for a couple of years but in that time production has quadrupled and the company’s website now attracts visitors from nearly 100 countries with the website regularly getting over 4,000 visitors.
How did you overcome these challenges?
People so it can work in any market and believing in that product yourself. The need to spread the word is important – people need to know you exist – and I have worked hard to generate publicity for the company, with products featured in the press and on TV – most notably on EastEnders (Xmas Day 2010) which was seen by over 11 million viewers.
My idea of allowing six of my hats to ‘escape’ last summer and enjoy some adventures by travelling around the world also seems to have paid off. The hats – Archie, Sophie, Kiri, Billy, Pete and Betty – set off with their passports and between them covered over 119,000 miles and travelled to 46 locations as far afield as Canada, Italy, Ireland, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the US.
What advice or tips would you give to other business owners?
Put a business plan together. Know your costs in detail and don’t leave anything out. Be honest about you true overheads and be sure you can make your product profitably. If you can’t – don’t even start. Ignoring the figures is fatal. Make sure everything is ready before the launch, especially the branding. I had photographs of every product, images of all the packaging and all the information about delivery and the returns policy etc, so that I could deal with any query from day one with confidence. Look at other websites you like and see what makes them work for you and why you like them. Remember that it’s all about achieving your targets – if you want someone to buy from your site they will need to be able to navigate through the products, see the cost clearly and get to the checkout easily. Try to get some neutral and honest feedback and be prepared to change things.
What’s your favourite quote?
‘Fake it til you make it.’ If you want to be perceived as a high-end brand or a big company you need to act like one. Despite being a small business I’ve worked hard to ensure that the company is perceived by its customers, the media and other businesses as a much larger concern that sits comfortably alongside other brands. We offer the same efficiency, quality, customer satisfaction and professionalism. I want to be compared to brands like Cath Kidston, Emma Bridgewater, Boden, and Bonnie Baby, so I need to present myself as such.
Who inspires you?
In business, the names mentioned above, but also friends, family and in particular my husband Shaun who believed in the company from the outset and has proved an invaluable support and constructive critic.