Fiona Pullen is the owner and founder of the brilliant new website, The Sewing Directory. The website was only launched at the end of March this year but already lists almost 300 sewing businesses, is packed with lots of useful articles, and let’s not forget those fabulous weekly competitions – you can win anything from gift vouchers, supplies, books, kits (Sewbox did a competition to win a kit back in April) through to a £300 sewing machine!
I met Fiona at a trade fair just before her website launched, and was struck by her energy, friendliness and very down to earth manner, combined with a sharp business brain which all help explain the success of the Directory. As a fellow businesswoman I really admire her success and even more so, her willingness to encourage and support other small businesses. So I asked her if I could find out more about the brains behind the business, the story of the Directory, and her tips for success! What follows is an in-depth interview with Fiona about the Directory, including lots of tips for other businesswomen out there.
So, Fiona… it’s been a busy couple of months for you! The Directory only launched at the end of March but it’s already been hugely successful. What inspired you to start it and how long did it take to set up?
I came up with the idea of The Sewing Directory whilst I was handling the online side of my mum’s business – Make Do and Mend. I created her website and was looking for places to promote/advertise it. National advertising was of no use to me as she offers sewing services so can only work locally. I realised you can get craft directories and directories for almost every other type of business apart from sewing. You can spend hours searching through Google looking for what you want so I thought it would be a good idea to bring it all into one place.
I started planning the idea in August 2009 and did a business course with the Prince’s Trust in the September which was incredibly useful. During that course the idea went from being a directory of dressmakers to a sewing directory, including all types of sewing related businesses.
It took 6 months of research and getting the website built before I could launch, even then I felt like I could have done with another few months! It was worth all the effort though as it has taken off in a way I could never have imagined.
It must have been quite scary, setting up a business like this from scratch! Did you have any experience of running a business beforehand? Do you have a crafts background?
I’ve always helped my mum with her businesses, she’s owned several over the years. She’s a classic entrepreneur, sets a business up, makes it successful then sells it on. I have also studied business studies at A-level and business law as part of my law degree.
I have always been very creative; I have dabbled in many areas from sewing to art to creative writing but never dreamt I would be forming a career from it. I had always wanted to run my own business but never had the chance to think it right through whilst working 6 days a week in a high pressure job. It was only when I went on maternity leave that I had the time to really think about it. I came up with about 10 business ideas and this was the one I decided was worth following through.
So what do you think is the key behind the Directory’s success?
I think the key is that it is as accessible and affordable to small businesses as it is to large businesses. A lot of advertising is aimed at large companies who can afford to spend a lot of money. With our listings only costing £5 a month and being the same regardless of how big your company is it levels the playing field. It is something a village dressmaker or one person online business can afford as well as a large chain with hundreds of staff.
I believe Social networking is very important. I spend hours on Facebook and Twitter along with forums and we have an amazing group of followers out there who help to spread the word and get people using the site. I couldn’t have done it without them.
I’ve also found the sewing/craft community to be very welcoming and supportive. I’ve met so many amazing people since working on this business who have helped me and I have helped them. There is a real element of co-operation amongst sewing/craft businesses and the craft/sewing community as a whole. We are all going through the same thing and trying to help each other survive in this difficult economy.
And if you’re allowed to tell me, what is the ‘craftiest’ part of the country?? I.e. which region has most listings?
Good question! Off the top of my head I think it is London, but that is probably due to the population size. I think Brighton seems to be very creative when you consider the amount of craft/sewing businesses compared to the population.
How do you go about signing up new companies?
I use a combination of strategies including social networking, advertising (both online and in magazines) and e-mails. I don’t go for telesales calls as I know how annoying people find them. I don’t have an aggressive marketing technique as I would rather people joined the site because they want to be on there, not because they have been pestered into it.
That approach seems to have worked very well as I have a lot of customer loyalty, especially considering that it has only been 3 months since the launch. My customers are happy and like to be involved with the site and many of them have become good friends. I think it’s a nice way to go about business, I prefer the friendly approach to the aggressive sales focused approach.
You have a lot of interesting articles on the website. Where do you get your ideas for them?
I have a very active imagination and I read a lot! Prior to setting up the business I hadn’t sewed for 10 years, I was so caught up with university and then my job that I just didn’t have time. So it’s great because I am rediscovering everything and sharing it with people as I go.
I have met a lot of people through the site who also write amazing articles and projects so I ask them to contribute to the site too and the articles section is building really well. It’s almost becoming like an online sewing magazine now. It’s funny because in my original business plan there was no articles section at all, and no competitions and now they are an integral part of the site.
I have to admit my dream job would be to be a writer so the directory is perfect, the articles section allows me to write as much as I like and the directory aspect covers the costs of keeping it all running. I’ve always wanted to write books so that’s a plan for the future!
You must get sent a lot of freebies for your various reviews and competitions! Are there any other fab perks of the job?
As soppy as it may sound the best part of the job is getting to meet so many amazing people. I interview new people almost every week and have spoken to some great people. Plus I meet new people through the social networking side of the business almost daily and have met many at the exhibitions and shows.
The fabrics, books, kits etc that I review or use as prizes aren’t really ‘perks’ as such as I don’t get to keep them. I am gutted I can’t enter my own competitions as we’ve had some really great prizes! One of my lovely sponsors (Suffolk Sewing School) did recently give me a sewing machine to keep rather than as use a prize, that was an amazing perk!
You’re a big user of Twitter and Facebook to help promote the Directory and its customers. Was this something you already did before the Directory?
I have used Facebook in the past on a personal basis and for my mum’s business but I only started with Twitter just before I launched and have been amazed with the results. I have made so many contacts and really feel part of a community. Plus I get around 1/3 of my site traffic from Twitter.
Do you have any tips for other craft businesses that aren’t familiar with Twitter or Facebook?
Don’t make it all about your business, take the time to build rapport with people and make friends. Share a bit of yourself too; people like to know about the person behind the business.
How do you see the Directory growing in the future? Do you have a vision of what you want to achieve?
I’ve already have several people request that I expand the directory to include other areas such as knitting and crochet. In the long term I would like to expand the directory to other areas but at the moment I want to concentrate on building the sewing side of it up, getting more businesses on board, raising awareness so people know it exists and come and use it.
I’m also looking for more contributors to the articles section of the site, in particular projects and patterns. I’m getting to the point where I need to break it down into topics and then build on each category so if anyone of your readers would like to contribute just contact me through the site.
And on top of all this, I know you’re also the mum of an active 2-year-old. Having just had a baby myself, I am in awe of how well you juggle everything!! Any tips for how to combine motherhood with running a business?
That is the hardest bit of all! As a mum you naturally feel guilty for spending time working and not with your children. It’s a very difficult balancing act that takes time to master. You have to keep telling yourself you are doing it for them and at least you can be more flexible when you are the boss. One of the benefits of running my own business is I can work around my son and still get to spend several days a week with him. I’d rather that than work 9-5 and have him in childcare all week. It does get very stressful though when he have tons to do and a clingy 2 year jumping on you whilst you work!
I bet that doesn’t leave you much time for crafts yourself!
No time at all. It’s gutting because I’ve just been given a new machine and I’ve only had chance to use it once! I don’t get time to sew, or to read books (another of my favourite pastimes). I’m just hoping that will all change as the business becomes more established. When I was younger I used to enjoy bag making and that is something I would really like to get back into now I have a machine again. I just need to find the time!
Thanks so much Fiona. As a final thought, what do you most wish you’d known at the beginning, when you first started the Directory? And do you have any other tips for people starting up craft related businesses?
I wish I had known how much time it would take up, I imagined I would do a couple hours an evening when my son was in bed and instead spend 6-8hrs per day on it. I’d advise anyone starting up to triple how much time they think they will spend working, and don’t book any holidays for a long time.
I also learnt the hard way that you have to be careful with whom you trust and can never depend on anyone 100%. Make sure you always have a backup plan in case someone lets you down. Part of being a good business person is being able to overcome let downs and problems you were never expecting and be adaptable.
I can completely relate to what Fiona said about how much time a new business takes up, I too thought my shop would be just a couple of hours each evening but instead it takes up so much more than that- after all, it’s a lot of fun looking at fabrics and sewing supplies!!
I hope you enjoyed reading the interview, and thank you again Fiona for taking part and sharing all this information with us.