Marguerite Salon on the hustle of launching a successful business

On Monday 20 May, we hosted our very first Marguerite Salon at Chiltern Firehouse on the hustle of launching a successful business. Founder of @thegreatwomenartists, Katy Hessel chaired the panel with: Founder of Partnership Editions, Georgia Spray; Founder of PRICK, Gynelle Leon; and Co-Founders of RIXO, Henrietta Rix and Orlagh McCloskey. We loved hearing Gynelle’s tales of driving through the American desert to meet old cacti gurus, Henrietta & Orlagh’s stories of the two years they spent running RIXO from their tiny flat and Georgia’s brilliant advice on the importance of investing cash in the boring legal stuff! Read on for highlights of the discussion …

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Henrietta and orlagh on life before launching rixo..

Henrietta: We graduated in 2014 and set up the brand in 2015. We pretty much went into it straight away, we didn’t really hang around even though everyone said we needed more experience.

Orlagh: I went to ASOS as soon as I finished my exams and Henrietta was working in retail. It got to the point where all weekends and evenings were full and a buying job is quite full on in terms of the hours, so I couldn’t do meetings because 9am-7pm was gone just doing a buying job. There was only so much research and behind the scenes work you could really do.

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So, we actually got a job with our suppliers. We helped them out for the first 9 months and it gave us an insight in terms of what we were doing. We were helping our suppliers get UK business and they were helping us get minimums in China and so on. It worked out quite well, there wasn’t a contract in place but we were both gaining something from it and it was good to establish that supplier relationship. I think if you really want to do it you will find a way. I think the first step is deciding that you want to do it.

gynelle on what she was doing before she launched her business …

Gynelle: I was working as a fraud and compliance analyst, it was very analytical and tech based. Then I decided to become a florist on the side, so I was working 5 days a week and then working as a florist on my Saturday. I was also studying contemporary floral design whilst doing all of that. I always thought I would open a florist when I was 40 and then my boyfriend at the time split up with me and then I thought “why don’t I just do it now?”

When I came up with the idea for the shop, I thought I couldn’t do this whole double life, there weren’t enough hours in the day and I was exhausted. I knew I needed to put all my focus into this. I sold my flat and gave up my job and went feet first into this cactus world. I went to America and drove through the desert. I made this list of all the places in the country that had cacti specialists and sent them all an email or phoned them up. I then went round and met all these old men in their greenhouse and had tea and met their dogs. I basically found out all this information that you couldn’t get from any books like ‘how do you build a greenhouse?’ and ‘what glass do you use?’ and things like that. I basically went all whole hog straight into it, I didn’t have a pop-up or launch it as a side thing. I just went straight in. 

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Georgia on how she managed working & setting up Partnership Editions..

Georgia: It was quite lucky because I was working for an art dealer that I really respected and it was a really interesting job. It was a personal assistant role so the hours were quite specific, it wasn’t like other PA roles where you had to work through the night. I always had my weekends free to do Partnership Editions. He also travelled a lot and I was very open with him and I told him I wanted to launch my own business and work for him. He is the type of person who likes to push boundaries and is very creative and he said he liked that I wanted to do something different. So he was quite lenient, whenever I had down time when he was travelling he would much rather I do my own business rather than sitting on Facebook. So, we had a very open conversation about that and he quite liked the idea that he was mentoring in some way. I was really lucky that he was so flexible with work.

Before that, I had gone into full time work. I had figured out my business plan for Partnership Editions and I knew I needed the money to put into starting the business. I did that for about a year and a half until it became too much. It really stopped me from being able to meet artists or have meetings with potential collaborators because I would ask to meet someone at 7pm or Saturday morning at 10am. I realised then that it was time to draw a line and leave.

Henrietta and Orlagh on the first steps to creating their business..

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Orlagh: We just decided we wanted to do something that no one else is doing. When we first started, there weren’t any nice silk printed dresses for around £300, there just weren’t. I think it’s good to know your market space and know where the gaps are. You’ve got to know what’s different with what you want to do. You have to have an approach that makes it different. Just figuring that out was our first step.

Henrietta: I think meeting people is so important. On the weekends and even I think it was the day after boxing day or new year’s day (!) we went to go and meet people and go to factories because we knew it was a day we would definitely have off. You have to just go out and meet as many people as possible and ask questions. If you don’t know, ask. People are always happy to help. We just went round and cold-called people, emailed them, turned up.

We would even turn up at factories in the middle of nowhere and ask them questions, and they would be so surprised. We would ask “Can we take that material?” and they would say “no one has ever asked that before, but sure!”  I think you have to be so passionate about it and if it comes across as genuine whenever you meet someone, they will want to help you.

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Henrietta and Orlagh on how RIXO was initially funded..

Henrietta: We literally put in a tiny bit of money ourselves. We didn’t go out, we weren’t socialising or going out drinking or going for brunch like our other friends. We lived in the house and set up everything from there. Our biggest expense was our oyster card when travelling to meetings. When we would go to visit studios, they would say we need to shoot a look book and it would cost £4,000, we didn’t have that money. So we found this random guy in Costa Coffee and went to a derelict building to shoot it there, we did the hair and make-up and the styling ourselves. I think if you don’t have the money you just can’t spend it.

Orlagh: Our website was about £2,000 and that is ridiculously cheap now but when we got that first website it made us realise what we wanted to change. I always think now that you shouldn’t invest in something really expensive until you know exactly what it was that you want. As you get to know your business in the first 12 months, you start figuring out the things you want to change and you are 100% sure what things you want to invest in. You have to think out of the box and how you are going to make it work. Don’t spend money on things that aren’t completely relevant for your product. Social media is amazing because it is free, you can utilise that so much. People do genuinely want to help. We didn’t have a PR agent so it was just Henrietta and myself who went to meet with the press ourselves.

Gynelle on selling her flat for her business..

Gynelle: Everyone thought I was mad. I didn’t tell anyone until it went through. For me, I knew I needed the cash and I needed to have that freedom from thinking how I was going to pay my mortgage every month. 

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When I launched, there were no other cacti shops. Only after speaking to cactus growers, I realised I needed a greenhouse to store the cacti in. Also I had to work out where I was going to get them all from. I drive over to the Netherlands, Belgium and France and have established connections with my different suppliers. 

I was telling everyone my idea. I find that lots of people want to protect their idea and think “oh, it’s my little baby” until it happens, but you’ll find the more you talk about and share your idea, the more the universe wants to help to make it happen. 

I learnt everything on the job. Every step of the way, I would think “oh, how do I do this?” and then I would have to ask around or research how to do it. 

Georgia on the logistics of partnership editions..

Georgia: I didn’t have funding at all. I built my own website. I think my biggest expense I had to pay upfront were the legal costs. I just wanted to make sure everything was watertight, I wanted to get my terms and conditions and all of that correct. As an online business and the business model that I have, it was fairly risk free to start off with.

I learnt by doing. I launched my website and my first newsletter went out in March 2017. I was selling to friends, then it spread through word of mouth and then Instagram was a major tool for marketing. That time in getting out there and launching, that initial year, was the best learning curve for me. I understood what people wanted, I got loads of feedback and I just went round and talked to everyone about it. It grew very organically. There wasn’t that pressure to hit targets in order to pay the bills because I had a full-time job at that stage. I felt I could make much better business decisions because they weren’t pressured with money and time. I felt like I could be more considered about things.

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In terms of the distribution of art work, we sell mainly unframed work so the storage is quite easy. A lot of artists will also keep their stock until we have a new release and then it comes to me and we dispatch it all. The distribution side, at the moment, is manageable. That’s the difficulty because as it grows, we start to go more into canvases and big pieces. So much of the art world is logistics. The shipping is the pitfall of it, because if you are dealing in affordable art, the shipping can become more than the actual art work. We have to find a way to keep practical. That practicality is such an important part of my day to day. Some of it really whittles down to really boring logistics but you have to think about these things.

Henrietta & Orlagh on the logistics of running RIXO ..

Henrietta: When we first started we used to pack all of our orders in the kitchen and go to the Post Office every single day.

Orlagh: I remember thinking “Oh, where we were going to store all the stock?” We thought we would need a warehouse but we just stored it all in our living room for the first two years. After that we changed my bedroom into a stock room as well. I have a twin sister, so I was meant to share with her, but after I gave up my bedroom she then got a boyfriend! They called me ping pong because I had to sleep at all of my friends’ houses. So for about 7 months, I didn’t have a bedroom and lived out of boxes in the hallway. You just make it work. Our landlord was so good, we asked him to take away so much of the furniture from our flat, such as the second sofa in our flat and then even the kitchen table! We just didn’t have the space. You have to have an attitude to not panic, and trust that you will just figure it out.

Henrietta: We did everything ourselves. We got to see every aspect of the business that way.

Gynelle on her biggest challenge when launching her business..

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Gynelle: My biggest challenge was that I got sued…in high court! But I did actually win. There was this crazy guy who sued me. Going through two years of that took up a lot of time, energy, and money. Nothing could have prepared me for that. I had my trademark and I did everything I should have done to protect myself. I’m a lot of money down but I am so much stronger now because for years I had to defend myself and my business and put every thing on the line to do so. So now when I get a fabricated negative google review or someone wants to attack me for something I don’t cry like I used to I just think “oh go away” I give it none of my energy I just get on with it. If you are successful, I think you have to be prepared for people to come at you. Other people do feel entitled sometimes, especially when they see something going well, to try and poke it down. It does make you extremely strong. 

Georgia on the incredible press presence of Partnership Editions..

Georgia: It is down to a press consultant who is amazing. Last March, I did an exhibition with an artist called Alex Coe and we did it over International Women’s Day. We got loads of incredible female founders involved and I guess it had a really far-reach on Instagram. She picked it up at a time when she was wanting to leave the fashion PR world and move into art. I’ve been really lucky at this time where the art/fashion/interior world is all colliding. I’m so lucky she found me and that we instantly clicked. I didn’t think I was at a stage where I could afford for someone to do my PR. I hadn’t paid for anything in the business yet. I just really clicked with her and her vision for the brand. I think it’s helped massively. I haven’t done any paid advertising so the press helps in that way.

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Gynelle on her marketing strategy and PR..

Gynelle: I had no PR and I didn’t have a marketing strategy. I just posted all my own photos that I had styled and photographed myself on Instagram. I just thought if I like it others would; it was a very narcissistic thing to do. There are lots of wonderful plant shops but they are very botanical and whimsical but I wanted something very contemporary, and bold and punchy because that is the style that I am into. It’s really funny because people come into the shop and say “I follow you on Instagram!” and I’m like “Thanks?!” They’ll be really proud and have followed me from the beginning, it’s like they’ve been on that journey with you. If they’ve seen it from the first post and then three years later how it has grown, it’s really nice and feels like there is some sort of friendship there even if it’s one way. They can see what is going on on your stories and I think that makes it really personable. I’ve actually made lots of real friends through the store people that have supported me and been there from the beginning. I think that because it is someone like me and I’m a woman owning a business, they like to follow the journey. The fact that all of us were self-funded is quite unusual as well.

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Georgia on how she will manage the success of Partnership Editions..

Georgia: I have to think of ways the business can grow without losing sight of the curated element of the business. I have to be really considered to make sure the business grows in the right ways, that often means laterally rather than volume. I want to make sure that it remains close to the business that I set up. It’s important to try and stay authentic to what your business objective was.  

Photography by Luke Fullalove.