Claire Harper is founder of IndiaCoco, a retailer of children’s clothes, hand-picking the best of British clothing brands for parents who are looking for great value, high quality, original childrenswear clothing for babies, boys and girls aged 0-10. Prior to this Claire was in senior corporate marketing roles at Mamas & Papas, Sainsburys, Ocado and Argos. She took the plunge to set up her own children’s clothing brand when she couldn’t find the type of clothes she wanted to buy for her children, so she ventured into retail, initially via online and then via pop-ups, eventually establishing her own stores in community-based locations.
“…I’m not sure there is a typical day when you are a busy working mum… Working for yourself allows flexibility and it is important for me to be there for my daughters, so after the school run and various after school clubs it is back home for tea, homework and catching up on their day…”
Claire, you’re a seasoned marketer with a corporate background. We love that you decided you wanted to break free and set up on your own. Did you always have a little bit of the maverick about you?!
Yes! My Dad has always run a very successful business and I knew at some point in my career I would like to launch my own venture. I was also very hooked when I worked for the founders of Ocado. Ocado was completely revolutionary in its approach. We were changing habits of a lifetime getting customers to buy groceries online and the culture was so fast moving and entrepreneurial it was infectious.
Whilst my corporate experience has been extremely valuable, walking away from the security of a corporate career to launch IndiaCoco was very exciting but I also felt like I was jumping off a cliff into the unknown. I was fully aware it was pushing me out of my comfort zone and going solo would present lots of new challenges ahead.
There were two catalysts behind the decision to go solo – the first was a five year milestone at Mamas & Papas as Marketing Director and the second was the birth of my second daughter, India (who along with her sister Coco provided the inspiration for the name of the business).
You’ve been used to taking care of some highly respected brands. What did this teach you about the things that were most important when creating the Indiacoco brand from scratch?
I have been very fortunate in my career to work with a number of highly respected brands that have been going through a period of change either revolutionary or evolutionary change. I personally thrive on change and the challenge to constantly innovate I believe distinguishes between a leading brand and a follower brand.
I am also very passionate about the customer and I have worked for some fabulous customer-centric companies – some more so than others. Sometimes I would get so frustrated with senior colleagues who just don’t understand the customer. We have spent a lot of time building a strong brand foundation, being very clear about our customer proposition and values and working out what our customers want and who they are – it is a process that never stops.
How did you make the transition from an online only brand to multi-channel?
The idea behind IndiaCoco came from my own experience as a typical Boden customer who got fed up seeing my daughters in the same clothes as everyone else. So with my retail experience, I set out to launch a multi-channel retail destination offering a range of different, high quality British children’s clothes.
I always wanted to launch the website first and then move into retail. IndiaCoco launched from the dining room on time in 2012 and has since double its supplier base.
Towards the end of 2012 I approached and launched a small baby and gifting concession at an award winning farm shop based in Yorkshire called Blacker Hall Farm. Today the concession continues to be a thriving and growing customer environment for the brand. We now need more space to develop our offer further within the farm shop retail model that is becoming increasingly popular as a leisure and retail destination for customers.
In October 2013 following a number of country shows, events and local pop up shops we opened our first bricks and mortar retail outlet in Wood Street, Wakefield, introducing the very best of British childrenswear brands to the Yorkshire high street. We are now exploring new locations in more prominent locations to increase brand awareness and drive footfall.
There’s the old adage that ‘retail is detail’. How did you use pop-ups as a way of finding out what the market needed?
I have always been taught in retail, keep it simple, understand your customers and retail is detail. It was very important for our brand to have a retail presence. We are committed to our promise of sourcing and selling original, hand-picked British childrenswear brands, which offer the very best in quality and value and meet our customers’ requirements.
Pop-up shops gave us the opportunity to test and trial our retail offer by delivering the outstanding customer service face to face and to demonstrate the warmth, passion and commitment that shines through in everything we do. It is hard to build up the same level of customer experience and interaction online. Pop-ups gave us the opportunity to bring the brand to life so customers could get up, close and personal with our products and customer experience.
Retail is an expensive sector to enter due to the level of money tied up in stock. How were you able to balance supply and demand in order to satisfy orders whilst keeping stock to a minimum?
Setting up a new retail business can be very expensive. I worked very closely with our suppliers establishing a very good working relationship from pre-launch. They had to understand our business plan and vision.
My initial buys were conservative and cautious. I took small steps and minimised risks and started to increase buys based on customer feedback and sales. Flexibility, communication, support, planning and teamwork are all key components to balancing supply and demand.
How did you go about raising the finance you needed?
We raised finance through a small business overdraft and we personally funded all start-up costs.
What was the best advice you received as you were setting up the business?
- What does success look like? I have also learnt that success is about knowing your customer. Work out who your customer is and what they really want. It is a process that should be ongoing.
- To keep focused, be clear about your brand, story, values and vision and how you will deliver that to customers.
- Focus on how you work with people – not just customers but also suppliers as well. It is so important to have great chemistry and a very good working relationship.
- Starting a business is not for the fainthearted. Know from the start what you are getting into.
- Finally and easier said than done – don’t forget to breathe! You have lots of fun along the way, it is incredibly exciting starting a business but you need some downtime too.
Is there anything you would do differently if you were starting all over again?
I like to move quickly and make fast progress but I have had to understand that it takes a long time to build a strong brand. It is incredibly tempting to accept every opportunity, even if you’re not ready. I take the view now it is better to crawl, and then walk and then run. Keep focused and keep it simple.
The other challenge I have learnt is not to be afraid of failure. If you are really entrepreneurial and have the passion and self belief to go forward, a few failures don’t count.
Start-up businesses usually mean long hours. How did you go about making start-up culture fit alongside your day to day family routine?
I’m not sure there is a typical day when you are a busy working mum. Coco is seven and India is three so the day starts nosily, bright and early at 6.30am and then it’s all go getting them ready for school.
Running a multi-channel retail operation is a 24/7 operation. I enjoy working with a great team and reviewing development plans, product buys and customer data in store and online.
Working for yourself allows flexibility and it is important for me to be there for my daughters, so after the school run and various after school clubs it is back home for tea, homework and catching up on their day. I am normally back on my laptop for the evening shift around 8pm when the girls are tucked up and fast asleep.
What recognition have you received for the business?
Since launching in 2012 IndiaCoco has caught the eye of renowned entrepreneurs:
- In June 2013 IndiaCoco won a WOW award from Jacqueline Gold, chief executive of Knickerbox and Ann Summers;
- In the same month IndiaCoco was also shortlisted for the Wakefield Business Awards; New Business of the Year Award;
- In September 2013 I also won a Small Business Sunday award from businessman Theo Paphitis;
- In May 2014 IndiaCoco won Online Retailer of the Year at the Wakefield Retailer awards;
- In November 2014, IndiaCoco won New Business of the Year at the Huddersfield Business Awards.
I am also delighted that we have attracted an international and UK customer base and we have also executed powerful joint marketing campaigns with other like minded British brands including UK internet retailer Ocado and Neom Organics, luxury home fragrance and body care products. This has also allowed the brand to enable our customers with additional benefits and reach a wider target audience.
I am also a professional speaker with Speakers Corner, so I also enjoy sharing my inspiration and story at many different business platforms and events.
What are your plans for scaling the brand moving forward?
IndiaCoco is now a multi-channel, award winning retailer and we are planning to roll out the brand across the UK in community-based locations over the next few years.
We have just re-platformed our website and with our new agency, Statement appointed we are investing in exciting web developments, online marketing projects and embracing new technology making it even easier for UK and International customers to order with IndiaCoco.
We are also looking at own brand new product development and we are very excited to be growing a strong brand. Our customers will always come first and we will continue to work extremely hard to really go that extra mile. Just over two years in, our adventure is only just beginning and we are off to a great start – every day brings new reasons to feel inspired and excited about our future.