Find out how former English teacher Joanna Miller turned her love of words into successful, award-winning online gift business Bespoke Verse.
What’s your career background?
I was a secondary English teacher and then an adviser until I had children when I was 34.
What is Bespoke Verse?
We are an online gift business selling prints, stationery and homewares – all with the gift of rhyme. We’re also the UK’s leading provider of personalised poems and rhyming speeches.
Our main marketplaces are notonthehighstreet.com, Etsy and John Lewis online. We also supply prints to Paperchase. We exhibit at the major trade and retail shows, mostly at Olympia.
How did your business get started? What gave you the initial idea?
I have always enjoyed writing poetry – and won my first poetry competition when I was a Brownie! The business began after I made a rhyming speech at my wedding – commissions followed, but it was only after Archie (number three) was born that I decided to turn a hobby into a business. Just goes to show life does begin at 40!
How did you take the step from idea to actual business?
I needed to work! It was about giving the poetry and speechwriting a shot really – if it didn’t work I agreed with my husband Craig that I’d have to go back to teaching.
At what stage did you feel ready to quit your job and work on your business full time?
I resigned after my second child was born and had a career gap. I started working full time on BV when my youngest started nursery.
How long did it take Bespoke Verse to take off? And did you ever doubt it would?
It took about a year of plugging away before I introduced shorter off-the-shelf poem prints. When I started selling these unframed, things took off, I approached local shops and NOTHS.
How did joining NOTHS help Bespoke Verse?
Hugely – it changed everything. It gives you credibility. I learned how to run my business better and how to present it to customers. I was introduced to a massive customer base who proved to be the ideal customer for my products. I met other sellers who have been hugely supportive in sharing ideas and showing me what is possible.
You currently employ a team of mums to work on your business. Why mums? And what do they do?
By employing mums within school hours only, I am able to encourage really talented and committed women to come back to work on their terms. We still all do the school run and go to school functions during the day.
Because everyone has the same priorities it works. Holidays are a little chaotic and increasingly hard to manage though but the team chip in when they can.
Where do you get the idea for your products from?
I think about what my customers like and try to work around that knowledge. I try to think of ideas for poems that are a bit different and unsentimental. Lots of my poems are come from my own experience – for example, poems about dogs, cake and motherhood!
I work with different designers who bring their own amazing ideas to the table too.
How did you approach the sourcing and manufacture of your products?
I believe in buying British and supporting other small businesses. Our packaging and frames are from local suppliers.
What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome as a business owner?
Copying (IP infringement) is very hard to swallow, whether specific lifting of my poems, or more general replication of my concepts and business model.
And your biggest achievement to date?
Winning Partner of the Year 2015 at the notonthehighstreet.com Make Awards.
How do you balance your business with your family?
I still do the school run and have never used child care but this does mean I have to work at weekends and evenings. Any spare time goes on the kids and as a result I have neglected my own needs at times.
It is hard. Without my husband’s support the whole enterprise would not be possible. We try to take short breaks when we can, but at the moment we cannot go away for more than a week and leave the business.
What are your top three tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
- If you can’t do something, outsource to someone who can.
- Invest in good photography – whatever your business.
- Be flexible – if something isn’t selling, work out why and fix it.
You can learn more about Bespoke Verse and browse their products on their website.