Some entrepreneurs set out with a clear business idea in mind. For others, the drive comes from an internal passion for personal achievement. The dream to have a business drives their journey.
Surface pattern designer and founder of ceramics brand Suitcase Susie, Michelle Kent, began her entrepreneurial journey by selling her flat and enrolling at university as a mature student.
“I used to sing and tried really hard to try and build a career out of it. But after a few years, I realised how difficult it was going to be,” explained Michelle. “I hadn’t been to university, so I decided to sell my flat and go back to study. After all you can’t take it with you and I wanted to do something satisfying with my life.”
Michelle joined the London College of Communications on the Surface Pattern Design Course. She had the option to specialise in Fashion or Homeware. Although she initially she chose fashion, a stint with a fashion house led to a change in direction. During the last year of the course, she became interested in glass. On graduating, Michelle won a commission to design glass doors for a private members club.
“In some ways, I was naive thinking I would get a design job straight after graduating. It wasn’t that easy. So it was great to win the commission,” said Michelle. “It was for a private members club gym. They needed manifestations for the glass doors to meet safety regulations.”
Shortly after completing the project, Michelle was invited to join the British European Design Group’s trade delegation to a design show in New York.
“In all honesty, I wasn’t ready for it,” recalls Michelle. “I had bits of glass, jewellery design and surface design. There were too many little bits & pieces; it wasn’t cohesive. I went with the dreamy idea that I’d get another commission and it would all work out. Of course, it didn’t work that way.
It was an expensive way to learn, but it helped me hone my ideas and turned out to be useful experience. The best thing was getting feedback from people, both potential customers and other exhibitors. It was also inspiring to see the work that was on display. During this time, I realised my mistakes and began mulling things over. It wasn’t instantaneous; the idea for Suitcase Susie gradually came to me.”
Initially, Michelle wanted to apply the idea to bed linen. She researched manufacturers and discovered that the main centre for bed linen in Europe is in Portugal. She took a trip to meet some companies to discuss the best way to design for their manufacturing processes. With this knowledge Michelle drew up some designs and went to Liberty’s open call for designers.
“I took some paper drawings of my concepts and had some good feedback. You have to have bit of a thick skin!” explained Michelle. “But over time I realised that bed linen was a wrong turn for me. The minimum quantities were just too big for a start-up. And there are so many different sizes to stock because there is no standardisation across Europe.”
Michelle set her sights on a different product: ceramics. She had made and sold ceramics at university so it was an area she understood. She re-worked her designs and set about looking for a manufacturer.
“Finding manufacturers was the biggest stumbling block,” continued Michelle. “Finding companies that will work with start-ups and the small initial quantities we can afford was tough. The first company I worked with let me down badly. The order was of a very poor quality and I soon realised they just weren’t reliable. The second company had problems colour matching. They didn’t ask for payment for the samples so they didn’t really put much effort into it.
I had a few moments when I felt it was just too hard, but I kept thinking that other people do it. Also, I found a mentor who was really positive and assured me that I would find a way to make it happen.”
Eventually, Michelle found a reliable manufacturer. She also came across the School for Creative Start-ups. The school offers a year long training course for creative businesses entrepreneurs.
“I contacted students from the previous year and everyone said it was brilliant,” said Michelle. “And it is brilliant. The calibre of tuition is very high and having a support network is very valuable. There’s always a shoulder to cry on and we boost each other. The end of year showcase is good experience and the people that come are important. After the show I met a few shop keepers interested in stocking my designs.”
Michelle completed the course last summer and has seen her business start to flourish. In December she won £2,500 for professional mentoring in a competition run by software provider, Sage.
In January this year, Suitcase Susie was selected by the Royal Academy to be part of their RAted collection. The collection is a selection of the best of British design to be stocked in the gallery shop. In addition, she has had coverage in a number of high publications including the London Evening Standard, Living Etc and Period Homes.
Michelle is about to launch a crowd funding campaign on Kickstarter. The money raised will be used to expand the existing range to aprons, tea towels and oven gloves. She will also launch a new collection. The hard work and tenacity are finally starting to deliver results.
Michelle’s Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
1. You have to be tenacious. You will face set-backs, but you can’t give up. You have to keep believing. Get advice and support and find the right people who can help you. Take pride in doing things I didn’t think I could do
2. Accept that it is hard work and will take a long time.
3. You have to love what you are doing to see you through the hard times. Love of doing it has kept me going and knowing clearly that I did not want to be working in an office for the rest of my life. I want to be my own boss.