What does it take to be an entrepreneur? In Archie Archer’s case sheer persistence and adaptability seems to be the key.
The mum of one won last year's Athena award [for women aged 36-45] at the Natwest everywoman awards for women entrepreneurs. The closing date for this year's awards is 20th July at 5pm.
Archie says the award came as a complete surprise and she had not even prepared a speech. She thinks she was chosen because part of everywoman’s focus is on women who have overcome difficulties. “My story is quite unconventional,” she says.
Archie was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug at a young age. When she was at university she started street trading and made £1,000 in one week in the summer. In the winter she worked as a waitress on a fixed wage. “I was really ambitious and after street trading during my university years I realised I would make more money working for myself than working for other people,” she says.
Nevertheless, she left university £14,000 in debt. She earned her first £1,000 and realised it wouldn’t go far in the UK. However, she surmised, it might go quite a considerable distance in India or South America.
She decided to head for India to buy stock to run a market stall in London and sold everything she had except the clothes she had on. “I literally didn’t have anything. I sold it all on a second-hand market,” she said. “I just got on a plane and went to India.”
She knew the kind of Indian products being sold on London markets and was looking to bring something a bit different back, but she had never been to India before.
Archie had £600 to last her for six months and had also taken 30 kilos of Western products with her to trade. She began in Delhi and moved to Agra where she started to buy silver and swap it for what she had brought with her. However, she felt she was being conned. She decided to head south to get a tan and learn Hindi. But she got on the wrong train so instead of ending up in Kerala, she fetched up in Goa. There was a market there which was divided into regional sections, with a big European section.
“There was everyone from a wealthy middle-aged Swiss retired goldsmith couple to druggies selling their sleeping bags to get home,” she says. She gradually sold her stock and started working with a local tailor to make clothes to sell to tourists.
The plan was to set up a clothes company when she returned to the UK, but with her last £30 she bought lots of bindis – the Indian forehead decorations.
Back in the UK she initially set up a stall in Portobello market selling clothes, but the clothes she had brought back were poorly made and there was no changing room for people to try them on. However, the bindis were selling like hotcakes. They hadn’t yet gone mainstream, but some celebrities like Denise van Outen had started wearing them.
Archie went round the small independent shops selling her bindis, but then had “a eureka moment” when she realised that if she could sell to little shops she could probably sell to big ones. She tried some and ended up with an order for 3,000 from Miss Selfridge. In 48 hours they had sold out so they ordered 8,000 more and sold out in five days. Other shops who bought the bindis included Top Shop, New Look, Etam and Tammy.
That year Archie went to India 14 times, but the market soon dried up. Through the Prince’s Trust she got a discounted stall at The Clothes Show. She had started selling henna kits and took some with her as well as a henna artist. Archie, who is also a henna artist, took £6,500 in cash and £1,000 in product orders at the show.
Based on her success, she hired a team of young henna artists to go round festivals and outdoor events across the UK and started offering training courses and mail order henna on her website, building an annual turnover of £80,000. She also worked with corporates.
After her son was born in 2003 Archie realised she couldn’t just jump in a car and head off to festivals any more. She had met lots of performers on the festival and corporate circuit and decided to set up an agency – Contraband Events - when her son was just three months old, having gone back to work 10 days after his birth.
“The whole thing just exploded and I was on the mobile every minute,” she says. “I knew I needed a second person and a landline.” Her husband looked after her son while she worked seven days a week and 15 hours a day. “I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “The business was growing very rapidly and I had to grab the opportunity to make money.”
When her son was two she divorced and she used a childminder from 8am to 6pm. Archie would keep working after he went to bed and every other weekend when her son was with his father.
She admits to feeling “a massive sense of guilt” now that she was working so hard and that her son had little time with her. “There was never a time when I didn’t answer my phone for a work call,” she said. Now she is able to make more time for her son. “I make the effort to make time for him,” she says, “because I couldn’t do it in the early days.”
Her plans for the future are to create an SME structure for the business, which has grown entirely organically and has 12 staff and a £2m annual turnover. She also wants to take it to the global arena. However, she has still not quenched her entrepreneurial spirit. “I don’t think this will be the last business I run,” she says.
*To enter the Natwest everywoman awards or to find out more, click here.