Rachel Day and Merry Whitaker have been keeping a big secret for the last seven months, but now it’s out and they can look forward to the new year. The founders of LoveKeepCreate, a clothing keepsake company, have won £50K backing from Dragons’ Den’s Deborah Meaden.
They won the investment back in May when they did the programme, but it only aired on New Year’s Day, having been bumped back in the schedules from September. Since they won the money they have bought some machinery and have been working on a new website and more marketing.
The idea for the business is simple: people dig out a precious piece of clothing, choose the type of keepsake they’d like it to become – quilt, blanket, soft stuffed animal, picture frame – and post it to LoveKeepCreate for return in its new form. Three of the dragons – Deborah Meaden, Sarah Willingham and Nick Jenkins – offered to invest £50,000 for a 10% stake in the business, but Rachel and Merry opted to go with Deborah, who said she was impressed by both the business and the people behind it.
Merry and Rachel met during army officer training at Sandhurst. Rachel subsequently left the army and retrained as a teacher. Merry stayed on after she left for seven years and then left to do some intelligence consultancy work. Her husband was posted to Cyprus and then Germany and Merry found it difficult to continue with her work so started a PhD.
The idea for the business came after Rachel posted a picture of a keepsake blanket she made for her husband to take to Afghanistan when their son was a baby. Family and friends asked if she could make something similar for them, giving treasured but now unneeded clothes such as children’s first babygrows or wedding dresses a new lease of life. After setting up a separate Facebook page for the gifts, the demand became so great that she couldn’t manage alone. “We were having a drink one night and I was saying that it was amazing that no-one was doing something like that professionally since there was a definite gap in the market,” says Merry. Rachel asked her to become her business partner, telling Merry she could work from abroad, and Merry and her husband invested in LoveKeepCreate. That was in 2013.
Merry then moved back to the UK when her eldest child, now seven, was due to start primary school. Her husband remained in Germany and was then posted to Libya. Merry, who has two children, and Rachel, who has three, lived on opposite ends of Dartmoor and in the early days, they would travel between their homes with their children to work. “We would work around our children and childcare,” says Merry. The work grew and grew and the seamstresses they worked with would all come to Rachel’s house one day a week. For the rest of the week the seamstresses worked remotely.
By 2015, Merry’s husband had left the army and set up an estate agency franchise in Plymouth. LoveKeepCreate sublet a part of his building and moved in with support and administrative staff. They now employ eight seamstresses and 10 work on a self employed basis and have other work on the side. Merry says the aim is to move those who stay for a while onto permanent contracts. Most of the staff are part time, but some core staff are full time. The arrangement means the business has the ability to increase their productivity during busy periods, such as the run-up to Christmas. This year pre-Christmas sales are up 50% on last year’s.
With 20 staff now on the payroll, including Rachel and Merry, they are looking to introduce policies and processes and some form of management structure. “Last year, Rachel and I were packing boxes during the day and trying to run the business in the evenings. In February we took on an administrative apprentice who is amazing and will be our office administrator. That will take a lot of the nitty gritty of running the business off us,” says Merry. The business is also dealing with Rachel’s maternity leave – she had her third child in December – and one of the seamstresses is stepping up to take over management of the seamstresses to take some of the pressure off Merry who can’t sew. Rachel will stay in touch, but will scale right back over the next few months.
Merry says the two founders had long toyed with the idea of approaching Dragons’ Den, but it was only when they had a proper office space that they felt they had a viable enough proposition. She says the experience was “terrifying”. “Rachel and I are very organised people and prepared well, but it was a very intense day. We were questioned for an hour and 20 minutes. I have a lot more sympathy for people who are made to look like idiots on the programme now,” she adds.
Along with the £50K, the business also got a mentor who is not a dragon, but helps with day to day advice. They have also been introduced to expert and business contacts. Merry says the next few months will be a challenge as it is impossible to second guess what the impact of appearing on the programme will be.
For the immediate future, the business is planning to introduce new product ranges, especially for grown-ups. “Most people are aware of baby keepsakes, but they are less aware of the kind of keepsakes we do for older people, for instance, relatives who have died, weddings or other events,” says Merry. The new website and social media work will enable them to build a closer rapport with their customers too. “We are moving into the mainstream,” says Merry.