Well aware that the majority of my interviews have taken place in our good old capital (and very conscious that I wanted this blog to cover stories that are UK-wide), after a recommendation from an old friend from uni, it’s Friday 6th October and I find myself Brighton-bound.
I wouldn’t normally volunteer to brave the M25 during the pre-weekend rush hour but after a few emails back and forth with Maria Fox, tonight’s interviewee and the founder of Maria Allen Boutique (she has since married, hence the name change!), a few facts helped to change my mind.
Namely, her business turned over £100,000 before she’d even graduated from uni, she was awarded the Forward Ladies ‘National Women in Business Award for London and the South East’ last year, one of her necklaces features on the notonthehighstreet.com 2017 Christmas advert due out any day now, she’s been invited to Downing Street to talk about small business, the business is on track to turn over half a million pounds this year and if that’s not ‘I-respect-the-hell-out-of-you’ enough already (!) her products have played a part in over 200 marriage proposals…
Whilst I admit that I missed the speedy train into London when traffic came to a standstill on my journey down, something told me this story would be well worth the drive…
Three hours later, I arrive (hurrah!) and with interview snacks in the form of a massive bowl of Lindor truffles sat directly in front of me (I like her instantly) our chat gets underway…
SC.SD. It’s so dangerous putting these in front of me! To start with then, in your own words, what is Maria Allen Boutique?
MF. So we are a personalised jewellery and gift company based here in Hove! We love to use reclaimed British and sustainably sourced wood when we can that has an interesting story behind it and our products are designed, laser cut and finished here in our studio.
SC.SD. I’m so envious that this is where your office is based! Did you grow up here?
MF. So I was actually born in Moscow and then I moved to Brighton when I was 5… bar a year in Warwick, I have pretty much lived here ever since…! I went to uni in Brighton too!
SC.SD. My sister lived in Eastbourne for a year and just loved living down here…
MF. It’s so, so lovely. I go to the gym by Hove sea front each morning and it’s so good to be by the sea.
SC.SD. I’ve already been to the beach this morning! Right let’s talk about where this idea came from…
MF. So technically this isn’t my first business…
Having been creative all her life, favouring art in school, Maria was inspired to start a card business at the age of 14 after making Christmas cards for family and friends…
MF. I gave my friend and her family a Christmas card that I had made and her Dad said along the lines of “that card is so professional, you should sell it” and I kept thinking ‘no, he is just being nice’ but he said “no seriously, that’s really professional, you should sell those”. I didn’t think about it for a while but then I had a look at some craft fairs, how people packaged their cards, how much they were selling them for etc… and thought ‘actually…’
With the idea now in her head, Maria created a portfolio of cards and lacking confidence at that age, asked her Mum to go into Malarkey – a local card store in Brighton– and ask the owner whether he stocks cards made by local artists…
MF. Thankfully, he said he did so that helped me to pluck up the courage to go and see him so I took my little portfolio along and to my amazement he placed an order for 36 cards there and then! And he paid upfront for them!
SC.SD. That must have felt amazing?!
MF. It did! I was so amazed that I’d created something that someone wanted to buy and something that he thought his customers would want to buy. From that moment on, it just sparked something in me. I’d always been creative but I realised that I liked the idea of the business side of things too and this merged them together in a really good way.
So from ages 14 to 18, that one order gave me confidence to approach other shops in Brighton and Hove and I started running that small business and growing it and more people started stocking it…
SC.SD. I can’t get over how young you were! By growing it, how big are we talking?
MF. I was stocking around 30 shops, gallery shops and cafes while I was still at school and college…
SC.SD. Oh my gosh! That’s so impressive! So did you make them in the evenings and weekends?
MF. Yes, so I had several part time jobs as well so I made them in all of my spare time! Weekends, evenings, holidays…
It taught me the very basics of business. Things like how to create an invoice and how to plan in advance… For instance, I knew that for Valentine’s Day customers would be in the shops at a certain time so I’ve got to go and see the buyers at this time so I have time to make it etc… I learnt communication skills with buyers, how to negotiate pricing…
SC.SD. Yes but once you nail the basics, they stay with you don’t they?
MF. They do definitely. I learnt about VAT, and mark-ups and wholesale at such a young age and I’m so grateful for those people back then that talked to me and gave me so much advice.
After leaving sixth form college at 18, Maria went on to complete an art foundation course locally and then enrolled at Brighton University in 2008 to study Graphic Design. It was whilst studying at university that Maria Allen Boutique was born…
MF. I was looking for some really unique yet affordable jewellery in my first year but I couldn’t find any so I just decided to teach myself! I used old jewellery that friends and family didn’t want and then found some unusual charms and lockets in The Lanes (an area in Brighton that’s full of really quirky shops) and just taught myself how to take things apart and put them back together in new designs.
I made a charm bracelet for my friend’s birthday and one for myself too and she loved it and lots of people kept asking her where it was from and I had a part time job at the time too where I wore mine and people would ask me and soon they started placing orders for family and friends and it grew from there!
SC.SD. And this is still first year?
MF. Yes, still first year! So I was making up these orders and kept hearing about this place called Etsy which I now know very well (!) and it seemed low risk to open a shop there. It was only about 15 p to list something at the time so I did my best to take pictures of everything I’d made and then opened a shop and things started selling… it was amazing!
Positive customer feedback encouraged Maria to create more products and not before long, she was inspired to develop her range.
SC.SD. Do you remember the first item you sold?
MF. Yes! It was a little carousel charm necklace. I sold at local craft fairs too so between the two, it started to grow quite naturally.
For extra support and guidance, Maria joined Beepurple – Brighton University’s support network for budding entrepreneurs- and at the end of her second year, went on to win an Enterprise Award.
MF. ‘Bee purple’ was discovered by a scientist who found that bees find the right flowers to make their honey because they see a colour humans can’t so the name Beepurple refers to the fact that entrepreneurs see opportunities others don’t!
The Enterprise Award included a £1000 prize which helped Maria to launch the wholesale side of the business and create a catalogue to showcase her products. Soon enough, bulk orders started coming in…
SC.SD. I look back at my time at uni and nights out and hangovers aside (!) there was a lot of studying too so did it get in the way of your studies?
MF. That’s a good question! It was really tricky balancing the two and my whole mark was only based on our final year which was when the business really took off so the point where the business was growing loads was also the most important time at uni….
SC.SD. That’s the thing, final year for me was just my head in books for hours on end…
MF. Yes, it was so difficult! I didn’t stop the business in my final year but I put the brakes on a bit. I always get loads of ideas but I didn’t let myself develop them! I just thought I’ll keep going with the orders I get but I won’t launch anything new.
I tried to just focus on getting my projects for uni done first and then spent any time left on the business. I never really sat still! I still don’t think I do so it meant that I pretty much had no spare time but I didn’t mind because I really enjoyed it.
It’s safe to say Maria wasn’t your typical student. A normal day at uni involved checking emails on her way in to class and responding to customer enquiries. She’d then go to lectures and concentrate on uni projects spending her lunchtimes relisting items on Etsy, sketching stand plans for fairs and running deliveries to the post office; and then evenings would be spent creating invoices for her wholesale orders and making and packaging orders…
SC.SD. And weekends!?
MF. I’d sell at Spitalfields Market in East London so I’d get up at 5am on Sunday, get there just before 9 – you weren’t always guaranteed a stand so you had to queue and just hope for the best but luckily I always got one – I’d sell my jewellery there all day then get the train home and collapse into bed at 10… and then get up for lectures the next day…!
SC.SD. That’s madness!
And by madness I mean ridiculously impressive…!
MF. I kind of look back and I’m like ‘oh, ok… that’s what I did!?’ I loved it though so I didn’t really mind. There were so many all-nighters when it got close to deadlines and lots of running to the post office in the rain and the snow before it closed though- it really was a constant battle between work and the business!
SC.SD. When did you realise that this could become a fulltime job?
MF. Around second year…
SC.SD. What made you realise that? The money?
MF. Yes… it turned over £100,000 in the three years that I was at uni so I was like ‘ok, this could be my full time job when I graduate’ because I was only spending, I don’t know, maybe half of my time on it.
SC.SD. That’s incredible! How much of that was profit?
MF. Erm, it differed year to year but it was definitely profitable..! It essentially paid for my uni fees and any trips I went on. I really loved it and I just kept thinking ‘I’m not spending my full time on this, imagine what it could be if I do…’ I always found it really daunting to think about that gap between finishing uni and getting a job so this seemed perfect. It just felt so exciting!
SC.SD. What did you leave uni with?
MF. A 2.1
SC.SD. That’s amazing! Especially when you consider how much you had on your plate!
MF. Thank you- I was so happy! Graduation was such an important day for me because it was the day I officially started this full time.
With her degree now completed, the business went from strength to strength and in 2012, having outgrown her parent’s house, Maria rented a unit space in Hove.
MF. It seemed like a big step to take and the room seemed so big at the time but within less than a year we could hardly move! Luckily the landlord had some more space though.
It was then that Maria Allen Boutique moved to the multiple units that it occupies now…
SC.SD. What was helping it grow so quickly? Still word of mouth or did you have any big PR campaigns?
MF. So we were featured in the notonthehighstreet.com 2012 Christmas catalogue which generated a huge amount of orders of our products!
SC.SD. I bet! That’s huge! Was there a big PR push to get into that though?
MF. I can’t remember actually! But I had no idea what that would mean; it was a LOT of working until 1am and then right back to it in the morning which was so exciting but not at all sustainable! It was after that Christmas that I realised I was spending so much time in my business rather than on my business so I decided to employ my first employee!
Maria’s initial idea was to hire someone part-time but she quickly changed her mind…
MF. Within two days I was like “ok this needs to be full time, there’s so much to do” so she became full-time and just did a bit of everything!
SC.SD. How did you find her?
MF. So nearly everything with the business has been done through GumTree..!
MF. Yes! Where I am in these units? GumTree. Most of my staff? GumTree or Indeed. The furniture? GumTree.
SC.SD. I didn’t realise it was handy for things like that, I’ve only ever used it when I wanted to buy my cats..! Let’s talk about handing over responsibility to someone? You’ve worked really hard to grow this, it’s your baby. Now you’re trusting someone else with your name…
MF. It was definitely a big decision thinking about committing to someone and promising them work but for the delegation part, I had reached a point where I was so ready! I was really open with Sarah from the word go and even now I’m really open with my team and encourage them to improve things. I like collaborative environments and that’s what I’ve tried to create- a positive workplace where everyone helps everyone.
SC.SD. And do they take you up on that?
MF. Yes definitely! We’ve created so many things through the team’s suggestions. Systems, processes, products, the way we organise things… lots of things!
SC.SD. That’s so good! What about the wellbeing and people side of management? How did you prepare for that step up?
MF. It is hard but I did my research! There’s loads of great information online but a company called Enterprise Nation helped out a lot, Beepurple were great and I have just dealt with things as we went along really. I just do my research, speak to people and just figure it out as I go along.
SC.SD. That’s encouraging to hear! Obviously word of mouth helped at the beginning but what’s your best tool for marketing now?
MF. That’s a tricky one! Word of mouth is still really important, social media and we do tradeshows twice a year.
When I first reached out to Maria, she was busy preparing for Top Drawer London AW 17- the UK’s leading retail trade event for creative lifestyle buyers…
MF. Top Drawer is really good because it’s in London, you get to meet so many buyers and there’s always really interesting opportunities there…
SC.SD. I was stalking the top drawer Instagram recently and just wanted everything! It looks so dangerous! The next one is in January isn’t it?
MF. January yes! You should go! It’s huge but yes, tradeshows are amazing for exposure.
SC.SD. Let’s talk about learning curves- what’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt since setting MAB up?
MF. There have been so many! Sometimes it feels like you’re spinning lots of plates at the same time but I would say time management is key. Learning what to spend your time on in order to make the biggest impact on the business and learning what to delegate has always been so important and something that I will always need to improve and work on.
Recently I’ve tried time blocking. On my Google Keep app (one of my favourite apps!) I divide the business into different sections and allocate a certain amount of time to each task and that really helps. Plus physically organising the studio and paperwork into those categories helps too!
SC.SD. I feel like I need to start doing that! When things do get stressful, who do you turn to?
MF. I’m very lucky that I have a very supportive husband and family.
SC.SD. I spied the ring! Has hubby been there since the beginning?
MF. So we’ve been together for 10 years and the business is 8 so yes! Right from when I sold my first charm bracelet he’s been there and supported me!
We digress slightly as Maria shares the story of how the two of them met. Despite living in houses on opposite sides of the same street since they were 12, Maria met Charlie at a party aged 17 and they have been together ever since…
SC.SD. Oh my gosh, I’m a complete hopeless romantic so I love that story! So he’s your support?
MF. Yes, him and both of our families.
Before we sat down for this interview, I met Maria’s team in the workshop. One of whom is her Mum.
SC.SD. What’s it like working with your Mum?
MF. It was definitely a challenge getting used to the dynamics between home life and work life at the beginning! It’s taken some getting used to but I’m so close to her and we get on so well so I’m really lucky.
SC.SD. Has it brought you even closer?
MF. Yes definitely! We talk about the business constantly…. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing though…!
SC.SD. See I think it’s different. If it’s a job that you don’t enjoy and you’re talking about business all the time then there’s a problem but you’re clearly passionate about this, it’s also a hobby so why wouldn’t you talk about it? It’s a good thing!
MF. Definitely! And Dad has helped with the accounts and taught me how to interview people, so yes they’ve been a huge support. I also use the Headspace app- a mindfulness and meditation app. I’ve used it daily for the last six months and it’s just been brilliant at helping to clear my head.
SC.SD. That seems to be a popular theme in these interviews… it’s so important when your mind doesn’t switch off…
MF. Yes, my brain is constantly buzzing with ideas, so those things are very helpful. It’s been amazing though, I’ve found self-care to be so important recently… so Headspace, meditation and positive thinking! I think people can be wired to have negative thoughts and it’s just getting out of that… It’s easier said than done though (!) but it’s a great concept.
SC.SD. Absolutely! Looking back now, what’s been the day you’re most proud of since it started?
MF. Hmm, there’s a few! Graduation day was pretty special!
MF. On the very first day after our final show at uni – a few weeks before graduation – I sat down and just thought ‘what is my dream place to be stocked in?’ and it was the gift shop at the Tate Galleries- that was my dream. So without thinking, I picked up the phone and asked for their buyers details, sent her an email and a wholesale catalogue, thought nothing of it and got on with normal stuff..! Then a few days later she phoned back and was like “it’s funny you should email me, I’ve seen that you have some cups and teacups in your range. There’s an Alice in Wonderland collection that we’re working on now… can you come into London and show me your products? We’re looking for things to go alongside the exhibition in the gift shop!”
I was like “okkkkk!!” I had a week but I didn’t want to show her what I’d already got, I wanted to make a whole Alice in Wonderland collection so the day I threw the hat in the air, I remember running down the road to Brighton library before it closed (and before I had to give my gown back), because it had old, out of copyright Alice in Wonderland illustrations!
SC.SD. Were you still in your graduation gown?!
MF. Probably! But yes, I managed to get them before the library closed, borrowed the laser cutters at uni and created a new range etched on to wood. I presented it to her just after graduating and she placed a really big order which was just amazing!
SC.SD. That’s such an incredible story! Were you nervous presenting to her?
MF. I was a bit but I’d had quite a lot of experience by then with the cards as a teenager so I was ready for it. That’s why I was just excited when I graduated because I just wanted to start!
I’ve gone off on a tangent though…! So that was a proud moment! That’s what you asked wasn’t it?!
SC.SD. Yes! That’s a pretty good day! Any others?
MF. We got an order from Harrods for just over 1000 Christmas decorations which was so surreal so that was a really proud moment… and also our mini love letter necklace has a secret message in the locket so we’ve had several hundred marriage proposals through that which has just been amazing to play such a special part in these people’s lives! It’s also currently featured on Notonthehighstreet.com’s TV advert which is also quite surreal!
SC.SD. I bet! That must be such an amazing feeling though? That you’ve created something that will be part of a story that those couples will tell for the rest of their lives…
MF. Exactly! It’s really, really nice!
SC.SD. See this is the hopeless romantic in me again! What’s your favourite thing you sell?
MF. I’d have to say the luggage tags. I love them! I created them so they can be a gift but they’re practical too…
SC.SD. Are you ever tempted to just take one of everything?!
MF. So many of my ideas have come from situations where I’ve wanted something but couldn’t find it so I just designed and made them instead so yes! Ironically though, in the last few years I’ve become really interested in minimalism… my friends laugh at me because it completely contradicts the fact that I’ve got a gifts business! How does that work?! But I’ve become very minimal in my house and personal life.
SC.SD. Do you think that has something to do with the fact you’ve got such a crazy workload and given that it’s a gift business, there’s boxes and wrapping everywhere so you just need a clean slate when you go home…
MF. YES. A lot of it is to help mentally so absolutely! It’s really improved my wellbeing. It’s just clean and uncluttered and it’s helped me to be more organised. Everything has got a space… ah it’s just lovely!
SC.SD. I can relate to that though. When the flat is clean and you know you’re going home to an uncluttered space it’s so relaxing. I’m instantly calmer.
MF. I definitely agree. I think home should be a safe haven where you can just rest your mind. I’m now slowly trying to get the studio that way too!
SC.SD. Let’s move on to women in business- are there any names out there that inspire you…
MF. I’ve got a lot, they’re all random though!
SC.SD. Ooo I like random, go for it!
MF. So I love The White Company… I’m so inspired by Chrissie Rucker, its Founder…
SC.SD. So one of my first interviews was with Georgia Cummings, the Founder of Potage and her auntie was the Founder of The White Company!
MF. Wow! So a year ago, I went to Red Smart Women Week and one of the events was to have lunch with her. It was such a lovely afternoon and I think that what she’s created is so inspirational, she’s just amazing!
People were asking questions but I was too shy! I also like Deliciously Ella and Livia’s Kitchen and there was another event that evening – this really was just the best day – where it was yoga, a wellbeing evening and a Q+A with those two. I got to meet all three of them in one day and they’re all my inspirations so I love going to things like that and listening to other peoples start-up stories.
SC.SD. For the record, your story is pretty great too! Do you have a favourite quote?
MF. I have loads! We’ve just bought a letter board to create daily quotes actually because I want to try and make the studio as positive a place as possible! I have a print from Etsy that just says ‘Make it happen.’ That’s one of my favourite.
SC.SD. Says what it does on the tin!
MF. Yes which is good! Another one I like is “The best time for new beginnings, is now”… There’s so many though!
SC.SD. Love those. What does success look like to you then?
MF. There are so many definitions of success but for me it’s creating a job where each day doesn’t feel like work and where that Sunday night dread doesn’t exist. That’s one of the ways I know I love what I do. I don’t hate Mondays and I don’t dread Sunday nights.
I’m so proud to have created a job for myself and I love what I do and I’m proud that I’ve created jobs for other people. They’re such an inspiring team and such good fun to work with each day.
SC.SD. I really love that definition, there’s nothing worse than the Sunday night dread! With all that said and done then, can you see yourself doing this forever now?
MF. That’s such a big question! It goes back to that success thing I suppose. As long as I’m loving what I’m doing, having time to be creative and it doesn’t feel like a job then that’s what I want to be doing and right now that’s what I feel so I guess we’ll see…
We switch the recording off there and much to my excitement; I’m invited to make my very own keepsake before I hit the road once again.
It’s no wonder to me why Maria loves her job so much.
As the laser cutter etches out the She can. She did. logo onto my new favourite key ring and her team work speedily around us, preparing the post- tradeshow and pre-Christmas orders that Just. Keep. On. Coming… her dream at 14 to find a career that combines creativity and business has well and truly become a reality.
Yet no one can say that Maria had it easy. Having worked near enough every day since she was 14 years old, learning vital lessons along the way that continue to help her to this day; Maria Allen Boutique is the result of one young girl’s humble talent and pure determination to create a range of products that she is genuinely passionate about. Despite being modest by nature, she has embraced its growth as the demand for her products soars and shows no signs of stopping any time soon.
The traffic on the way home didn’t phase me one bit. I’m hoping after reading this, you now know why.
For more information on Maria Allen Boutique, visit the website here or check out their Instagram: @maria_allen_boutique