Interview with Nicola Barnett and Julia Ann Mclean, co-owners of children’s brand Potwells

Find out how long term friends (and mothers of seven children between them) Nicola Barnett and Julia Ann Mclean, were inspired to launch Potwells a business beautiful luxury children’s products that are stylish and on trend, direct to customers and retailers. 

What’s your career background?

Julie Ann: I’m originally from Birmingham and I trained and worked as a primary school teacher in the city for a number of years. It had a wonderful time and loved my years teaching.

After four children, I decided that returning to the classroom was not an option for me. I wanted to work but still have flexibility and be there for my children. 

Nicola: I have always worked in retail and was a product manager for two large office suppliers. I have always been ambitious and loved my job. And I love great products too.

However, like Julie, it was while on maternity and after having my twins that I decide I needed to build a successful career that could offer me a balance and flexibility. It was time to step away from the 9-5 machine.  

Where did the idea for your business come from?

Nicola: We are close friends and lived in the Leicestershire countryside after having our children. Our children played together from when they were babies.

Like every new mum, we both did a lot of internet shopping for our children’s nurseries and playrooms. We always seemed to be complaining to each other about how hard it was to buy a gift for our children, or our friends’ kids. At the time, we couldn’t find the products that we really loved and there certainly wasn’t the choice that there is today. 

Setting ourselves a challenge, we looked into where we could source amazing children’s products from and after conducting lots of research, we decided to set-up our own consumer website (Potwells) and eventually a distribution business alongside it (Kid Central UK).

Today, we sell beautiful luxury children’s products that are stylish and on trend, direct to customers and retailers. 

One of our brands on the distribution side that sold a luxury extra-long hot water bottle aimed at adults. We loved the concept and though it would be perfect for the children’s market too. Our children helped us decide on which characters we should develop – we have a zebra, unicorn and a dragon. 

After this, we applied the same principal to storage boxes. Again, we let our children’s imagination run free and we now have an amazing range of characterful storage boxes that appeal to boys and girls and parents. 

We’ve had a great adventure along the way and working with your best friend is just a joy. We’ve had ups and downs of course, but we have loved building a business we’re all proud of. 

What’s your USP?

Julie Ann: We’re family-first in everything we do from our designs to our core company values. Our mission is to design products that are loved by children and parents.

And we bring this mission to life by including our children in the design and inspiration stage. They are integral to our business. We call them our ‘seven-strong expert panel’. Their ideas are amazing and their incredibly pragmatic too. They really understand the processes. What better way to design children’s products but with children?

Our products are positioned on the luxury end of the market, so we have quality, durability and style in mind at every step. We really believe that our products are very special. 

Who’s your target audience?

Nicola: We aim our products at families with a love of style, adventure and fun. Our products make unique gifts and an impactful addition to homes. 

We believe we are the very families that we aim our products at. This makes understanding our audience easier and this helps with the marketing and promotion of our collections. 

How do you spread the word about what you do?

Julie Ann: With the support of a local PR agency, we position our products using a range of PR and communication channels. We’re busy building our social following and Instagram is the key platform for us as our products are so visual and fun.

We work with influencers who review our products and we connect with journalists who we believe will love our products as much as we do. We are busy preparing for Christmas already and planning product placements for Christmas gift guides.  

We have also recently updated our website which is our key shop front window. 

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Nicola: In the early days, our distribution business lost a key brand. We felt very deflated and disappointed by this move as we had spent so much time working with the brand and developing it.

It felt like a personal blow but we vowed to learn from the episode. We were determined that it should make us stronger as a business and partnership – which it did. I believe every challenge in business is an opportunity to grow. With the right attitude even the toughest of days can become valuable. 

And your proudest moment so far?

Julie Ann: Our proudest moment was receiving the first ever extra-long hot water bottles. These were our first ‘Potwells’ products and our children played a hand in designing them. Getting them back from the manufacturers was a great day for all of us. 

Who inspires you?

Nicola: Our children are our inspiration, we are building our business from the ground up and hope we are role models for them.

And this is not us wanting to pass the business down to them, this us demonstrating to our children that with a great idea and determination, you too can develop your company and turn it into a success. We’re living proof to our children that hard work does pay off.

How do you balance your work with your family?

Julie Ann: Being best friends and having seven children between us means we share more than our professional life. As our kids are great friends too, we can share the childcare and the inevitable taxing around to after-school clubs.

Sharing this workload means, when needed, one of us is still able to concentrate on a deadline or urgent issues without the guilt factor. 

But while it’s great to work together, we also need to take time apart sometimes and think about things separately or develop new ideas independently. It’s easy to get lost in the momentum and the day-to-day detail. Keeping our focus on the big picture helps us to sharpen our view and realise our business goals.  

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

1) Separate home and business

When running a business witha good friend, you have to remove the personal and emotional elements. You are both in a professional setting, and you need to be mindful and respectful of this. It’s easy to get frustrated, or even overly excited but you need to always respect each other’s views and skills, as you would withan investor, a client or a colleague. 

2) Remember that opposites attract

We work well together because we are two very different people with different strengths and weaknesses so we complement each other well. This has been an essential ingredient in building our business. 

Having someone to bounce ideas off and share the high and the lows has been a huge factor in running our business too. Together we talk things through, meaning our decisions are more carefully thought through and are less impulsive than if we were working on our own. 

3) Remember that communication is key, too

We both live busy lives and juggle different priorities every day. It’s important that co-founders are honest about their commitments and time investment. Honest and open communication at all times is key.  

You can find out more about Potwells on their website.