Necessity is the mother of invention

Sophie Birkert started her business, Screen With Envy, because she wanted to avoid having to go back to an all-consuming office job after having children.

 

Sophie Birkert started her business Screen With Envy while pregnant with her third child and facing the dilemma of having to go back to a demanding job in the City or find a way to make at least £30k from working flexibly.

Sophie [pictured below] had been working in the City when she got pregnant with her first child. She couldn’t marry up how she could continue with her high-pressure, international travelling work lifestyle and be there for her children so she made the difficult decision to give up work. She was a stay at home mum for over four years until her husband lost his job after Brexit. The same day she found out she was pregnant with her third child. “It was one of those very serious moments where you need to think about the kind of life you want with your children. It was a no brainer that if my husband couldn’t find work I would have to go back to my previous career,” she says. 

The idea for Screen with envy came after the family asked for planning permission to slightly extend their property and realised this created privacy issues. So Sophie started looking for a screen to give them some privacy from the next-door flat. “I wanted something that would not impact too negatively on their access to light and which looked nice. I couldn’t find anything so I decided to make it myself,” says Sophie. “And then when I was pregnant and put two and two together I thought maybe other people have the same problem as I had.”

A learning curve

She didn’t know anything about manufacturing and spent a lot of time researching materials. Most screens are made out of materials such as metal which cannot be easily adapted. Instead Sophie sought to make her screens out of wood composite so they would be cut to fit. She now laughs that she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of fences, so much so that her phone auto corrects ‘the’ to ‘trellis’. She now has manufacturing sites for her “hyperpersonal products” in the UK, the EU and China.  Sophie says: “Everything we sell is something I drew.” 

She built a website to sell the screens and sold out immediately. She has kept selling out ever since. Due to the close relationships Sophie has with her customers she began to hear of other ideas for products, such as screens to hide rubbish bins.

Demand has been so high and Sophie’s life so busy managing three children under five that it was only a year ago when turnover reached a million pounds that she thought maybe she could afford to hire another member of staff. Before that she was doing everything from answering live chats to running the website by herself. It was also not until the third year of running the business that she had any childcare.

Asked how she did it, she laughs: “I didn’t sleep. I was so used to it after breastfeeding back to back for six years.”

Covid and beyond

Her first employee started this year and she now has 30, hired during the pandemic and most of them working remotely. That means she has had to work out how to do remote inductions and build a sense of common purpose from a distance, all while facing all the childcare disruption associated with Covid-19. Not only that, but she has had to deal with Brexit. Given a lot of her market is in the European Union, particularly the Netherlands and Malta, Sophie has had to set up a warehouse in the Netherlands and learn all about dual taxation systems and Dutch law. She says there has been little support because no-one really knows what is happening with Brexit. “You have to learn it as you go,” she says. 

Sophie’s intrepid approach to building her business has seen her named a finalist in this year’s  2020 NatWest everywoman Awards which takes place later this week. She is one of three finalists in the Aphrodite category for women who found their business whilst raising a child/children aged 12 or under. Sophie says she is very honoured to be put forward for the award.

Looking past this year she plans to bring out more products in the UK in 2021 and to expand internationally. She laughs that nothing else can be as challenging as her first years in business. “Nothing can be as dramatic as the last year,” she says.



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