Andrea Martin is founder of the Cornwall based handmade gift company, GreaseBugs Gear. She is a single mum with a flair for all things creative, having started out in a textile based business. With a keen eye for business, when she attended craft fayres Andrea noticed that there were very few gifts for men. Inspired, she set about recycling bike parts into gift ideas. Fame beckoned in February 2014 when she became the proud recipient of a Theo Paphitis (formerly of Dragon’s Den) ‘Small Business Sunday’ Award. She has since gone on to attract a flurry of orders from Ireland, America India, Sweden, Demark and Germany.
“…It’s amazing what a little time and effort can produce with the help of social media and some really supportive followers who love your work. Some days their help and encouragement is just amazing and overwhelming. Every time an order comes in from abroad I can’t help but say “wow”!..”
Firstly, congratulations on your award. What interest has this generated?
Thank you very much, still grinning from being chosen! I now have over 2,800 followers on Twitter since the award. I’ve made some great new contacts from this such as yourself! As well as companies like Logotag, who have provided me with my own business tag that can be scanned at craft fayres by others to find my Small Business Sunday Award information. The level of orders increased dramatically and many followers are now ordering their own custom Bots.
Please tell us about your work history.
I started out work as a secretary for an estate agents many moons ago and within a few years I became a stay at home mum. Once my children had gone off to school I attended college to achieve OCR awards in typing, certificates in Manual and Computerised Book Keeping from the Institute of Certified Bookkeepers, a NCFE Level 3 award in Desktop Publishing as well as a course in photography so I could run a business single handed.
I knew I could then produce my own photographs, packaging and website. I started out with ‘Funk Your Denim’, which gained a huge following on Facebook and at craft fayres. I gradually gathered up enough stock to attend the Royal Cornwall Show. Having discovered new and exciting fabrics in the course of running the business, less and less denim was used and in June 2013 I rebranded as ‘The Lavender Humbug’.
That’s a diverse range of skills! What made you move away from a textile based business with its traditional feminine associations to a more masculine product offering?
The idea of GreaseBugs Gear was just a nicknack range for men to browse and women to be able to buy gifts for men… but it’s now taken over! I love textiles and sewing but I do now have to admit I love the use of ‘man tools’ more.
Please can you talk us through what gave you the idea for your ‘Bots’?
Having made cufflinks and keyrings from the bike chain as well as a few little quirky ideas such as ‘GreaseBugs Hooters’ (owls made from cogs) and motorbikes from chains and washers, my work table was full of bits and bobs. Luckily for me one evening a few unfinished cufflinks were sat on one side looking like a head and body (you have to have vision) and that was that. I tried out a ‘Bot’, which initially stood up as fridge magnet, but then the ‘Desktop Bot’ was a better design which sat down and basically had the ‘cute and quirky’ factors.
So each one is unique?
Yes, they’re all made the same way but all look a little different as they go together. With so many people asking for personalised ideas to include their hobbies, each one is unique to them.
What sort of things have customers asked to for?
So far we’ve had: Bots with football kits; army regiment Bot; Police Bots; Bots that hold knitting, sewing and crotchet; Bots with gardening equipment and flowers; a motorbike chain Bot holding a tabby cat and a kite buggy Bot including the kite and buggy! And my favourite of all has been wedding cake toppers with a bride and Batman. Which groom wouldn’t want to be Batman on their wedding day! You name it and I’ve possibly been asked to make it.
What have been the highlights of your business journey so far?
My highlights include that in under three months of GreaseBugs Gear becoming a business idea it was given the Small Business Sunday Award from Theo Paphitis; we’re still quite amazed by it. My other highlights have been the feedback and comments. And also making someone’s day with their custom Bot idea coming to life and arriving in the post.
And the greatest challenges..?
I would have to say that the greatest challenges are keeping up with the orders at the moment and finding enough hours in the day.
How would you sum up the GreaseBugs Gear brand?
Recycling cycles into something affordable, quirky and fun.
How important is it to you that the business centres around re-cycling and re-use of old materials?
I am by nature a tinkerer: I love the ideas that I get from a box full of what everyone else sees as junk. I love the fact you can recycle old parts into something new and give it a new use, a new home and a new owner from items that some would just throw away thinking they’re no longer useful.
You are based in Newquay, on the beautiful Cornish coast, yet through harnessing social media, you’ve managed to establish a global business. How does this make you feel?
I still get as excited as a child at Christmas when I think of it. It’s amazing what a little time and effort can produce with the help of social media and some really supportive followers who love your work. Some days their help and encouragement is just amazing and overwhelming. Every time an order comes in from abroad I can’t help but say “wow”!
Which networks (in the real world and virtual world) have been the most important for you?
Over the years the Craft Fayre network has been wonderful and many customers have returned to certain areas knowing I will be there with my stall.
I have found Facebook and Twitter a great way for small businesses to be able to obtain followers without huge costs for advertising. A lot of small businesses are run by people like myself, single mums who really want to work and are trying to work around family and children without being away from home when we’re needed. We start with small budgets and little or no help to move forward with our ideas, so social media helps us show the online world what we can do given a little chance.
How do you use social media to engage with existing and potential clients?
My Twitter account is followed by many who look forward to updates on new custom Bots travelling to new homes, as well as a few fun photos from Vinny, who is the main character of GreaseBugs Gear – he is a recycled yellow chain robot with a minxy personality (no idea where he got that!) who poses well for photos and fun captions.
Are there any downsides to using social media?
With every business on social media there is a downside, we have all heard of ‘trolls’ who will give you a hard time just because they can, it’s easily ignored with a positive attitude.
Who are the people in your professional support network who’s advice you value most? (E.g. accountants, bankers, lawyers etc.?)
On Twitter I’m followed by accountants, business owners, bike mechanics, policeman, all manner of professional people who will help and advise on any situation at the drop of a tweet. The amazing thing about GreaseBugs Gear is I’m still learning, mainly about tools and products that I can use and Twitter always has help and advice for me.
It’s brilliant I don’t have to spend hours researching what tool is best for a certain job because there are so many people out there on the social networks that have tried and tested them out and will give genuine advice, which will save me time and more importantly money for items I may not even need. I know how I want something to look, I’m just not a tools expert…yet.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given as you have developed GreaseBugs Gear?
Being a rather creative person (most days clumsy too), I tend to get carried along with the arty side of life and forget that the use of power tools means you need to think of safety equipment. So my best advice given was to invest in safety goggles and a fume mask before I ended up in A&E!
What advice would you give to other women who are considering setting up their own business?
Just go for it really. On a tiny budget of a few pairs of jeans, some scissors, thread and photographs of items made, I was able to start up the ‘Funk Your Denim’ business over six years ago. If you have enough passion about what you do, you can accomplish so much. A Twitter account gets you out there and a Facebook page can showcase your work without the expense of a website if you can’t afford it in the early days. My best advice really is to not give up with your ideas, they may change along the way but the amount of effort you put in is worth it.
Which female entrepreneurs inspire you?
I love the work of Kirsty Elson (‘Driftwood Designs’ and gorgeous little houses) and Paper Panda (Paper Cutting to the extreme) – amazing ladies who built business from tiny works. Little budgets go a long way – paper and driftwood and look what can be achieved! Brilliant!
Setting up your own business can be very time intensive in the early days. How do you ensure you maintain a sense of work life balance?
Um… there’s a balance? I had no idea! I am nagged constantly by my son and very close friends to “put the phone down” and “get off the internet and eat your dinner” so I guess I am still working on that balance. I love my job; I can’t help it.
You’re a single Mum. That must have been a challenge as you’ve developed your own businesses. How has this made you a better businesswoman?
My main thought whenever I made items, whether I was sewing for The Lavender Humbug or building for GreaseBugs Gear, was to make affordable items. We all have budgets and we all have birthdays, Christmases and gifts we want to buy for friends and family, but some months we do struggle to do everything. I wanted Mums, Dads and even children to be able to approach my stall and find something in their budget range. I also wanted items like the sewing kits available so that adults can encourage children to make something they can be proud of.
What are your plans for the business over the next few years?
At the moment I am just trying to keep up with orders but there are many new ideas for future ranges. I can’t say too much at the moment as they’re unique as ever and being kept under wraps.
I also volunteer at Mount Hawke skatepark (where the ideas all started to gather in the beginning) and I would like to encourage children and adults to be creative with some eco workshops where we will recycle items into works of art they can take home.
I was very lucky to have a patient Nanna who taught me many skills and helped with creativity. You can take a drawer full of “bits and bobs” and create new exciting items. It would be nice to give a little back with some workshops and encourage children to take time away from T.V., computers and gadgets and just play with ideas and have fun.
Can we expect to be seeing you on Dragon’s Den any time soon…?!
Oh my goodness no. I would be far too nervous! I’ve yet to meet Theo Paphitis at an SBS event. That will be enough excitement for me at the moment.