‘You can just hang out here’ — what I learned from the sudden failure of my first business.
The first business I started failed overnight. The failure was fast, it was brutal, it was completely unforseen.
In 2000, pregnant with my younger daughter, I had left my University job and started a small cut flower farm.
I grew the kind of flowers that big growers wouldn’t touch — old fashioned sweet peas and moss roses, delicate cornflowers and snakeshead fritillaries — and I sold them from a vintage Citroen H van parked at the edge of my garden.
Word spread and soon my farm gate business had a steady stream of customers — each Friday afternoon 40 or so people would pull up and buy bunches of flowers for their kitchen tables, gifts for hostesses, extravagant birthday bouquets.
It wasn’t a massive business but it was profitable, it fitted around my children, it was growing.
But more than that, it had a lovely ‘feel’ to it, it was the friendly, generous kind of business that I wanted to build.
There was always a pot of coffee on the go, there was usually cake, people would arrange to meet friends and wander around the cutting garden while I made up the flower arrangements. It felt like a proper place, it felt like somewhere to come and hang out.
Then, one day in August 2007, there was a change in mortgage interest rates which co-incided with a hike in petrol prices.
That Friday there were not 40 people arriving for their flowers. There were 3. The same happened the next week and the week after that.
My business had gone.
Asking about — hesitantly, nervously, trying to keep the panic from my voice — everyone told me the same story. A simple story.
Faced with rising costs, the balancing of the weekly household budget, my customers had cut small luxuries. Women had chosen to sacrifice their weekly floral treat.
And my space — which I had thought so generous, so open, so entwined into people’s routines — turned out to be nothing of the sort.
You cannot go and hang out at a farm gate flower stand if you are not intending to buy flowers.
Inclusion had depended on cash.
In the subsequent 10 years my business has changed several times — the flowers gave way to embroidered gifts, my designs have been picked up by manufacturers and put into production, I’ve gone down the wholesale route and sold to shops worldwide. When demand for my embroideries became too great, I expanded into printed designs and recruited a fantastic team of women to help me expand.
Earlier this year — craving more connection to customers - I started a membership site where, in return for a monthly fee, members get to buy from my webshop at cost price, to download designs and patterns for free and to see behind the scenes.
For members it is a little like having shares in a studio, for me it is like being cheered on by a constant and enthusiastic band of supporters.
However. . . .
As soon as I had created this, I began to feel uneasy — was I again creating a lovely, generous, nurturing place that could only be entered if you have cash to spend? Was I preventing people from just hanging out and taking an interest from the sidelines? Did it matter?
So this summer has been spent working out a way to negotiate the line between the wider community of people who are interested in what I do — the 17,000 likers of Snapdragon’s Facebook page, our instagram followers, the people who take the time to sign up for and read our newsletters — and the members of Snapdragon Studio who are actually prepared to pay money to support my creativity.
I think that I shall be trying lots of different things over the next few months but my start is a massively ambitious project — a knit along to complete a knitted patchwork blanket over the next year.
I chose for two reasons, firstly because it’s an intensely personal project — it is a gift I am creating for my younger daughter for when she flies the nest— and secondly because it is nothing to do with the things that I have for sale. Both these will stop me from accidentally slipping into sales mode.
I am hoping that the people who hang around the edges of my community will give it a go (or at least a square or two of it). I hope that they will pull up a chair, pour themselves a cup of coffee, cut a slice of cake and just hang out.
You can find out more about the knit along (and sign up) here — we begin on 25th August but you can join in at any point.
I hope you enjoyed this post — I am designer and chief cheerleader for Snapdragon, an online membership shopping site. If you enjoyed this, please press the hands icon on the left to help other people find me. You can find out more about the membership and our handmade gifts over at www.snapdragononline.co.uk. Thanks for reading, Jane x