Tell us something about yourself. What is your niche? Why did you start your business?
My name is Claire, I am South African but have been living in London, the United Kingdom for the past 15 years or so. I make small pet bedding for African Pygmy Hedgehogs and Guinea Pigs (plus some other small pets love my stuff too). The Hobhouse started before I even knew it! It took 2 years before I even realized… It all started quite simply by making items for my hedgehog and foster hogs, once I had their ‘huff’ of approval I went on to make custom orders for others. Applying the ‘hog approved winning formula’ an idea started to form… with the hopes that other little ones will like them as much as mine do! Before I knew it I was spending my weekends scouring the fabric shops for interesting fabrics and production began. I enjoy making these snugly items and take great care to ensure they are just perfect for your little ones. At the beginning of 2016 the ‘New Year, New Project’ feeling kicked in, and after much debate (with myself!) that ‘light bulb’ moment occurred and I decided to put The Hoghouse online… ta-dah! In 2018 an unexpected change in life circumstances found me working full time on my little business and it took off once I was able to dedicate all my time to it.
What type of products do you sell? How does your manufacturing process look like?
I sell houses, tunnels, sleeping bags (snuggle sacks), toys, fleece liners, bonding bags for carrying your little one in. I do everything, I am a one-woman team! I make most of my items to order as there are lots of customization options. I’d say 90-95% of the products are made to order. All items are made and quality inspected by me before being shipped to the customer.
What are some challenging aspects of your business? How did you overcome them?
Time! Being a one-person business I don’t have much time and work 14-16 hours a day, 7 days a week. I never switch off. Sometimes friends will help with prepping some small jobs for me but in the long run, I still need to overcome and this challenge and get better at a balanced life.
What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur? What’s the hardest about it?
I enjoy being my own boss and bringing joy to my customers as they care so much for their little pets. I work from home so have cut out the daily commute and enjoy a more chilled out environment. The hardest part is that it is a lonely experience but I have tried to partake in the creative online community and listen to a lot of podcasts.
What are some beginner mistakes you made? What advice or words of inspiration would you like to share?
I initially just created some products and listed them online, and just waited to see what sold. I didn’t think about making a collection so that customers can come back to purchase matching items further down the line. When I started doing this it made it much easier and I saw a huge difference. Definitely commit your plan to paper, it might not go exactly as you initially set it out to be but you at least have a draft to work from and you can make changes as you go.
What inspires you while designing and/or creating new products.
I listen to my customers and see what they want. Most of my best seller collections or products are from suggestions from my customers. I don’t necessarily use them but others certainly do, it took me a while to make sure I was listening to what customers were asking for. I specifically started selling pet bedding for African Pygmy Hedgehogs but soon started getting lots of custom requests for it to be a little larger for Guinea Pigs so I learned that they like similar bedding and now I offer two sizes to cater for our furry friends.
How did you get the background and skills necessary to run this type of business?
I used to work in the hotel industry and had a few little entrepreneurial businesses when I was in school so I have always been this minded. My mother and gran always sewed so I must have absorbed some info from them, so when I bought a sewing machine to try to make something for my apartment I self-taught and took it from there. I do a lot of online learning courses and absorb as much as I can to keep evolving.
What are some of the most effective ways in terms of marketing products to your customers?
I find for my type of products social media actually works best for me, Instagram is my most popular. I also maintain a database and email out to my customers on a semi-regular basis (I do not so keep on spamming them so I only email when I have content to share or new products so this is about every 6-8 weeks)
What would you say are the key elements for starting and running a successful online business?
Do your product research, look at your competitors, and see what you can do differently to them. To stand out from the crowd. Research for the best materials and products. Make a business plan and plan out what you want to achieve. I subscribe to The Design Trust here in the UK (https://www.thedesigntrust.co.uk/) and Patricia does a yearly journal with webinars and training through the year. She helps people all over the world to help achieve their creative goals and her books are designed to get you to focus your attention on different areas of your business in a timely manner. I think I have been using her books and training for about 4 years now and she has helped focus and streamline my work so much.
How do you personally define business success? Is it money? Freedom? Influence? Creative expression and innovation? Something else?
I place a lot of satisfaction on my customers, I love seeing their little pets with our items, and just seeing repeat customers come back is the best indicator for me. I love searching and finding new fabrics to make new collections and I do theme items throughout the year so it’s exciting to see how they are loved. Of course money is a big concern and important but it’s not the most important.
Describe your day-to-day operation. How do you manage your time?
In the morning I start the day by replying to emails that came in overnight then I do my post-run. I will then return to start working on the next orders that are due to be shipped. I listen to a lot of podcasts and music throughout the day, accept orders, and keep an eye on social media. In the afternoon I’ll package up the completed orders and check what has come in during the day. I’ll cut out orders and add them to the sewing pile. In the evening I tend to do my admin and will do some smaller jobs like cutting and sorting while watching some TV.
How do you plan on growing your business? What is the biggest impact on your profitability?
Right now I am trying to grow my domestic UK business to my website. I started out on Etsy so I am known for being a seller on there but have had my own website for more than 2 years now, the commission to Etsy can be a bit much so I am actively working on exclusive collections and items on my website. I also ship a lot of orders to the USA and Canada but with Covid-19 it has driven up the cost of international shipping which is starting to take effect on my business as in some cases customers are paying the same price for shipping as the cost of the item they are buying. The cost of shipping and cost increase in supplies due to the pandemic is going to affect my profitability so I need to try to keep these under control as much as possible while we ride this out.