The story of a business – how two friends grew theirs from scratch

Many people dream of starting a business making money their passion, and for many of us it remains just that – a dream.

But not for Natalie Entwistle. Two years ago, Natalie and her friend Claire Riley started Our Handmade Collective, a shop selling creative products and crafts made by themselves and their friends. Today, they’re managing a thriving, award-winning business featuring 60 makers – and for the past year they’ve been ranked #1 for shopping in Leeds.

We wanted to discover the secret to their success. So we found out how they got their business off the ground, what marketing strategies have worked for them (and which haven’t), and what’s made the biggest difference to their business.

Can you tell us a little about the two of you?

Claire: I’m married to my best friend Mark and we have very three demanding cats! I have had a varied career in the corporate and financial world, mainly in accounting, finance and payroll and I am trained as a complementary therapist.

Natalie: I’m married to Dave and have two gorgeous girls, Olivia and Darcie. I studied Art & Design at art college then at the opposite end of the spectrum I began working in finance, working in mortgages.

What inspired you to start your own business?

Claire: I became ill with Severe Anxiety Disorder a few years ago, and in January 2012 took the decision to leave full time employment in order to try and get my health back under my control. I wanted to combine my creative passion with existing skills and knowledge, and founded Little Shop of Lathers in May 2012 (I make natural bath, body and shower products and gifts).

Being self employed is very hard but very rewarding and you are in control, which for me is a big part of managing my illness. There are stresses and strains involved, but they seem to be more manageable because you know you are working for your own goals and doing something you love. Not many people have the luxury to say that they love going to work!

Natalie: When Olivia and then Darcie came along I wanted to find something I could do to work from home to enable me to be a full time mum. I returned to my love of art and began my creative business, Handmade by Natalie, making cards, artwork and beaded jewellery, hand painted wine glasses, handmade wine glass charms, wooden decorative signs, wedding stationary and lots of other products.

I met Claire in August 2012 at a local craft event we used to attend each month, and we hit it off straight away.

Claire: We started to work together at other events and open houses and things just took off from there really! We have very different ways of approaching things, which compliments each other perfectly. We had both been running our own businesses for a couple of years by this time, and we reached a point where we wanted to progress and decided that we wanted our own shop to be able to showcase all of our work. Thus Our Handmade Collective (OHC) was conceived!

What is Our Handmade Collective?

OHC is a handmade, handpicked gift shopping experience. We comprise almost 60 local designer-makers, collaboratively providing high quality handmade gifts for any and all occasions.

How did you get started? Did you have a business plan, or did you make it up as you went along?

We pretty much made it up as we went along to be honest! We initially had the idea for OHC from working together as mentioned, and the opportunity arose with the opening of a concept called Handpicked Hall (which is now closed).

You could rent space within Handpicked Hall for very reasonable rates and it was a very low risk option. Handpicked Hall existed to give new businesses a footing on the high street without the worry of being tied into long leases, business rates and spiraling bills.

We went to view the site which was being developed in the Grand Arcade, Leeds (a pretty run down area of Leeds at the time) and we just fell in love with the building (even looking like a building site!).

We had originally been thinking that we would rent some space for the two of us, but when we saw the building and the potential it had to offer we decided to talk to more of our creative friends and see if they would be interested in providing us with some of their stock too.

We managed to pull everything together in three months – from the time we viewed the retail space in March 2013 to when we opened in June 2013.

When we opened OHC consisted of 19 makers including ourselves. By the end of 2013 we had 45 makers. When we moved to our new premises in March 2014 we had almost 60 makers!


Who is your ideal customer?

Our ideal customer is anyone who appreciates handmade products – who recognises the ethos behind handmade products and who appreciates the time and effort that has gone into making them.

How do you reach out to them to let them know/remind them you exist?

We have a fabulous looking shop window which draws passers-by to visit us, and we are lucky that we have a very loyal existing customer base that spread the word far and wide for us, recommending us to their networks. A personal recommendation is priceless.

We have an extensive database of customers who we are regularly in contact with through mailings, to keep everyone up to date with all of our news and events. We also regularly publish blogs to our online community.

Our makers are all very proactive in reminding their own customer bases where we are and how to find us. And finally, we do a lot of work through social media channels, particularly on Facebook and Twitter, and we are just expanding into the world of Instagram too!

What’s your USP?

We offer something a little bit different. People visit us because they don’t want something from the high street chains which everyone else has, they want something that hasn’t been mass produced in another country. We offer unique, quirky and fun high quality handmade gifts which reflect the love and care that has gone into making them.

Which marketing strategies have worked? And which haven’t?

Word of mouth and personal recommendation is invaluable for us. We don’t have a lot of surplus funds to spend on large advertising campaigns, so we have to choose very carefully what works for us and what doesn’t.

We have done some lovely but expensive newspaper and magazine advertisements, but in all honesty, we get so much more from featured editorials and articles where people get to hear our story, and what we are all about. That’s what works for us. Be it a newspaper/magazine editorial, or a blog post, or a Facebook post, it’s anything which tells our customers who we are and why we’re here.

When did you realise OHC was going to be a success?

One of our key times was when we did our first Christmas launch event in October 2013. We marketed in for a few weeks before hand (in-store, online, social media) and we had no idea what to expect.

We opened our doors at 5.00pm and customers just flooded in! It was an amazing atmosphere, we couldn’t move for people milling around, and it was truly overwhelming. Our sales for that evening were more than they had been for the whole week before. That’s when we realised that we had something really amazing – and we’ve gone from strength to strength from then!

How important is customer service, and what are your tips?

Customer service is very important – we rely on our customers to recommend us to their network of family and friends. A smile costs nothing and means everything!

We work very hard to ensure that our customers have a great experience visiting us, our shop always (in our opinion) looks fabulous. It looks inviting and we have great music playing (and often catch our customers humming along to the tunes). We want our customers to enjoy shopping with us – they are the most important part of our business; we wouldn’t still be here without our customer support!

We won an award for the Best Place to Shop in Leeds in September 2014, voted for by our customers, and we are ranked number one on Tripadvisor for Shopping in Leeds, based on our customer reviews.

One of the main comments we have received in reviews is how friendly, knowledgeable and approachable our staff are. That’s something we work very hard on. Everyone is greeted as they walk in, we offer assistance if needed and then leave our customers to browse in peace. All of our staff are knowledgeable about the other makers’ products and are on hand to answer any questions customers may have.

We think we’ve provided a welcoming and friendly environment that people want to spend time in. OHC is a Collective in every sense of the word, it’s not just the amazing products we have, it’s not just the passion and enthusiasm provided by ourselves, it’s not just the range of gifts we have, or the extra services that we offer such as gift wrapping and gift vouchers – it’s the whole package.

You now run crafting classes. Why did you decide to do that and how are they going?

When we were in Handpicked Hall we ran our Summer of Craft, which was free little workshops and craft demos for children, over the summer holidays.

We always wanted to do more but we didn’t have the space at first when we moved to our existing premises, and we had to concentrate on getting our business where we wanted it to be. Our customers often asked us if we would run classes so they could learn crafts from our makers.

We started our Creative Craft Classes in March 2015, and they are going really well. Momentum is building and people are now asking us for specific crafts and wanting to book exclusive crafting parties for occasions.

It’s really rewarding to be able to teach people new skills, to release creativity and give people an outlet. It’s also giving our makers confidence in their own skills and knowledge as well as giving us another customer base.

How do you spread the word about your classes?

We mainly spread the word through the same channels that we have mentioned already – through social media and on our website. We write regular blogs featuring the makers behind our classes. We have flyers in store and outside the shop which are given to our customers. Our makers take flyers with them to events and give them to their customers.

We have a great independent community within Leeds and we all work hard to promote each other, so our Creative Craft Class information is always promoted by other businesses within the city centre.

You can also find the details of our classes listed on local information websites such as Visit Leeds, Leeds Inspired, Yorkshire Evening Post and Independent Leeds.

What are you most proud of?

Claire: Every day when I walk into the shop, or when I hear someone mention it, or when I am working on something for the shop, I get happy butterflies in my tummy! I’m so proud of everything that we’ve achieved in two years.

So far, we’ve won the Leeds Love Affair Best Place to Shop in Leeds, we are ranked number one on Tripadvisor for Shopping in Leeds and we have a great reputation for being a high quality gift shop. We also have the best stockists in the area, who want to be involved in what we’re building, and we are in control of our own future.

Natalie: I’m most proud of how much we’ve achieved in the last two years, from where we started to where we are now and how we are still evolving, and I’m very proud of how we have created a community of Independent businesses to put the Grand Arcade back on the map.

We (all of the retailers) have brought an old, tired, worn down Arcade back to life and have created a new home for independents in Leeds.

And if you could go back to the beginning, what would you do differently?

We would have used the retail space we had in Handpicked Hall to better use! We do heave a little sigh when we look back on photos and see the square footage we had access to.

We probably wouldn’t have invested money in some of the advertising that we chose, although having said that, a business evolves and you need to go through a learning curve. Different things work well for different businesses. So maybe we wouldn’t do anything different as we’ve learnt something from everything that we’ve done so far.

How are you celebrating your second birthday?

We are celebrating our second birthday by having a big party! We have live music out in the Arcade, free fizz and cake, free goody bags, 10% off most products throughout the store plus special offers on certain products.

We have a tea tasting from one of our makers, The little dragon tea Co. and handmade fudge tasting. Lots of our makers will be on hand to meet and greet and chat to everyone, and a huge grand prize raffle with prizes worth over £650, all donated by our makers and Handmade Nation (who are supporting us throughout the day).

All of the proceeds are going towards the Save the Grand Clock restoration fund for the Arcade Clock which is in dire need of repair. It should be a great day!

And finally, what tips would you give someone starting up a business?

Do your research, be organized and make sure that you take time out for yourself. It’s very easy to put all of your energy into something, to live and breathe it, but you need a balance to all sides of your life.

Want to make money from your passion like Claire and Natalie? Download our free checklist! 

You can learn more about Our Handmade Collective and their makers on their website.