Laura Tenison, JoJo Maman Bébé Interview

Lorah-Kelly, Natalie and I had the great privilege of meeting the lovely Laura Tension, founder of JoJo Maman Bébé. We interviewed her on her early days and how she got to be the huge success that she is today for our Women’s Business Magazine.  What she told us was so inspiring that we found it difficult to cut the interview down to fit into the magazine, so we thought it would be a great idea to feature the full, unabridged interview here for our readers so you don’t miss out on a word of Laura’s story and wisdom!

Cover photo by Lorah Kelly of Strawberry Studios

Women’s Business ClubTell us about your dream job as a child.

Laura Tenison – I have always been interested in the underdogs of society. So when I was around ten to twelve years old I wanted to be a probation officer. I liked the idea of helping people who had a bad start, who came out of prison and wanted to get back on their feet again. Around the same time,  I had clothes making as a hobby and started making dolls. I went to a Catholic convent in central Wales and they asked us to make dolls or teddy bears to sell at a Christmas fayre and the money was going to go to a convent in Kenya. Right from that very early stage I started getting very interested in Africa and as a result, I wanted to help the nuns to raise money for the orphanage they had in the middle of the desert in Kenya.  Using scraps of old clothing I made ten teddy bears. We stuffed them with old ladder tights in those days. Most people made one teddy to donate to the fayre, I however found that I could get a production run going and ended up making ten.  That coupled with a wish to earn a little bit of extra pocket money (my parents would not let me have sweets and crisps available to buy during break time at school) I found that I could make Barbie doll clothes and swap them with children whose parents did give them money for sweets and crisps. So I had a little trade going from literally a very early age.

From around ten years old I had a very small business going. That turned into more of a cottage industry when I was about fifteen and I started a little business called Distinctive Silks. I used to make made to measure waistcoats and men’s clothes especially for weddings and parties. I did that through my last year at school and got to a stage where I was making them myself and also had a worker who would make them for me. I used to take orders even though it was a hobby business. No one in my family had any kind of design background and whilst I have relations who are quite artistic it had always been a hobby. My father’s idea was that I should become a secretary so when I left school I went to secretarial school. I did a year at secretarial school and carried on with my hobby business all through it, I kept on making and selling clothes for myself and for others but never really thought that it should be more than a hobby. I had no mentors and no one role model. My father had been a diplomat. My mother wanted to be a politician. They were very cerebral and I was very practical. I was always thinking of little businesses. As a child I would make cakes, cut them into slices and sell them to the neighbours. My parents lived on a farm in Wales so one time I set up a little stool at the end of the drive, which was by the old A40 which went past by our drive. It was a very busy road. I must have been around eight years old. I would pick strawberries from our garden myself and sell them.  I used to do all of the work and give half of the money to my mom. I would also sell orange squash on the side to try and diversify.

Entrepreneurial children should be encouraged. – @LauraTenison  Tweet This!

We need to realise that this might not just be a hobby business. When I look back on my childhood I had all the traits of a business woman but there was no one there to say that I should either be going to design school, as I was making all these clothes for myself and my friends or to business school. The idea of doing secretarial course was, apart from the fact that I can now type as fast as I can talk, a complete waste of time. The idea of me working as a secretary, been told what to do by someone else was so alien to my character. But of course you leave school at seventeen you don’t know what to do, you take advice from your family and that’s the advice that I was given.

So I got my first job in a large technical publishing company. I spoke French and Italian because my father travelled in my childhood. I went to French and Italian school at one stage while living abroad. I did copy chasing for a French/Italian publishing company. However within four months I could not bear how the company was run. I kept on seeing inefficiencies and even as the junior in the department I could see how things could be run more efficiently. We were wasting money on overheads, there were too many processes to get what we need done for instance. One day I met the managing director on the lift and started telling him what he should be doing to reorganise the company. It didn’t go down terribly well but he did listen to me. Very tactfully he asked me to see my line manager. My response was that I wasn’t getting anywhere by following that route. He then advised me to wait a little longer until I managed with time to get to management level. One day I finally got too impatient and decided that that was a waste of time, gathered evidence and showed him what we should be doing. The managing director was a nice man, although he did tell me that I was out of line and suggested that I should work elsewhere if I did not like how the company was run. After seven months I did leave the company.

Two years after I left the business folded. My former manager was actually the first person to plant the seed of the idea ‘if you are so determined to do things in the way you want them done you should run your own company’. No one had ever said that to me at that stage. All the advice I got from my parents was to get a nice safe job, get married and have babies. It was a very traditional view on life, which is a good view and there is nothing wrong with it. What everyone failed to see was that even in my early life I showed an entrepreneur spirit. I have always been an independent person and never minded being on my own. I would work extremely hard if it was my idea. If it was someone else’s idea we were working on (like going to school) I didn’t get on so well with it. I actually went to seven different schools and never got on well in any of them. The authority telling you what to do in a specific way wasn’t the way I wanted to do it. I am very well read and have a very good general knowledge because I educated myself in my way and in the things that interest me and have a very good knowledge of my industry now because I have been running my business for twenty two years now.

Women’s Business ClubWhat do you think is the most significant barrier to women in business?

Laura Tenison – The most significant barrier is that we don’t believe in ourselves. Generally if a man were to apply to a job and there were ten levels of experience required for the job and he can fulfill six out of ten he would still apply and bluff the four.  A woman on the other hand might not apply. Firstly because she doesn’t want to be shown up. Secondly she doesn’t feel worthy of being able to bluff in the same manner. I don’t want to gender stereotype but on the whole women lack the confidence they need.  In many ways I too lack self confidence, even in business. If I have to go to an environment with city investors or corporate lawyers for example I won’t feel at all comfortable but put me in an environment with design students, garment technicians or a warehouse situation where I am working with what I call ‘real people’ who can get the job done rather than interacting with consultants who theorise on how to get the job done I am completely comfortable. I don’t like talking to consultants because I do not understand their language and I don’t like being in that situation where I feel I am out of my depth. I tend not put myself in that situation. I do still run my company with a very small company attitude.

Women’s Business ClubWhat do you do when you find yourself out of your comfort zone?

Laura Tenison – One of the ways to deal with situations that you are not comfortable with is to pretend. The first time I did any public speaking I had no experience at all. I was actually nervous that I had to speak in public but we were getting more and more press and the company was about ten years old. I had been asked and turned it down a couple of times. I even turned down television work because I lacked confidence.  I finally decided to test myself and went to a conference in Wales with an audience of 600 men and 3 women. At the end John Humphrys asked if anyone wanted to ask questions to the panel on stage. I struggled with the thought of standing up and asking a question for a while but finally did it. John Humprys was very surprised to see a woman in the midst of so many men. After asking a couple of questions he then started asking me questions back and I found myself standing there for 20 minutes, with everyone’s eyes on me, confidently answering questions about my business, questions that I knew a lot about but I almost had to be put on the spot by John Humphrys in that conference full of men. I then realised that…

If you force yourself to do something you can actually achieve it. – @LauraTenison  Tweet This!

Women’s Business ClubWho or what has been your greatest influence in business and why?

Laura Tenison – Most people would come up with a role model or an influence. Growing up the only person I knew who was in business was Laura Ashley. Her business was quite far from where I lived though. One Sunday Bernard Ashley came to my parent’s house for lunch. I was in school in London doing my A-Levels. After lunch he asked if I wanted a lift back to London and I said yes.  So we drove back to London (in a very smart car), it must have been in the late 80’s, I even remember he had a ‘brick’ mobile phone which was quite rare in those days. We talked all the way back to London about what had been like running his business with his wife Laura. That was the first time I also talked to him about my hobby business. I love how Laura started as a typical 1950’s house wife living on a small flat in London printing tea towels. I love the fact that by the time I was a teenager Laura Ashley was everywhere and it all started with her hand printed tea towels. I never thought that I could do that and by the time we arrived in London Bernard Ashley offered me a job as a junior designer. As a teenager who had not done very well in school and did not know what I was going to do with my life I did not take his offer. The offices were in Maidenhead and I didn’t want to leave my boyfriend either. Had I accepted the offer my career path would have been quite different. So my greatest influence as a child would have to be the story of Laura Ashley and how she grew her business which is a fantastic tale. Anita Roddick is another great influence and she was a real trail blazer. She had an environmental policy before we even knew what the word meant. I also like the way she built her business.

Women’s Business ClubDo you think that your conversation with Bernard gave you the confidence to try?

Laura Tenison – Not so much as I was still very young. It just cemented the concept that you can transform an idea into a large business. I think it was more of an on-going connection. But again we’ve grown now to a medium business with 65 stores worldwide and I still see us as a small business so I still revere Laura Ashley as a brand.

Women’s Business ClubWhat is the best and worst decision you’ve ever made in business?

Laura Tenison – I don’t believe in looking back and seeing the negative things in life. I tend to have a very optimistic view.  My best decision was to listen to my customers in my early years. With JoJo Maman Bébé I set out to launch a French nautical style to bringing the Breton and the nautical style back to the UK. Market research however, showed us that what our customers wanted was maternity clothes. I hadn’t even thought of doing maternity clothes. It wasn’t on my agenda. My business plan was to make children’s ware mail order catalogue. So after I talked to my customers I started with a maternity collection and a small selection of children’s clothes. That launched us into a niche market as no one was doing that at the time. That gave me the opportunity to do something were I had very little competition as children’s ware is a much bigger market. We sold to pregnant women and attracted their attention by planting the seed of the brand in their minds. We then carried on and sold them children’s ware.  Children’s ware now represent 80% of our business. So listening to my customers, and not just going with my gut feel on my original business plan, was the best decision I made in business.

My worst decision was to try and do everything myself for too long. 

It was a very small start up and I was extremely underfunded. I had sold my business in France nonetheless I did not have a lot of cash to produce a collection, a catalogue, market it and send the catalogues out. So I tried to do everything myself from design to bookkeeping. I remember once when a VAT officer went over my entire accounts thinking he would catch me out and actually found that we under-claimed by £75. He then had to write us a cheque for that amount. Employing a bookkeeper would have been a better use of my time, sometimes you just need to realise what you are not good at and let someone else do it for you. Outsource and do what you are good at.

Women’s Business Clubhow do you know when the time is right to take that step?

Laura Tenison – I have always been frightened about money and cash flow. Very good businesses go under because of lack of cash flow. You have to remain profitable in order to reinvest in your business. Cashflow forecast and working out your business model. We actually update it every single month. We have our five-year long term plan, we have our three-year plan, we have my budgets for our next twelve months and each year we adjust them. Now I have a lovely accounting team to do that for me. But in the early years using manual spreadsheets I would write my cash flow every single month and kept an eye on that bottom line because great businesses will go bust if they don’t have cash planning. Fashion is very cash intensive especially when you are going into your third season. You pay for one lot of stock and you might end up with some left-over. Fashion is so dependent on whether so if you have a mild autumn and no one will buy winter coats until December when things are on sale then you lose that full price margin for your whole season. How are you going to fund your new fabrics for the following season? You are squeezed on every side with fashion so cash flow is more important than anything else. I am very cautious about cash. We save it up and then invest and expand we don’t borrow.

Women’s Business Club – What is the best advice you’ve received in business?

Laura Tenison – when we were a small company we used to outsource some areas of the business. Now we do everything in-house but in the beginning, I would get someone to do our website, mail order catalogue etc, as we didn’t have a team of experts. I outsourced everything to individuals that worked in their front room. I only employed three people. I would work with them and give them a brief. We had different people doing different things. It wasn’t until when we were 9 years old as a business and opened our first store that I realised that I wasn’t ensuring that brand consistency was being communicated through every single channel. You could walk in our store and it was not obvious enough that it was the same company as the mail order catalogue. The same thing happened with the website. My best piece of advice to anyone in business is to…

Ensure that brand consistency is 100% through every channel. – @LauraTenison  Tweet This!

Your business also has to be multi channelled to succeed no matter what area you are in. So always make sure that one person remains brand custodian.  I am still branding anything that is printed in the company whether is a warehouse docket or a new ribbon that we use on our gift packaging. It all has to pass by my desk and I am still absolutely adamant that brand consistency still happens. We have amazingly talented designers but we all have to be sure that we are singing from the same hymn sheet.

Women’s Business ClubOne thing I realised was that women in business tend to work a lot and have no fun. We encourage our women’s in business to have balance. What do you do for fun?

Laura Tenison – I really do love working. I work long days and weeks but also make sure that we have fun in the process. For instance we do have a bring your dog to work policy and I do get very fond of other people’s dog so you will find not only my dog but also other people’s dog in the building. We love to see other people’s children so people do bring their children to work. We socialise. We have a gardening club and a football team. We do have a lot of fun at work there is no doubt about it. But also everyone has to have a home life. Your private life comes first and we should not neglect the people who are important to us. Some people might want to work part time so that they can do an art class for example. That makes people happier and more productive and more likely to stay. As a result we have a very low turnover of staff. We have people moving up in their careers with us. We’ve had a whole team of managers, assistant managers and members of staff move to a new town in order to set up new stores. I work had but I also like playing hard. I used to love going dancing in Swansea. Now I don’t do it as much but I cycle a lot. I have two dogs so I walk a lot. My children and I are all into travelling so last half term we went backpacking in Vietnam for 2 weeks. I go to Mozambique to run our charity Nema. There is no electricity and no Wi-Fi there so it gives me an opportunity to get away from work and do something different.

Women’s Business ClubWhat did you most fear in the early days of your business?

Laura Tenison – I have always been terrified of money. Even now I am still very cautious and I can be very frugal. Even my children have to earn their pocket money. When you start off as a sole trader you always have to reinvest and build the business, even now I would rather reinvest and open a new store than buy a flashy car. Why buy a car when the minute you’ve driven it off the showroom you’ve lost half of its value? A couple of years ago when I earned a lump sum from an investment my treat was to buy myself a new bicycle. I am also a bit of an insomniac, my brain cannot stop thinking. I have spent ten days in America and since then I cannot stop thinking about how to build the profile of our customer base there. I have talked to a lot of mums on the street and am trying to work out how we should market to them.  So I can’t stop thinking about that customer and how she will shop from you and how it will differ from what we’ve got here. Will they like the same brand or will we have to tailor the collection? Obviously, my team is brilliant at getting this stuff done now but I tend to do the research into new business areas myself as I am still driving the business. I am a very luck entrepreneur who can still go off and have all the ideas but still have a very sound and sensible team who tell me to back off an idea if it’s too whacky or not commercially viable. I am quite happy to be given advice by the directors.  Also I have only one vote in the board so I can be out voted. I can be sacked! [laughs].

Women’s Business ClubDid the business affect your marriage?

Laura Tenison – The trouble for a married woman is that the full weight of child care ultimately lies on her shoulder. I was lucky because it was my own business and I could juggle both children and business.  I also wanted to be hands on as a mother. The guilt is probably the hardest part as you try to be a mom and a business woman at the same time and the reality is that it is impossible to do both perfectly.  So I totally admire women who give up their careers to have children and I totally respect women who want to concentrate on their careers and not have children. I think the ideal situation would be to work part-time. My business became so full-time that I just didn’t have any sleep. I did choose to take and pick up my children from school. I would do my work while they did their homework, we would do reading while I cooked supper. They would go to bed at 8pm on the dot and I would go back to work until 3am in order to get the collection out. Now I have staff, the children are older, things are different. I even managed to start a couple of hobby businesses, which are now larger hobby business that I do on the side. I know it sounds like I don’t get out much but I still find time to go to the theatre and the cinema.

Women’s Business ClubWhat is next for you in business?

Laura Tenison – It has to be our business launch in America. A lot of British brands try to launch in America and fail, so it’s a nice challenge. Every fashion business wants to have New York, Tokyo and Milan on their catalogue but you do want to do it very carefully and build it very slowly. We’ve been selling business to business in America for the past two years. We’ve grown to a reasonable size turn over and from next summer we are planning to have a distribution centre there so we will be shipping our production straight from the Far East to America. We will also be launching a dedicate website and a mail catalogue where people will be able to order in Dollars, so at the moment we are in the process of building our mail order database. A store is a vanity project so I always wait until we have one million people on our mail order database before I open a store. Internet is always useful and if you have a good online presence people will be able to find you easily, mainly if you are in a niche market.

Women’s Business Club How did you start building your brand in America?

Laura Tenison – We booked a stand in a trend fayre and went over with large bags of samples and sold them to retailers. That’s how we started to build the brand. After a year and a half we did ten different trend fayre across the states. Now we have only four as we now want to build the business on a business customer sort of level. We’ve also signed up with an agency, marketing company and some public speaking agencies. We will be sending our clothes to celebrities, and it is great when you see them wearing your brand. However the best way to build a brand is to do the leg work. Spend time talking to the people on the street, find mum groups and send them catalogues with discount vouchers, go all the way down to the level of the consumer and hopefully they will also be searching and finding you online.

Women’s Business ClubHow important was that you personally went to do that very first trend stand and why?

Laura Tenison – It’s absolutely essential. It is very difficult to delegate your business expansion strategy. I know that as companies get bigger it has to be done but I think the most useful thing I can do for this company is to remain brand custodian but also to know and feel and breathe the brand so much that when you walk into a new territory the passion for the brand will sell it really well. At the end of the day you have to decide if you want to reinvest or sell out.  I don’t do this for the money so I want to keep on growing and offering good quality jobs, doing all our ethical and environmental projects etc, because I love what I do. To delegate that risk to someone else, to say “actually we are going to risk two years profit on launching an American business”, I would absolutely take advice. I did take three of our directors with me to America in order to listen to their advice and work on it together but I think it’s very important to also look into things yourself.

Women’s Business ClubWhat advice would you give to young women in business?

Laura Tenison It is very important to enjoy the activities involved in the business you want to start. If you like Geraniums but don’t like being outside looking after your garden you are not going to be enthusiast about what you do.  My business involves design and I love designing clothes. It involves building which I absolutely love. I love walking into a revolting rat infested building and have the vision and knowledge to see what it would take to convert it. I love to travel, going to visit factories is very important to build new relationships and look for new markets. I love attention to details and doing things well. Everything I do in my business I do for pleasure. My cottage industry (which is a sideline business) involves design and building works and that’s what I do for fun. You are going to spend a lot of hours on your business so you have to be passionate about it. Don’t get yourself involved with something just because you think there is good money in your business model.

Women’s Business ClubWould you say you do it for the love of what you do?

Laura Tenison – I do it because I love what I do, but also because I have a great sense of responsibility now for the business that I have built. I have over 100 people working for me in the UK and over 5000 relying on us for their job internationally. If I make a mistake and the company goes under that’s a lot of people’s livelihood gone. So I have to be very sensible.

Building the right team around you is almost as important as having the right product. – @LauraTenison  Tweet This!

You are going to spend a great deal of your life with them so it’s important that you like them even if you don’t get on 100% of the time. So it’s important to have good support.

www.jojomamanbebe.co.uk

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