Our new companies are all about luxury

[PAGEBREAK]Life of luxury Six women tell Siân Rees how targeting the top end of the luxe market gave them a great new career

[PAGEBREAK]Designer boutique Jane Stagg, 54, started a designer boutique with her friends. She lives in London’s Greenwich with her husband David and they have two children, daughter JJ, 29, and son Oliver, 17.

Old job: Estate agent. New job:Runs Belle, a designer clothes shop, with friends Rachel Lethbridge and Karen Pearle. Start-up costs:Approximately £200,000. First year’s turnover:£270,000. Last year’s earnings:£12,000 to cover living costs, as so far their profits are being reinvested.

“It’s the greatest fun to run a shop that sells beautiful clothes from international designers, including Alice Temperley, Paige, Citizen of Humanity and Marilyn Moore. But behind the glamour is a lot of hard work. We have a personal approach and try everything on ourselves before we buy – if it doesn’t look right on us, it probably won’t suit our customers. My friend Rachel and I both love fashion and when our children grew up we decided to look into the possibility of opening a boutique. I was working at a local estate agents so Rachel started researching by attending London Fashion Week. Then I joined her, still working part-time in the estate agents. We spent a year researching, visiting London trade shows – Top Drawer and Pure – where we had a crash course in buying. Many designers will only supply you with a minimum number of items and we soon realised you can save money by paying within a certain number of days. Our friend Karen joined us and the three of us pooled some of our savings to raise £200,000 to buy stock, lease a shop and pay our expenses. The first time we visited Paris Fashion Week for the trade shows was overwhelming. Designers and traders are barking at you and you only have time to scan racks and racks of items to find the things you think might sell. We stock individual items, from sweet vest tops for £30 to leather jackets at £400 and designer coats for £600. Our clients are stylish, original dressers aged 30-plus. After finding our location, we opened in October 2005 and had fliers made up, which our children distributed. When the first customer came in it felt unreal – everyone loved it, which gave us a real boost. We take turns working shifts; Karen does the bookkeeping and Rachel and I are the buyers. Now we know what we are doing, the shows are easier and we’re building up a solid client base. We have placed ads in local magazines, but word of mouth is much more effective. I insist that no one leaves the shop with an outfit that doesn’t look as good as it could. I love dressing people – finding something that looks great on a customer is the real pleasure of having the shop.” Belle is in London SE10. For details, call (020) 8468 5777.

My worst mistake: Buying too many pricey items on the first buying trip. MY Best move Joining forces with two like-minded partners – we’re so supportive of each other. Top tip: Don’t give up – even if everything seems to be going wrong for you.

[PAGEBREAK]Guide books “We decided that a new kind of hotel guide was needed” Tamara Heber-Percy, 35, is married to James Lohan. They live in Chiswick, west London, and are expecting their first child in June.

Old job: Marketing consultant for major brands. New job:Co-founder of Mr and Mrs Smith, the stylish guide books to upmarket, chic hotels. Start-up costs:Around £150,000. First year’s earnings: £250,000. This year’s projected turnover: £1 million.

“In our old jobs, James and I never had time for long holidays, so we used weekends to relax. One weekend we arrived at our hotel in the Lake District to find the kitchen was closed and the soulless bedroom was nothing like the photograph in the brochure. We wrote down a list of what we’d need to have the perfect weekend and the idea for beautifully presented guide books was born. We trawled every guide book, newspaper or brochure for information on UK hotels. What we found – or didn’t find – encouraged us to give up work. For the next four weeks we drove all over Britain checking out boutique and luxury hotels. Our idea had been to find 52 hotels and recommend one for every weekend of the year. But after visiting over 150, there were only 41 we would suggest. Unsightly trouser presses or tiny kettles with miniature UHT cartons shouldn’t be allowed in upmarket hotels. Then we realised it wasn’t about finding the right number but the right place to stay. Unfortunately, publishers were less enthusiastic and the distributors said they would only distribute non-fiction if there was a series of at least two. So we set up our own publishing company. We raised £150,000 from savings and investment from friends and family and started Spy Publishing with a handful of staff. Though most distributors were still resistant, I presented our idea to the board at Portfolio and persuaded them to take us on. We’ve written a book a year since the first one was published in 2003, with additional online guides. I recruited a group of ‘taste makers’ to act as anonymous reviewers. They are all people in the know whose judgement we trust: bar owners, architects and foodies. They stay at hotels and if their review is good, the hotel is given a mention. I really love what I do. The only thing is, it feels different staying at a hotel these days – a holiday for us now is staying home.” For more details on the guides, visit www.mrandmrssmith.com.

My worst mistake: Taking on a US publishing company because we felt we didn’t understand the US market. They changed the name and the look of the books. My best move: Doing things our way. Top tip: Be aware that running your own business will be hard – but don’t let knowing that stop you from going ahead.

[PAGEBREAK]Luxury vodka “I found a gap in the drinks market and now I have a business I love” Caroline Whitfield, 41, lives in the Shetland Islands with her daughters Eleanor, ten, Pippa, eight, and Liberty, four.

Old job: Management consultant. New job:CEO of Blackwood Distillers, makers of DIVA Vodka. Start-up costs:£10,000. First year’s turnover: £60,000. Last year’s earnings:On target for a turnover of £3 million after five years of trading.

“The first time I visited the Shetland Islands was to view a potential holiday home. I noticed that the landscape was covered in slow-growing peat and fresh water springs – it was perfect for making whisky. When I discovered Shetland was the last remaining region in Scotland without a distillery I immediately decided to change that. But just in case there was a reason why it hadn’t already been done, I tracked down John McDougal, a master distiller from Scotland, and persuaded him to come to the Shetland Islands with me. It was June 2002 and I was in the early stages of my second pregnancy. While John was stomping around the land I was quietly being sick by the side of the car. He returned looking furious and muttering under his breath. I was preparing to apologise for wasting his time when he said, ‘I wish I’d thought of this myself!’ He agreed that the location, water and conditions were perfect. Two weeks later in July 2002, I used £10,000 of my savings to start Blackwood Distillers. Obviously it takes years for whisky to mature. And although I wasn’t an expert in the drinks industry, I knew there was a growing market trend towards niche goods, so I created the vodka and the gin – with this in mind – to help bring in revenue. Gin was an obvious choice when I noticed angelica – its second key ingredient – growing on the islands. I chose vodka because it’s a fresh, contemporary drink and particularly enjoyed by women. Our DIVA vodka, which has a column of Swarovski gems suspended within each bottle, is typical of the innovation we brought to a traditional, male-dominated industry. We marketed DIVA as a sophisticated treat or gift and priced it at £30, which is similar to the cost of a bottle of good perfume. My skill is in getting the best people, so my lack of experience in beverages didn’t hold me back whatsoever. I networked, surfed the Internet and called up anyone I thought might be able to help me. We found a firm on the mainland to produce the drinks using Shetland spring water and botanicals from the islands. Then we took a few boxes of the first batch to the Royal Highland, an agricultural show, and came away with a mailing list of eager customers and the conviction to seek further financing. The following year I approached some former business school colleagues and remortgaged my home to raise £90,000. We now sell six spirits around the world and are now on target for a turnover of £3 million. My £60,000 salary is much less than I earned while I was a management consultant working for other people and running Blackwood Distillers is much harder because it consumes my entire life. But that choice is mine, so it feels more like play than work!” For details, visit www.blackwooddistillers.com.

My worst mistake: Over-extending. We took on too many markets too quickly. My best move: Hiring my core team. I couldn’t have done it without them. Top tip: Don’t let fear stop you being the person you can be.

[PAGEBREAK]Gorgeous gifts “I found backers for my luxury gift idea” Nicky Angus, 42, lives in Newcastle with her husband John and their two children. She set up the Love in a Box luxury gift company last year.

Old job: PA to the managing director of a restaurant business. New job:Runs a luxury gift company. “There’s something about opening a beautifully wrapped gift that oozes luxury. I was working as a PA when I decided I needed a fresh challenge, which was starting an online luxury gift site. My boss Bill agreed to be my business partner and we approached our mutual friend Nigel, a venture capitalist, to back the business. He gave us £400,000 to get it up-and-running. I own shares in the company and pay myself a salary of £25,000, which will increase as the business grows. We sell luxury leather goods, lingerie and chocolates, exquisitely wrapped. We rent a warehouse and office and when the website went live in December it was just me and my friend Angela, who is project manager. We’ve since taken on a packer and an accountant and I’m focusing on growing the business.” For details, visit www.loveinabox.com.

[PAGEBREAK]Pet heaven “I imported an idea that’s all the rage in New York” Candace Maher-Walsh, 35, lives in London with her husband and their two children, Tyler, three, and Jamie, 19 months. She set up Pugs and Kisses, a luxury pet boutique in 2004.

Old job: Restaurant consultant. New job:Runs two luxury pet boutiques. “Helping people to set up their own restaurants taught me what made a good business, so I decided to put my knowledge into practice. New York is awash with luxury pet stores and I was struck by the lack of anything like this in the UK. So I rented a shop selling everything from designer dog collars to hand-painted bowls. I also have a grooming spa in the shop, offering pampering treats for pets. My start-up costs were £200,000; we opened the first shop in 2004, a second in October 2006.” Visit www.pugsandkisses.com.

[PAGEBREAK]Spa turn “Opening a spa does mean nice perks” Pamela Petty, 39, lives near Durham with her husband Richard, 32, a property developer, and son James, two. Her second child is due in June.

Old job: Working for a manufacturing company. New job:Spa director of Waterfall Spa, a luxury ladies-only day spa in Leeds. “Spas can be so intimidating that I knew a luxurious but welcoming spa was needed. I drew up a rough budget with my father and a former colleague and worked out that my vision for something truly special would take a hefty outlay. My bank manager agreed to a big loan and some of my family also invested. Leeds was my choice of location – I rented and refurbished two empty units in a trendy redevelopment and commissioned a consultant to design unique spa treatments plus another two consultants to produce a range of exclusive Waterfall products. We opened in October 2005. Starting a business with start-up costs of £1 million was stressful, but I’m proud that I stuck with my instincts about what women want from a spa.” For details, visit www.waterfallspa.co.uk.