Interview with school uniform entrepreneur Zoe Taylor

Sometimes the best business ideas come from spotting an opportunity to do something different or better. And that’s just what Zoe Taylor did – frustrated by the poor service offered by her school uniform supplier, she set up her own, rival business. She tells her story.

What is your business?

Taylor Made Uniforms is a completely unique school uniform supplier/retailer. We offer a service that no other uniform supplier offers in the country – and possibly the world.

When did you first get the idea to start it?

The idea came from my own experience. The second time I had to get my son’s school uniform, the only supplier for his school was unhelpful, moody and difficult. They refused to help me in any way and wouldn’t give any advice. I was so fed up and wondered why there wasn’t somewhere else that I could buy from. So I decided to start doing it myself.

I thought that most parents would want a better service – even just someone friendly and helpful with a smile!

How did you go from idea to action – what were your first steps?

I contacted the same supplier that my school used, and paid for some stock up front. I had meetings with my son’s school and they allowed us to start supplying alongside the previous supplier.

I was literally selling to my friends, and my first three months’ turnover was about £40 per month.

What have been your biggest challenges?

I started Taylor Made Uniforms in November 2009, and in March 2010, at the age of 34, I had to have a hysterectomy.

I was still working full time for a local company at the time, and I needed to take four weeks off to recover. I thought that would be enough, but in June my stitches ripped and my bowel fell out, resulting in an emergency ambulance ride, surgery and another four weeks of recovery.

In this time I started contacting a few more schools, and I luckily called one school at the right time as they were thinking of changing supplier. I had to go there for a meeting – I could hardly walk at the time, but the school had no idea!

I was given their contract to supply to commence in the September. So I bought more stock and made a gradual start. After my fourth surgery I quit my full time job and concentrated on the uniforms.

Thanks to the recommendation of the second school I started getting more schools. Every month the schools hold bursars meetings to find ways to generate or save more money. I offer commission to each and every school on every single item sold.

It soon became known around the schools that the previous supplier was only giving commission on what was sold on school grounds – something that the supplier hadn’t told them. Word began to spread about how much my schools were earning, and more schools then contacted me to become their supplier. Even my son’s school stopped using their old supplier and came solely with me!

And your accomplishments?

In the beginning, a few of the schools were sceptical that I would cope or would continue in business so they held back. They have now been with me for the last three years.

I don’t tie schools to me in contracts – they can leave at any time, but choose not to because of the service I provide and the commission that is paid.

It took me three years to start supplying the local girls’ secondary school. Every customer used to ask me to supply them, but they would not respond to any of my emails, calls or letters. Finally I wrote to them in November 2012 stating that I would start supplying their parents unless they had any valid objection as the demand was so high, and their current supplier had let so many people down. But I requested they come onboard as they would earn commission from the sales.

It took a further five months, and meetings with governors and samples made exactly to their specification. (Their other supplier is still supplying uniform that is different to mine – either the governors didn’t ask them to change it or they refused.)

I began supplying them in Feb 2013, but I didn’t know how much stock I needed. This school had 300 new starters at a school of 1,500 girls, so I took the biggest risk I have ever taken and ordered £50,000 worth of stock! Their existing supplier was renowned for running out and I didn’t want this to happen in my first time of supplying.

This was the most stressful time of my life! The 700 skirts that I ordered were delivered late, and the buttons were falling off. I personally sat with tweezers and picked at every thread and sent them back. The manufacturer said I didn’t know what I was doing, and that there was nothing wrong with them, but I stood my ground and demanded them to be remade.

With the other costs for the new intake, which totalled about £65,000 I was only left with about £16,000 on credit cards. I made a £20,000 loss, and even my accountant questioned my figures. But I still wouldn’t give up!

What is your marketing strategy?

I’ve made the most of social media (Facebook in particular) as a marketing tool too, but you have to spend the time and effort at it. A couple of weeks ago, Facebook deleted my ‘friend’ page and I lost five years of building up 1,100 friends. Every comment, picture and message was gone, and I sat and cried for an hour.

But as much as I may now hate Facebook, you can’t live without it. I often run competitions – I can get 200 new likes just by offering a £30 voucher for a ‘like and share’ contest.

I always want to do things differently, so I am currently running a competition in which my customers need to like my page and post on the wall with their order number and feedback of their experience. If they win the draw they’ll get their whole order back in cash.

I found out that my main competitor was asking their suppliers for extra discounts in return for a mention of support in an advert in the local paper to celebrate their 80th Birthday. So I spent six months planning something completely different – celebrating our 5th birthday in my local town. We gave out goody bags with vouchers for uniform, treasure, bubbles, and a colouring competition.

I also booked the actual Captain Jack Sparrow double from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and he was amazing. It cost as much as two full page adverts in the local paper to book him but it was worth it for the press coverage he got, not to mention the look of amazement and happiness on people’s faces – young and old!

How important is customer service?

Great customer service and reputation is extremely important to me. I run my business as if I was the customer, and am always helpful and friendly.

Our service is completely unique – we offer a half hour fitting service, free parking, free delivery (locally for orders over £10), no quibble returns, and I guarantee all my products. I still exchange things a year later, even if customers have damaged it.

Even with all this, I am still cheaper and my products are better quality than my competitors. How? Because I’m not greedy. By being slightly cheaper, and honestly paying all commission owed to the schools (unlike some suppliers) I offer the best possible service to everyone.

People talk, and once they realise how we work, they come back for more uniform and spread our positive reputation. The last three schools that became partners contacted me – I didn’t have to chase them.

I believe that great customer service is more important than a few pounds – for both customers and schools. If a school becomes a partner and they have previously sold uniform themselves, I take their stock for them and sell it for a charge of £1.

Usually most schools are losing money as they sell their uniform for less than their cost, so I charge the normal amount. If I sell it, for example, for £10 they get £9 back – even if it has cost me money to take payment or deliver it. This helps the school tremendously with making money, and clearing space that they need.

How do you balance your business with your home life?

This is the hardest part, as I am constantly working. I also run another double glazing business with my partner, and I do all the paperwork and accounts for both businesses.

But I look at it that I didn’t work for the first six years of my son’s life, and now I am able to be here every day when he gets home from school. He is starting secondary school this September and doesn’t need me as much, but just being here is enough.

What do you most love about being an entrepreneur?

I don’t ever think that I am an entrepreneur – I’m just someone who had an idea and made it work. I want to provide something different and make people happy.

What do you think are the most important qualities of an entrepreneur?

To have a idea that will work. There’s no point thinking of a business idea that won’t ever work as no common sense is put into it. Also you MUST be willing to give every hour, and yourself to it. Your idea won’t work if you don’t put the hard work into it, and aren’t willing to forgo at wage for up to five years.

People will look at you and be envious that you work for yourself, have no boss to answer to, and no schedules to adhere to. But when they are leaving home at 8am and returning at 6pm, they’ll have no idea that you have been working since 6am and probably won’t finish until 10pm.

What advice do you have for other aspiring business women?

If you think you have a good idea, then never give up on it. Keep believing in yourself and have faith that you know it will work. And if you can, don’t borrow money to start it. If you can’t invest in yourself, then why would anyone else?

Make the most of your local press too. I have never placed an advert in my local paper. Instead I have asked for editorial, which they do with pictures and a write up.  Any local paper will be interested in a new company that succeeds. I have even had a two page article in a local magazine, all completely free.  This was also first time I had ever told anyone of my operations when I first started.

Also, enter awards! They’re a great way to feel rewarded for your hard work and effort, but you have to realise that they’re usually just a money making scheme for the events company.

I enter myself into at least two categories, and you have to spend the time and effort doing this. The girl that works for me entered me into the Business Personality so I have no idea what she wrote, but it must have been good as I won!

If you are in at least three categories then you are more than likely to win at least one.  The cost of the ticket is money well spent, as you get your picture used in the local paper, and it’s free advertising. The general public will remember a picture and a little independent company doing well rather than a standard advert.

Last year I was so completely overwhelmed by winning the Readers Choice award that I cried. And the newspaper is still using that picture to advertise this year’s awards – so maybe it’s also worth shedding a tear or two if you’re lucky enough to win!

And finally, my motto is ‘Never quit’. And in case I ever forget, I have a tattoo of it to remind me!

You can find out more about Taylor Made Uniforms on their website.