Retail Species – The ‘entrepreneur with friends’

The Person: Georgie Douthwaite

The Company: Vinnie & D

The Job Title:  Director

The Story: If starting a business with a friend was easy there would be no need for the hundreds of forums offering advice on the subject on the internet. But despite this an awful lot of people do it and among that number are Georgie Douthwaite and friend Becky White. And what’s more they were both pregnant when they made the decision. 

Ah, emotionally sensitive, craving weird sandwiches, that kind of thing? Well, quite. But also going for lots of long walks in the fresh air and debating how they might get back into business when junior arrived. And the result of all this is that in September 2012 Vinnie & D went live selling the British public interesting homewares and gifts for their homes.

So how does the friendship stack up so far? Douthwaite is something of a serial ‘business with friendship’ mixer as the second string to her bow for the last decade has been a company making bespoke granite furnishings for the home which she runs as a franchise in association with a good friend. They have remained so and her secret recipe for success is to involve a third individual.

Another friend? It doesn’t matter who it is. The point is that there is a decision making majority. It’s not two people battling over personal preferences, whichever side has two people ranged on it wins. Simple. They all meet once a week and try to be as open and honest as possible about any potential fallouts.

And who is Vinnie & D’s third party? Jules Stern who deals with the IT and legal side of things. This is the other point about friends working together. Try to be good at different things. Douthwaite is the retail guru, and White is the creative so with equal partnership in the company, which they have funded themselves there is no jostling for position. At the moment of course it’s all hands to the pump for the site launch and whilst being the only one with retail experience can be ‘frustrating’ Douthwaite maintains that all aspects of the business have retail attached in some way.

Pretty different from selling granite shelves. Absolutely but she has done it the right way around. She has learned about retail in a super hard category, literally. Selling high-end bespoke items in showrooms to very discerning customers makes offering greetings cards online look like a walk in the park. She is moving to the online world from a showroom-based scenario where there is a lot of mileage for the final creation not to remotely resemble what the customer had in their head, coupled with plenty of material wastage and the attached high costs.

Well, you only have to watch Grand Designs don’t you? Absolutely. It’s not surprising she describes the world of Vinnie & D as ‘lovely’ but there are also challenges. She says it’s not always easy to maintain a rapport with customers you never see (they send out an e-newsletter to keep in touch) and the photography absolutely has to be right otherwise you will sell precisely nada.

Heart Hottie: hot product on Vinnie & D
And who exactly is going to be buying the gifts on their site? It’s very specific. Thirty-something mums, probably in the London area with significant disposable income to buy something different especially for their men or their children.

Crikey, that is niche. But Mary Portas’ campaign to rejuvenate British manufacturing and design has given them a great entry point for their patriotic slant to attract other people too. Only British designers on the site, and most items made in the UK too, and in this Jubilee and Olympic year that has gone down well. Eventually Douthwaite wants Vinnie & D to be a starting point for up and coming UK student designers but originally it was lots of friends of theirs who had set up crafting businesses that needed a shop front. Now they have people approaching them of course, some from Not On The High Street (NOTHS).

Aha, I was wondering when we’d get to NOTHS.  OK, Douthwaite concedes the businesses are similar but Vinnie & D does not hold stock like NOTHS. And she would like to think that none of the products on her site have been seen anywhere else at all. In addition, she feels that the NOTHS site can feel very busy and one of the main things Vinnie & D wants to offer is ‘a calm and beautiful website’ which is easy to navigate with the photography constantly refreshed.

Super, that’s all settled then. And who may I ask is her own retailer of choice? Douthwaite lives on the south coast and is an online purchaser by nature now because the high street is sadly not where it’s at, but when she just has to get in there and rummage there is only one destination. She beetles up to London and straight in through the doors of Selfridges & Co.

Nice. Now if she can get her business that well known it’s a winner:  Early days but the founders are confident of a busy Christmas. Repeat business is starting to come through and Douthwaite is hopeful that her aim for the company to be at the forefront of people’s minds when buying gifts will be a reality. In terms of marketing there is a push to get celebrities to wear their products but Douthwaite is wary of going too early with a big marketing campaign in case it is ‘in one ear and out the other’ before the name is properly out there. In the meantime they have a huge database of three combined contacts lists to advertise to, and although she admits to being ‘amazed’ by the number of people who take note of social media they will obviously be using its free advertising aspect too.

And what do I need to order now before it runs out of stock? One of the best selling lines so far is the Elvis & Kresse fire-hose range. High-end accessories for men made from decommissioned fire hoses which were going straight to landfill, a share of each sale goes to a fire-fighters charity.

Ah, retail with a heart – Mary Portas would love it.