The road to business success hasn’t always been smooth for me. The 80s were a particularly rocky period. “But that would make you 100!” I hear you say.
Well, I started young. I lived with my family above a village shop, but with only 3 TV channels, one game of Hungry Hippo and two measly Sindys for entertainment, it was inevitable I’d join my parents on the shop floor at some point for something else to do. Plus, it was a cheap form of childcare.
If I got the sack I could go across the road to my grandparents’ newsagents (compared with the rest of the country, the 80s were a boom period of employment for me).
But I was too short to serve ice creams from behind the counter, so until I hit 13, I had to think laterally. These are the lessons I learned from my endeavours to make money from that period, all of which have stood the test of time.
- Colouring in – My younger brother James (right) had already entered into the entrepreneurial spirit of things by showing customers worms from the garden for free. This had a fairly mixed response.
I decided I could do better.
I set up a chair and table in the corner of the shop and coloured in cartoon strips from the newspaper, selling them for 2p ea.
It was definitely the behind-the-scenes aspect that stirred interest. Afterall, I was giving people a unique glimpse into the creative process as it unfolded. Or perhaps it was the spectacle of the 80s equivalent of sending children up the chimney that stirred curiosity.
Whether it was pity or intrigue I sold a good few of these. With this mark-up I’d be able to buy a Sindy Horse in about 45 years’ time.
Lesson: People like to see the real you; show them what goes on behind the scenes.
- Peg Doll Kit – A year or so later another craft-based enterprise drew my attention. After buying my own peg doll at a summer fair, I became convinced there were hundreds of girls like me whose lives would be enriched by having one too. To make it more interesting, I’d provide the individual components so they could they could create their own.
And so the Peg Doll Kit was born. 50p gave you one naked peg and one peg-sized outfit with which to construct your very own doll.
To my dismay, they didn’t exactly fly of the shelves. But I held firm. Every day I’d walk past the basket of optimistically loaded Doll Kits trying not to check for depleted stock levels.
Eventually I came home from school to the joyous news that I’d sold one!
My mind was racing with the thoughts of who this other girl was, how she might be enjoying her new product, and what a true kindred spirit she must be.
These thoughts lingered in the back of my mind for a good few years… Until my dad eventually broke the news that it was him who’d made the purchase.
Lesson: Don’t assume there’s an audience for your product, do your market research first.
- Heat bags – In the days when winters lasted for years, school break times were torture. Unless you managed to convince the girl with the broken leg that you were her best friend and would selflessly spend every break time in doors with her until she got better (thanks Ellie), you were doomed to a winter of chilblains and yellow fingers that might thaw out by May.
The only other option was to get a coveted place standing under the warm laundry vent, while dodging the occasional pair of pants that would be expelled from the shoot.
My solution? Heat bags! Those little muslin-y type bags of soil-like stuff that would heat up deliciously in your hand once you shook them a bit. They’d last all break time and a least half way through double maths.
There was only one problem: no one ever seemed to have any cash on them at school. I bought 4 in bulk for 50p each and sold… 1 for 75p, with the promise I’d get the money the next day. JANNA NORTH, I’M STILL WAITING.
Lesson: Wait for payment before delivery.
It’s funny how these cautionary lessons are as relevant today as they were then. They were an excellent training ground for the business I have today. I hope they help you too.