This week’s Small Business Stars feature is with Lake District-based business, The Herdy Company, launched by Spencer and Diane Hannah in 2007.
The company designs and makes gifts and homeware featuring the iconic smiling face of the local Herdwick Sheep.
Designers, Spencer and Diane, started out by running the business on a part-time basis before business boomed following visits to trade fairs. Spencer tells us about the highs and lows of the Herdy journey from launching to an empty marquee to making the decision to expand abroad after steady, sensible growth.
“We came from a commercial design background and ran our own design agency. Following a short break to Helsinki we were inspired by the contemporary product design that were saw in the shops. Many of the gifts on sale in the Lake District are heritage based and we noticed that there was a gap in the market for well-designed contemporary gifts.
“We didn’t start out with the idea of running Herdy as a full-time business. The concept was to give us something to do at the weekend and a way for us to challenge our creativity and experiment.
“We launched our range of mugs and keyrings at the Westmorland County Show, in among the Herdwick Sheep pens. We were hoping for thousands of visitors, but instead we launched among empty pens due to an outbreak of Foot & Mouth disease.”
“This wasn’t the event we’ve dreamed of and it did make us very nervous about what we’d done. But despite the lack of visitors, those who did turn up liked our products.
“We had a gut feeling that we were on to something. After many years designing for clients we both know instinctively if design is week or strong, so we knew we had the design right. Even so it does feel very different when it’s your own products that are up for scrutiny. Herdy is personal.
“We decided to approach the local giftware market and had a very mixed response from this traditional market. Despite this, we stuck to our guns as we knew we’d hit on an idea that appealed. Soon word began to spread across Cumbria and quality retailers started to stock our brand.
“The business exploded when we started taking our products to trade shows. And the speed at which the concept was taken up transformed the brand. We suddenly needed to expand on our modest product range.”
“While we still need to market and promote our brand, the product range has an irresistible cute appeal that immediately connects with the purchaser. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the Herdwick sheep or the Lake District our designs have the power to brighten-up anyone’s day. Herdy smiles at you and you smile back.
“Once we’d exposed the products to a national audience, we realised that the brand had appeal outside of the Lakes. The business has doubled in size for the last three years. We have three stores as well as the website and the wholesale and export businesses.
“But we’ve tried to grow slowly and produced only what we can afford to produce and supplied what we can afford to supply. The SME market has helped us to make it work.”
“It helped that we’d already run a business. We knew our own strengths and were able to apply them to a new business. But we found that we needed to acquire lots of new skills, too, like manufacturing, distribution, warehousing. Now that we’re established, we try and bring in staff with skills to compliment our own.
“We make mistakes daily – you can’t get everything 100% right. But we now make mistakes faster and fix them faster.
“When you run a micro-business lots of time gets taken up acquiring skills and knowledge and you find yourself asking “Where’s the day gone’? You have to be careful not to drop your guard.”
“When you run a business I think it helps to have a structured commercial game plan for growth and development. Keep your line of sight and don’t let go of that goal.
“There’s no such thing as work/life balance. If you want to go for it you have to be prepared to give 100%. You need to be prepared to make personal and emotional sacrifices, too. A business is like a baby and has to be a priority.
“You also need to recognise that you’ll be under resourced at the start and that continues as your business evolves.”
“Responsibility is one of our core values. From day one we agreed that if we were going to exploit the Herdwick’s good looks we needed to put something back into protecting and nurturing sustainable community. I passionately believe that cross-sector alliance and shared support will become more and more important to the future of sustainable rural communities.
“So we set up the Herdy Fund to provide grants to help support rural community projects in Cumbria and to support the protection of our original inspiration-the Herdwick. And in 2010 we won the BITC Small Company of the year in recognition for responsible business practice. We were reaccredited the following two years, too.”
You can find out more about the Herdy story and see the range of products on the website The Herdy Company.