Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Interview 1: Wool shop owner, UK

To help me get an idea of what to expect running my own business I am speaking to a few people who have had experience setting up their own shop, running a food business in Japan, or running a business as a foreigner in Japan. Here is one of the interviews.

I grew up in a shop. My Mum ran a wool shop, with buttons, hand knitted items, wool and women and children's clothes. My sister and I would help out behind the counter and with counting up the takings at the end of the day. Sundays usually involved visiting the warehouses in Manchester and redecorating the shop window for the coming week. The front room was the business, and we had a living room and kitchen behind that, with bedrooms upstairs. There was a little back garden and a shed. Here's my 'interview' with my Mum about running her own business. Turns out there was a lot I didn't know about her business!

View from inside the shop window

Why did you set up your own business, how did the idea come to you? What were you doing at the time, work-wise?
- I had two small children, well you were about 8 and your sister was 6, and I wanted a job that I could fit around you two. I wanted to be around for you in the school holidays and when you got home from school, and I wanted to be able to look after you if you were off school ill. At first I thought I'd go for a job in a school but it was quite hard to get into - all the jobs I applied for weren't really available, they were just interviewing because they were required to but there was always someone already in mind for the job who had been trained up on the computer system they used.
When I decided to open my own shop I was working as a dinner-lady, preparing school meals, as a way of trying to get a school admin job from the inside. The idea for the shop was that if we lived at the property, or at least if there was a sitting-room there, then I could take you to work with me whenever I needed to. I liked the idea of working for myself, though I didn't know if I had it in me to run a business, and I liked the idea of having a challenge. I always enjoyed knitting, and so it was a natural choice that the business was a wool shop.

A dinner-lady, yes I remember you coming home with big balls of pastry we would freeze and use for making apple pies and cherry pies. :) So how did you make the shop happen? Was there a bank loan, did you have to save up? 
- I think there was a bank loan to start with, yes. Although we couldn't get a loan for the whole thing - I bought the shop as a 'going concern', it was already a business albeit a bit run down. So you buy the premises, the stock and pay extra on top for the business itself as 'good will' - something unmeasurable a bank can't give you a loan for really. The woman we bought the shop from asked for more than we wanted to pay, but because she hadn't been very active in keeping the business going, we kept asking for discounts on the 'good will' side of things.

When you saw the property you ended up buying, did you know that was the one?
- Definitely. It had a living space with it so it was perfect. It was also opposite the local maternity hospital, and in a busy residential area and so you could count on there being enough custom, especially for the baby items. A few other places we looked at either didn't have the living space, or were too close to an existing wool shop.

How long did you have your own business? How would you describe the trends of your business over the years.
- I ran it for 11 years. At some point I'd built it up into quite a nice little business, it made a profit and I tried things like outsourcing some knitting jobs during particularly busy times. Towards the end though, I did notice that costs were getting higher while takings weren't going up. Wool itself became expensive: say someone wants to make a baby cardigan and it takes 2x 50g balls of wool, if each of those is £1.75 each you're looking at £3.50 just for a tiny cardigan, and then you've got to take all the balls home and make the thing yourself. When you could start buying machine-perfect cardigans down the street for £2.00, some people didn't see the point of knitting, or even learning how to. The older customers started to get arthritis and stop knitting, and there just wasn't the same level of interest from the younger customers. Now I think that knitting has come back in a way, but more as an arts and crafts thing.

Was that what made you sell the shop and move on?  
- Though I noticed the decline in business, the real thing that made me stop was that I started to feel unsafe. I chose a wool shop partly because I thought it would be a safe business - you'd have to be mad to break into somewhere to steal balls of wool. I thought I would be fine. There were a few incidents in the end though where someone came in acting strangely with the aim of taking the till. There was one man who came in speaking incoherently, with his arm inside his coat. I felt afraid of him immediately. Thankfully there was a customer in the shop at the time and she stayed until he left. He was caught later by the police with a crow-bar under his coat. I had a panic button fitted behind the counter, but didn't feel safe after a couple of attempted incidents like that. The police said that with the accident and emergency ward being moved in with the maternity ward, the incidents were likely to increase: "people will be pulled of the street for being drunk, fighting, whatever, and taken to A&E and not have the money to get home. They look across the road, see the wool shop and think 'there'll be a woman alone in there'. " Once I had thoughts like that in my head, and the nights were getting dark for 3:30pm in the winter, the shop bell would ring and you wouldn't know who you were going out to, it was frightening.

Did having the shop make you more, or less employable afterwards?
- I felt it made me less employable, at least from an interviewing point of view - I hadn't had a job interview for 17 years! - but in the end it probably didn't matter as much as I worried it would. With the shop I was completely responsible, if there wasn't enough stock of something I couldn't say to anyone "well you didn't put the order through" and if there was a complaint I couldn't ask the manager to come and deal with it, it's different to working for a company. Not to mention that I hadn't had bosses and colleagues for all that time, and was outside corporate culture. Depending how you talk about it in the interview some of those things could be seen as assets, but I thought that someone interviewing me might be put off. When I started working for someone else again, I did feel at first that I'd been left behind in the work world, but in the end I don't think it has made much difference.

Part of the reason you chose a wool shop is because you like knitting. Did doing it professionally change how you felt about it?
- I still enjoy knitting, though I do it less at the moment. I think I did still enjoy doing it most of the time I had the shop. There were definitely busy times, staying up late to finish an order, that were quite tough and there were some orders I really didn't want to take, but on the whole I enjoyed it, yes. There were 2 orders in particular I remember trying to dissuade the customers from placing, because I just didn't want to do them. One was a crocheted (very labour intensive), double-sized bed spread. It took bloody months! Another was a knitted suit - a skirt and jumper suit (laughing), with a tiger that went from the skirt to the jumper and down the back. I tried to persuade her it would be too expensive with all the different colours but she really wanted it, so I made it. I have a photo of both of them somewhere. I guess there were also times when I felt bored at the prospect of making another one of something I'd made loads of already, but I could outsource some of the work I didn't want to do to my knitters.

What do you remember fondly from the experience?
- I enjoyed the relationships you built up with your regular customers, I liked what I was doing and I liked that I was in control and I knew what to do. Doing a good job made me quite confident.

Would you consider running your own business again at some point?
- I would run a business again, but probably not a shop front because of how I feel about the personal physical risk. If I had my time again I would still open the wool shop though, yes.

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