Sally Smy spent 20 years working as a successful fashion buyer for companies like Arcadia, Debenhams and Tesco. But the desire to spend more time with her babies, and the realisation that many mums really needed styling guidance led her to launch her own personal styling business.
What’s your career background?
Before setting up Queen Bee Styling, I worked for nearly 20 years in fashion buying. I started as a Buyer’s Administrator, and worked my way up to Buying Manager. During that time I worked for many blue chip companies, including Arcadia, Debenhams and Tesco.
I had wanted to be an accountant and my first job was in the city but I soon realised it wasn’t for me. I tried a couple of other things before I found myself in a buying office. I loved it and felt at home there – I’ve never looked back.
What did you love most about your career in fashion?
Buying is like shopping for a living only with a massive cheque book! I have always been interested in fashion, and took Saturday jobs in shops from the age of 13 to enable me to buy clothes.
For me it’s always been about the love of the product – not necessarily the latest trends but finding that item that makes you feel special. When I was a buyer, I used to feel such a buzz when I spotted someone wearing a product I’d created or have something featured in a magazine.
What happened when you had children?
I went back to work full time after my first child was born but it’s strange how one of the things I loved about the job – travelling – became the thing I hated the most.
It was a real wrench leaving my daughter, sometimes for up to two weeks at a time, to go off to the Far East, and I knew something had to give. I had been thinking about setting up a business even before I had children but when they came along it made me reassess what I really wanted.
What made you decide to start your own business?
I had what I call my ‘Vicky Pollard’ period after the birth of my daughter. A good few months after the birth I suddenly caught sight of myself in the mirror and didn’t like what was staring back. I was still wearing maternity clothes, my hair, scraped back in a ponytail, was much in need of a cut and highlights.
I hadn’t worked out how to factor a little bit of make-up into my daily routine – and I really needed to! It was clear I had let myself go so I immediately booked a haircut and took myself off shopping.
It was while sharing this experience with the other mum’s in my NCT group that I found that many women feel like this, especially after giving birth. It dawned on me that I could use my fashion skills to help women in a similar position. I did go back into buying after my first maternity leave which enabled me to do lots of research and save some money for a styling course. I also practised on my friends which worked really well and that gave me the confidence to go for it!
How did you come up with the idea for Queen Bee?
Queen Bee Styling offers a range of services that are designed to help anyone that is stuck in a rut with their clothes. Its aim is to make styling affordable and accessible to everyone which is why I deliberately keep my prices low.
I work hard to really understand what people require from their wardrobes. It’s more than just putting them in one special outfit – it’s about understanding exactly what they need to make their clothes work for them whilst feeling confident about how they look.
How did you make the leap from an idea to an actual business?
While on maternity leave with my second child I knew it was now or never to give the styling a go. I’ll be honest, it was very scary and going back to my old job definitely felt like the more comfortable option. However, a lot of encouragement from friends, an accommodating husband, and an overriding desire to be there more for the children spurred me on.
My first step was to invest in a bespoke website and a great graphic designer, as I wanted to ensure that the business looked professional. I then set about marketing in order to spread the word – flyers in local cafes, talks at coffee mornings etc. The few clients I had at the beginning set the ball rolling by recommending me to their friends and it grew from there.
What service do you offer?
We offer a variety of services but the main ones are wardrobe refreshes, personal shopping trips and styling work shops. Most people have the wardrobe refresh followed by the shopping trip.
In a nutshell, a wardrobe refresh purges your closet and helps you understand why some items suit you and some things don’t. I’ll then suggest additional items to get it working for a clients’ lifestyle. We then fill it back up again with new outfits on the personal shopping trips. For me, it’s very important to ensure any new outfits take into account the individual’s personality so they become an improved version of themselves not a completely different person.
How do you find your clients?
I’d say about 90% are word of mouth. I also help organise events, like ladies nights, in my local area for mine and other small businesses which helps raise our profile. I link up with other complimentary businesses, like hairdressers and make-up artists to offer a complete service, and we promote each other. I write regular fashion article for websites too.
The marketing side of things is very much a work in progress. It’s not something that I’ve ever had to do before but I’m enjoying the challenge.
What do you love about running your own business?
I’m very lucky to be doing something that I love, and it really doesn’t feel like work when I’m with a client. By far the best aspect is getting positive feedback and knowing that I have made a difference to someone’s life. I also love the flexibility. I work hard but I can still be there for school plays, doctors appointments etc when needed.
What do your clients say after you’ve helped them?
It’s probably best to take a couple of quotes from my most recent clients:
“The best thing I have done In a long time!”
“[Sally] helped me be ruthless about my wardrobe but also showed me new ways of wearing old things, and gave me confidence to try new styles (I went shopping that afternoon!). The pre and post appointment care was brilliant too. Can’t recommend her highly enough.”
How do you manage your business around your family?
I worked part time before the children were both at school. Now I always try to drop them off at school and I have a couple of set days when I don’t work late and take them to after school activities.
I work weekends and late most evenings when they are in bed, catching up on admin, but it’s a small price to pay. I also try to take off as much time as possible during the holidays. I had to accept that I’ll never be the type of mum who stays at home baking cakes when my daughter told me she preferred the shop bought fairy cake mix to the one I’d spent two hours slaving over!
What’s your vision for the future?
It would be great to grow the business to a level that I could employ a team of stylists. I’d also like to offer courses for people who would like to get into styling. This is a long shot, but I’d love to write a book offering advice to mum’s stuck in a rut to help take some simple steps to get out of it. The level of expectation on mums now is huge, and we need to learn to be a bit kinder to ourselves.
Do you have any tips for other mums wanting to start a business?
I think they have to accept that it can be a scary process but not to be put off by that. Also have confidence in your ability and talent – so many women I meet undervalue themselves. You do need to prepare and do your homework but you don’t necessarily have to be a hard-nosed business type. I wouldn’t last five minutes on The Apprentice! Luckily that’s not what my clients are looking for.
It’s very important to be yourself and play to your strengths. You have to just do it, there will never be a perfect time and what is the worst that can happen?
You can read more about Sally’s services on her website.