The downside of booking in back-to-back meetings, on one of the hottest days in London this spring so far, is that I arrive at my last interview of the day with Sophie Kirkpatrick; with a lopsided ponytail à la dishevelled scarecrow and makeup that no doubt, has gone a tad skew whiff.
Excellent first impression, I’m sure you’d agree.
When Sophie arrives looking flawless a few minutes later therefore, I’m left with no choice but to apologise for the uncontrollable frizz!
Sophie Kirkpatrick. I don’t look like this normally! I’m working ten days straight next week, I’ve got my friend’s engagement party tonight so thought, ‘sod it, I’m getting my hair done!’
Having launched Atlas & I six years ago – a bespoke gifting company specialising in personalised maps – and scaled it from a hobby she did in her spare time for some extra cash, to a company that is now, investor-backed with a first-of-its-kind website designed to increase turnover by 200% this year; I start by asking where her unique idea came from in the first place…
SK. I had some old maps lying around in draws from trips I’d been on and I was moving to London at the time so found them all again! It was around Christmas time, I was really broke so I went and bought some really nice wrapping paper from Liberty’s and started making pictures out of the maps as presents for friends and family.
Cutting the maps into different shapes and sizes, once Sophie had framed and gifted her designs, they received complimentary feedback in an instant.
SK. They all loved them so quickly started asking me to make them for their Mums and Dads! They’d ask things like, “can you use the map of our home?” though so I’d make weekly trips to Stanfords in Covent Garden where they have a giant map collection of both modern and antique reproductions… This went on for about two years so everything was handmade by me at the time and was just very arts and crafty…
Sophie attended small craft shows in her spare time too and at each show, her stall – which featured about twenty designs – would sell out. It wasn’t until she exhibited at Spirit of Summer at Olympia in 2012 that Atlas & I was spotted by buyers.
SK. A friend of mine ran the show and about three weeks before it started they had a spare stand so offered it to me for free…
SC.SD. You realise all the craft lot will hate you when they read this?! That’s one good contact to have!
SK. I know! I’m sorry! I just remember for the three weeks leading up to it, I made and made and made and made and had such a great show!
By then, I’d broadened out to leather journals too. I’d wanted to get into stationery for ages but it’s so hard to find a manufacturer that is willing to make one piece at a time; you’ll get minimums of a hundred if you’re lucky but usually it’s bulk from China. I found this guy in Fulham who was willing to print on a sheet of leather at a time though, we’d bind it around the books ourselves and it was those leather journals that notonthehighstreet.com spotted at the show.
As the waiting list to feature on NOTHS is notoriously long nowadays and the signup fee is much dearer than the £70 Sophie paid six years ago, I was interested to find out what impact the site made on her business.
SK. For me, it was really good because I used it as my first ecommerce market place. You couldn’t buy on my site at the time and there wasn’t really anything like Atlas & I on NOTHS at the time either so if you’re totally unique it’s different. If you’re another jewellery brand or cushion brand it’s harder to stand out.
Anyway, through that I realised that it was worth investing in my website and driving sales through that because it’d mean avoiding the commission NOTHS take so that’s when I started building our old website.
Given the nature of the products Atlas & I offer however, the original website wasn’t designed with a seamless customer experience in mind…
SK. It was almost like a portfolio website where you’d have a sample map of London for instance, a box next to it that said, ‘put your place in here’, choose a size and check out. Often customers would ask for a proof because they’d want to see how the map looked first though. Essentially when someone used to ask, “what will my map look like?” we’d go on our data base, we’d send them a screenshot of one or two options, they’d come back and say, “actually I want to include the village next door too” so we’d say, “that’s fine but place your order and then we’ll put the work in!” They’d then say, “I don’t want to spend the money before I see the proof” so we’d send them the proof and once we’ve got to that stage they’re probably 80% likely to go for it but when they don’t we’ve wasted all that time!
On average there were five points of contact before we’d made a sale so it really was labour intensive but it worked and we’ve been able to grow steadily!
Though her company was growing gradually, Sophie then faced the challenge of scaling effectively…
SK. Obviously I’ve then had to take on more people because we’ve been growing which means bigger overheads so it becomes a case of, ‘how can I scale the revenue without increasing the overheads?’ I had that dilemma for about four years!
This time last year I just thought, ‘enough is enough! The number of emails we get about personalising maps is crazy! There must be a way of getting these online!’ That’s when I decided, ‘right! Let’s go for investment, give away some equity and build this website!’
Having partnered with various companies who have digitalised their maps (thus allowing customers to search for places themselves as opposed to being sent a static, scanned image); the new website allows visitors to customise the product(s) they want. Not only does this remove the initial barrier to entry for visitors to the site, it also reduces the admin extensively for Sophie and her team.
SK. It used to be such a frustrating process at shows too! We’d take an iPad so we’d be able to show them a little bit of what our database held but because you’ve got lots of people on the stand, you can’t ever just concentrate on one customer. In order to convert the sale they’d want to go through the map options, none of them were referenced so we’d have to literally know in our minds where to look, then they’d want to see it as a silhouette with the artwork over the map meanwhile we’re thinking, ‘there are three more customers over there but sure..!’
It was always a sticky point and a barrier to so many sales! Now the minute they confirm and add to cart, that image in high res gets downloaded with your order so it’s ready to go off to the supplier! The idea now is to have an API built – I don’t even know what that stands for! – so that image gets sent to the supplier without us intervening. It basically means we can take a hundred orders a day whilst I sip cocktails on the beach!
SC.SD. The dream!
SK. I know! No, it just means we can spend more time on marketing and driving those sales… When you’re really busy, it’s easy to think, ‘yay! We’ve got loads of orders’ but then you end up neglecting other areas and forget to turn the cogs.
SC.SD. Let’s go back to the beginning before it all took off… talk to me about how you approached getting started in the first place and how you went about managing your time in the early days?
SK. It was really just a case of saying, “yes” to everything and figuring out how I’d fit it all in afterwards! To this day, I’d say that’s the attitude you need when you start out.
Sophie worked full time as a PA during the first year of Atlas & I, working on her designs for her company most evenings and weekends.
SK. I think I turned over £12000 from it that year so there wasn’t always a lot of sleep but I didn’t take much time off of work. The next two years were busy as I started working in interior design… My boss was so nice, he knew I had the business on the side but I don’t think he ever thought I’d do it full time! When I quit I think he was shocked!
SC.SD. What made you realise you were ready to go fulltime?
SK. About six months before I left, I was approached to sell on a shiekh – one of those lifestyle websites that offers at least 50% off brands. Looking back now the pictures I used to sell didn’t have mounts and were in these basic box frames so I don’t know why! Anyway (!) IKEA spotted me from that sale.
They saw one of my images of an iconic London bus on Oxford Street as an antique street map from 1932 and their art press contacted me and said, “we think your stuff would sell well in IKEA. We’re presenting to them next week…” So I put a series of five images together, IKEA chose one and they produced a big poster of it. I made 15p royalties per print so originally I thought, ‘this is going to be crap, I’ll be lucky if I get a tenner!’ but they sold 80,000 copies in two years!
The first royalty cheque was only a few hundred pounds but then in January 2013 I got a royalty cheque for about £4000 and I thought, ‘this is enough to live on for a couple of months until I work out whether I can do this full time.’ The profit at the time was terrible but it was turning over a decent amount and I knew people were buying…
SC.SD. And profits were bad because?
SK. It was just so manual! I was buying frames in low quantities for high prices because I didn’t have the cash flow or the storage to be able to buy in bulk. A personalised product business isn’t great for profits until you start to automate it because it’s so manual.
Anyway, the minute I got that loyalty cheque I asked to cut down to four days a week and sales started picking up straight away! I just remember thinking, ‘hang on, if one day a week makes this much difference, working on it full time would make a huge difference!’
SC.SD. What did day one of being full time with Atlas & I feel like?
SK. Because I had that IKEA cheque, yes it was scary but I knew I could survive for four months. I’ve definitely had scarier moments since! At that stage, I knew that at any point I could have gone back to work. About a year in though, I remember being really scared.
SC.SD. Go on…
SK. With the gifting industry, cash flow fluctuates drastically. The last quarter of the year is incredible…
SC.SD. Then post-Christmas blues in January hit and it’s all doom and gloom!?
SK. Exactly! Well January sales are ok for us to be honest but there’s always a dry patch in the middle of the year. I remember booking a holiday about a year and a half in to being fulltime – it was the first holiday I’d been on since I quit my job and I booked it after Christmas when I had money but by August I had nothing.
I’m not a proud person – even now I help friends out for a bit of cash on the side – but I’d signed up to a waitressing agency and I remember just crying thinking it had failed and I’d have to go back to work. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a waitress but I felt like I was back to square one. I had to call my Mum and say, “I can’t cancel this holiday, I’ve worked out how much I need to borrow, it’s X, can I pay you back when Christmas comes around again?” and she said yes. That was a lot scarier than day one of being self-employed.
Extending her lead time on all orders to three weeks – both on NOTH and her own website – going on holiday didn’t mean orders stopped coming in.
SK. The beauty of online sales is that you can wake up in the morning and there are five new orders. I remember finding this internet cafe in Bali and I’d taken a £500 order when I was out there and thought, ‘this is fantastic, I’m on holiday and I’m making money!’
NOTHS give you the option of closing your shop for holidays but they suggest you just extend your lead time. Yes your sales go down but for someone that’s buying months in advance like they tend to do with special presents, you’re fine.
SC.SD. See I’ve never been that person! I’m the, “shit, their birthday is tomorrow! Next year I’ll be more organised” girl!
SK. I took a Christmas order the other day!
SC.SD. Are you joking?!
SK. No, some people are just that organised!
SC.SD. What other challenges have you faced since launching this business?
SK. It’s a timely question because my biggest challenge to date has been in the last two months! Part of the business plan for this new website is that it will increase sales by – it’s ambitious – 200%. I want to double my yearly turnover. Aim high right?!
SK. Well when we took on investment last year, my aim was to launch for Christmas 2017. I’d done the business plan in January, it looked great, I needed X amount to build the website… People were saying, “sorry what?! It costs that much?” but the technology to build what we’ve had to build didn’t exist so it’s not like plugging into Shopify. I had to go to about five different developers…
SC.SD. How did you know where to go?
SK. Research, word of mouth, recommendations… One of them quoted quarter of a million, one said it’s not possible and two came back with a realistic quote; one of which I went for. They’d been recommended by a friend, they’d pre-empted everything I was going to say in our meeting so I thought they’d done their research etc…
I’d also had a chat with a Swiss company that host maps digitally so my website plugs into their map search database and shows it to the customer so it’s two digital platforms working together which obviously increases the likelihood of error… You pay in instalments and when I paid the first one I was so scared because you don’t know if it’s going to work or not but I took the plunge which was terrifying.
Despite being told that the site would take five months to build and work began in May 2017, the initial design for the website didn’t work and the pre-Christmas rush in October came and went.
SK. That was probably the hardest thing. I’d set my mind on having the best Christmas we’d ever had and we still did but had anything gone wrong with the new website, that Christmas revenue would have been lost completely so in October I made the decision to just say, “right, I’m not spending anytime on the new website now. I’m focusing on sales.”
They continued to plug away at it and I didn’t talk to them at all in October and November. I was just trying to get the money back up to where it should be because I’d put so much into launching the website in time. So yeh, that was a horrible time.
SC.SD. I’m going to dig a bit so when you say, “a horrible time”, what was going through your head during that phase?
SK. You know how I said I wasn’t scared when I first quit my job? This felt different because people relied on me. My investor had invested believing in me, the girls that worked for me had invested their time in to my business. It was the idea of letting anyone down. I think that’s one of the hardest things now. I can’t just quit. Two people rely on me for their salaries, I work with so many freelancers, you can never just say, “right, I’m off now.” When I took on an investor, there’s someone there to answer to and it takes away that reason at the beginning of not wanting to answer to anyone so I’ve come full circle.
To be honest he’s a great investor because he doesn’t want much input and when I said the website had been delayed, I’d worked myself up about it so much. He’s actually my Uncle and I thought, ‘oh my god, he’s going to want his money back! I’m going to have to see him at Christmas!’ but he was totally chilled about it! Best to launch a site that works right?
Now the website is up and running he’s been incredible because I can turn to him for advice but ultimately, he just wants to know at the end of five years how much his money has made. He’s not fussed about a few months delay. It gives me something to work towards and rather than feel like I’ve got someone hovering over my shoulder the whole time, instead I’ve got someone that really believes my business can grow.
After a month of running the old and new websites alongside each other to iron out any issues, the new Atlas & I website was launched in April 2018.
SC.SD. Talk me through your experience going after investment… Did you always have your uncle in mind as a potential investor?
SK. No! I always knew I’d start with friends and family though because a few friends had expressed their interest in the company and let’s face it, savings make 0% interest at the moment!
I’d seen that there was a government grant of £50,000 up for grabs for women in innovation in September 2016 so I essentially wrote a business plan about what my idea could do and how innovative it was. I spent days on it but didn’t get it – it went to these amazing people who are actually saving the environment so I was like, ‘fair enough… my maps can’t really compete with that!’
Anyway (!) by the time I’d done that, I’d convinced myself it was a really great idea that would work so I went to a business consultant to help me write a plan as I’d never written one in the whole five years I’d been doing this.
SC.SD. How did you find the experience working with a consultant?
SK. So useful because it reminds you why you’re doing it! It also makes you look at the figures which is terrifying because you suddenly think, ‘oh god, I thought I made more than that!’
Anyway, I’d also had customers express their interest in investing in it but I went to friends and family first and two relatives came back. My Uncle is a very fair man… had I gone out to an external investor I would have had to know a lot more about percentages and equity etc… It took me long enough to work out what VC meant! But yes, we came to an agreement and the money arrived in my account.
I actually signed the contract with the developers before that money landed in my account though which was slightly scary but my gut instinct was telling me it would be ok! My gut instinct has got me quite far so far!
SC.SD. I genuinely think following your gut instinct accounts for so much!
SC.SD. What’s been the biggest misconception you’ve faced as a business owner so far?
SK. I think when I first started out, if I ever went to a dinner party or met someone new and they asked what I did and I said, “I run my own company” no one even tried to hide the surprise on their face and I love that feeling.
I always say, “guess” and they say, “PR? Marketing?” and it’s just such a stereotype. When you explain that you own and run a business, you can see the respect that they gain for you because they realise you’ve been ballsy enough to go it alone. I love that and knowing I have the confidence to say, “I love what I do!” always feels great.
SC.SD. Absolutely! Any others?
SK. That when you work for yourself you can take all the time off you want! I feel guilty about going to the hairdressers earlier and had to log on to the wifi to check my emails.
It’s stereotypical but weirdly, it’s when I talk to girls and say that I own my own business that I’m more likely to hear, “oh that’s so great, you can do whatever you like!” The reality is that I get up at 7am, do my emails in bed with my cup of tea because that’s my luxury – how lame is that!? – get to the studio at 8am and won’t leave until at least 6pm but there’s been so many days where I’ve worked stupid hours around that. I think the biggest mistake people make when they start a business is that they refuse to work the hours to turn it into something. You’ve got to have a lot of grit and determination to get to the point where it’s going to work.
SC.SD. Can you recall any stand out moments that make this whole journey worth it?
SK. I think when you have those super lows and you’re wondering how the hell you’re going to pay your staff and then you do a really good show and suddenly you’re ok again is always an amazing feeling. I’m not good at plateauing. I love those highs and whilst I don’t love the lows, it makes those highs worth it. I still sit at my desk for twelve hours but you never know what’s going to come in that day and that feeling keeps me going.
SC.SD. That’s a good way of putting it because it’s true. You make a day-to-day routine for yourself but there’s always that excitement of not knowing what’s waiting around the corner!
SK. Exactly! It could get to 4pm and we might not have done any sales but then suddenly three come in and I can breathe. For me, the absolute cream of the crop is when someone comes onto the website organically, spends £200 and all that money is ours. It’s not NOTH’s, it’s not a collaboration where you only get a percentage, it’s all ours.
SC.SD. How do you go about marketing your business to reach your target audience?
SK. We have two tiers of customers really so the top tier is a 40-60 year old lady, her average price per purchase is between £80 and £100, she doesn’t use Instagram and she wouldn’t think twice about spending £200 on a golden wedding anniversary present. She’s difficult to reach though so that’s why the shows are important because that’s where they hang out! They’re referral heavy, they want a trusted brand, they want to know that they’ve seen you in Homes and Gardens or at a show or their friends got one… then they’ll buy. We’re not Harvey Nicks, we’re not John Lewis, we’re something different that can offer that quality and thoughtfulness but they need to know that they can trust you first.
The next tier is 30-40 year old women who use Instagram, not so much Facebook, they shop online and are probably going to split a gift whether that’s a new home gift, a wedding gift, an anniversary gift…
When I met that consultant last January as I was writing the business plan, it’s terrifying because you’re in your bubble that when someone actually looks at your business and says, “who is your customer?” they don’t want to hear, “she’s around fifty with money to spend.” This lady was like, “how old is she?” so I was like, “errr…45.” “How many kids does she have?” “errr… she has three!” “Where does she shop?” “She shops at John Lewis and Whistles” When you walk away, suddenly you’re like, ‘ah, ok… they use gift boxes and they tissue wrap their gifts so I need to start doing that. It’s really scary because they make you sound like you don’t know your business and customer but in doing that, they test you and suddenly you know your business better.
I had a chat with a marketing consultant the other day and she said, “who’s your customer?” so I said, “she’s 45, she’s called Elizabeth, she’s got 2 dogs, she has an aga!” This woman was like…
SC.SD. “Alright, calm down love!?”
SK. Exactly! “Geez, you really know your customer…!”
SC.SD. Let’s move on to your personal life… How did those closest to you react when you launched your business and have any relationships been affected for the better or worse because of your decision to launch it?
SK. Everyone’s been so supportive. Obviously the first few customers were family and friends…
SC.SD. I’d expect nothing less!
SK. It’s actually when you get out of that and strangers buy it that you know it works! My family have been so supportive though and I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to go to them and borrow a little bit of money here and there when I’ve needed it. I’ve invested every penny I’ve ever earned, saved or had into this business.
Relationships have come and gone along the way but my partner now is just the most amazing guy. He was the one that booked my hair appointment and when he told me I was like, “how do you know where I go?” Turns out I’d sent him a picture of me at the hairdresser’s before, he’d asked my friend where I went, he then went in, showed them the picture and said, “I’d like this lady to cut my girlfriend’s hair please!”
SC.SD. Oh my gosh! That’s adorable!
SK. I know! I’ve just been a bit stressed recently and looked rubbish so he treated me to cheer me up! He’s got his own business as well so he gets it whereas in previous relationships, I’ve had a lot of, “what’s the big deal? Why is it so hard?”
SC.SD. Where do you turn to for support in a business sense?
SK. It’s a tricky one. I obviously saw that consultant last year but it’s expensive. I remember paying £1000 for three meetings. I turn to my Uncle a bit, I talk to a lot of people and ask a lot of questions and if I’m at a show, I talk to my stand neighbours and ask things like how do they market their products? Do they do digital marketing? Who do they turn to for advice?
I used to go to so many talks and tutorials at the beginning because I started this business not knowing anything about how to run a business, bootstrapping, taking advice… Some have been terrible, some have been incredible! I always ask questions at events though because when you put your hand up, you can say, “I’m Sophie and I’m the Founder of Atlas & I which is a personalised gifting company” and then everyone in that room knows who you are! Who knows, you might get more clicks on the website the next day!
Sometimes you really can’t be bothered to go though! I was at an event on Monday night for instance, got home, sat on the bed and was complaining about how much I didn’t want to go but Tom was like, “just go! Nothing ventured, nothing gained” and it’s so true!
SC.SD. Rounding up then, do you have a favourite quote?
SK. I do and it’s so lame because it’s on my alarm…! We watched Churchill the other day and so it’s, “success is not final, failure is not fatal, it’s the courage to continue that counts.”
SC.SD. That pops up every morning!?
SK. Yeh! My morning motivation! It’s just that reminder that if you’re having a bad week, it won’t last and it’s not fatal.
SC.SD. Very true! What about your end goals for Atlas & I and do you see yourself running this business forever?
SK. No. I’ve been to a lot of talks about investment recently and everyone says, “why would you invest if there’s not a buy out?” Not that having an investor makes me want to sell now but through building the website, we now have a very sellable entity. Before, the maps were in my head. I can’t sell myself (!) so now it’s scalable, it’s sellable… that’s so hard to say!
SC.SD. I’ve got a lisp so I’m not even going to bother trying!
SK. If I do sell though, I’d set up another business…
SC.SD. Does the thought of going back to square one scare you at all?
SK. No because I think I’ve learnt so much! I’d at least go into consulting to help others and put my knowledge to good use because coming up with the idea is the easy part. Implementing that idea is the hard bit. I mean the developers cost £50 an hour so even if I want to change anything, it costs money!
SC.SD. I’m so in the wrong industry!
SK. I know! My children are definitely becoming developers! But yeh, I have so many ideas! It’s just learning to channel that.
SC.SD. But you’re excited?
SK. Now that the website is up and running, I can now start on ideas that have been taking over my mind for the past few months! I’m exhausted but yes, so excited!
I’ve interviewed the founders of a few personalised gifting companies now and truth be told, I wasn’t expecting this interview to pan out the way it did.
In part, I think the sheer scale of resources needed to provide a personalised map service caught me off guard, but on top of that I’d underestimated how complex the process to automate it all would be.
From treating Atlas & I as a side hustle alongside a full-time job in the early days; the opportunities for growth that presented themselves as a result of her willingness to say “yes” to her refusal to simply settle for a process that was hindering the company’s growth (and her readiness to take risks that developed with automating her business accordingly); Sophie’s story demonstrates how quickly momentum can build in a business, as she has transformed what was essentially a crafty solution to being skint at Christmas, into an attractive investment for buyers as and when she opts to sell.
I also appreciated the lesson provided by forty-five year old dog lover Elizabeth (!) and the importance Sophie placed on knowing who your customer really is!
And yes, whilst growth comes with, at times, uncomfortable responsibility – Sophie now has a team relying on her and an investor to answer to – she has not once shied away, no matter how testing the circumstances have been and as a result, has enjoyed the highs that follow when she’s come out the other side.
Determined and gutsy with the ability to hold her nerve, I will be intrigued to see what Sophie comes up with next.