Laura Tenison MBE is the founder of JoJo Maman Bébé, a leading retailer of maternity clothes, baby clothes and nursery products, which she started in 1993. With an initial investment of £50,000, Laura has grown JoJo Maman Bébé into a £44 million gross turnover business, with 58 stores across the UK and Ireland and now employs over 550 staff domestically and 2000 indirectly across the world. Today JoJo Maman Bébé has its headquarters in Newport, Wales and a Buying, Design and Marketing office based in Battersea, London. Its products are available online, in stores and via a mail order catalogue. The company continues to expand organically at the rate of 6 new stores a year in the UK and via trade sales to 50 countries across the world. In 2004 Laura was awarded an MBE for services to business in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List.
Easyspace recently caught up with Laura for an interview:
Q1. Laura, tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to starting JoJo Maman Bébé
I had wanted to run a fashion brand for some time although I was not particularly focused about how I would go about doing this. I was working in France on my second business which was a property agency, attempting to raise the finance needed to get back into fashion – my first love. On a country lane I had a head on collision and was air ambulanced back to the UK where I spent a few weeks recovering in hospital. There I met a young mother of two babies, who was long term sick. She made me aware how awful the choice for mail order children’s fashion was, and the idea for JoJo was conceived.
Q2. How difficult was it growing the business, getting customers, promoting it, dealing with suppliers, etc?
I was severely under capitalised. The proceeds from the sale of the goodwill and assets of my last business only came to £50k which was really not nearly enough to get a mail order fashion house off the ground – even in those days. We worked round the clock, scrimping and saving and doing the jobs of 6 people for many years – well some of us probably still do to a certain extent!
I learnt on the hoof and obviously made mistakes along the way, but people were amazingly kind and helpful and taught me to ropes. I have many loyal suppliers even today who I found whilst travelling the world to look for factories many years ago as a startup.
Q3. How hands on are you with clothing designs, choosing which products to stock, etc?
These days we employ people who are far more talented than I ever was at design and merchandising and I’m grateful for their expertise. I am the Managing Director and I lead company growth whilst trouble shooting and covering for other directors and heads of department if they have issues or are away. Sadly I don’t spend as much time on the design as I used to, but I love being the linchpin between departments. I am the only person in the company who has undertaken every role out there – albeit at a less professional level.
Q4. How much training or experience did you have in fashion retail before starting JoJo Maman Bébé?
I took a self imposed apprenticeship by working at Acquascutumn for 18 months. There I learnt about visual merchandising, staff management, buying, store training, stockroom and warehouse layouts. I was thrown in the deep end with each area because I kept asking the HR department for more challenges. But I am totally self taught in design and garment manufacturing and learnt to make clothes buy buying from charity shops and taking the design to pieces to make patterns. The first factories I worked with took pity on me – I was young and very enthusiastic, which helps! A lovely man called Barry from a factory in Leicester showed me how to give him the gradings and spec sheets he needed to make up the first samples on my first factory forage. After his encouragement I was never shy to tell people I needed and wanted to learn and ask for help.
Nowadays we employe dozens of wonderfully bright individuals with amazing skills and training I just never had.
Q5. Why did you decide to open highstreet stores, and not just operate only online & via direct mail?
We were a mail order catalogue for about 5 years, then started our first website long before the competition. After 10 years of trading as a mail order business we opened our first store on Northcote Road in Battersea, followed by the next one in Chiswick. We did not want to open stores since they are low margin and difficult to manage remotely, but the customers demanded them and we gave in! Of course the stores have proved to be a huge success and offer the only local mother and baby brand to still be represented on high streets. We want our stores to be sited where our customers live, so they can walk or take a short drive to reach us. We hate the idea of putting your poor toddler in a car and driving in traffic for hours to reach out of town centres.
Q6. How do you decide where to locate your stores?
As above, we find local shopping streets which offer lovely retail variety; local butchers, eclectic independent gift stores, good mid market ladies fashion and of course plenty of coffee shops and child friendly restaurants to give the parents a break. Our store locations are mostly in local high streets and we try to emulate the old fashioned customer service and gorgeous retail experience that was offered by the independent nursery retailers of previous years.
Q7. How do you attract international customers to your website, and do you have any plans to open any stores overseas?
We already have two international stores in Dublin and Guernsey but there are more planned. At the moment we are brand building via Business to Business sales in several territories. We have 11 Reps Showrooms that we have set up across the USA and are delighted with the way the brand has been received. We are still a predominantly independent business and need to drip feed our investment to ensure a good return on capital without taking too many risks. All international territories are being tested fully before we invest in a roll out.
Q8. How did the credit crunch in 2008 affect your business? How did you react to it, and what advice would you give to entrepreneurs operating on a tight budget?
It was horrible. The world changed overnight and the banks tore up their contracts. We had to find a large cash-flow shortfall in a very short time. Had we been over extended we would not have survived, but we have never borrowed up to the hilt, preferring a safe and steady expansion plan. Keeping a tight rein on spending gets harder as the business grows but thankfully in 2008 we were still small enough for my accounts team and I to work with suppliers and trade through the shortfall. We were lucky that all bar two of our 150 odd suppliers were very gracious. The fact that we have always settled our bills promptly and been scrupulously honest worked very much in our favour.
Q9. You are an independent retailer, in a fiercely competitive industry. How do you compete against the likes of Mothercare, Marks & Spencers, supermarkets, etc?
We just don’t try to compete with the chain stores or supermarkets. Our product offering is unique, designed in house and if you want to buy JoJo you must come to JoJo. We are lucky that we have no competition. By running the company very efficiently and working direct with our factories across the world we cut out many of the ‘middle men’ other brands need to pay. We do not use consultants and never outsource. In this way we are able to offer amazing quality at very competitive prices and have no worries about competition. Our margins are not greedy and we pass on the savings to the consumer.
Q10. Do you use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, to promote your website? How successful has it been for you? Any advice on how businesses can use social media to promote themselves?
Of course! Social media is amazingly useful for anyone with a consumer business. We have an active Facebook following which is more about customer interaction than selling, we use Twitter for Business news such as promotions and new store openings and for those wishing to follow me. We run a Community Website where our customers can go to seek out local child friendly events and use some of the activity features, our weekly e-newsletters are product related and bring in large numbers of sales. Plus from this Spring we will head round the country with the JoJo Road Show in our converted Citreon HY van called Eloise! Customer interaction at every single level and via all media is essential for successful retail.
Q11. What mistakes have you made in your businesses, and what would you have done differently?
I never dwell on mistakes made by myself or by my team. We try to just move on and learn from them. However, some mistakes take a long time to sort out. In the past we have had a problem with a fabric which we purchased from a supplier who assured us the design did not belong to another company but we found out after making up several thousand pieces and putting them in store that the design rights did belong to someone. It was a very expensive mistake made by one of our team, but there were no reprimands. We just changed our policy to ensure that from then on we originated and own the design rights to all our own prints. Protecting your IP is vital and expensive but fairly straightforward, but making sure you don’t infringe the IP of others unwittingly is sometimes impossible to avoid.
Q12. What’s it like managing JoJo Maman Bébé? Describe your typical day.
I love being the MD although I am probably not very typical. I’m up at about 7am and check my emails from the USA which have come in overnight. I get my kids off to school and feed the dogs before cycling in to work and getting to my desk around 8am. It is then a frenzie of emails, calls, meetings and people popping in to my office to ask a question. I hate formal meetings and think they are a waste of time, so I try to have round table discussions or catch people in the kitchen to get things sorted out. I often walk around the building to discuss an issue at someone’s desk if I can get away from mine.
We have two office dogs – sometimes three and they wander in and out of my office and around the building. They are a great stress busting presence and I talk to them out loud when I need a distraction.
I don’t really stop for lunch, but have normally brought a salad box, made at home the night before if I’m in the office all day. If the boys need me, I will rush out to pick them up or go to watch them play footie, but more often than not they won’t need me till about 7pm these days since they are both teenagers. When they were little I left at 4pm to pick them up from school and I get quite sad they don’t need me any more but there is more time for work which I love.
I’m often on the road looking for new sites, giving speeches or visiting our head office in Wales. I love my travel days and always cycle to the station, buy a large black coffee and enjoy the luxury of relaxing on the train. I think long distance travel by rail in the UK is mostly totally marvellous and so much better than sitting in traffic and getting stressed out.
Q13. Where does that drive to be your own boss come from? Why did you decide the life of a 9-5 employee was not for you?
Nobody suggested I should run my own business, but God knows why they did not since I was always diligent as a child. I had numerous little pocket money making ventures, from selling fruit at the end of the drive to passing lorry drivers on the A40, to making dolls clothes and swapping them for sweets in the school playground to the obvious teenager business of buying tickets to pop concerts in advance and selling them on the gate at a huge profit. It is not rocket science to work out which children should become entrepreneurs. But in those days it was just not on the agenda and I was encouraged to learn a skill and get a job. I worked out in my very first role which was offered to me after just one interview that I was not cut out to work in a hierarchical system. I could see inefficiencies and suggested that some reforms be made to the MD. He suggested that as the junior on the team this was not my place and maybe I should move on. I always listen to the view from the shop floor – you can learn more from those on the ground than from any number of consultants.
Q14. Which entrepreneur/person has inspired you the most & why?
I have not really had time to be much inspired by other business people. I never read management style books, manuals or biographies. However, as a teenager with a leaning to all things environmentally sensible I did of course admire Anita Roddick. I also love the way Richard Branson rolled out the Virgin brand to all sorts of areas – even though many of them ultimately did not work out.
However, most entrepreneurs like myself are just lucky. They have the right idea at the right time and a few lucky breaks along the way. There are many others who work as hard and are far more brilliant who just don’t make it through no fault of their own. More than anything I admire hard workers and those with ethical credentials. I have no time for money makers who put that priority first at any cost.
Q15. What advice would you give to somebody thinking of starting their own business?
If you are prepared to work 80 hours a week for about 5 years, possibly a great deal longer, for less money than you will probably be paid by someone else … then give it a go. It’s never the easy option. But of course the rewards can be fantastic. Achieving a work life balance, especially for parents, is more important than anything else. I feel that despite working really hard I have been able to do so around my kids and I have not missed out on anything. But juggling is not for everyone.
Q16. What are your future plans?
I love my job and in a strange way I am enjoying it more as my children grow up and need me less. When they were little I was always rushing from one thing to the next, and pretty much always feeling guilty even though I tried to be all things to all people – kids and colleagues. When they call me these days to tell me they are staying with friends for the evening I love the fact I can keep working as long as I like. And I do like it – in fact I love it!
Q17. Lastly, tell us about your two most popular employees: Truffle and Ruby, and how they contribute to the JoJo team
Aaaahh. Well they are my girls. Truffle has been our office dog for 9 years and she is very much part of the team. She does not bother to spend much time with me since I’m not a biscuit muncher, so there are no crumbs under my desk. She is very sociable and goes from desk to desk saying good morning to all or she sits in reception and smiles at the delivery men and visitors. Ruby Tuesday is our Christmas baby. She sits right under my desk and will not leave my side so follows every time I go to talk to one of the teams in another office. It’s lovely to be needed again, but no doubt one day she will grow up and become independent as they all do. It’s my role in life to take care of the babies, nurture, love and feed them fully aware of the fact that before too long they will become self sufficient and only need me in emergencies. It’s the role of the mum and the MD. That’s me!
Thanks Laura, from everyone at Easyspace
To find out more about Laura and her business JoJo Maman Bébé please visit her links below:
JoJo Maman Bebe Founder Laura Tenison discusses strategy on Bloomberg (2012):