From a teenage head buzzing with business ideas, through tragedy, to a successful entrepreneur and employer. Mike Hughes meets 25-year-old Freya Bass.
I walked into Freya Bass’s offices and workshop on the outskirts of Harrogate with my usual bag over my shoulder – a black canvas satchel sort of thing that my wife picked up for £1.99 at an Age UK charity shop. It holds everything I need, from notebook and digital recorder to five or six pens of varying quality, car keys, phone and, of course, enough sweet wrappers and car park receipts to wallpaper a small room. But I don’t make too much of a scene about my ‘manbag’, because this is The Handbag Spa, where £30,000 Hermes bags come to be made beautiful again.
Freya remembers her first customer brought in a £2,000 Dior creation, which her own little treasure had written on while it was still in the box. £1.99 at a charity shop? Close the door behind you.......Thankfully, she is far too gracious for that and reveals a focussed and charming young woman with a business mind that is always on the go.
“I spent my years throughout Leeds Met University trying to think of the business idea I would leave there with,” said Freya. “Education is a funny thing. You spend a lot of time being shuffled along with this mass of students, and not always going in the right direction. I got funnelled into doing fashion, but the part of the course I had most fun with was setting up your own business, with its forecasting and business planning.
“Then I had seen the freedom my parents had with my dad running his own business in interior design and upholstery and my mum setting up a children’s clothes business when I was little. Alongside that feeling of freedom I get from running my own business, there are the scary elements like financing and finding the right market out there, but you wouldn’t make much of an entrepreneur if things like that stopped you driving forwards.
“We can clean, restore and refurbish bags that may have become damaged. They can just send us a photo of it on email, we’ll quote for the work and then either collect it by courier or they can drop into one of the dry cleaning shops we use as agents and we will pick it up from there.
“More women now have aspirations to own a designer handbag, so the second-hand market is very busy. But they want it to look perfect, so they will spend money with us having it refurbished. I found right from the beginning there was a gap in the market for that work because women would naturally go to a dry cleaning shop to ask about handbag repairs, but most of them aren’t equipped with the knowledge or expertise for the bigger jobs, so we come in and pick them up.
Freya and her mum Judy, who helps run the business, say there are three tiers of customer. The top tier buy that season’s bag or colour, then they sell them on to a second tier who always craved a designer bag but couldn’t afford a new one. Then the final tier are re-selling damaged bags needing refurbishment.
“The majority of the work is cleaning and colour touch-ups, perhaps because of scuffs on the corners,” says Freya. “One of the top accidents is ink leaking from a biro, but that is not worth chucking away a bag that you love, or that is an investment.”
Looking at the range of paints and potions in the workshop suggests the standard of finish expected by a client that values their latest purchase in five figures is very high, so the potential for the business is well-grounded.
“We have a five-year plan but the problem with them is that they always change,” says Freya. “You never know what tomorrow will bring. If I have had a low day I often say to myself on the drive home ‘business is a rollercoaster, so don’t worry, you will be going back up again soon’.
Low times can be as pivotal as the good times, of course, and the sudden death of Freya’s dad Andy during his daughter’s first year at university changed everything. She left to be at the side of her mum Judy and the two faced rebuilding their personal and business lives. Freya started working alongside her mum at her training provider LLT Leathercare, developed an interest and then a passion for the work and The Handbag Spa was born.
“It was so hard to deal with,” says Freya, “and I had the university to get through. But you have to keep going forwards and I like to think I was a support to mum as well.”
“I have always admired Freya enormously for her commitment and hard work from the age of 13,” replies mum Judy. “I see so much potential in her, and I think that comes from the joint genes. Right from the beginning I have given her as much free rein as I could to let her establish her own ideas and methods.”
Freya agrees: “I would undoubtedly have set up some sort of business on my own if I hadn’t started working with my mum. I don’t know what that would have been, but it would definitely have happened. I liked the idea of creating a platform for the designers coming out of university alongside me.
“I like developing ideas, even if it is someone else’s idea that I can help with. There are always fresh ideas, but sometimes we have to balance that with focussing on growing the business as it is. “That includes things like recruitment, which has been a steep learning curve. This time last year I had one member of staff and now there are six, which shows how quickly we have grown. It is not an easy business to recruit for, because it is unlikely you have the skills already.
“So we offer full training and watch as their skills emerge and develop their people skills. That is the process I learned at university. Personality is a huge thing for us, particularly when we work so closely together. You have to be careful who you pick to join the team, but it makes me proud when we can give a job to someone and give them a career path.
“Now that we are growing it would be easy to get overwhelmed – with the rollercoaster getting a lot steeper – if I had been on my own without my mum as a mentor or someone like Connect Gazelles, which is full of people in the same boat as me as well as others that have been there and made a success of it. I think it is really important for entrepreneurs to have a mentor somewhere that cares about you as well as your business.”
During our interview I find myself having to regularly remind myself that this woman is 25 – an age when many of her peers will be starting off on their corporate careers after three or maybe five years at university. Rapid progress is a huge bonus, but the most impressive thing about this latest BQ entrepreneur is how her business brain has grown as well.
The insight and awareness she has gained from her mum and dad is there in every sentence and you feel she could stand her ground in a conference hall of seasoned business leaders. But for now there is still much work to do in Harrogate and as her dye-blackened hands demonstrate, Freya is certainly not afraid of hard work
“I have very high standards and find it very hard to step away from the day-to-day element completely. In some people’s ideal world they would be overseeing completely but I like to keep involved and make sure I am up to date with everything.
“I took a course my mum was running at her company, but I had been around the workshop for a while, so I picked up things like colour mixing quite quickly. The future is as bright as a £30,000 Hermes, with levels of excitement running high as a new, larger, unit nears completion just a short distance away and the business can retain the ability to expand again
“We have invested a lot of time in our staff and don’t want to lose them, so it was important to stay local so they could stay with us as we grow,” says Freya. “We could have set up in Barnsley or Burnley and it would have been half the price, but it is important for your staff and for the business to have that Harrogate home.”
But that Yorkshire bond doesn’t stop her looking further afield, with a franchise already operating in Singapore through a dry cleaning agent, another planned for the Middle East and Freya tempted by the possibility of taking the business to America, The Handbag Spa and its 25-year-old boss are already international operators.
“Wherever we are, I want to be the reliable, trustworthy business that people keep coming back to. We had to build up our reputation from scratch by doing the work well and letting word of mouth do the rest. If you make one lady happy, she is likely to have five friends she will tell. That is how we grow.
“It shows how important every single job is because it can be the difference between winning ten clients or losing ten.
“I am also a strong believer in the digital strength of a business. Online can still be a scary place for some people, but it can be more beneficial to a business than a shop front on a high street. I want to invest time and money into our online presence.”
Remember – 25. “I don’t feel I have missed out on any carefree years. I decided I wanted to do it all now and drive the business forward so I can have the relaxing time when I’m actually tired! You can’t do that if you haven’t got the money to enjoy it. “I want to build my own Huf Haus home, so I certainly won’t be pausing until I am in a position to afford that. I always feel that I haven’t done enough or done it quickly enough.
“The Handbag Spa will always exist, but eventually, multiple businesses would be great. My boyfriend and I are always thinking about what the next big app might be that is missing from our phones.
“As a business manager, that means either finding another ‘you’ or structuring the business in such a way that it can be a run by a team of people. That’s where we may be heading.”
It is crystal clear that Freya herself is heading in only direction – upwards. She should be a module in schools and colleges to pass on the enthusiasm and drive that will soon be bursting out of the workshop below.