LessBounce: The story so far – Guest Blog by Selaine Saxby,
My bust and yours
Like so many women my bust has not always been my best friend. I gave up PE at school after rather more comments about “black eyes” than a 14 year old appreciates whilst running down the home straight on sports day! My mother, although being terribly well educated, never kitted me out with a sports bra for school (despite my DD cup bust at 13!) and the school PE staff never suggested one either – to be honest I’m not even sure if you were able to buy such things back in the early 80s!
I consider myself one of the lucky ones, in my 20s a work colleague in a new job took me to an aerobics class and told me I could get what was a Minimal Bounce Bra (which we still stock) at the sports shop in town. So armed with a vital piece of sports kit, I got back into fitness – with my bust, at last, under control.
I remain passionate about women being able to find the support they need to participate in whatever sport they want to. I hear far too many stories of ladies that don’t run, because of their bust, or find dancing embarrassing etc etc – and it really doesn’t have to be like that – there are great sports bras on the market.
The sports bra business idea
LessBounce http://www.lessbounce.com/ wasn’t conceived for a few more years – I spent a couple of years in the States where I found lots of better sports bras than were available in the UK. When I returned I had friends sending me bras – by now I was a much smaller cup size having spent so long at aerobics and running – but even as a UK average there were not good sports bras available on the high street. I was teaching aerobics at the time as well, and it was quite clear that the ladies in my classes were struggling with the same issue I had been for years.
So I decided to set up a retail operation – given I knew I could buy good sports bras in the States, there didn’t seem the need to design and make one, I just sourced stock from UK and US suppliers. And having been in the States, this was the start of the dot com boom, and I decided online was the way to go. The vision was to have a cheap route to market for the product, enabling a wide range of sports bras to be available in one location – we rapidly (and still do) stock the widest range of sports bras in the world.
Early Internet commerce… and alternatives
Setting up a dot com, in hindsight, was more than a little naïve given that women in the UK in 2000 mostly did not have internet access. And if they did it was at work, where lingerie shopping was normally frowned on, and many servers blocked access because we were selling bras! So we rapidly had to create a mail order catalogue as well – which sent costs upwards!
Like so many small businesses, I ran the company from the back bedroom, with boxes of bras balanced on top of wardrobes. The orders trickled in a few a day, and I processed them myself, packed them and carried them down to the post office each day. I have always wanted the business to offer exceptional customer service and from day one we offered freepost returns and exchanges so we could offer a comparable service to the high street.
We have since gone on to win many customer service awards and it has been the loyalty of our customers, we believe as a result of our committed customer service, that means we are still in business now. Our motto is “to treat each customer as if they are the only one we have”.
I was teaching aerobics full time as well as setting up the business back in 2000 and after completing the London Marathon I needed knee surgery and had to take a break from teaching. The extra free time enabled me to spend more hours on the business – with magazine advertising and writing articles for magazines and then I attended the World Aerobics Experience in Blackpool – and was genuinely convinced there was a need for the product and the business started to grow very quickly.
I remember quite vividly a trip to Australia when it became clear I couldn’t just leave the business without me for 3 weeks and paid my neighbour to help out and my father had to come to my house in my absence and go through any orders or queries she was stuck on! Other milestones along the way were registering for VAT when our turnover climbed over £60K, moving to an office and taking on a member of staff!
One of the challenges in the early 2000s was to find groups of women who were sporty – there were far fewer publications for women’s running or fitness then. So we tried to get involved in sponsoring charity sporting events like Race for Life and the London Marathon – but the costs were prohibitive. So I decided to set up my own charity event – and Pink Aerobics was born! Pink Aerobics has just celebrated its tenth anniversary and has to date raised over £500K for various breast cancer charities through a series of aerobathons – our flagship in Hyde Park each year.
These early years, were a lot of fun, we didn’t have a full computer system – just lots of bits of paper and were matching orders to bras when deliveries came in and handwriting envelopes – I originally insisted on a handwritten covering letter so I could check anyone working in packing could write the addresses clearly enough! When we started exhibiting at other events our little warehouse (generous term for what used to be a conference room) buzzed with rails going up and stock being hung.
We quite quickly outgrew this method and installed a more sophisticated back office system that managed our stock – and was “loosely” integrated with our website. It cost a fortune – even now I’m not sure it was the right piece of software, but it did mean we could run without extra staff costs and that was how it paid for itself.
All change on the financial front
The business had to grow up rather suddenly when I got divorced and had to take the decision whether to continue the business:
Now I had to earn enough money to live on and pay the mortgage myself, or to get a proper job. I opted to keep the business going and it has been more refusal to give up than anything else that has kept it going.
LessBounce, in general, would have benefitted from longer in the planning stage before implementation started! I am a “doer” and once I have decided on something I do tend to get on with it! And in the early years I “did” everything – apart from keep a close eye on the figures! In 2005 we ran out of cash – in quite a dramatic manner. The business had been growing so quickly, driven by a lot of marketing expenditure, that we had not been making money and eventually this catches up with you. Lingerie is a notoriously difficult sector to make money in – when Figleaves were sold in 2010, despite their £23M turnover, they had never made a profit! The challenges come from low margins and the complexity of the stock holding – our best selling bra comes in 96 sizes, 3 colourways – one of which is seasonal and changes every 6 months!
I was very fortunate to be advised by my bank to seek external help – with the divorce coming through, my credit lines were dramatically reduced (my ex husband earnt enough money for the bank not to have been worried about my large business overdraft – and without him around …. It was withdrawn). And with the help of an independent financial adviser, who helped manage my creditors so I could manage the business, we nudged the business into profit, caught up with our creditors and kept going!
When the business was growing rapidly I spent a lot of time trying to find external investment – probably far too long! I was able to woe woo wealthy gentlemen quite successfully and impress them with my energy and get up and go, and now ever growing award cabinet – however the balance sheet was less impressive and I never persuaded any of them to sign a cheque! I have learnt a lot about debt along the way – and managing it, I still have rather more of it than I think is healthy, but since our wobble we have managed to remain in profit. So much so in 2011 we incorporated (having used up our historic losses) and became a limited company (again with hindsight I wish I had set the business up as such!)
Business was more exciting when we were growing very quickly, as we headed into the 2010 election we were again growing at 20% per annum – but this time profitably! However after the election, when VAT shot up to 20% and it became clear we were going to have a proper recession, sales dropped off again and we have had to work very hard for the last few years to remain in profit, and start to show some growth.
The ‘great’ 2012 opportunity
Our goal was always to have a huge year in the Olympics – as soon as London won the games I knew I wanted to be running LessBounce during it. So in early 2012 we launched a new website with a completely new back office system – a little overdue, having still been running on the same software I had launched on back in 2000! With a completely new back office system. We also moved to larger offices and waited for the excitement to start!
A flurry of red, white and blue bras later, and rather more promotions than were safe to run – we found 2012 to be a sales disappointment. With the exception of the two weeks of the games themselves, the “legacy” certainly didn’t reach us! Trading was further hampered by the cancellation of many of the outdoor events – particularly Badminton Horse Trials which left a big dent in our bottom line and the weather definitely has an impact on how active we are as a nation, and the wet summer of 2012 followed by freezing winter was a shocker!
Here we go again?
So again we found ourselves with more debt than we should have (during an economic downturn the banks aren’t exactly falling over themselves to lend money!) and sales significantly behind plan! Yet we did win two awards for the new website – supporting the folklore that every cloud having has a silver lining!
But we haven’t remained in business this long by giving up – 2013 has seen a much better year – we have launched an exclusive product, with two more in the pipeline and plans to expand the range into other lines.
We have developed far closer partnerships with our suppliers enabling us to attend more trade shows and run better promotions without our bottom line screaming!
I still rather hanker after the old days when I could do it all myself – these days I really know I can’t, just one day being customer services if the girls are off and trying to manage the business is too much for one woman – even one that likes being busy!
The lessons I have learnt along the way:
– Plan before you start – sounds obvious, but time spent in planning!
– Cash really is King – and ideally make sure you have some that properly belongs to the business when you start.
– And if you want it to grow you have to learn to delegate early on – but balance what you delegate with who you can afford to pay
LessBounce is my baby – it has had a difficult start in life and I am rather hoping we are through the difficult teenage years and it may be just about to flourish into adulthood.
Setting up in business is the easy part – keeping it going and making a living from it is a whole different ball game and I am still learning the rules – but I don’t think I could go back to a “proper” job. The independence and flexibility that comes from being your own boss is too rewarding, it makes up for the lack of cash in the bank (at least most of the time!)
With kind thanks to Selaine Saxby – Founder and Managing Director of Less Bounce