You would think, given how much I go on about loving the English countryside, that when the opportunity presented itself to travel down to Cornwall, I would have been there with bells on, no questions asked.
But when an eleven hour round trip in my rusty car is involved, my head had a stern word with my heart for once and for the first time in She can. She did. history, Skype came into play.
It’s Monday 12th February and from Jenny Shipley’s freezing workshop in the middle of the Cornish countryside (she had a hot water bottle on her lap for the entirety of this interview!) she battled dodgy internet connections, deliveries arriving mid-chat and a laptop that was about to run out of battery (!) to sit down and talk to me about her company’s story so far.
Knowing full well that the London lifestyle wouldn’t make her happy, Jenny bucked the trend to move to the City after uni – so popular for the majority of recent grads – and opted to create a career for herself at home. Based in a workshop on the middle of a farm near Falmouth, Cut by Beam – a laser cutting and engraving business that she launched in 2013 – is the result.
Jenny Shipley. We make products for people that are mainly focused on personalised laser cutting because that’s the specialist machinery I first bought and got used to using back in 2013… I spent a couple of months experimenting with it and working out how to use it. Then because I was working part-time at the time, I slowly reduced my hours and increased what I was doing here until it got to the point where I could no longer do both!
She can. She did. What prompted you to buy a laser cutting machine in the first place?! It’s not your average purchase!
JS. I probably didn’t think about this at the time but having thought about it since, there are quite a few reasons that led me to it!
Having studied 3D design at Falmouth University, Jenny started using laser cutting machines as a student for prototyping on her course.
SC.SD. I loved it and at the time I used to think it’d be amazing to own that kit but when you’re a student that’s obviously not realistic! Anyway, after uni I worked part-time in a shop and then part-time for a furniture designer and she laser cut cabinets so I guess I kept seeing new things I could do with it…
It was whilst juggling her two part-time jobs that Jenny began to experiment with her own designs. After signing up to a number of local fairs selling Christmas decorations, wooden puzzles along with her own illustrations that she’d turned into wooden drawings, customers began to reach out asking for bespoke orders.
JS. I was enjoying it so much and I guess I just started experimenting with materials as I was learning how to use it. I set up an Instagram account, started documenting what I was up to, people started to follow that I think and then customer jobs started coming in. Plus a couple of orders came from people I knew so I just thought that’d tie me over for now and it collectively grew from there.
SC.SD. When you bought the machine then, did you buy it with the intention that it’d become your business?
JS. It was definitely with a business in mind but I guess there was the fall back that if things didn’t work out, it’d be ok! It felt like a safe decision because there was so much I could do with it that no matter what direction I went down, I was confident that I’d be able to make use of it; whether that be making my own things or making stuff for other people which has since been the case!
SC.SD. Let’s talk start-up logistics! Talk me through the process you went on once you realised it had the potential to be a full time job… Where did you start?
JS. I think straight away I was always going to push for this to be my full time job! I’d always wanted to work for myself and having worked in small businesses since leaving uni, I’d picked up so much useful experience. I’d seen how others do things – be it that you like how they do things or disagree with it; it’s all super valuable experience!
When I first started, luckily I had a couple of friends that did illustrations for branding, they were local so I gave them the brief and the first logo they came back with I said, “yep, really happy with that, thanks!”
SC.SD. Really!? Not even a slight tweak!?
JS. No, no! That was it!
SC.SD. Are you quite decisive by nature?
JS. No, not really!
SC.SD. They’re just that good?!
JS. They just understood the business and I think because I knew I liked they’re work already, they nailed it! As soon as you have a brand or logo, it changes everything though!
SC.SD. It instantly comes to life doesn’t it?
JS. Yeh, it makes a huge difference! I also think for me, I’m not the most confident person so when you have a brand and a name, you can almost hide behind it. It’s not necessarily a case of putting yourself out there; the brand does that for you. It was detached from me so that made a big difference.
SC.SD. Absolutely! How did you come up with the name?
JS. They came up with that too actually! It’s such a hard thing to do and I think you can talk yourself out of so much so when there’s someone doing that for you, it felt easier.
I think you either know what you want to call your business and roll with it straight away or you deliberate for ages! I remember when I got my dog, I had no idea what I wanted to call her so I had a temporary name and it wasn’t until I started using that name, that I realised, ‘it can’t be anything else now!’
SC.SD. So true!
Over the next few months Jenny took on board more and more custom orders – becoming more proficient with the machine as she went – and gradually reduced her hours at her two part-time jobs. Within eight months from buying the laser cutting machine, she made the decision to go full-time with Cut by Beam.
JS. It was a gradual process!
SC.SD. See I think going from buying a machine and practising to launching your own business in eight months is really quick!
JS. I guess so! I’ve never really thought about it… it is quite a short period of time isn’t it?!
SC.SD. What was it that made you realise that you could go full time with this? Did a big order come in or something?
JS. I think it was a feeling to be honest! I was working weekends, my hobby at the time was rowing which is very time intensive and I just got to the point where I just thought, ‘I can’t do all of this!’ It wasn’t a specific trigger so it’s all been quite a natural process but I realised that I was saying more and more to Lucy, “I don’t think I can work this week, I can’t work next week…” to the point where it was a case of…
SC.SD. “I can’t work for you ever again”?!
JS. Pretty much! I also realised that this was working so it was a case of, ‘I need to put all of my time into this now so I don’t have those distractions!’
SC.SD. What did day one of full-time Cut by Beam work feel like knowing that you were now officially self-employed?
JS. Mainly exciting to be honest! There was pressure but it’s a good pressure and I remember feeling in control. It was a case of, ‘I’m in charge now, whatever happens is down to me’ and that’s a good pressure to have.
In a weird way, people think having a 9 to 5 is a secure place to be but at the same time, someone might turn around tomorrow and say, “the business has gone bust, you’ve lost your job.” You’d have no idea that was coming whereas with this, if it’s going wrong, I know I would have to make changes and I’m in control of that!
SC.SD. No one’s worded it like that before, I like that! Did you have to change any processes though now you were self-employed? For instance, did you need to put more effort into marketing to get more jobs on board?
JS. Yeh definitely! I think it was just that realisation that if I don’t put any effort in, nothing’s going to come my way!
SC.SD. Given that Cornwall has a really prominent creative scene, let’s talk about competition… Was there much immediate competition around you and if so what’s your attitude been towards it and how do you differentiate yourself?
JS. There are a couple of other people doing similar things but not locally and they’re not really pitched as a service like I am. They’re more focused on making their own products so I think I pitched it towards a slightly different market…
SC.SD. What does your ideal client look like then and has that evolved since the beginning?
JS. I think when I first started, I looked at the businesses that I’d absolutely love to work with and I think that influenced how I branded; how I saw my business, how I was going to show and photograph my products and the kind of businesses that would attract.
There’s such a variety in terms of the size though! It could be an individual up to a huge company, and the size of the order could range from £10 up to £1000 and I love that. I love the variety so I don’t think there’s an ideal but I guess being down here and being surrounded by so many creative people has meant that’s my main market. It’s where a lot of the jobs come in.
SC.SD. Which companies had you eyed up at the beginning?
JS. There’s a brand down here called Finisterre which is a surfing company and I remember loving what they did, they’re based in Cornwall, but we ended up collaborating with them quite quickly which was so good! It was through a chap that was making wooden hand planes for them and he had a logo etched on to each one which I did and that made them see who I was and what I was doing and I’ve got a lot of work through them since. It’s great working with other Cornish businesses, I love that!
SC.SD. I can imagine it’s quite a supportive community?
JS. Absolutely! I feel incredibly privileged to work with the people that I’m working with down here. There’s a good drive and a similar outlook that we share. Everyone wants each other to do well, there’s a lot of recommendation and I think everyone wants to lift each other so you don’t see someone else doing well as a threat so much. It’s a good thing. It feels like that anyway…
SC.SD. Let’s talk about your immediate team…
JS. I have a few people that work part time now so there’s a lady called Lynn who lives in the village and she does a few days a week and her sister does freelance admin so she helps me out with invoices, newsletters, emails etc… Everyone that works here is female at the moment actually!
SC.SD. It’s funny because if I was to stereotype, you wouldn’t think that’d be the case would you?!
JS. I do get that sometimes! I used to have so many emails that started with, “hi guys” and I know that doesn’t necessarily have to refer to men but it always made me think, ‘I wonder if people do think this is a business run by a man?’ It doesn’t bother me so much but it does make you think!
SC.SD. My boyfriend has his own carpentry business and he’s so envious of your workshop!
JS. I get that a lot! I drive a Land Rover, I have a wood working workshop… I’m challenging the stereotype for sure!
SC.SD. I love it! What made you realise it was time to take on your first member of staff?
JS. I actually got a second machine first because there was too much work to do on one machine but initially I wasn’t earning enough to be able to pay someone else as well.
I thought, ‘if I get a second machine first, I’ll be able to do more work, generate more money and when I can’t do that on my own anymore, I’ll have enough to pay someone else!’ It was me and one machine, me and two machines, then two of us and two machines and now it’s two of us and three machines!
SC.SD. I’m guessing the machines aren’t cheap to buy so did you reinvest money you’d already made back into the business?
JS. The second machine was a bit smaller for the overflow jobs and the samples. Some people want a sample to check it’s ok before buying so I’d be interrupting a huge run to do one little thing so that machine was affordable but the latest machine has been a big investment. Most of the money for that came out of the business but then I lent myself some savings too. I think I’ve always been a bit scared of debt so I’ve tried to self-fund when I can. I don’t pay myself very much money – I tend to put the money back into the business – but I don’t mind because I love it.
SC.SD. But also, you’re putting money back into a business that you own at the end of the day?!
SC.SD. Let’s move on to the challenging bits… what does a bad day look like to you?
JS. A bad day is probably a cold day if I’m being honest! My workshop is in a barn on a farm, there’s no heating and I’m currently sat here with a hot water bottle on my lap! It can be really challenging when it’s cold!
Serious answer though, it’s weird because it’s the two extremes that I struggle with. January is always quiet and that’s difficult because you do start thinking, ‘what if?’ In the past I’ve used that time to have a holiday but I didn’t this year and so you can’t help but think, “what if the emails don’t come in?” I think you’re always going to have that.
On the flipside, Christmas time is really busy and Easter gets busy too because restaurants and shops prepare to reopen for summer and want to update their signage. So when it’s ridiculously busy I struggle because phones are ringing, emails are coming in constantly and I want to be able to reply to everyone but there’s not enough time in the day so I become frustrated and that can be hard. It’s frustration that I can’t do everything that I want to do properly but I end up liking those bad days. They sometimes make you think differently or see things differently and you can always turn them into positives.
SC.SD. Glass half full then?!
JS. I think you’ve got to be!
SC.SD. Absolutely! When you’re in the moment they can be completely shit though! It’s not until I look back in hindsight – even if it’s the day after – that I tend to see the positive!
JS. Definitely! I’m lucky though as we’ve never had any awful feedback! I’m always happy to just work my way through it. Although sometimes it’s difficult because there are times when I put in a lot more time than I tell people I do because I want it to be a good product and then if something small gets picked up on, it can be frustrating because you just think, ‘I should have maybe told you how much I’ve tried to work on this to help!’
SC.SD. What does a good day look like? Any stand out moments since launching that you’re really proud of?
JS. When jobs have come in or enquiries have come in from really influential names always feels special… Quite early on I did a job for Liberty in London and that was quite mind blowing to think that something that I was making in my barn would end up there! I’ve had those moments a few times and it’s amazing to think these companies know that I exist!
SC.SD. I’ve watched a few documentaries on Liberty’s and people queue up for hours on their open call days so that’s amazing!
JS. I know! It was during winter time too so I was in here absolutely freezing, etching the Liberty logo on to these items and I remember thinking, ‘it’s ok, I think I can cope with the cold today!’
We’ve also worked with The Tate in St Ives and when we went to the open day, everyone was talking about the product and using it and I remember walking out of there feeling really proud that we get to work for customers like that. That was a good moment!
SC.SD. I suppose if you’re based on a farm in Cornwall, seeing it out there beyond the workshop walls reminds you of the value in what you’re doing?
JS. Absolutely! At the end of the day you can be really detached from the final product sometimes so seeing it in the real world is always amazing. We brand a lot of enamel mugs and get so many photos saying, ‘here’s us on the top of a mountain!’ It’s so cool to see where they all end up.
Whist Jenny deals predominately with UK orders, Cut by Beam has delivered across Europe and to the States on a number of occasions too.
SC.SD. What has been the biggest learning curve for you since launching this business? Has anything taken you by complete surprise?
JS. Erm, I guess when I started I didn’t think I’d be this busy doing work for other people so the format has changed. I don’t do my own designs but that’s not a bad thing. It’s just been more successful in other ways.
It’s the day to day admin things that have surprised me most to be honest. I’ve had to learn a lot more about things like tax, accountancy… that’s been my biggest challenge. I had zero experience beforehand so I guess the business has been built slowly because my knowledge and understanding of how to run a business has been built alongside that!
SC.SD. Was it a case of Googling how to do it or asking for advice?
JS. Mostly just asking other people to be honest! The good thing about working in the creative community down here is that there’s always other people going through it too or they’ve faced it at some point previously. I’m always more than happy to help others because I know it can be a minefield sometimes! Even if it’s as simple as, “have you seen this app?” which sorts out all the things you’ve been worrying about in no time; it’s a nice thing to be able to share.
SC.SD. Any apps that you’d recommend?
JS. I suppose Xero for bookkeeping and Data Molino for all my receipts. It’s so nice to have everything cloud based rather than lots of paperwork and files and folders and things!
SC.SD. Let’s talk about the impact the business has had on your personal life… How have those closest to you reacted to this journey and have you seen any relationships evolve either for the better or worse as you’ve become more successful?
JS. Ooo that’s a good one! I think because it was quite a gradual process, there was never an opportunity for anyone to say, “whoah! What are you doing?”
I’ve found my parents to be supportive but also cautious; they’re always worried whether I’m making the right decision but my friends have just been excited! Having those two elements has been good I think because you can get carried away sometimes so I’m grateful I’ve got people that are also saying, “hang on a minute, have you thought about this?” I guess people recognised that I never launched this on a whim; I’d been talking about it for a while and they knew I wanted to be my own boss one day!
SC.SD. Had you voiced that growing up then?
JS. I’m not sure if I did actually! Having said that, last year one of my friends pulled out our yearbook because it was ten years since leaving school and in the yearbook, it said ‘where will you be in ten years’ time?’ and one of my friends had written, ‘Jenny will be living in Cornwall running her own business!’
SC.SD. That’s amazing!
JS. I know! It’s good to know they knew me well, even back then!
(My year book said I’m second most likely to become Prime Minister so I’ve clearly let my friends down..!)
JS. I have a few mentors that I go to for advice too now which is great because I think when you start your own business, sometimes you don’t want to answer to anyone and you want to do things your way. Every now and then though, you really need someone to check up on you and say, “have you done that thing that you said you were going to do?” because you don’t have that anymore. Yes people can chase up an order on a day to day basis but the bigger picture? Mentors can really help with that.
SC.SD. If I said, “describe yourself as a business woman” what words would you chuck my way?!
JS. I don’t know really! One thing I find difficult is to think of myself as a boss! I’m much more a fan of working together and with each other rather than for each other. I think I’ve always enjoyed jobs where there is an element of control and trust in me to just get on with it so I try and pass that on to the team too. Words to describe myself though? I suppose I’ve never thought about it!
SC.SD. Are you quite laid back?
JS. I try and stay laid back but there are definitely times where I do find that challenging! A while ago, it really got on top of me, and I just thought, ‘we need to have some fun again’ because it was all getting a bit serious and full on. We had a really busy morning and so I said, “let’s just stop after lunch, use the machines, have a bit of a play around and make something totally irrelevant just for us!” I think recognising that is important. You get stressed because of the pressure but it’s pressure that you’re putting on yourself so remembering that at the end of the day, you’re in control of taking that pressure off too is really important! Working out when the right time to do that is a challenge but it’s always worth it because it gives you a happier working life.
I’m quite lucky that every day is different so it keeps it interesting and I love coming to work. I don’t ever wake up and think I don’t want to go to work today!
SC.SD. That’s the way it should be! What’s your go to switch off on a day to day basis? That’s if you do switch off?
JS. Weirdly, I found it easier to switch off when I got a team as up until then, I’d always kept things in my head. When I had to communicate it with other people, I had to find a way of getting it out my head so that other people could see it and understand it and I didn’t realise it at the time but that made a big difference to weekends and Monday mornings… Beforehand I’d come in on a Monday and I’d just think, ‘what am I doing again?!’
I use Trello to jot down everything that needs to be done too so everyone can see it and that means I don’t carry that to-do list around with me which also makes it a lot easier to switch off!
SC.SD. You mentioned that you sometimes book holidays in January… What does down time look like?
JS. Having a dog is the best down time; especially down here in Cornwall because we have the coastal path – it’s so great. I actually went on a sailing mission last year with some friends of mine which was also amazing for switching off because I didn’t have signal for a lot of it! I really enjoyed that.
SC.SD. I bet! That sounds amazing! What do you think the perks of launching a business in the countryside are as opposed to the city then?
JS. I think it comes down to where you want to be. For me, when I left uni I knew I wanted to live here but the job that I wanted didn’t exist. I would have had to go to London for it but I know I wouldn’t be happy living there so I had to make the job for myself. It’s down to individual preference. For me, knowing I can get outside when I need to switch off and it’s right here on my doorstep helps me be a happier person and me being a happier person makes my business function better…I guess it just comes down to that basic fact!
SC.SD. What about future plans? How do you see the business evolving going forward?
JS. It’s a difficult one! Everyone always asks me what the end goal is and that feels too far ahead for me but I suppose I do need to consider it! We’re moving workshops next month which will be really exciting as I’m hoping to run more workshops with the public so that will be a new dimension to add.
I’ve never really been good at long term planning though! I’m definitely more of a day to day, see what happens and evolves person! I suppose it would be really nice one day to own my own workshop – that would be an ultimate goal – and also provide workshops for other start-up businesses because I know how valuable it was for me when I found this farm. Renting this space for low rent…I’d like to provide that service to others one day.
SC.SD. I take it the next workshop will have heating!?
JS. Underfloor heating actually!
SC.SD. Blimey! Pushing the boat out there!
JS. I know! It’s just been renovated so it should be great!
SC.SD. Do you have a favourite quote?
JS. One of my favourite ones is actually from Edmund Hillary – the mountain climber – who said, “it’s not the mountain that you conquer but yourself.” Weirdly, I’ve always got a lot of confidence through sport where I’ve gone on and done things that I didn’t ever think I could do.
From rowing to completing a half iron man triathlon event, Jenny has found an inner confidence through sport.
JS. Often the battle is with yourself and sometimes I worry about things I don’t need to worry about so I really relate to that quote.
SC.SD. I love that and I couldn’t agree more. There’s always something so powerful about crossing a finish line for your self-belief…
JS. Definitely! I remember my housemates at uni were training for the half iron man and at the time I thought, ‘there’s no way I could do that’ but I did it three years later and the ribbon on the medal said, ‘anything is possible’ and I suddenly felt like I’d done an impossible thing. I think it was that year that I started the business.
SC.SD. I love that! Last question then… Looking back now, what advice would you give to your sixteen year old self and what advice would you give to anyone reading this who wants to set up their own business? That was two questions… sorry!
JS. It was two questions but it’s the same answer from me! I think it would be to just believe in yourself because we’re all so much more capable than we think we are and I wish I’d known that when I was sixteen but it applies to everyone now. If you can find a way to deal with that fact, it will help you achieve more than you can imagine. It sounds a bit cliché really but I stand by it!
What I love about this interview is that Jenny defies so many stereotypes. Not just because she’s at the helm of a woodworking workshop and has created a successful business without venturing off to the City to do so but she’s also easy going and seemingly shy by nature.
A vast contrast to the self-assured ‘Girl Boss’ image that suggests we must exist loudly in today’s day and age if we want to succeed.
From using brands that she admired to help shape her company’s ethos that has ultimately led to some incredible collaborations with said brands down the line; learning to recognise when her team need a break from incoming orders, to relax, have fun and remember why they’re there; to drawing upon previous sporting achievements that she once thought were impossible when she needs reminding that she’s capable of more than she thinks; Jenny’s grown her company organically at a steady pace, learning not just about business but herself as she goes.
Proving that you don’t have to be the loudest in the room to make an impact in business nor relocate to the City to collaborate with some of the biggest brands around; Jenny has learnt to prioritise her own happiness above all else and her business continues to thrive because of that fact.