It’s 10am on Thursday 24th August and I’m sat in a very crowded, outdoor terrace at Caravan, the industrial looking barista and restaurant in Granary Square, London. I’m here to meet Lucy Smith, the 31 year old Founder of Postcards Home– an online treasure chest selling unique homeware and gifts inspired by her travels and design from around the world.
I first discovered Lucy in an Elle article from November last year listing her as one of ’23 Female Entrepreneurs Under 30 Who Are Bossing Life.’ Having gone on to fall in love with pretty much every cushion on her website- before I gave up my salary, homeware was definitely my weakness- I immediately wanted to meet her to find out what goes into creating such a distinctive brand.
To my relief, she arrives a few moments later and finds me immediately. Her jacket is covered in monkeys. My T-shirt is littered with dinosaurs.
I can tell we’re going to get along.
After the usual hello’s and how are you’s, we order much-needed coffees, the iPhone recorder starts to work its magic (very professional I know) and the natter begins.
She Can. She Did. I absolutely love the name Postcards Home– how did you come up with it?
Lucy Smith. Thank you! Basically, I knew that I wanted it to be around postcards. I had the idea that I wanted every item I sold- when people looked at it- to transport them back to that place. Almost like a sort of wish you were here moment!
SC.SD. So it’s a bit like when I look at my travelling pants I think of getting lost in Asia…
LS. Exactly! I’ll admit that the ‘Home’ bit was really contrived though. I wanted a searchable term and knew that if I put ‘home’ into the title of the company it would improve my SEO but now I would say that every single person in the world calls the company ‘Postcards at Home’. I’m like that’s not the name!! It was definitely created in a moment of contrived panic but I love it!
It is fair to say that Lucy’s career history definitely helped to pave the way for Postcards Home. Having studied History of Art, Design and Philosophy at UCL and specialised in contemporary art and graffiti- a decision that has since proved useful- Lucy secured back to back roles in marketing and brand management from the moment she graduated, beginning her career at a start-up smoothie company.
SC.SD. Do you think you got the bug for start-ups at the smoothie company? Because there is a different vibe at a start-up isn’t there?
LS. Absolutely! It was quite nice because I didn’t own that one so I got to play around a bit more with ideas with a lot less anxiety than I do now that it’s my own company! They started as a market stall in Borough Market and are now a multi-national company, I’m really proud of them. Then after six years there, I moved to Unilever.
SC.SD. So the complete opposite end of the spectrum then! Corporate, huge…
LS. Completely corporate and huge but I thought it would be useful to learn best practice there and see what you can do with a bigger budget. I was working on huge brands and the budgets were so exciting because with a start-up you’re so aware of the ROI that you need but at Unilever, bless them, I’d get a 3 million pound budget to develop a product that never made it onto the shelf!
SC.SD. That’s madness but I can’t say that I’m surprised! So you clearly gained lots of experience- where did the idea for Postcards Home stem from then?
LS. My husband works in tech marketing…
SC.SD. Recent husband I’ve seen- congratulations!
LS. Recent husband yes, thank you very much! I’ve just about got used to calling him that! Anyway he works in tech development and was opening an office in Kerala in India so had to move out there for six months. We’re both techies so I thought ‘this is great, I will definitely come out with you!’
Lucy went on to explain that Kerala, unlike other areas of India where women can be marginalised, is full of female entrepreneurs who owned multiple businesses. My ignorance led me to ask whether these businesses were essentially various market stalls.
LS. No, I can see why you’d think that but they’re so digital out there. They have this thing called ‘Techno Park’ which is essentially the Indian Silicon Valley. I met so many female entrepreneurs and they were all just super fearless. It’s a completely different atmosphere- the UK is set up well for support and funding and help but I think in India there are less regulations which is useful in a way so it’s fairly straightforward to start your own business there.
SC.SD. So you were inspired to set a business up yourself?
LS. Exactly, I was meeting loads of women who were like “I have my own fashion label”, “I have this, I have that” and I thought ‘this is pretty awesome, you have to come out of this six month sabbatical with something’ so I set up a site.
SC.SD. So it was quite organic then?
LS. Organic but also well founded because I’d developed some solid foundations for knowing marketing, branding and product development and working with designers in my previous career so it sort of made sense!
The decision to launch Postcards Home ended Lucy’s sabbatical. Whilst she was still in India, she spent her remaining time there meeting with various design teams sourcing products to sell.
LS. I came across this amazing company called ‘Safomasi’ who are a couple based in Delhi. I felt at the time people looked at Indian design and had quite antiquated ideas in their heads of what it means…
SC.SD. That’s probably me right now to be honest. I think really rich colours, little mirrors, very traditional…
LS. Exactly! And I love that, it’s so beautiful. But I was really interested in contemporary design using traditional methods and wanted to work with artisans. ‘Safomasi’ are definitely that.
The second company Lucy reached out to were called ‘40 Red Bangles’ who whilst based in Singapore, worked with artisans in India and supported an Indian charity too.
LS. I thought ok this could be interesting, I’d like to work with social enterprises and marginalised women…. And it spiralled from there, going to tradeshows, recommendations from people etc… For me it’s about building a collection that works together. They’re colourful and travel inspired bringing different colours and cultures to your home.
SC.SD. What were those first few months like for you? You’re in a new country, you don’t have friends and family around, you’ve just started a new business?
LS. At the beginning, it’s very quiet and you’re by yourself so you start questioning am I just talking to myself!? Especially moving from advertising which is so fast paced! Essentially you’re just in a cave until you start to get traction and then you feel like you’re part of a community. Luckily I was working with external design teams and wasn’t selling my own products, I think that would have been a lot scarier.
SC.SD. So they had a vested interest in it doing well?
LS. Totally and it made me feel like I had a team around me which was really nice.
SC.SD. I can imagine! I noticed that on your website it states that all of your collections are sustainably and ethically produced. When you import so many goods, how do you ensure that this is the case?
LS. I really, really research how they do things and make sure that I understand the process more than anything. I also draw a lot from my time at Unilever as their sustainability strategy was amazing.
A lot of the design teams aren’t certified as fair trade and at the beginning I thought that’s really bad but the more I researched the more I understood that it’s really tricky to become certified- especially globally because they have to tick multiple boxes and pay for it as well- so I agreed that as long as I understand where these products are being made and who’s making them, I’m pretty confident.
It’s a really scary reality that you could be working with a designer that was in anyway using a policy that we didn’t agree with but it’s something that I’ve always been aware of and they’re so transparent and that gives me confidence.
SC.SD. For sure. What about your margins?
LS. My margin is no way near what people think it will be! I think people think I must buy our products for pennies but it’s just not the case as we’re trying to create a working environment that is fair pay.
There’s two consumer misconceptions about imported goods. 1. That they’ll be really cheap and 2. That they’ll be perfect. Western culture has a very factory made product funnel so we expect perfection which isn’t necessarily wrong but all of our products are handmade so we have to issue a disclaimer explaining that there might be a colour difference, chips etc…
SC.SD. They’re unique though which is always a good thing! Let’s talk logistics- you’re in India and you want to bring these products back to the UK. Did you know how to import goods? I wouldn’t have a clue!
LS. I had experience at the Smoothie company importing fruits so I guess I had a slight feeling for what I had to do but I had to rely heavily on the designers because I hadn’t done it before. For me, it was just about getting it over in the cheapest way.
SC.SD. So you learnt as you went on?
LS. Very much so. I’ve definitely made mistakes in the time the company has been run and the only way I deal with them is to just really hold my hands up immediately and be like “I’m sorry, I had no idea, I didn’t mean to do that” and normally people understand! (As long as there’s emails for proof!)
SC.SD. So the learning is continuous then?
LS. Completely! Which is nice because I like understanding everything. Sometimes you just don’t know when you’re getting it badly wrong so you just have to wait until someone tells you and rectify it immediately.
SC.SD. How do you find being the final decision maker?
LS. It can be tough. If I don’t understand what the person is doing I can’t make the decision so that can be relentless, just having to learn stuff all the time…. I was on a call this morning and said to the guy I’m just going to have to call you back once I’ve googled everything you’ve just said!
SC.SD. Good old google! Do you ever switch off?
LS. I’m quite happy to just stay switched on. My husband is very much the same- when we were on our honeymoon we both had our laptops and I know that some people would think god that sounds bleak but for us it’s just how we are!
Lucy also keeps a notebook by her bed so that she can write down any ideas that come to her at night.
SC.SD. It’s different when you enjoy it.
LS. Exactly, I do feel the pressure but because it’s for myself, I’m in control of it. When I was in advertising, you’re fighting fires everywhere and you don’t know where the next fire is going to come from but now I’m pretty confident if something came in, I know exactly what I’d need to juggle to make it work. So whilst there might be more pressure, it’s less stressful.
SC.SD. Have you had any moments along the way that have made you question the business?
LS. There’s been loads! I take any complaints very personally. But I do feel as though we can turn any complaint around to a positive. They’re never anything that can’t be solved, it’s usually something like ‘this isn’t what I thought I’d ordered’ but I think I’m lucky in that we can drop everything and give them amazing customer service- like the best customer service they’ve ever got- and actually people are so nice.
SC.SD. That’s all they want to hear really!
LS. People always come round. They’re always my low points but we get them so few and far between that it’s ok.
I’ve always had quite high standards of what drives me so when people say I’m doing really well that doesn’t drive me. I need people to say I’m not doing things well so that in 5 to 10 years I can be like this is what good looks like. So in those moments, I tell myself ‘this is what it feels like before things go right!’
SC.SD. Your own personal nadir then! Who do you turn to for support?
LS. Other small business networks have been amazing!
Lucy often goes out for coffee with fellow entrepreneurs.
SC.SD. Do you not see them as the competition?
LS. I don’t really see anyone as competition. The category is big enough in homeware that we’re never going to compete with the big brands so we band together as the small independents! We’re just brutally honest about how things are going and I love that. You realise we’re all having slow summer sales!
SC.SD. So it’s helpful and supportive?
LS. Yes, like a sorority!
SC.SD. What about business networking events?
LS. Yes I go to quite a lot, mostly start up accelerator seminars run by the likes of Google, KPMG, Shopify etc… even if you meet just one person they’re worth it. It’s helpful to see what apps people are using, what revenue people are driving, I should do more really!
SC.SD. Amazing! Have any of your friendships or relationships with people changed as the business has taken off?
LS. So many of my friends have their own businesses! I have a massive over-achieving group of friends who are incredibly successful so I don’t really see myself as successful. One of my best friends for instance, got an MBE last year for her services to business!
SC.SD. Wow! Good for her! I think that’s rare though, that you all have your own companies…
LS. I think it’s really rare! Constantly a lot of our dinners turn to business chat. We’re all in different sectors but we often work together and ask things like ‘how are you doing your ads?’ If anything, it’s brought us closer because we get to share so much knowledge.
London is also the kind of place where you can meet for dinner at 9.30pm so I have a very fluid diary which helps. I have a friend who’s an illustrator so we’re going to meet at 11 tomorrow for instance.
SC.SD. In the evening?!
LS. No in the morning!
SC.SD. I was going to say..! Go to bed love!
LS. No no…! But everyone else would obviously be in an office so we can catch each other when we both have a free morning. I’m definitely lucky in that sense because if all my friends were working in 9-5 jobs I probably would feel quite isolated.
SC. SD. So you don’t see yourself as successful in comparison then?
LS. In some ways I do. I have a company, it runs, it’s good and I love it but I’m pretty ambitious… it’d be nice to get to a point where I’m really able to invest in the designers I work with though- that would make me feel successful and I’d be super proud if in 5 years’ time I’d been pivotal in helping them.
SC.SD. So it’s just a case of growing this then?
LS. Massive growth.
SC.SD And money?
LS. Yes completely. Mostly because it proves the longevity of the business! You couldn’t just be creative in this job; you need to care about the figures to keep it going.
SC.SD. Absolutely, and I think it can be easy to forget that. What makes you know you’ve made the right decision setting this up?
LS. Interesting… it’s such a small thing but when I look on social media and see people talking about our products I find that amazing! That the products we have are in the real world and I can see them in the real world- I love that. They’re my weekly highs! And I love when we get big coverage!
SC.SD. You obviously had Elle…. That must have been nice?
LS. Yes that was so nice! I always think it’s hilarious when people do any sort of personal PR on me because I just don’t think I’m that interesting but I love it and I love engaging with other female entrepreneurs. I think it’s so important. Especially because I’m often asked, do you think female entrepreneurs are lacking in confidence? And I’m like, I don’t think we are! I think maybe we’re just less vocal or less covered.
SC.SD. I think that’s what it is. Personally I think that if you do set up your own business you have to have some self-confidence and trust in your own abilities but it’s more that we’re not very good at saying that out loud. People might confuse it with arrogance and there is such a difference.
LS. Yes definitely, and I like having those conversations. It gives you a platform to talk about the things you care about.
SC.SD. Very much so. I read your wedding blog post and your wedding looked amazing- you obviously sourced so much of that from individual designers?
LS. Absolutely, I love the community I work with. I didn’t know you could have a job where you’re just indulging your love of art and design and shopping! It just comes together and I do feel cheeky that I just love what I’m doing. I really just wanted the wedding to reflect what I’ve been banging on about! If Postcards Home has taught me anything, it’s that everything is a story to someone!
SC.SD. 100% As millennials, we’re so nosey nowadays. Are you ever tempted to share more?
LS. It’s a really tricky balance… I don’t know how much I want the company to rely on me as a person; it has its own ethics and opinions. I really thought twice about the wedding blog but knew I had to give the coverage to the designers but I’m never quite sure where the balance is between personal PR and company PR.
SC.SD. Would you ever share your home?
LS. No, my home is very bonkers! I only ever live in places with beams and I love to hang things from them, so at the moment I have a bird cage and lots of fish that I’ve painted in metallic colours- it’s that weird! It’s so not a show home for Postcards Home!
SC.SD. I’m wearing a t-shirt with sparkly dinasours on it, I’m not one to judge!
LS. I love that! I’m all for bonkers and I feel like my home is the one place I really let the bonkers go!
SC.SD. What’s the favourite thing you sell then?
LS. It has to be the Sari bead necklaces because they’re so beautiful. I’m in awe of the process that goes into making them.
Lucy goes on to describe the amazing Indian tradition where a woman goes into a villages and asks the women for second hand or disused saris which she trades for kitchen utensils. The saris are then given to artisans who wrap them up around wooden prayer beads and turn them into a necklace.
SC.SD. That’s incredible. Are you not ever tempted to just say “yes I’ll take one of everything!?”
LS. I do!
SC.SD. I’m so jealous! Last question then….
You know what’s coming….!
SC.SD. What’s your favourite motivational quote?
LS. “Pressure is a privilege!” I have it above my desk and it means a lot to me.
SC.SD. Why so?
LS. One thing I’m really aware of in the start-up world, especially when you’re on your own, is that it can be really daunting to follow through with opportunities at the beginning. But you have to just flip them up on their head and realise that the busier you are the more opportunities there are coming your way! That is such a privilege. I much prefer the times when I’m completely stressed and panicking than the times I’m not. If you can take a moment in those times and be like this is great, I’m being tested, I’m being pushed, this is what it’s all about then it’s really comforting.
SC.SD. From someone that’s just starting out, I really needed to hear that today!
LS. There you go! Pressure is a privilege! I live by it. You’ve got to just ride the wave!
We say our goodbyes at Kings Cross station and Lucy’s final piece of advice sticks with me long after she’s gone.
It would be easy to think that a woman who takes her work laptop on her honeymoon is darn right crazy. She must be wired. She clearly hasn’t got the work/life balance sussed. She doesn’t know how to relax etc…
But with Lucy, it couldn’t be more opposite.
There’s something about her that’s just so cool and I don’t just mean in that cool, edgy way that I will never be…! (Although you can see for yourself in the photos, she’s nailed that too)
She remains level-headed, finding comfort in pressure during the hectic times and has created a career out of everything that she loves- art, design, shopping and tech.
When you put yourself in her shoes, why would you want to switch off from that?
For more information on Postcards Home, visit their website here.