The Business Ninja Interview – Samantha Burlton, Make An

September 23, 2019

Where did your initial idea for your business come from? What was your mission from the outset?

Years ago, my father in law ran a factory for the Royal School for the Blind. They had provided employment to blind and partially sighted people who made a variety of products, one of which was traditionally hand-stitched doormats. The factory closed many years ago and I was very concerned that this traditional skill should not die out. I founded in 2005 to make it easy for people to order made-to-measure doormats online, hand-stitched to their exact specifications.

What’s the hardest thing about what you do?

Even though it’s 15 years since I left my “day job” and started in business, I have never lost my enthusiasm and capacity to generate ideas. Like many entrepreneurs, coming up with new ideas is never a problem, it’s reigning myself in and implementing them fully that challenges me the most. My husband is also my business partner and we have very complementary skills. He is the one that keeps me focused on implementation as well as blue-sky thinking.

Is this your first business? If no, what happened to your first (and what have you learned)?

I think business in is my blood. When I was still at school (a long time ago!) I chaired the business enterprise team. Aged just 17 & 18, and with no experience, we started several micro businesses that made enough money to subsidise a trip to the European parliament for the whole sixth form. That was my first business experience.
When I founded Make An Entrance in 2005, I also started another website selling organic cosmetics, which for many years was my primary focus.
The journey of the two businesses has been very different. At one time we had an organic cosmetics shop and beauty treatment rooms. We produced own-label products as well as a mail-order catalogue and held stock of 2500 lines. In order to keep up with the way people were choosing to buy and source their products we needed to constantly evolve and change our business model.
Running these two very different businesses has taught me a lot about the funding required for differing types of business and how important it is to adapt and change with the times. Just because you would like to keep doing something the way you always have, sometimes you must look with a critical eye and recognise the need to change.

What are your goals?

To be happy, healthy and fulfilled in both my home and my business life.

What does a good day in work look like?

A list of important jobs being neatly ticked off my to do list. My biggest frustration is when I feel that time has been wasted or nothing valuable has been achieved.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

I like to keep fit, so I’m often at the gym. I also love running for its meditative effect. I am very slow, but I love long distances when the ideas and thoughts can simply flow. Yoga is very important to me too; I try to go on retreat once or twice a year to fully wind down.

I need all that exercise because I’m very sociable and love spending times with friends and family. You’ll often find me cooking at home for friends or enjoying a glass of wine with a good book.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone starting a business tomorrow or early into their journey?

Expect it to be tough, prepare for the hard days in advance so when they come you don’t feel like giving up.

One thing I’ve always done is to have a “happy customers file”. Save comments, testimonials and thank you notes from people who love what you do and are supportive of your business. On a day when you feel down, or it's all getting a bit too hard, take out the file and let the words of your supporters lift you.

It’s a bit like some advice a friend gave me when I ran my first half marathon. She said, mile 6-7 is going to feel hard and you are going to want to stop. Plan now for what you are going to think of to get you through that tough bit. Who are you doing this for? Why does it matter? She was right.

You just need a strategy to get you through the worst bit and then, once you’ve passed mile 7 you are on the homeward journey.

Being in business is just the same. If it were easy everyone would do it. It’s not easy, but it’s amazingly rewarding.

Who do you look up to (in business)?

There are many people who I’ve met in my career that I admire enormously but my biggest inspiration is my Dad for his sheer grit and determination. With very little education he became self-employed in construction and worked tirelessly to build a business that gave our family things his parents had never been able to provide for him.

He instilled a work ethic in me and a belief that I could do whatever I wanted to. Wherever he went and whatever he did I was beside him when I was a little girl, driving diggers and building things. The fact that I was a girl was irrelevant. My Dad is not your typical feminist, but he never thought my gender was a barrier to whatever I wanted to do. I agree with him.

How do you advertise your business, and do you have any tips for anyone creating their marketing strategy?

We are an online business so pay-per-click and search engine optimisation are very important, although we also do a small amount of print advertising too.

My advice would be to try out different things but ensure that you have some way of measuring success. It’s very easy to spend a huge amount of money on advertising and never really know whether it's working for you.

Advertising changes all the time - what works one year, will fall flat the next. When I first started out in business, email marketing was massively successful for us. These days we still do it, but we don’t expect such big returns. I know my own inbox is full of marketing messages and I tend to bulk delete. There’s no novelty in getting email newsletters anymore.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and think about what you like when you are a customer. Why would you market to your customers using methods that annoy you when businesses use them on you?

To what do you attribute your success?

Hard work, determination and resilience.

Starting my own business was one of the best things I have ever done, and I wouldn’t change it. However, being in business is hard. There are dark days when you doubt yourself. These are the times when I use the lessons that I’ve learned from running. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. It doesn’t matter how slow you go, just don’t stop.

Big dreams can be daunting, and it can be terrifying to know where to start. Breaking the task down into very small chunks can help take away that fear. The buzz you get from getting started and ticking items off the to-do list gives you the momentum to keep going.

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