Two years ago, sisters Harriet and Molly launched the Secret Linen Store, designing, manufacturing and selling high quality bed linen for less than you’d pay on the high street. They tell us why they’ve been so successful.
What are your career backgrounds?
Harriet: I haven’t had a conventional career. I left school at 16 and started working. Originally I wanted to be an accountant, but in 2005, while temping in the accounts department at Feather & Black, I was offered a rare opportunity to make a move into marketing, and took over the as Marketing Co-ordinator on maternity cover.
I quickly took the reigns and grew the marketing team from just one to a team of seven over the next eight years. I left the company in 2012, when my first child was approaching school age, to allow me to be more flexible with school holidays.
Molly: I wanted to be a fashion designer, but quickly realised in my first week of foundation course that I was not fitting in to the fashion crowd, so I opted for textile design instead. I was really fortunate to get a place at Nottingham Trent University, on what was then (and I think still is), one of the best degree courses in the UK for textiles.
I loved it, and decided that home textiles was for me. I graduated, but lived with a group who were on a four year course, so felt cheated to have to go home a year before them. So I stayed on and got a part time job at the Iron Bed Company and Pizza Hut!
This led from selling beds (and pizzas) part time to creating the Iron Bed Company’s first collection of bedding and moving to be near to their head office.
This was a great time for the Iron Bed Company as it was growing daily and a very exciting journey to be part of. The department I was running grew quickly to contributing a million pounds to the business. It was a big and fast learning curve but great fun.
I left after six great years to work with Next as a designer, which was fantastic, then on to head up the non-furniture department at Feather & Black. I’ve enjoyed a great and varied career in which I learnt retail from many different angles. It’s been a super grounding to starting the Secret Linen Store with Harriet. Now to the future!
How did your careers change after becoming mums?
No-one can prepare you to mixing motherhood and a career. Motherhood is hard enough without the additional pressure of needing to prove yourself when you come back to work.
We both came back to work very quickly after our children were born, and while our work never suffered, we were both faced with the guilt of leaving your child with someone else each day. It’s much harder to manage your time when you are on a deadline each day for childcare drop off’s and pick ups, and you find yourself working more out of hours to compensate.
What inspired Molly to leave her job and start her own textiles business?
Molly: When my daughter was born in 2007, I had a full time day job, and like most new mums thought I could carry on working full time and that nothing would change.
I soon became exhausted (I was doing a 7am to 4pm day so that I could see Mabel in the evenings) so I took the jump to be able to work the hours that I wanted, from home… and never looked back.
And what promoted Harriet to join her?
Harriet: My son was approaching school age and I was concerned about how I would juggle full time employment and school holidays. Molly’s business was doing well and she needed some help, so I stepped in to the business 3 days a week. (That was short lived, as we launched the Secret Linen Store the following year).
Molly and I had always talked about starting our own retail business so I guess it was a natural progression towards what we really wanted to do.
Harriet: Having both worked for bedroom companies for a number of years, and with Molly’s experience with bedding, it felt like the only product for us. Stick to what you know, that’s out motto. Molly had also forged relationships with fantastic suppliers over the years, who were very encouraging.
How did you come up with the name and brand?
We were originally planning to be the London Linen Company, but with only Molly in London and Harriet on the south coast, it felt like a fraud.
So we thrashed the name around with our investors, and talked about how our direct model is like a secret source for the best bed linen at the best prices, and we happened upon The Secret Linen Store.
What are your brand values?
Fantastic quality for everyone, at an affordable price. Smiley, happy service, and making bedtimes feel special.
Who is your ideal customer?
Anyone with a passion for interior style and good quality.
How did you prepare for your launch in November 2013? What was your marketing strategy?
Hmmm, we launched the business on a shoestring, so we didn’t really have a budget for much marketing. We ran some paid google advertising, and emailed all our family and friends, and that was about the extent of it. We took on a PR agency after the first few months to move things forward.
How well do you work together?
Harriet: Surprisingly very well. So many people have said to us “I could never work with my sister!”. But we started working together when I was just 18, and have done so on and off ever since.
Our skill sets are very different. Molly is creative and visual but can’t spell, while I am process driven, analytical and organised.
We complement each other very well. We couldn’t have imagined doing this with anyone else. With all the hard work, we still have a lot of fun along the way, and if we don’t agree on something, we can say so without any animosity. The only downside is we only ever talk about work, and have to schedule time to just be sisters.
Many business partnerships founder. What do you think the secret of working well together is?
Communicating. We probably communicate (chat) a bit too much, but we share the responsibilities of running the business. We don’t work in the same office, so we only see each other twice a month generally.
Honesty is really important, too. If something is bothering us, we have to talk to each other about it, otherwise you start to get bitter. Being sisters, that makes it easier for us than other business partners.
Your projected sales for the second half of the year – less than two years after launch are half a million pounds. What’s the secret of your success?
A lot of hard work, passion for product and service, the support of our partners and families, good staff and copious amounts of coffee.
How do you balance your business and your families?
That is the hardest bit, and with the mobile phone and tablet, you never really switch off. We both have a digital down day on a Sunday, and arriving home from work, until the kids are in bed, is always about them.
Dinnertime as a family as much as possible, bath, stories and bed routine are grounding and give your brain that much needed bit of respite.
What advice do you have for other start-ups?
Don’t be afraid to have a go, and don’t follow the crowd. We spent years in meetings looking at what everyone else is doing and trying to compete. Now we are creating product that we love, giving the kind of service we would like to receive and forgetting about the rest. If you’re looking behind you too much, how can you move forward?
Learn more about the Secret Linen Store on their website.