Rowena Johnson runs a successful business and has just signed leases on two shops in the middle of York. So why spend nine years battling to establish a new venture? And what part did backscratchers and sarsaparilla play? BQ Yorkshire Editor Mike Hughes found out.
Firstly, a confession: over a few decades as a business journalist I have used the expression ‘kitchen-table business’ several times - without there ever actually being one. It’s just a useful expression to sum up an entrepreneurial spirit that starts with an idea at home and eventually - hopefully - builds into a business that pays the bills.
And yet here I am talking to Rowena Johnson. In her home. In her kitchen. And there is an actual table, where she has grown BugBrush from a personal need into a saleable product.
One of her heroes, author Malcolm Gladwell said: “You can learn more from one glance at a private space than you can from hours of exposure to a public face.” Johnson’s kitchen proves that to be true.
When her daughter Saskia was a year old and showing her first teeth, Johnson – who already ran clothing business Peruviankids – joined the struggle of mums around the country trying to keep their baby’s fragile teeth clean. Ordinary toothbrushes just didn’t seem to be designed for tiny mouths, so Johnson designed what was then called Caterpillarbrush.
Picture an open-ended wavy circle of plastic, which would sit in the palm of your hand, with bristles covering all parts. Very young children instinctively suck on it like a teething ring – and clean their own teeth as they do so.
Just under nine years on and upmarket childrenswear chain JoJo Maman is stocking it. So what is the story of the thousands of days inbetween and what makes a 31 year old woman put herself through it all?
Tick these three boxes and you’ll understand: DNA. Dream. Drive. This York lass came from a background that required determination and the purest work ethic. “I think that my inspiration and characteristics come from my great-grandma, Margaret Rawlins, who ran a botanical brewers making sarsaparilla in Bradford 200 years ago. It was very popular with the workers, who couldn’t go to the pub and get drunk, so used to go to my great-grandma.
“She was singer as well, and her and my great grandfather, who was a pianist, used to put on concerts on their doorstep in the depth of recession.
“She used to go along to the local library and listen to a piece of music, memorise it, come home and whistle it for my great-grandfather and he would play it on the piano. That’s the sort of determination and entrepreneurship that I think I’ve got.
“I’m nothing like my mum in that respect and my dad left when I was three, so I think I go back a few generations. Every single gene I have has skipped my mum and my auntie. Years ago, with the war and depression my family was very industrious and that’s certainly part of me.”
Work became a part of Johnson’s life when she was the same age as her daughter now, and the realisation that it was going to be important to her came soon after.
“I grew up on the York University campus where my mum was a secretary. There was no childcare for me, so I had to entertain myself. I found that a great way to earn money for myself was to make friendship bracelets to sell to the students, but also using my mum’s backscratcher to reach under the vending machines for loose change.
“I used to stoop past the porter’s office with the scratcher up my sleeve. I would know where every vending machine was throughout the campus and would scoop up about £3.50 a day. For a kid in the 1990s, that was a lot of money.”
We have to recognise a difference here between her and ‘normal’ kids. They would be playing and making stuff as well, but for her there was a definite financial angle to it. Part of her still-growing brain was telling her to be her own boss. She knew her mum didn’t have any money, so if she wanted it, she needed to accumulate with every chance she had.
So Johnson also had a paper round right through her schooldays. Of course, it wasn’t the lightweight freesheets for her. No, if there was a round to be done it was the backbreaking broadsheets with their supplements and magazines. “It was at Atherton’s newsagent in York city centre and was the worst paper round in the world,” she recalls.
“I lived at the other side of town to my school, so got up at 6.30am, biked into town, did my paper round and then cycled on to school.”
Through the school gates, there are more clues as to how this little girl would grow up. Year 7 woodwork is a surprisingly powerful memory. “I loved school and was very studious, but would never like it when teachers told me I couldn’t do something. People always used to underestimate me – but I don’t think they do now.
“I loved woodwork and one of the first projects we got to build was a cam machine.” No - I didn’t know either, so Rowena explains that it is a length of dowling with concentric circles threaded on to it at various points so that when you turn a handle the dowling moves the circles up at various points, creating a moving model, of, she suggests, a rabbit popping up and down.
“But I wasn’t interested in the rabbit idea – I wanted to do a big whale whose mouth would open and water would spout out the top and its tail would go up and down. The teacher said ‘You can’t do that, you’re being ridiculous,’ but I proved him wrong.
“I had a very clear vision as a child and a student of what I could achieve and how to go about doing it. If the teachers didn’t believe it then we clashed, but not very often, because they soon realised what I was capable of.
“I think now secondary education would have recognised my aptitude for business and channelled that, but back then it was ‘you’re good at Biology, you’re clever, so get a degree where you can get a job at the end of it in the NHS’.
Johnson left school at 15 and went straight to college chasing that degree. Being a keen footballer – including playing for York City Ladies – led to her wanting to be a physiotherapist. She got A-levels in biology, psychology and art at college and then went on to university to get the physiotherapy degree and is a qualified practitioner.
Work in Hull helping teach people how to walk again after neurological catastrophes honed the very likeable personality sitting at ‘The Table’ with me, dishing out the coffee and fielding enthusiastic Border Terrier Charlie, who obviously believes I’m here to talk to him.
“I love helping people, so working with older people and the physiotherapy work was a wonderful part of the job. But using your initiative can sometimes be frowned upon in the NHS and it drove me mad that everyone was pulling together to help the patient and yet some had a chip on their shoulder about what role they had to play and how you couldn’t cross certain lines.”
So with the woodwork teacher put in his place and NHS protocol given a good kicking, you start to put together the pieces that make up Rowena Johnson and help her stand back up again when she gets knocked down.
The next knock came when she was passed over for a physio job even though she had been in the role for 12 months. She felt let down and decided to pursue another interest – advertising copywriting for medical firms, including copy for pharmaceutical websites. It was during this time and a visit to Spain that she made contacts and set up the Peruviankids clothing website and stall, which soon took over from the copywriting.
Noticing a lot of admiring glances for Saskia’s brightly-coloured cardigan back from one of those trips abroad, Johnson had started to look for similar clothing, borrowed £2,000 from her mum for stock, which she paid back in three months, and now works with a well-organised co-operative over in Peru.
She has since signed two leases on the same day for two shops on the Shambles in York – and will soon be rebranding as Essence of Peru. Does she ever slow down? “I don’t believe I am incapable of doing anything. There is absolutely no reason why I can’t develop a product and sell it all over the world at the same time as running a market stall in York.
“I don’t like people making assumptions that because I’m female and fairly young I can’t do certain things. It p***** me off.
“People can get overwhelmed by business – and it’s not overwhelming. There is a lot to do, but you are dealing with human beings at the end of the day and selling something. It doesn’t matter what scale that’s on.”
She had the idea for Bugbrush in 2006, got help and funding from Business Link, got a patent and found a graphics design company to start visualising the end product. But there were testing times ahead.
“When people have an idea, they think ‘great – I’ll get it patented and manufactured and get it to market. But what you actually need to do is go back to the drawing board and assess whether the product is compliant and manufacturable.
“I didn’t know what I was doing - I just had this great idea. I was advised to licence the Intellectual property to the big companies, which seemed to make great sense – I didn’t want to be setting up a manufacturing plant.
“I got in front of Proctor & Gamble, Wisdom and GlaxoSmithKline and they all liked the idea, but there were questions about the design and they wanted more prototypes and more information. There was a lot of time wasted not knowing what I was doing wrong and I had already spent about £18,000 on prototype costs and IP.”
So it was literally back to the drawing board with product engineer Richard Hall and, with the help of a growth voucher scheme worth £5,000, more designs were agreed and the BugBrush became the product she now has in front of her.
But – and by now you will be getting a clear view of the brick walls you may have to scale if you are thinking of developing a product – there were more challenges to come. Despite early coverage on Radio 2 and the BBC’s Money programme, the big companies still couldn’t commit and Johnson had to plan for production herself. A bid to get on The Apprentice to raise her profile fell just short of the final selection and the Dragons’ Den didn’t have deep enough pockets.
Then a bitter battle to retrieve her dream from a business partner took its toll. “I was deflated, exhausted and at rock bottom,” she says. “July 2014 was the most stressful month of my life. I was organising and paying for my wedding, while trying to secure money for tooling costs and was in this legal battle with my business partner.”
But she is not a woman who gives up. As she says at one point: “I won’t walk away from anything. Even if it’s something as trivial as opening the lid on a jam jar - I can’t just leave it.”
11 September 2014 became a key day for the future of the business, Johnson was flying to Cologne for a major fair, she had paid off her business partner and won back control of the crucial website and - ten minutes before the taxi arrived to take her to the airport - she set up Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote BugBrush. The fair went well and interest started growing.
A driving force behind this whole venture – even when she was too young to realise it – has been Saskia herself. So what is the future for her after her mum’s high benchmark? “I want to teach her about business so that she understands when I can pass on my other businesses.
“I think it is really good for a family to have a legacy. It was sad that my great-grandma had to sell the brewery and take the recipe for sarsaparilla to her grave.
“I don’t think I feel responsible for providing a business for when Saskia leaves school, but I certainly have lots of ideas and advice to give to her. I won’t be telling her that I have a great idea and she should be doing it, because she will do it off her own back. But I will help her.
“She already talks a lot about what she wants to be doing. She comes up with some really cool hairstyles but says she doesn’t want to be a hairdresser – ‘but if I had my own salon....’, so she already appreciates the difference between working for someone and having your own business.”
Johnson’s path to business achievement with Peruviankids and BugBrush is remarkable,
but studded with setbacks and challenges that make her big paper round and trips under the vending machine seem like child’s play.
Read back through the article and ask yourself at what stage you might have given up. If you wouldn’t – then you’re either already an entrepreneur or you will be one.