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A web business from home can put a strain on space — physical and personal

Image credit: Power couple Max and Adèle from Atelier Bingo

Selling online with the spare bedroom as warehouse was fine — to start. Now Rog and Cat How have taken on staff and moved into a studio.

When my wife Cat and I first decided to start up a business, we had plenty of ideas, enthusiasm and a very meagre investment.

The only way we could get started with our business — at the time it was an online design shop called Howkapow — was to keep our running costs to an absolute minimum. We had an office in our spare room, and did everything ourselves, from designing and building the website, to running our own ad campaigns. We focused almost all our initial cash into the most essential part of the business — stock.

We plugged away for about two years and, as our sales gradually grew, we put everything we earned back into the business and kept on increasing our stock level and the diversity of products offered on the website. We closely analysed our sales and got a really good feel for what sold well and what our customers wanted to buy. Working from home was great as it cost us nothing and we wasted no time commuting. The most tricky thing was finishing work. We’d frequently work into the night and then end up just cooking dinner and going to bed.

Image credit: Power couple Max and Adèle from Atelier Bingo

When the opportunity came to take on a pop-up shop in the middle of Bristol, we were really able to hit the ground running, with a fairly broad stock base and confidence in our products. All we needed to sort out were the fittings and furniture to display it all.

The pop-up was open seven days a week, so both Cat and I worked every single day for about six months. We kept the shop running and ran the website from the back of the shop. It was a hard slog, but it really helped to galvanise our reputation as a serious business. I think there’s an old-fashioned mentality, that if you don’t have a physical shop, then your business is somehow less valid or worthy. It’s something we experience often at trade fairs.

Some suppliers turn their nose up at a web-only business, which I think is a huge error considering the growth of the online market. The pop-up was a great way to counter this kind of attitude. The press wrote more about us, and even our friends and family took the business more seriously.

It was interesting to see that what sold well online wasn’t necessarily what sold well in the pop-up. We had to adjust our stock accordingly. The increased turnover meant that we had more money to spend on new products, too. We grew our stock level by around 50% in order to make the most of the shop space. We filled the shelves over the Christmas period and did some really good trade in the shop. All the while the online trade was also flourishing and we experienced a real surge in sales. More people were talking about us, searching for us on Google and ultimately buying their gifts from us.

Despite the great success, we decided to close the pop-up six months later. It was a lot of work to keep it running. We felt that after the festive period it was slowing down our growth opportunities rather than helping. The cost of keeping the shop open in terms of rent, staff cost and time meant it just wasn’t worth it. When you compare all the costs to the online wing of the business, it’s difficult to justify. Online selling is so efficient, and the growth opportunities more or less infinite, so we decided to concentrate on that.

We also decided that going back to working from home wasn’t really an option because we’d increased our stock level so much that we just didn’t have the space. It was also key for us to have somewhere we could grow into and have staff come and work with us, too.

All things considered, pop-ups can bring a much needed physical presence and generate attention to an existing virtual business. They are also an excellent way to test the water with a new idea or business, but with the growth of e-commerce, the way to make the most of it is to use it to complement rather than replace your existing home grown business.

Rog How is a Managing Director and Co-Founder of Pollen Place — a unique workspace and event space based in central Bristol designed to nurture creativity and help people and their businesses grow. Rog is also Managing Director of branding and design agency, Polleni. Rog studied at the University of Bristol and has worked in marketing at the BBC. Most recently, he was Managing Director of the e-commerce design business, Howkapow, he founded and ran with his wife Cat How. Howkapow was sold in February 2017. The shop was given accolades such as the “Best Online Shop for Stylish Homewares” (The Guardian); one of the “Top Ten Online Design Shops” (The Sunday Times) and their pop-up “The Best Shop To Visit In Bristol” (The Guardian).

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