Now technically if we’re being pedantic, I shouldn’t be interviewing Hayley Southwood. At 41, she’s a year older than the original She can. She did. age threshold…
(You know that one where I got on my high horse and said women in their teens, twenties and thirties only?!)
However, having started her first business at 25 and created many more along the way, there are so many twists and turns in her story – both tragic and uplifting- that have shaped her into the champion for self-made business woman that she is today; that quite frankly, make me SO up for telling my rules where to stick it just this once.
It’s Monday 16th October and though this interview took place less than fifteen minutes from my house, I still managed to get lost en route… After a frantic call to Hayley for directions however, I pull up outside the Southwood Stores showroom – a converted barn in the middle of the Buckinghamshire countryside – to meet the lady herself and her four legged friend, Sid.
Grab yourself a cuppa for this one because she’s been on quite some journey.
Hayley Southwood. I warn you now I could talk forever!
She can. She did. The ramblier the better in my opinion!
I think it would be fair to say that Hayley’s path to where she is now has been anything but straightforward. Married at 20 to her high school sweetheart, Paul, with two sons by the age of 23, in her own words, they “did everything backwards”.
HS. To be really honest, I wanted a family. We had a really chaotic upbringing. My Mum was married three times; my step dad was an alcoholic… so I just wanted a family.
SC.SD. Some stability?
HS. Yeh definitely. My world was quite insular, I wasn’t really exposed to much. I was never particularly good at anything in school, I was just mediocre. The only thing I loved was art but again, I didn’t excel at it, I just liked it so thought window dressing would be cool.
With her Mum against the idea however, Hayley enrolled at Milton Keynes College to study nursery nursing.
HS. Mum was like “no, it’s not a proper job, you need a trade… go into Nursery Childcare and then you can become a teacher or midwife.” It was ok but it was never my thing. I decided to open up a nursery school with my best friend Sally though (who still runs it today)… I was only 25 which felt really scary.
I never went on to do midwifery or teaching though because Paul was working full-time, we had two babies under three, we didn’t have any money…Paul was also studying for an MSC at the time.
SC.SD. Sounds like you had enough on your plate…!
HS. It was mental! We were a young couple just trying to make money. I look back now and my sons are 20 and 18, there is no way I can imagine them doing that now so it’s quite crazy really.
When Hayley was 32, her Mum was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and overnight her priorities shifted.
HS. I moved back to look after my Mum and during that time she said, ‘”I know you’re not happy in your job, why don’t you think about doing something else? I’ll help you.” To be honest though, I really wasn’t in the right frame of mind. My Mum was dying. She only lived for ten months and in that time she tried to commit suicide… it was really horrific and I just thought ‘I don’t care about work, I don’t care about anything…’
SC.SD. I think that’s completely understandable…
HS. It was mental.
In the year that followed her Mum’s death, it would be fair to say that Hayley lost her sense of self.
HS. I didn’t have depression as such but I hated who I was. I’m always jolly and I’ve never ever felt so out of control… I just didn’t recognise myself.
It was whilst in this phase that Hayley went on eBay one evening and when her husband went off to the pub that night, he returned to find that she had spent £4000 – money her Mum had left her – on a vintage ice cream van…
SC.SD. Just out of the blue?
HS. Completely random! Paul came home and he was like “You’ve fucking lost the plot! What are you doing?!” I was at my wits’ ends really and I never really thought of it as a business- I just wanted it to be pretty. I had no idea how much it would cost to do a van up but it was at that time, nine years ago, when no one had really heard of Cath Kidston but it was coming…
SC.SD. And it became massive didn’t it?
HS. Huge! So I just said to Paul “I’m just going to do it up and drive it around” and he was like “oh my god, you are so embarrassing, what are our friends going to think?!” but I just didn’t care. We’re such a tight unit, my husband, my boys and I but I think because I was grieving, at that point I was at my very worst and I wasn’t thinking of anyone else but myself. I think he went along with it because I was so low though so we started doing the van up as a family.
SC.SD. I can imagine that being quite a therapeutic journey together…
HS. It really was. We were in a really small space, laughing together and it became so cathartic.
At the time the vintage look was on the rise and whilst she free-lanced at a local nursery in Milton Keynes, as a family, the van was transformed into what became the renowned and multi-award winning – because it was the first of its kind – Vintage Ice Cream Van. When Country Home Magazine launched their ‘New Business of the Year’ awards in 2010, before the business was even up and running, Hayley entered the competition.
HS. We were kind of the first people to start doing that… a pretty van. They phoned me up and said “we really like your application, but everyone else has sent profiles and folders… you’ve just handwritten your application…” I literally wrote at the bottom “I’M SO EXCITED” in capital letters! They wanted me to send more but I had nothing more… it was just an idea but in the end, I won that competition and that propelled me into making it into a business!
SC.SD. That’s such an incredible story!
HS. I kept feeling like it was a gift from my Mum, like she was making it all happen…
The prize included £6000 worth of marketing and PR which helped Hayley design a new website and soon enough the van was travelling the country for wedding and events. It was the additional prize of six over-the-phone coaching sessions with the well-known life coach Jessica Rogers, however, which proved most valuable.
HS. I didn’t want to do it! It was so out of my comfort zone but it completely changed everything… The way I saw myself, the way I described myself, my self-worth and it made me realise that the van could be a business and I deserved it to be a business. Although I had my nursery, I never saw it that I owned a business and I wasn’t really in love with it.
SC.SD. What did the life coach say to you to make such a huge impact?
HS. She’d say things like “how would you describe yourself?” and I’d say “dizzy, unorganised, scatty…” I think back now and I haven’t used those words since.
SC.SD. How would you describe yourself now then?
HS. I’d say I’m creative, I’m a quick paced thinker, I’m resilient, all the words I used to describe myself as are nothing like they are now. I think because it was over the phone, I could be really open and just said it how it is. I had nothing to lose.
SC.SD. You could always hang up if it went badly!?
HS. Exactly! But I absolutely loved it; she was the most valuable thing really because she changed how I thought about myself.
It was around this time that Twitter started to gain traction and Hayley – quick to embrace new trends – used the app to tweet about the story behind the van, her Mum and her journey through grief.
HS. I remember being in my kitchen and Jo Malone tweeted me once saying “I love what you’re doing” and I wet myself! I was like “Oh my god!! Jo Malone has tweeted me!” She gave me so much advice and really helped me; a bit like a mentor I suppose although at the time I wouldn’t have known it was mentoring!
The story quickly gained traction and almost overnight, The Vintage Ice Cream Van and Hayley’s story had made it into over 100 magazines and was featuring on all the top wedding blogs. Aware that it was very much a seasonal business though, after noticing a gap in the market for social media and PR, Hayley seized the opportunity to offer social media services to other business owners in the winter months.
HS. I just started saying: “look social media is amazing, let me start helping you. I’ll do it for free for a few months!” I ended up with about 10 different accounts… I was just fearless, throwing myself into anything and everything.
At the same time, Hayley started reaching out to other girls in the wedding industry and soon enough a small group began to collaborate for photo shoots in which all their businesses featured. It was here that she met Shaneen Rosewarne Cox who having lost both her Mum and brother within a year of Hayley’s Mum dying, quickly became a close friend and ally.
HS. We had the same mind set when we met. We were just like “fuck it, let’s just do this!” Nothing scared us so we started our blog – “Breathe Happiness” – together and just said, “let’s just tell everyone you don’t need to have qualifications in every single thing… you just have to be brave, put yourself forward and try stuff to find your thing” As corny as it sounds, life is so damn short and looking back at my Mum, she was 53 when she died and she didn’t do what she wanted to do. So I just felt compelled to live my live as happy and full and rich in experiences for her.
SC.SD. Is that still the principle that carries you today?
HS. Absolutely! We’re only here once, there’s no point in wasting your time! It’s been a really long journey for me but I don’t spend my time with anyone I don’t want to see, I don’t do any job I don’t want to do, I spend every minute with people that inspire me…
Hayley continued to pay for life coaching after the six, prize sessions expired and to this day, credits Jessica’s ongoing support and guidance as integral to her growth- both personally and professionally.
HS. I remember her challenging me once to spend time with hugely successful women and I remember thinking ‘don’t be ridiculous!’ I’m from Bletchley; I don’t know anyone like that. But it’s so interesting because once you change your mind set and go for coffee with people like that, you realise that we’re all the same.
SC.SD. That sounds like a really intimidating challenge…!
HS. See it’s funny because I just don’t see it like that anymore but if I think about how I did it at the time, I was probably shitting myself! But it was just a case of being brave and saying “do you fancy going for a coffee?” I’d already gained social media followers so I had that but physically putting myself out there scared me. It’s so easy to constantly think ‘oh they’re older than me, they’re wiser than me, they’ve got an amazing business…’ but people are just people and we’ve all got insecurities.
SC.SD. I’ve really noticed that from this project actually. Social media makes everything look flawless but actually everyone’s had their ups and downs and baggage to get to where they want to be…
HS. Absolutely, of course they have and if it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s interesting really!
After three summers of running the van and newfound success with her on going PR business, Hayley decided to put the ice cream van up for sale, advertising it on Twitter for four times the price she originally paid. With five couples interested, Hayley interviewed them all and eventually sold the business to a daughter and mother duo who had just lost their Dad/Husband.
HS. I felt like the van was going somewhere really good. It sounds stupid but I saw it as a gift, a bit like Lassie! Going to the next person like it was meant to be!
SC.SD. Was it hard letting it go?
HS. I was so ready, it was weird. I never wanted to be an ice cream lady – at that point I still didn’t know what I wanted to do – but I felt like I’d moved on. It was the same with social media, I’m not techy I just like telling stories and helping other people so I knew that’s not what I wanted to do either.
It was only when Shaneen and Hayley’s blog picked up and started winning awards that the idea for Southwood Stores– an online Scandinavian home ware store- emerged four years ago.
HS. I’ve always had to earn a wage so we monetised the blog with sponsors and adverts from the outset and but then people started to ask me things like: “where did you buy that vase? Where did you buy your coffee table?” etc… and I thought ‘hang on a minute, maybe this is something else I can do…!’
At the time Instagram shops were few and far between so setting aside £1000 for initial stock, Hayley went in with the mentality that if it didn’t work, her friends and family would be receiving a whole lot of Scandinavian-inspired gifts for Christmas that year!
SC.SD. So a completely different style to the vintage prints?
HS. Exactly! When the van finished I was so over cupcakes and vintage! I just needed to clear my head!
SC.SD. I can imagine! Where did you source your stock?
HS. I went to tradeshows but at the time, no one wanted to sell to a shop online, they wanted bricks and mortar! It was so hard to convince them so I bought really small, limited amounts of stock. It’s a vicious circle because you have to have certain brands on your website before other brands agree but now the brands that turned me down originally are begging me to sell! It’s fair enough though because why would they?
SC.SD. I guess you have to prove your credibility first…
Originally, Hayley stored all stock in her conservatory, wrapping everything on the kitchen table but quickly bought a small outbuilding for the end of her garden.
HS. I got really brave and bought a shed… well it was more like a lodge… I made it look beautiful but I outgrew that space within 9 months! That’s the only thing I’d say. I wasn’t brave enough to get a building, I didn’t have enough money but I should have just gone for it. It was only when I was out with a friend about a year and a half ago, I just thought, ‘fuck it, I’m going to rent a space!’
SC.SD. Love that! Let’s move on to your networking group…
Alongside Southwood Stores, Hayley runs Southwood Social Hub – a members only Hub costing £20 per month, that inspires and empowers women in business.
SC.SD. What inspired you to launch it?
HS. When I was in my garden shed, it was so lonely. I’m a real people person. I had owned a nursery school, then my ice cream van, did all the social media for all these businesses and then it was just me in my shed and it was soul destroying.
Hosting the first networking event in her garden with 5 or 6 members, the second meeting at a local pub (which happens to be on my local high street!) attracted 40 people from across the country.
HS. It was then that I decided to make it into a business. People need this! There are all these amazing women with skill sets to share and we can all help each other.
SC.SD. I couldn’t agree more! And it conquers the fact that being self-employed can be so solitary?
A year into launching SSH, Hayley won a place with MK Entrepreneurial Spark – a local business accelerator course- who soon inspired her to monetise the Hub.
HS. She helped me to work out that I was earning a pittance as an hourly rate and I just felt like “that’s it then, it’s a waste of time.”
It was only when the advisor found out how long she was spending on the Hub and what the Hub’s purpose was that she convinced Hayley that it was well worth monetising.
SC.SD. Given that it was free initially, how did members react when they suddenly had to pay for the service?
HS. I was really honest with them, I just said, “I want it to be slick and I want it to be valuable.” It had grown so quickly that I didn’t know who was in it anymore so it didn’t feel safe. Some people were a bit miffed but the people that stayed say they’re proud of what I’ve done and they get more from it now that they’re paying.
It’s capped at 250 members so it’s a number I can really service and they’re great- they’re a real sisterhood.
SC.SD. What do you prefer working on? The shop or the Hub?
HS. The Hub is my baby! I love the shop and I’ll never let it go but The Hub is what I’m all about. It feels like a full circle. I can help other women – this sounds so corny! – but to really reach their goals and we can all nurture each other. There’s a real element of trust!
With members from industries across the board and from countries as far away as New Zealand, Hayley hosts pop up events and workshops around the UK too, for members who aren’t local.
SC.SD. And I guess they become friends too?
HS. They really do! It’s a real community. I am so heart on my sleeve… I’ve got great connections that I’ve worked really hard for and I’m happy to share them…
SC.SD. Networking is such a valuable skill though.
HS. 100%. If I rewind there’s been tears and tantrums with cash flow problems but actually if I fast forward, I would never swap my connections and their knowledge for an investment… but that’s really hard to tell someone at the beginning and I totally get that!
SC.SD. You mentioned cash flow problems… have you had any days where you’ve just thought ‘I just can’t do this anymore’?
HS. Loads! The reality of being self-employed is that no one saves you. Retail is hideous! You’re as good as your day before and you’ve got people to pay and it’s a scary responsibility.
At the beginning you initially make some money but then you can’t grow, so there’s a middle section where you need a cash injection and that was so hard because I didn’t have anyone to give me a cash injection! I didn’t want to borrow anything and that’s really tough. To keep going, not pay yourself much money and just try and trust that it will eventually come.
SC.SD. How did you get through that?
HS. Erm… perseverance. Talking to people, networking and just asking “am I normal?!”
I think people that do go self-employed have to admit that it is about pivoting. It’s about making revenue from whichever stream you can and if you are one of those people that need to plan it out until it’s perfect, it’s never going work. You’ve got to be willing to lose. Right from the beginning with Shaneen and the blog, we were like “what happens if it doesn’t work?” Well what happens if it doesn’t work?!
SC.SD. And you truly went in with that mind-set?
HS. We truly believed that. That’s what I think loss does to you because the worst thing has already happened. I’ve watched my Mum in pain, I watched her die, I was holding her hand… Nothing can get worse than that so a little bit of money… so what?
Sid, Hayley’s gorgeous little dog, chooses this moment to fart and instantly we’re laughing!
HS. SID! Oh my godddd!! I got him the day my Mum died to distract the boys. I felt like she’d done that too. I had this puppy on my lap for two weeks and I didn’t move from the floor but he was so good…
SC.SD. Honestly, I’m such an animal person, dogs are amazing like that. Let’s move on to friendships- how have they changed as you’ve got more successful?
HS. Hmmmm haha…
SC.SD. Go for it!
HS. So my relationship with my husband and my kids is amazing- they are so proud and supportive. Friendships have really changed though. I’ve lost friends, I’ve gained friends, and it’s not through anyone’s fault really. I guess I moved out of their circle and all of a sudden I was going to do talks somewhere, I was no longer a school gate Mum.
SC.SD. And going for coffee with the rich, successful, business women!
HS. Exactly! Exposing myself to people that think differently, act differently, people that are brave… it’s interesting because the friends I didn’t perhaps value as much are the friends that have actually turned out to be my most valuable friends.
SC.SD. It’s a common theme though. The minute you put yourself out there, you instantly expose yourself to opinions…
HS. Exactly. At the time I didn’t understand it but looking back perhaps they were a bit jealous. I felt a bit angry and let down then but now I think we just grew apart, our lives went in different directions.
SC.SD. That’s the thing though, there is a whole world out there for women to explore and once you get a taste of that, it’s hard to settle…
Sid farts again…
SC.SD. Oh blimey, he does stink doesn’t he?!
HS. He’s so gross! I’m so sorry! It’s really tricky but Paul’s my best friend and I love the friends I’ve got now. They’re really strong, confident women that are rich in experiences and they’re people I want to be around and it’s that corny saying of ‘you are who you spend your time with’ and I really believe that. If you’re the type of person that sees that and gets jealous then you’re never going to achieve.
SC.SD. 100%. Right, high points!?
HS. Do you know what? It’s so hard because every single week something amazing happens and I always try and write it down but then forget and I get so cross with myself! I’ll do the most recent one, I spoke at the Festival of Marketing last week on a panel with Katy Hill who’s one of my best friends, Carrie Longton, the co-owner of Mumsnet and a lady called Suki Thompson who’s a mega business women talking about being a Mum in business and I just thought ‘this is mental!’. I just sat there pinching myself so that was a massive high point.
SC.SD. That’s incredible! And I saw you met Jamie what’s-his-name from Love Island who is just the dream!
HS. Hahaha I was like “HELLO!” Bless him, he was eating his lunch! There’s so many highs though.
SC.SD. The fact you have that feeling every week says something…
HS. I just feel so lucky to be alive! I really do try and write as much of it down though because when you’re self-employed there’s no one to say “you’ve done really well this month”. I’ve also started doing the ‘Miracle Morning’.
SC.SD. Go on…
HS. Basically, the guy running it says 95% of the population are happy with mediocrity and 5% of the population want to be like athletes and massively successful. He challenges you to get up an hour before you normally get up; you have to do visualisation, meditation, exercise and scribing but it’s so interesting because it makes you really look at yourself and set goals
I feel 100 times better for doing it and when I don’t do it I feel really shitty. You’ll have to try it!
SC.SD. I will definitely look into that! Anything else you do to switch off?
HS. I go to the gym 4 to 5 times a week and that’s probably the only time I do switch off. I just focus on the teacher and nothing else because I’ve got such bad rhythm! They go right, I go left, my friends always like “you’re making me sea sick, I can’t look at you!” so that’s funny. The whole reason I do this all is to have a nice life that I’m happy with and I love my job, I really, really love it.
SC.SD. I can tell! Last two questions then… where do yourself in 5-10 years’ time and can you see yourself doing this forever?
HS. Ok… five years’ time I would love a project that I’m working on with the Hub to be off the ground…
SC.SD. Is that top secret?!
HS. For now, yeh…! My husband has always been the provider and has never had any time off so in 10 years’ time, I think my biggest goal is to earn enough money to be able to say “Paul, you can take a year off”. I pray that will happen one day but that would be massive.
As for doing these forever, I’ll never stop working! I’m all about pivoting though so nothing will stay the same. I don’t know what it looks like but it’s all about growing this. I’m very reactive so with the shop, it’s definitely a social media store so how it works depends on the future of social media… I’m always looking for the next thing. And the Hub is definitely amazing so we’ll just see where it goes… I’ll probably be running an old peoples home!
It just goes full circle back to the whole reason I do this though and it’s in honour of Mum. Life is too short and she didn’t get to do any of this so whether that means I can help my boys with their uni fees, I want to push myself so that they’re proud of me…
SC.SD. By the sounds of it they are…
HS. Yeh they are but it’s that whole thing about leaving behind a legacy and no matter what business it is, I want my family to be proud.
Something tells me Hayley doesn’t have to worry about that and as I leave the barn, her favourite quote sticks with me.
HS. “She invented a life, she loved.”
Having been through what I can only imagine to be pure hell, Hayley’s emerged on the other side stronger and more fearless than ever before. There’s a raw honesty in every word she speaks and I could tell as we talked that there were simply no barriers held.
Re-evaluating her self-worth following the death of her Mum, she’s (genuinely) mastered the art of when to throw herself in at the deep end and when to say “no” and refuses to settle for anything less than she deserves.
And what makes me respect her even more?
She’s so willing to share her story to help prevent other girls (like you and me) from making her mistakes. Having been a proud member of the Southwood Social Hub for all of two days now (three by the time you read this), the respect each member has for her is clear to see.
Through the power of pivoting, she has embraced every opportunity and hurdle that’s been thrown her way and as a result, has created a life that fulfils her in whole.
It’s a story of stamina, agility and a determination like no other.
I am left in no doubt that her Mum would be proud.
For more information on Southwood Stores, visit the website or find them on Instagram at @southwoodstores For more information on Southwood Social Hub, have a peek at the website or find the girls on Instagram: @southwoodsocialhub