Simply thriving

Simply thriving

Sometimes it’s the simple idea that becomes a winner. Brian Nicholls highlights the success of Laura Ann Kemp and her mother Gaye Shakeshaft.

They’ve always said behind every successful man there’s a woman. Behind two successful women there can also be two men. Laura Ann Kemp and her mother Gaye Shakeshaft have won a £50,000 award to take their simple but thriving three-year-old business ChocCards another stage on.

Laura, 31, was on maternity leave as Teesside business development manager for a motor franchise when she decided she’d want to spend more time with her baby daughter. She wanted to occupy herself profitably but with less travel and shorter, less demanding hours. Around the same time Gaye, 60, was made redundant. The two set up and now run ChocCards from Otto Terrace in Sunderland.

They buy in milk chocolate bars made to a Belgian recipe, and put them under individually designed wrappers with personalised photos and messages for businesses, weddings and other celebrations. Laura says: “It started as a bit of fun because we both love chocolate.” Their indulgence has paid off.

They beat two challengers from Yorkshire to win the North East title in a Take One Small Step contest Barclays Bank has been running for small firms. They won most votes in a web and text poll.

Their promotions have included personally delivering Take That bars to the band when they recently reunited at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland. Laura and Gaye can’t say if superstars Robbie Williams, Gary Barlow, Mark Owen, Jason Orange and Howard Donald ever voted for them, but their enterprise did win vital attention on Facebook and Twitter.

Laura was presented with the cash award by former England goalkeeper Ray Clemence during an evening of celebration in London. “A nerve-wracking but brilliant night,” she recalls.

With part of their prize they have now commissioned Newcastle web designer Union Room (whose other clients include Parkdean Holiday Parks and the Sanderson Young property consultancy) to design a more advanced website than their present one.

On it customers will be able to create their wrappers with the personalised photos and messages. They’re also looking for commercial premises that will enable them to hold an alcohol licence and introduce messaging on small bottles of wine. They’ve already been able to offer piecework to two mothers who, like Laura, wanted to fit round family commitments. It’s hoped with diversification further hirings may be possible.

Laura says ChocCards gets expert advice from her husband and father, particularly through their arbiter’s role if she and Gaye want a third opinion, or a casting vote on some business issue is needed. Husband Martin manages a Santander bank branch in Sunderland.

Father Phil Shakeshaft was until recently director of strategy at regional development agency One North East. Laura and Gaye have taken tips also from websites. One is Hershey’s, the US giant of chocolate manufacturing that invites surfers to help expand its 250 million customer base by offering ideas.

The other was Moonpig.com which has been doing with digitally-created greeting cards what they felt could be done with chocolate wrappers.

Over a decade or so this London firm grew into a £38m turnover business with three million customers buying 12 million greetings cards a year. It spread its products into mugs, T-shirts and bottles.

It has now earned chairman Nick Jenkins a thick whack of cash for his 36% stake through a £120m takeover by Photobox, the £72m-turnover digital photo service in Oxfordshire whose directors – with Jenkins advising – expect to progress Moonpig even faster.

Some might feel ChocCards and Moonpig to be value-added opportunism rather than creative, but that doesn’t diminish their achievement, nor their ingenuity. It also demonstrates how successful businesses can be built without high technology other than, perhaps, IT.