On Friday I was lucky enough to attend Paperfest 2015 where Cath Kidston was the key note speaker. From humble beginnings in 1993 when she set up Cath Kidston in a small shop in Holland Park, she has built a successful global brand. Whether you are a Cath Kidston customer or not, you will recognise her products a mile off, with a cheerful modern vintage look that now is often emulated by other retailers. Hearing her speak was inspiring; not only was she wonderfully self-depricating and modest, she was filled with insight about building a business that I am sure all small business owners, creatives and start-ups can learn from. Here are 5 things I took away from her that I hope inspire you as much as they did me:
1. Find your niche in something you enjoy
When she set up Cath Kidston, she was already running an interior design business on New Kings Road but decided she wanted to do something different. She asked herself where the market gap was in something she enjoys. It seems bizarre to think now, but back in 1993 ‘vintage’ didn’t exist as we know it now. That was her inspiration – to take traditional things and reinvent them in a new way.
As someone with an eye for interiors, she could envisage what she wanted to create and pursued her idea with focus and passion. She identified a gap in the market and had the energy and expertise to build a business around it.
2. Define your brand values
One of the reasons Cath Kidston has been so successful is because of her strong brand. All small business owners should ask themselves exactly what she did – what does my brand represent? What is its values? For her, she wanted to create practical, cheerful products with a modern vintage look. That was her thread that kept her on course. What is your thread? What is the thing that makes your brand unique?
3. Be your own brand editor
As well as defining what your brand is, Cath said that it is just as important to define what it is not. It is just as important to say no as well as yes. Wise words indeed – every now and again we all go off down paths we later realise probably aren’t quite right for our brand. The key is to reign ourselves back in – to edit what we are are doing continually.
Cath said ‘as soon as you chase what you think will be a bestseller, you will loose what makes you, you’. The same applies to trying to follow the latest trends or what other businesses are doing. That is why Cath Kidston has become so recognisable as she kept asking herself ‘does this tick my brand boxes’? An important lesson indeed.
4. Know your own level of risk
All start-up businesses will find it encouraging to hear that the business didn’t immediately take off. She initially ran her interior design business in parallel to ensure she could pay her bills. Eventually, she decided to devote her full attention to Cath Kidston the business, and that’s when it started to fly. Does she think she could have made the leap sooner, yes probably, but at the time that wasn’t the right level of risk for her.
What is the right level of risk for you? There’s a balance if you are launching a business between not jumping too soon – it can’t be so risky that it keeps you awake at night and you don’t enjoy it – but equally as I have said before, there has to be a decision at some point and ultimately you have to be brave and go for it.
5. Learn to relinquish control
As the founder of your business you can’t do everything yourself forever. You need to know when to ask for help – to grow you have to learn to let go. It was so refreshing to hear that Cath struggled with this too.
How did she do this? By handing over small bits at a time and finding the right people to hand them to – people you trust, and people you have built a relationship with. She described this as like building scaffolding around herself. I love this analogy.
She also described her businesses as a child. And like a child it has to grow up and learn to stand on its own. As a parent you don’t always get everything right, but you learn from your mistakes. It’s about moving forward one step at a time, even if every now and again you have to take two steps backwards.
She certainly has taken a lot of steps forwards. 22 years after setting up the first Cath Kidston shop in Holland Park, the business is worth an estimated £250 million. And that’s brand ‘values’ you can’t argue with.