Liz Colleran talks about the hard work behind building sleep product business Duvalay, which has won her a well-deserved everywoman award.
When Liz Colleran co-founded sleep product business, Duvalay, in 2004 there was no Plan B. Her family needed the income, particularly after her husband left his job to devote himself to the business. All the while she was bringing up their three sons – the youngest was aged five when she started – and looking out for two of her good friend Julie’s who died from cervical cancer in her early 30s when her daughters were just five and three.
With Duvalay now a thriving global business, Liz has just been awarded the HERA award for the most inspirational woman running a business trading for 10 years or more at the everywoman Awards, an award she dedicated to Julie whose daughters she regards as her nieces. “She would be so proud of her daughters and what I have done,” she says.
Liz became an entrepreneur out of necessity. She had previously worked as a rep for a baby products company. Her husband had a job which involved a lot of travel so Elizabeth focused on looking after the children. “There was no space for two careers,” she says. Her husband also ran a business on the side, but its customer base was shrinking. Liz was charged with looking for another business.
The family had inherited a few thousand pounds and had invested in a caravan. Liz said that it seemed a good investment, given they couldn’t afford to take their children away on holiday. But Liz couldn’t sleep comfortably in the caravan. Her husband suggested some foam he knew of that might be useful. West Yorkshire, where they live, is known for foam manufacturing and Liz researched companies that produced the foam locally.
One rainy Thursday she loaded her car with children and headed over to the manufacturer with 60 pounds in her pocket. She brought the foam home and stared at if for a long time, thinking how she could add value to it. She asked a neighbour to make a cover for the foam. Liz tried it out and found it did help her back so she set about investing in a foam business, growing it organically from nothing in 2004 with no budget for marketing or packaging.
With the help of her brother, she got an ad into the Caravan Club magazine which was distributed to its 400,000 members and the phone started ringing with orders. Articulated lorries began arriving at the house loaded with foam which was stored in the garage. Liz had to take it to the post office to dispatch it. As the business built and she recruited a local mum at the school gates, who is still with the business now, and her sister, her husband decided to come in with her full time and they bought a business unit. Liz was the only woman in the place. She recalls being so busy at the time that she forgot to pick up one of her children from school twice.
The whole family revolved around making the business work, she says, because it had to be successful. They took over more business units and eventually moved to a bigger one. Liz says there were a whole range of challenges along the way, including the lack of suitable fabric in the UK. “Every time we got over one problem another would come along,” she says. That pattern has continued over the years and some of the problems have got bigger. Liz says her approach is to give herself 24 hours to come to terms with the problem and then she carries on. “I think ‘that’s it – stop feeling sorry for yourself’,” she says.
In 2011 she signed up for Dragon’s Den where she pitched the Duvalay Sleeping Bag. At the time Duvalay had around 10 members of staff. Dragon’s Den exposed them to five million people and changed people’s perception of the business overnight. “We were always ambitious,” she says. “We wanted to build a dynasty for our family.”
Although the build-up to the programme was very stressful, it was worth it, says Liz. While Deborah Meadon seemed to take against the business, Hilary Devey invested and became Liz’s mentor. She introduced her to Richard Branson and her whole team became very involved with the business, really helping to build it.
Success didn’t come overnight, but things started to change slowly. The business moved premises to a bigger factory and was able to buy more machinery. They are now at a four-acre site with potential for even more growth.
Liz says being a working mum building a business wasn’t easy. She often felt guilty when the children were younger and she had to go to exhibitions and she admits that she was not always there mentally. She recalls a trip to Germany when she missed the family so much she spent an hour on the phone to them. As the business grew she had to devote more time to management issues, but says managing a family has been a good training ground for managing adults.
In the last few years there have been more than a few problems amid an uncertain and difficult economic environment. There have been foam shortages, costs increases, problems with importing the fabric from Pakistan and with container costs, problems with the chemicals needed for the foam, rising labour costs and Covid shutdowns. Liz felt the responsibility of having to look after around 80 staff as Covid hit and she had to make the decision to send everyone home. Soon after it emerged that manufacturing companies could keep working so they started up again. “I felt a huge responsibility to stay open,” she says, adding that she didn’t sleep for a month at the time due to worrying about the future of the business.
On the other hand, Covid provided the business with a chance to pivot and do something different. Duvalay had signed a ground-breaking licensing deal with Chinese manufacturers Shubert after they approached the company before Covid. This allowed them to launch their products through e-mart, the largest retailer in South Korea. The company’s mattresses have done really well in South Korea and Duvalay plans to build its business in China, after problems during the pandemic. The business is also doing well in Holland, France, New Zealand and the US, although Brexit has brought some problems with business in France.
It continues to innovate, for instance, it has produced the EasySleep (mattress in a box collection) made from recycled bottles which has generated over £2.5m and has helped the company go from a £4m to £8m turnover in just two years.
Meanwhile, two of Liz’s sons, now aged 35 and 31, are working for the company as is one of Julie’s children who is marketing manager. Meanwhile, her youngest son, aged 26, has been named in an Amazon top 10 young entrepreneurs listing in connection with his grounds maintenance business. “They are all quite driven,” she laughs. “We are doing what people aspire to do. It has not always been easy, but it is very very rewarding. We are all pulling together. We live, think, eat and breathe the business.”
Despite all her hard work and success, Liz says she felt embarrassed winning the everywoman award, surrounded by so many inspiring women. But her story shows the warts and all nature of building a a business. “Things have not been easy,” she says. “There have been a lot of challenges, but in the last three to four years, apart from Covid, things have been getting better and more stable or maybe I’ve just got used to it. You just pick yourself up because no-one else will.”