Alice Rivers-Cripps set up her own handmade jewellery design company and has built it while growing her family. She talks to workingmums.co.uk about the inspiration and the challenges.
Alice Rivers-Cripps is the founder of Posh Totty Designs, an independent multi-channel retailer of hand-made, personalised jewellery and gifts. Founded in 2004, Alice has a website, two standalone stores and also sells her products in 10 popular marketplaces online.
Having failed her A-Levels, Alice left the UK for a Mexican beach in her late teens with just £60 in her pocket. There, her work with some local Mayan jewellers – learning the basics of stone cutting and silver – birthed her passion for jewellery design. Returning to England, Alice worked in a shop and spent her evenings pioneering her signature method of personalising jewellery. Eventually she opened her own shop down an alley in Brighton’s Lanes. At the same time, she had her first child and found herself juggling her fledgling business with a new-born.
Scaling her business, Alice endured countless rejections from grant boards and funding panels, but a chance meeting with the founders of Not On The High Street led to Posh Totty Designs becoming one of the first brands available from the site.
The revenue generated from this allowed Alice to invest in her own website and start scaling the business, whilst maintaining sole ownership. Today, the company employs a team of 55 predominantly female staff and is on track to turnover £5 million. Last year she was a finalist in the Aphrodite category of the NatWest everywoman Awards for women who found their business whilst raising a child/children aged 12 or under. She spoke to workingmums.co.uk about building her business and surviving and thriving in the pandemic.
workingmums.co.uk: Where did the inspiration for setting up your own business come from?
Alice: I always wanted to do something for myself and find a way of creating a business doing something I loved – making jewellery. It was sheer serendipity that led me to experiment with alphabet steel stamps, an off-the-cuff purchase I made whilst rummaging in a junk shop one weekend. I started out by stamping my own name onto tin cans until I finally refined the process enough to stamp onto silver. It was an unconventional process that had never been done before.
The notion that each piece of jewellery could be so unique and personal to the wearer was what propelled me to continue with my making; and in time, friends and family started to request personalised pieces. Be it a new born’s name and weight, a couple’s wedding date or a father’s last words, the sentiments were unlike fleeting fashion pieces and actually had real meaning behind them. Making keepsakes that immortalise special moments in time is something that I felt a huge privilege to be a part of, which still holds true today.
wms: What did you learn from Mayan jewellers and why do you think it caught your imagination?
Alice: I had always been creative, but when I arrived in Mexico at the age of 19 I wasn’t sure how to channel that energy. I was fascinated by the local Mayan jewellers who, from simple materials, created something so beautiful and unique. When I persuaded them to let me join them, they taught me not only the basics of jewellery making but also the importance of loving your craft and completely investing in the process. The artistry and care they applied to each and every piece was truly inspiring.
wms: How long did it take you to go from working in a shop and doing your jewellery at night to opening your own shop and what challenges did you face along the way?
Alice: In a nutshell it took years and so much sweat and tears. I was never that passionate about anything until I created PTD. Posh Totty Designs is the original hand-stamped jewellery company and was set up by me in 2004 from my kitchen table with no funding and has grown from there. I was the first to do personalised jewellery and really struggled to get taken seriously by jewellers and retailers alike, but friends, family and soon real customers loved the idea of having their own personal messages, names and dates on a personal keepsake they could wear close to their heart.
I started with the smallest shop in Brighton, up an alley and now I’m considered to be a ‘gazelle’ (fast growth) creative business, handmaking silver and gold jewellery. We have two shops: one in Brighton and one in Islington, London. We offer a same-day personalisation service in our shops and hand make every design in our workshop. We also launched our first concession in Elys department store in Wimbledon and designed and made two personalisation stations that we take on tour around the country to Topshop, West Elm, Heals, Bentalls and Westfield. We are also opening two more permanent concessions in Fenwick before Christmas.
We hand-make and design all of our jewellery in-house and create all our own marketing content in-house too. We have built a good social following of 50k followers on Instagram and we produce our own regular catalogues which we send to a 100k database.
We work closely with a few chosen charities, including a visit I made to Kosovo with Women for Women International, where I designed the ‘share a hug’ collection, giving 100% profits directly back to the charity. I am still working closely with them and was asked to be a speaker for their ‘She Inspires Me’ day.
I was chosen to do the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business course which was like an intensive four-month MBA at Oxford University and I graduated last year. As such I am feeling a little more confident in business now, although a lot of my decision-making is still with my gut. I try to have fun in business and I learn something new every day. I have an incredible team (including my mother and husband) and I couldn’t have built Posh Totty Designs without them.
wms: Was your baby born before you set up the shop or after and how did you manage running a business and having a small baby?
Alice: Having a new business and a baby was hard, but like most new mums you become adept at managing your time – often I had the carry cot under the work bench whilst I was designing jewellery; the white noise of hand stamping seemed to help send him to sleep! I am also incredibly lucky to have a brilliant family who were, and are, my support network.
wms: Have you had other children and how have you managed maternity leave, etc [or did you not take any)?
Alice: Yes, I am a very proud mummy to two amazing boys Oliver [12 ]and Rupert . Oliver was in hospital for two weeks when he was born and I left a note in the window explaining the situation. If anyone had a problem with that then I wouldn’t want their custom anyway. We make caring keepsakes and that is at the heart of what we do. As soon as he was safe and back home I went straight back into my shop with him. It was quite hard initially as I was just starting out and my husband had a restaurant so he would work nights. I basically worked when they slept and would make orders late into the evening. I loved the time with my boys, but it was always a little up in the air and, as I said before, my eldest son slept under the counter.
My husband and mum both work in the business now and in lockdown even the boys became very skilled at packing the orders and I even taught them how to make jewellery, but didn’t let them free on any orders!
wms: You had to face countless rejections when trying to scale your business. What would your advice be to others who are facing this challenge?
Alice: Pragmatism and perseverance! Be very solution-driven – it leads you to think creatively and laterally to find ways to overcome barriers or at least navigate ways around them. I sometimes wake in the night to try and work out a solution and slowly it all becomes clear. I am famous in the office for coming in saying ‘ I woke up in the middle of the night and I worked out what we need to do…..”
You have to be your biggest cheerleader when you start out. You have to believe in yourself and keep knocking on doors until someone finally gets it. I worked tirelessly and was so passionate about what I was doing that people finally believed in me. My biggest supporter who helped change my life was Holly Tucker of Not on the high street who found me in my tiny shop up an alley and told me I had to join her.
I had no money and she cancelled the fee they charge and told me to get on her site and be seen. I made the first personalised jewellery on there and have consistently been a top seller since that day. Having been back in the shop it has really helped me to see how much the customers are our cheerleaders too, as the jewellery really means so much to them, and if they love it they share it.
wms: How did you overcome the rejection and how important is networking and serendipity to your business success?
Alice: I am a big believer in trusting your instincts. I knew I had a great business idea, so I was determined to keep moving forwards and not to give up. Like most brands, luck and serendipity play a part in your success as well as sheer hard work. I have been fortunate to meet some incredibly supportive fellow small business owners and encouraging and enterprising individuals, many of whom are now friends. It is so important to take learnings from wherever and whomever you can and likewise offer your support and insights to really build these fantastic, meaningful support networks.
wms: Once you generated revenue from Not on the high street, what was the main challenge you faced in scaling up in the early days?
Alice: It was from zero to hero overnight. I went from working on my own making maybe five orders a week if I was lucky, to 20+ a day and then at Christmas we were receiving 1,000 orders a day. It was crazy and really hard to manage. We had nothing to compare it to so we just had to pull in friends and family and work all night. I also threw a young baby into the mix, just to keep me on my toes. It was crazy, exhausting but great fun and we had a brilliant team that have stayed with me.
wms: How are you adapting in the current crisis?
Alice: At first it was incredibly scary and we had to move fast. It was hard to know what to do, but we kept a small team of four in the workshop making and dispatching and then sent everyone home to work from home or be furloughed. I went back to my grass roots at the workbench making and even helped with packing up and dispatching the parcels. I thought it would drop off a cliff with sales, but instead it grew and grew and we have had sales like Christmas, but with only a tiny team which has been hard on them.
I think part of our success was how incredibly important it was for our customers to send thoughtful gifts to their estranged loved ones as a means of keeping them close. We really wanted to help facilitate that and our charity collection ‘share a hug’ was especially popular as it gave people the chance to send a hug to a loved one, when they couldn’t give one in reality.
I’m so lucky that we are a close knit team so everyone has pulled together and basically adapted to whatever was needed to be done. Initially when Boris first said lockdown I went back to making jewellery at my work bench in the spare room, but we soon realised a small team of us could continue to manufacture in the workshop. Our stores closed back in March, but we reconfigured the logistics of the workshop and the making process to enable us keep our online business going whilst ensuring the wellbeing and safety of our staff and customers remained paramount.
Now since retail has reopened I have been working shifts in the shop which has been really lovely to get to meet our customers face to face and hear all their lockdown stories. It’s insanely busy still, but we’re not complaining.
Obviously we are still adapting as things change; happily our stores are all open again, our suppliers are back to work and we are ready to face whatever the future brings!
wms: Have you had to furlough staff/make redundancies or take out business loans?
Alice: Sadly, yes we had to furlough half the team although we have managed to get most of the team back so we are getting back to normal. We have had a few voluntary redundancies, but our teams were amazing and quickly adapted to working from home. We were able to get a CBIL loan really quickly and I was so impressed with the help I received from HSBC, and we successfully bid for a Coast to Capital grant that really helped us purchase some key equipment so the team could work from home.
wms: How flexibly do you and your staff work and is most of your business now done online?
Alice: Flexibility was key and our staff were amazing at how quickly they moved into different roles and worked from home. We didn’t have a Zoom culture before this, but my marketing team were catching up daily on Zoom. Across the business we had to pivot and even my finance manager was logging onto finance webinars to find out how to deal with the crisis. I was lucky enough to get invited back to the Goldman Sachs programme for a Covid course to help support us. They were brilliant at supporting me, but it was hard to study when I was in the middle of a crisis and working every hour to try and keep the business afloat.
Pre-Covid we were already a big believer in flexi working. It is important to recognise that we are all individuals and we try to accommodate peoples individual needs within our infrastructure, whether its accommodating school picks-ups or bringing your pet into work! I think recent events have shown that it can be done and work really well. We will continue to have more of our team working from home going forward with possibly only one day in the office.
We are lucky enough to still have our shops, but our online presence makes up approx 90% of our turnover.
wms: How important was being a finalist in last year’s NatWest everywoman awards?
Alice: It was an amazing experience to be in the company of such inspiring and awesome women. I was incredibly flattered and honoured to be included and it compounded for me how far Posh Totty Designs has come from those early days of a small shop with some very big ambitions. I loved every minute and have made some great friends too. I was really in awe of the other finalists as they were all amazing.
*The NatWest everywoman Awards 2020 are open for nominations – until 20th July. The awards are free to enter. Now in their 18th year, they celebrate the UK’s most inspiring and successful entrepreneurs. A link to enter can be found here: https://www.everywoman.com/