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Michelle Veenman and Kat Bols run three fashion shops and have seven children between them. They spoke to Workingmums.co.uk.
When Michelle Veenman's third child was little she would take her in her buggy to Portobello market to sell vintage clothes. Her children have since grown up alongside her burgeoning interest in vintage fashion as Michelle has moved from being a student counsellor at Goldsmith's College to training as a counsellor for Mind to setting up three clothes shops in Cambridge where she now lives.
Michelle, whose children are aged 21, 19 and 18, set up her first shop in Burwash Manor after moving to Cambridge and finding there were not many shops selling vintage clothes. “I wanted to bring the Islington shopping experience to Cambridge,” she says.
Running her own business was not something she planned – the opportunity just came along and she grabbed it. Since starting up, the business has evolved from vintage to an eclectic mix of vintage-inspired fashion, including clothes by designers such as Marilyn Moore.
After setting up the first Cuckoo shop and another for children Michelle asked another mum, Kate Bols, to join her.
Kate, whose daughter was good friends with Michelle's daughter, was doing interior design and Michelle could see she had "a good eye". "I needed to share the burden,"says Michelle, "and I was looking to brainstorm ideas.”
Kate's background is in nursing, but she had been a stay at home mum for a long time, looking after her four children [now aged 20,19, 17 and 14] as her husband worked abroad a lot. She did an interior design course and had done up a pub before she started work with Michelle 10 years ago, working part time in the early days. Initially she helped out with buying and merchandising and did the interior design of the children's shop.
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Four years ago she became a partner in the business and the two partners are about to launch Cuckoo online in time for Christmas. "Kate came along at the perfect time," says Michelle. "I thought we could work together well. We share the same work ethos and since we have to work closely together, that was important."
Both women are now full time and often work tips into the weekends, for instance, if they need to cover for someone in one of the shops, or into the evenings – they are currently training to be style consultants. The buying season is very busy and they can spend three out of five days on buying.
Kate says the hardest thing for her to learn about running a business has been the accounts, but her husband is an accountant and set up spreadsheets for the business and helps with their VAT returns.
Both women’s children also pitch in. One of Michelle’s daughters is studying graphic design and is helping with the website design and adverts. Another models part time. One of Kate’s daughters is doing fashion and marketing. Another wants to be a photographer. All Kate and Michelle’s daughters have done shifts in the shops and they have attended fashion shows with their mums.
Michelle and Kate’s immediate future plans are focused on the online shop, where they will also sell accessories, and on building their presence on social media. Michelle says if they opened another shop it would probably be further away and would require them to work differently, take a more hands-off approach and employ a store manager. This may be no bad thing.
For the last six months they have been working with a retail expert who has been emphasising the need to take a step back. Michelle admits they were on their knees before that.
Despite the often long hours, she thinks she has been a good role model for her children. Kate thinks similarly. She says: “I think my children have learnt to be more independent and confident as a result,” although she admits to some guilt as she was a stay at home mum more for her older children than her youngest.
Michelle adds: “As the children have got older they seem to appreciate more what we are doing and my daughter said she was really proud of me and that I was an inspiration.”
*Michelle is pictured on the left and Kate on the right.
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