Alice Hall launched an e-commerce store to supplement her income but four years on it is a rapidly expanding business and she tells Paul Robertson how it will keep on growing.
Alice Hall has a plan – not that she has needed one thus far. Since launching as an online fashion store to help pay the bills, Pink Boutique is now achieving gross sales of £12 million in just four years, shipping out 2,000 garments from its Newcastle base every day. And it has all been done without borrowing a penny or developing a strategy.
"For the first three years we have had no business plan in place because we were way too busy doing it," said Alice. "We are very lean and low risk – we only use our cash in the bank for stock and marketing. It is great but can be restrictive because it means we can’t do massive campaigns but that is something we can start to plan.
"Now we are mapping out a strategy for growth – we have recruited staff with a lot of experience and are ready to take the next step."
It has been an impressive start for the 28-year-old who grew up in Gosforth and is passionate about developing her business and creating jobs in the North East – all from a venture to supplement her income.
"I bought one pack of dresses online from a wholesaler and got a friend of a friend to model it in a way I hadn’t seen done before to sell online – I thought there was a real lack of glamorous imagery," she said. "All of the models were very plain. I have grown up in Newcastle and that’s not what a night out in town is about. It is fake tan, lashes and big heels so I decided to style it like that.
"I put the dresses on eBay and the first pack sold so then I thought what now? I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mum and she said ‘reinvest’. It became our motto and has been a massive part of our growth.
"I didn’t take a wage for quite a long time, we picked and packed from the dining room table - it went from the living room, to the dining room table, to a loft room then the garage."
The business now operates from a 30,000 square foot base on Newburn Industrial Estate, employing 57 people in buying, merchandising, creative, customer care, warehousing, fulfillment, IT, HR and finance.
Alice is joint managing director with her mother Julie. "I am creative director and mum is financial director," she said. "It works really well as I look after marketing, buying, creative, sales and designs while Julie is in charge of fulfilment and customer care."
It is a dynamic business launching up to 20 new styles every day and already exporting to 59 countries. Manufacturing of bespoke designs takes place in the UK and China while some stock is bought in, "We have to be on trend," she says. "The way we operate means for example if a celebrity wears something which is popular we can get it in and on the website quickly."
Had she turned her education choices into a career Alice may well have taught or ended up interviewing someone just like her. "I went to Dame Allan’s which was quite a competitive school then went on to do a degree in journalism at Sunderland University," she said. "I had wanted to do an English degree but couldn’t see how it would translate to my career so I decided to do journalism and I learnt a lot of skills.
"By the time I graduated it was around the time of the recession and really experienced journalists were struggling for work never mind graduates. It wasn’t really going to happen. I could have been an office junior but having done three years it seemed crazy to go back to where I could have been before the degree.
"I decided to buy my first house so I got a job as a cover teacher at Whitley Bay High School. I really enjoyed teaching teenagers – they were hilarious, I laughed all day every day. I covered everything from science to physics, to English to dance.
"I loved it but really struggled to pay my bills so got a job in a bar at night and spent the weekend doing make up and promotions work. However, I was really still struggling to pay the bills – hence the dresses."
From the initial investment of £90 – £45 of her own money and the other half from mum – stock was bought and sold at such a rate it quickly outgrew the family home. Pink Boutique moved to office premises in Blaydon but it soon became apparent they needed warehousing too - hence the move to Newburn, where Hall has invested a six-figure sum in photographic studios to control the look of her range.
She has also made 30 appointments in the last year, almost doubling her workforce with the focus on bringing in expertise to accelerate growth. Caroline Smith joins as marketing director, having spent 14 years with outdoor brand Berghaus as global head of marketing. Former head of IT at both Benfield and Newcastle United, Gary Gray brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the firm.
Other appointments include experienced buyers from Missguided and Harrods, an online training manager from John Lewis, and a buying and merchandising manager from Asda.
"I have learnt to delegate and the need to have lots of different personalities, those who are steady and stable but also real creative types who are a bit wacky as well as strong leadership which can make most things work," she said.
"We have a great sense of community – people like working here. We have a lot of fun with penalty shoot outs in the warehouse, ice creams on hot days and my dogs (poodles Maisie and Scarlet) are among the most popular members of the team. Everyone takes turns to walk them or spend some chill time with them – it is really therapeutic apart from when you are in an important meeting if they bark."
Alice knows her market and has built up a loyal customer base through the website and social media. She has just launched an app, with encouraging early results before its official unveiling, but don’t expect Pink Boutique to move from the virtual to the physical high street.
"I am a massive high street fan, I love shopping, our customers do too but I don’t see how I could make it work," she said. "Rent and rates are crazy, never mind the other costs and keeping staff occupied in the non-busy times. I am so glad the retailers are still there because I love the whole physical shopping experience but sadly I won’t be following. When we were at Blaydon we ran a small outlet store but even that proved too expensive and we closed it at a loss. Younger people have grown up online, they just want to click."
Pink Boutique’s customers are 18-35 year old women who like to pay an average of £22 for a dress so they can regularly buy different outfits for the weekend. "We have customers who shop with us every week. Girls don’t like posting a picture of themselves wearing the same thing."
It boasts 1.5m Twitter followers, building a community that is not just about pushing out product but it is posting things which engage and entertain customers. Alice believes social media and the app will be the drivers for growth – keeping things fresh and making the shopping experience as simple as possible.
"In a world where we are so busy and someone wants a last minute party dress to arrive tomorrow it is vital we innovate. Not many companies do customer service well online – it is notoriously hard to shop – pictures are often tiny and checking out is difficult. I have all of these pains and that helps inform me.
"The app achieved 500 downloads in the first day and sale conversion rates were three times those of the website so it is very exciting. We can send notifications to customers for new stock or sales and they check out with the push of a button."
It is all gearing up to two big important events in the e-retail calendar – Black Friday and Christmas – with glitzy party dresses at the top of many shopping lists. Boyfriends and husbands are also being actively targeted to buy something glamorous for the women in their lives with a new gift-wrapping service.
For advice she can ask husband Andrew who she married last year – he was Pink Boutique’s operations director but now works for another e-commerce company. Her focus remains the business, even taking phone calls while on honeymoon.
"I don’t know when you start up and have such fast growth whether it is possible to achieve a work life balance," says Alice. "I once heard a business expert talking about the fact you have to give up the first three years and I agree.
"It is a hard slog but it is so worth it – the balance will come later. I really enjoy business, speaking to entrepreneurs, going to events, even on holidays I can lie on a beach for an hour but then need to think business. Andrew is equally addicted, so we are happy, always chatting about business."
She has had great support from her mum, three sisters and dad – Jonathan Blackie, well-known in these parts and often roped in to wrap the odd order during the early days of Pink Boutique.
Alice also sought guidance and advice from local businesses, the Entrepreneurs’ Forum, through networking – inboxing potential mentors to tap into their knowledge. "They can only say no but rarely do," she says. She is now providing support to a couple of digital marketing and e-commerce businesses – something which she says energises her – and is delighted to have won several awards including Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year at the PWC UK Private Business Awards, Women Into the Network Young Entrepreneur of the Year and the Entrepreneurs’ Forum Emerging Talent Award. But this Newcastle woman’s main focus remains developing her business in this region.
"We love the fact we have provided jobs in the North East – I am very passionate about Newcastle," says Alice. "I will always want to keep the majority of the business here but we may need to outsource some elements further afield depending on the type of talent we can attract – but in an ideal world we would love to keep everything here."
International trade is a key growth area for Pink Boutique. Currently exporting to 59 countries, it accounts for 3% of business.
Developing trade with English-speaking nations will be a priority but Eastern Europe is also proving to be a strong area for the company. Alice said: "We ran a Polish pilot scheme and we gave one of our Polish speaking members of staff the project to drive sales there.
"It was a great test, uncovering all the things we needed to learn about handling different currencies and also cultural differences. We found Polish customers like to pay by bank transfer, so we found a solution for that. They also like to pay on the doorstep, which is something we are still working on.
"In terms of the language, you can’t rely on Google translate – you need to have native speakers who are brand ambassadors and use the right tone. It was a very useful exercise and will help us as we expand into new markets overseas."