Let’s be honest, we all love a bit of retail therapy. Sometimes, nothing beats taking a trip to the high street to do a bit of window-shopping, or to snap up a good bargain in the sales. But over the years, the way we shop has been revolutionised by the rise of online shopping. It’s quick, easy, and fun and fits in and around our extra busy schedules. The exclusive deals are also a good way of staying one step (or dress) ahead. It seems that online retail is the place to be. Something that Carol Hanson, owner of online fashion boutique WantHerDress.com, knows all too well. Next week, Carol will be sharing her expertise on whether it’s possible to have a successful fashion business online at the UK’s definitive fashion trade show, Pure London.
But before that, she talks to Nay about her dramatic shift in career, owning and running an online business and shares some golden wisdom for young, budding entrepreneurs.
Carol, tell me a bit about yourself.
I call myself a “fashionable accountant”. Over a span of 19 years, I have worked various accounting roles. For 9 years, I had my own business offering accountancy services. When I decided I needed a change in my career, a client offered me a job selling B2B Software. It was a total change, but I took the role. From there, I moved onto a management role at a small company that sold video gaming accessories.
Last year, I began to get itchy feet about running my own business again, so I started looking for a business to buy. Although the idea of starting from scratch was fabulous, I knew my strength was being able to go into small companies and get them onto the next stage of growth. That’s what I did with Want Her Dress.
It’s a huge leap from accountancy to fashion. Was accountancy something you always wanted to do?
I grew up wanting to do fashion design. Though I had a creative edge to me, I couldn’t sew to save my life! I worked part-time in boutiques and realised I was interested in fashion buying. I pursued a course at college, but it was really difficult to find a suitable opportunity. So one of my tutors put me forward for a role at a local firm of accountants.
My last accounting role was in senior management at the video games accessories company. It was a very hands-on job and my team and I grew the company very quickly. I had the opportunity to do just about everything apart from develop products. I travelled the world. I went to America and conducted presentations to major retailers including Walmart and Amazon, which resulted in us supplying them with our products. I also had the opportunity to go to China three times as a lot of our products were manufactured there. I met the suppliers, and had an opportunity to see how the factory was run. I loved it.
Accountancy is a fabulous background to whatever I do. It keeps me grounded and helps me realise that I can’t get carried away, but at the same time, still need to make money. It’s a solid foundation to have.
How did you pick up the courage to leave full-time stable employment and embark into a very different, creative field?
I bought Want Her Dress last summer and tried to run it on a part-time basis. I quickly grew frustrated while I was working at the video games company because I knew how much time was needed to establish my online business. In February, I went full-time with the website. The workload was a shock at first, but I stuck by a mantra I’d often hear from a lot of management consultants: “You have to be on the business, not in the business”. I had to constantly look at the bigger picture and stay thinking about what my goals and ambitions for the business were. That enabled me to have a clearer vision of where I wanted Want Her Dress to go and it has since evolved. It’s been really exciting.
Tell me more about wantherdress.com
Wantherdress.com was founded by two sisters who knew exactly what they wanted from a clothes site. They put a lot of thought into the design and shopping experience. They decided to sell the business so they could pursue other career and lifestyle opportunities. When I bought Want Her Dress, my initial idea was to bring the demographic up from 18-24 to 25-34 as I can relate to that age group more. Personally, I like to be able to find clothing that I can’t buy anywhere else, so I wanted pieces that were unique. I wanted to cater for the woman who likes to go shopping, but also likes to add her own individuality to an outfit and wants others to admire her style.
You have to be on the business, not in the business
Tell me the ins and outs of running an online boutique.
It’s a lot harder than I initially thought. I thought all I’d be doing is buying new products, orders would be flowing in and I’d be doing fashion shoots. I knew that the website needed some digital marketing so I recruited an SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) friend to look at the site, see where the faults were and how we could improve it. I also asked them to help me recruit an agency to manage the process. But I had no idea just how difficult it is to get up the Google rankings, particularly for something as competitive as Fashion. Ninety per cent of all search engine traffic never goes beyond page one and 42 per cent of people only click on the first result! It’s not really worth it if you’re not on page one in the rankings, therefore it’s critical for me to keep working on getting Want Her Dress to number one. Without a huge amount of resources, I quickly realised I needed to develop new and unique angles to the business, because I want to attract the bloggers and look good to customers. Want Her Dress isn’t a fashion website that just buys whatever the wholesaler has on sale, it’s about real fashion, for real women. It’s about making the customer feel important.
What’s changed since you bought the website?
In February, I contacted North Hertfordshire College as it has a really good creative side. I told the hair and beauty department that I’d need help putting together a photo shoot for my next collection. I also involved the students from performing arts to model the clothes. It was great to get everyone involved. I then approached the fashion design department and said that I’d like to work with one or more of their students on designing a collection for the website. At first, they hesitated but then decided it was a brilliant idea. So now, I’m working with one student and using the project as a test case to launch a platform for young designers. It’s a chance for them to showcase their own designs that are targeted at the ideal Want Her Dress customer. It’s something very unique for the website. I’m very keen on helping and supporting the next generation and giving them every opportunity to come through.
Aside from that, I’m working closely with a stylist to ensure that we’re presenting the collection in a way that women can see how the clothes work for their body shape. As we’re targeting working mums or women who plan to have children, we’re keen to retain those customers throughout pregnancy and post childbirth as their body shapes change.
It’s amazing that people are buying into the vision you have for fashion and for young people also.
I’m doing a lot of networking. It’s building up my contact base and boosting my confidence in being able to share the vision of the business with people. To hear people say an idea of mine is great, gives me the drive and the determination to keep going because working by myself can be quite isolating. Networking makes all your hard work feel worthwhile and makes you eager to get on to the next stage. Women’s networking groups in particular are really supportive and there’s a real willingness to celebrate each other’s achievements and help each other through challenges and obstacles.
Do you feel that your experiences in the corporate world have shaped your thinking of new concepts and ideas for Want Her Dress?
It certainly has. Running a business now, is much better because I’m older and more mature. Although I know less about the fashion industry and running an online business, I’ve got a lot more confidence. I know I need to prove myself, but I don’t feel under the same kind of pressure that I did when I was in my early 30s.
Working within the video games accessories market helped me to grasp how the retail industry works. Working in China was great as it allowed me to see how a product starts from a concept and gets to a finished product. Even though that was electronic manufacturing, I still gained an insight.
What’s the best advice you can give to young people who are looking to set up their own business?
Love what you do otherwise the business won’t do well. Work out exactly what the business’ purpose is. Do loads of research online and test your ideas on family & friends. It’s good to get involved in some networking in the early stages of your business. Get some business cards, it’s a low cash investment and a good way buzz your ideas around other people. See if they “get it” and what their reactions are to your ideas. The more questions they ask you, the better, it will help your planning process.
Keep a clear vision of where you want to take things, but don’t have everything set in stone.
How do you advise someone to transition out of full-time work into business? When’s the best time to embark into your own venture?
It depends on you as an individual. Your level of confidence and your personal financial circumstances will be major determining factors. Many of my career decisions have been forced by circumstance. In the 90s, I set up my accountancy business after being made redundant.
Can you afford to leave full-time employment? If so, how long is it before the business gets to a rough financial stage? That’s why a lot of people run something along a full-time job.
Lastly, be open to the idea of going back into employment if the business, for whatever reason, doesn’t work out. Don’t consider that to be a failure, but a learning experience.
How do you handle setbacks in your business? How would you advise others to do the same?
Talk to other small business owners and you’ll realise– you’re not alone. That’s why networking is good. It’s good to be able to bounce ideas off people as well as share your frustrations. Sharing a problem and talking it through helps you to get things in perspective.
Also realise that any new business isn’t just going to suddenly take off, if it does, the momentum won’t last. You have to think outside the box and consider new ways of doing things. When you hit a brick wall, take a step back from the business and remind yourself of your initial vision.
So what do you see next for Want Her Dress?
I see a development on what I’ve already set out to do. I’m never going to convert from providing young designers a platform to showcase their designs. In years to come, the designer will have built a brand and Want Her Dress will be valuable. If I only thought about what I was going to get out of it, it’d just be “another fashion website” and I wouldn’t get the same return that creating something unique with other people gives.
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Photo Credits: Jacky Phillips