Gillian Crawford co-founded Tartan Twist in 2008, following a career in journalism. In 2011, she co-founded Lily Blanche Edinburgh. Gillian has an MA Hons in Archaeology from Edinburgh University and a Journalism degree from City University, London.
Q: Did you have any experience in running or marketing small businesses before Tartan Twist? If not how did you go about finding any information you required?
A: For more than a decade, my business partner, Lyndsey Bowditch, has co-founded and run a highly successful design company - handling large budgets and big projects and employing a number of talented designers - so we have been able to draw on her skills. I spent many years writing for the business pages of The Times in London, analysing companies. I covered the retail sector and the leisure sector for The Times and spent much of my time in the City. I also instigated a series of features for The Times, interviewing the CEOs of FTSE 100 companies. I learned a great deal from people such as Sir Terence Conran, Sir Richard Branson and Sir Martin Sorrell. My investigative skills as a journalist helped me enormously when it came to sourcing, finding and understanding relevant information but, of course, it’s not until you do it yourself that you really start to learn.
Q: You have a degree in Archaeology and worked in the media for almost 20 years – what made you decide to quit your job and start a business?
A: I still write successfully on a freelance basis but my background in business journalism left me with a deep respect for people who run successful businesses. I think that, in the 21st century, it helps to have a portfolio of activities and interests which co-exist. If you are successful in one career, you often have a lot of transferable skills. Founding and running a business has always been on my agenda but I needed the experience gained as an employee and a complimentary business partner to give the business the best chance.
Q: What made you decide to design a range of jewellery for children?
A: We were running a successful range of jewellery for adults, Tartan Twist, so it was an easy and cost-effective way to branch out. The children’s range is called Teeny Tartan Twist. Also we have five daughters between us, who were casting longing looks at the stock! How could we not develop a range for them?
Q: What are the best and worst aspects of running your own business?
A: I think they are one in the same: The buck stops here.
Q: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in starting a business?
A: Nothing major. We did our homework before we started which minimised the pitfalls. We were lucky to be picked up early on by Scottish Enterprise, the Government agency, which identified Tartan Twist as a company with high growth potential. Lyndsey’s business experience meant that we knew what we were doing from the start. We’re in the process of launching a new jewellery range called Lily Blanche which we are very excited about and which has sprung from some intensive strategy work we did with a consultancy called Brilliant Red. The potential for the new brand is huge, but we would never have done it if we hadn’t developed Tartan Twist first.
Q: What are your thoughts on home/work life balance?
A: With three kids, I find it’s really important to be available to them when they need me. I’m self-motived and work to deadlines so I don’t find it difficult to work intensively while they are at school and fit the work around them when they are home. It means that I work through lunch and take a break when they get in, which usually isn’t until about 5.30pm or 6.15pm as they are involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. When they go off to bed or at weekends when they are out, I will get some work done. I like what I do and I have a supportive husband. The kids are proud of the business and interested in it too, which helps.
Q: Your products are now available internationally. Did you start the business with the intention of selling around the world?
A: Lyndsey and I have always been very ambitious for the business and we designed our products with the international market in mind. We wanted to make high-end products which were designed and made in Scotland and which would appeal to the home market and to the overseas market. It was quite a tall order but I think we’ve achieved it. Tartan Twist products are available in 120 outlets in the UK and overseas. We were also lucky to have the help of Scottish Development International who supported our expansion in the Far Eastern market.
Q: What has the biggest challenge been when finding the correct employees to assist you?
A: We are lucky because Lyndsey has good experience of hiring and is a dab hand at picking great people. We are meticulous at taking up references and we usually ask prospective employees to make a presentation to us on an aspect of the job. We’re a young, vibrant company and the entire organisation is imbued with the ethos of the brand. When you are selling to retailers and to the public, you have to have people fronting the business who completely get the brand. It quickly becomes obvious whether people have that ability or not. We’re also both very hands-on. Nothing gets left to chance.
Q: Does working so closely with your sister raise any issues, such as sibling rivalry?
A: I think we got the sibling rivalry out of the way before we hit our teens. I have a great deal of respect for her and we have skills which complement each other. We have a very symbiotic relationship. Although we are quite different in some ways and have different taste, we both instantly know whether a design or an idea is right for the business. From that perspective, we see it through the same eyes. The other upside is that I totally trust her.
Q: If you were advising a company with a fantastic product but no marketing skills, what would you tell them?
A: Marketing is everything! If you understand your product and you understand your target market, you should know instinctively where and how to pitch it. We use multiple media and methods for marketing and if you think a little bit laterally, you can do it without huge costs. As a journalist, I know what approaches work best and I know that attention to detail is vital. Set a budget for marketing, usually a percentage of turnover, and build the marketing budget into the plan when you are doing a detailed costing of the products. There should be a little bit in the price of very product for marketing. Be savvy and don’t feel pressurised to hire expensive marketing or advertising agencies in the first instance. Have confidence in yourself and your product. Use different media and build in a system of measuring results to see what works. Don’t just think of the costs, think also of the opportunity costs; could the money have been better spent elsewhere in the business. Review the marketing strategy regularly. Nobody else can market your product like you can because nobody else believes in it like you do.
Q: Have you always wanted to work for yourself?
A: I’m very glad I’ve had the experience I’ve had in national newspapers. That background has been vital. It’s only in the last five years that I’ve felt I had the skills and knowledge to really go for it.
Q: What is the single most important thing you can do to be successful in business?
A: Be persistent. If you have a good product, the right strategy and your business plan is sound and financially viable, the most important thing is to keep going. Stickability is the most under-rated skill out there. It also helps to be meticulous.
Q: You have received a lot of local support, e.g. from Scottish Enterprise. How did this come about? What advice would you give to entrepreneurs seeking assistance from groups such as this?
A: Persistence again. Lyndsey is a person who does not take no for an answer and I am good at following through until I get the result I want. Scottish Enterprise was difficult to crack. When we first got in touch, they had some bizarre rules about not working with a new business if they are already working with a competitor in the same field in the same area. They were also targeting sectors that our business did not naturally fall into. Lyndsey challenged these rules. We had to get through a couple of gatekeepers until we got to the right person. We also networked and spoke to connections within SE about what the organisation was looking for in a company. Then we made sure Tartan Twist met all the criteria. You don’t have to be rude, but you do have to be persistent. If the obvious route to your goal is blocked, work out an alternative one.
Q: Entrepreneurship - skill, luck, or a bit of both?
A: Mostly skill. There is a skill in knowing when to grab an opportunity, which may be down to luck.
Q: What are the best and worst pieces of business advice you have received?
A: We’ve had a fantastic mentor, Lorraine Ferguson, who was in management in M&S, and who totally understands our business and our marketplace. She lives and breathes retail and has given us so much good advice. We may have had bad business advice but I can’t remember any. Bad advice tends to be something you just filter out, either after you’ve done a bit of research or because it doesn’t fit with the strategy you’ve defined for the business.