I met Penny a few years ago at a WiRE event in Norfolk where we both had stands. Penny makes and designs a wide range of gifts - from hand finished gift tags to mugs and even silk ties featuring her trademark fluffy sheep. Penny Lindop Designs exhibits regularly at some of the best retail and trade shows in the UK selling direct to her loyal customers and has to retailers all over the world. She's very modest for someone who has built a strong business virtually single handed...
© Penny Lindop
When did you start your business and why? Did you plan how you started meticulously or was it almost accidental? Tell us the story of how “Penny Lindop Designs “ came to be!
I never really “started” a business; I wouldn’t have known where to start. Way back then I graduated with a degree in archaeology and after some years of struggling to find work (there was a recession back then too, so I really know how some of these young graduates are feeling) I found myself working at the British Museum in one of their darkest underground stores. I felt priviledged to be there, but to be honest without the break every summer when I went to France excavate a rock shelter, I’d have gone mad. For some reason I became interested in textiles and as I worked in the prehistory department I started researching prehistoric textiles, and particularly the technology – I made spindle whorls and loom weights, and taught myself to spin and weave and researched ancient sheep breeds. I fell in love with sheep and was hooked! I spun every day – yes, every single day for many years. I resigned my safe job in the museum as I needed something more. I packed a rucksack and went off to family out in Australia, spending time in Indonesia on the way. And I kept on spinning. One side pocket of my rucksack was dedicated to my spinning tools – the smallest I could find, so a tiny spindle for cotton. I spun on the beach, in my cabin room which was on stilts on a rice paddy, anywhere and everywhere! When I got to Australia I was greeted by the most amazing family, and a spinning wheel! I worked with spinners, weavers and dyers over there, and gave talks about my prehistoric spinning. With the support of my family and the life they offered me I was able to get more perspective on life, and I felt I could start breathing again. It was good. I could combine my love of textiles and sheep. A year later and I was back in England. Time passed and I married and had 2 daughters in quick succession. We had lots of fun – I was lucky, I didn’t need to work. We weren’t well off but we could get by. After tea we would cover the table with plastic and do messy play. One evening there was some blue ink left over and some yellow fleece on the floor – and that was the beginning of what was to become my business.
© Penny Lindop Designs - the inspirational piece that sparked the business
I’d always played with paper, doodled and made stuff and with a bit of persuasion I faced one of my many fears and took some cards I’d made to a few shops. Much to my amazement they were greeted with enthusiasm! As a family we were ready for a move, so we took the bull by the horns and in 1998 moved to Norfolk where we took over a little village gallery, filled it with lots of my work and work from other craftspeople. We had some financial security as husband Mike continued with his job in London. However, my hobby business was pushed into becoming a bit more serious by some life events. My children were young and Mike found himself unable to return to work after illness; I needed to work a bit harder/smarter, but still needed to be at home. The gallery was perfect, but just needed to generate a bit more income. I was pretty handy with a spinning wheel and ran courses for a while, but didn’t see how that could earn us much.
© Penny Lindop - Yorkshire Show Stand
I took a huge leap and took my wares to my first trade show. This was the right decision for me at the time and so I did more; I would be away for about a week at a time, which was do-able – filled the freezer with meals and covered the fridge with to do lists. I had to face plenty more fears – I went on every course I could find (at the time there were loads of free ones!) – computer skills, business courses, you name it and I probably did it. When I went to my first trade show I didn’t even know what a Pro forma invoice was, I was that green. I mean, does a degree in Archaeology really qualify you to start your own business?!
Did things take off immediately or has it been a slow burn?
A slow burn, very slow!
Do you do your business part time or full time?
Definitely full time now, although part time when the girls were younger.
© Penny Lindop
Do you intend to grow your business into something much bigger or are you happy with it as it is and why?
While the girls were young I deliberately kept the business quite small and manageable. As they grew up they joined in with the shop and the business (we eventually decided to close the shop as I was getting too busy with wholesale, and I needed more flexibility for family life). The girls even started their own business for a few years while at high school. My elder daughter, Emma, did some work on the business when she did her A level Business studies – since she got top marks, I thought I should read it and decided to implement some of her suggestions. This was the start of attending high end consumer shows. Gradually we dropped the trade shows, and just did the consumer shows – all across the country! It’s been fantastic, but hugely hard work.
© Penny Lindop
When either daughter could, they'd come and help, which has been lovely. I continued to supply all the shops, and was exporting quite a lot. I had to develop a website (totally out of my comfort zone), but now I have a decent site and also sell on other online platforms, such as notonthehighstreet.com. Possibly I let myself down on this side of the business as I’m not a huge fan of uploading products and my photography skills aren’t great. Sometimes I play with new ideas, take them to the shows and then forget that I’ve done them! Emma still works for me remotely from Taiwan where she’s currently working, and I just really love her support and enthusiasm. When she had more time she would upload products which was fab, but now her work timetable has filled up she just about finds the time to do my monthly newsletter and a very rare blog post.
If this is your full time job, do you mind saying what your approximate turnover is annually (before costs and expenses)?
My turnover is now between 50 and 75k which is really a lot less than it probably should be since I’ve been going for 16 years, but life has to be a compromise and I’ve not always been able to do some of the things I’d like.
© Penny Lindop
Where do you sell your work?
I supply a lot of retail outlets across the UK, and overseas (last year, Norway, Germany and Japan mainly) and go to quite a few consumer shows – London, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Worcestershire. On line I sell from my own website and partner stores.
Which of the selling methods that you use works best for you? Why do you think this is?
For me, now, I’m finding a mix of selling methods is working well – not having all my eggs in one basket. The retail outlets are good for volume, but the consumer shows are lovely for customer relationship building, feedback and inspiration. And online is doing ok too.
Have you had publicity in national magazines? If so how did you approach them?
No! I’m very poor at promoting my work – it’s a confidence thing.
Who do you think your typical customer is?
Mainly women between about 25 and 70, but I do have quite a good male customer base too as my products are very countryside orientated. Typically they appreciate handmade work and enjoy something a bit quirky and out of the ordinary, and are happy to pay a higher price for this.
© Penny Lindop
Which aspect of your work do you enjoy most?
The shows and chatting to customers! (Which is odd, as I was very shy as a child)
Is there anything you would have done differently if you were starting your business today?
Absolutely for sure, but I wouldn’t know what. I think you do the best you can within the boundaries of your life circumstances at the time. I certainly didn’t always make the right decisions, but hey, it’ll always be like that. I try and learn from the mistakes and move on! There are plenty more mistakes waiting for me round the corner. I would have loved to have spent more time with my girls, and I would have loved us to have had holidays, but we did ok, and I’m super proud of both girls.
Are you someone who sets goals regularly or more instinctive?
I’m not a great planner or goal setter, but I’m getting a lot better. At the outset I just was learning – how to use a computer, run a business, get designs together, get them onto greeting cards and pictures etc etc. There was no room in my head for goals! Now I’m working really hard at planning and forecasting – I’ll bet I’ll make some more mistakes here!
Have you ever or do you employ people part time to help with any aspect of your business? For example, book keeper, accountant, packers? If you do how did you find people who were the right fit for you?
I have a book keeper who comes here once a month, and Sue who comes in 3 days a week to look after orders, packing and stock – I couldn't run the business without her now. I also have a couple of people who work from home packing for me.
Could you describe where you work? Are you alone most of the day or with others? Do you feel that they way it is now is the best fit for you? Do you see that changing?
Currently I have 2 log cabins in the garden, joined together. But it’s squashed and chaotic, so we’re looking at some alternative ideas. (I’m blowing hot and cold at some of the alternative ideas as anything that involves working away from home involves lots more expense). I enjoy working on my own, particularly at weekends when there are no interruptions. I tend to do the artwork and designing then, and do all the admin type stuff during the week. I take days off during the week to catch up with friends. I love the flexibility the business gives me. I don’t think I could ever be employed again!
Do you have a mentor or people who you are able to discuss your business with? If not how do you find you best make decisions about your business?
I don’t have an official mentor, but I have several people whose opinions I really value. I lean on them heavily from time to time. I’m also part of a support group which I started – just 4 of us, all artisan/makers. We meet to support, encourage, critique and it’s been great. We don’t seem to be meeting as often as we used to, so I must address this as I miss them.I also have meetings with myself and my notebook. I find it hard to think about the business and plan while I’m in my studio. So I take my notebook off to a café and chat to myself in the notebook. I’ll then go back to the notebook in a couple of weeks (another excuse to go off to a café!) and reconsider what I wrote then. It’s a good system for me.
What is a typical day for you in your business as it is now?
I’m up around 7 am but sometimes later as I don’t sleep so well these days. I see to the cat and dog and check out emails and social media while I drink the first cup of tea of the day and eat breakfast. I’m usually down in the studio by 9. The mornings (and sometimes the afternoons) are spent on orders and admin stuff. If possible I keep the afternoons for more creative jobs or website updates. Early evening’s are for photography and sometimes a little more social media.
© Penny Lindop - Sheep + Willow Trees - a new design
What would be a dream day for you – business or otherwise?
Just now that has to be a day in the sunshine with both daughters out in Taiwan (my dream day will be happening this spring!)
You can see a selection of my work at www.pennylindop.com/ and www.notonthehighstreet.com/pennylindopdesigns.
For blog readers I’m offering a 20% discount on the hand finished prints within the art gallery section. You’ll need to enter the code FRIDAYFINDS at the checkout.
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Thank you so much Penny for such a candid, personal account of your business; I really appreciate that you answered every question. *** Meet Penny from 19th-23rd March at the Country Living Spring Fair***