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Helen Chapman speaks to workingmums.co.uk about her affordable children’s leather shoe business Dotty Fish and about becoming a finalist in this year’s NatWest everywoman awards.
Just after Helen Chapman had her second child, she received a gift of leather baby shoes. When she tried to find a similar pair, the only ones she could find were very expensive. So she decided to make her own. She drew some pictures with her daughter’s felt tip pens, found a factory overseas, set up a website and started selling the shoes on eBay.
The business ticked along until the 2009 financial crisis. The family had a mortgage with Northern Rock, which collapsed in the crisis and had to be nationalised, and overnight found out they needed to make an extra £400 a month to pay it. Helen’s husband said she would need to go back to work. Helen had other plans, though. She felt sure she could make her business work and bring in the extra money. She decided to change her business plan and bring out recession-friendly shoes by reducing her profit margins significantly and sourcing them in a different country. Her plan worked. “I was only making £1.50 per shoe, but I was selling 100 a day,” she says.
It was not all plain sailing, though. Helen, whose background is in sales, had some issues with a dishonest supplier in 2010 and failed to deliver stock to the value of £30K. It was a painful lesson and led to problems with her ranking on Ebay, but Helen was determined not to give up. She got a loan on her house and travelled to China to set up new suppliers. She also started attending major events such as the Baby Show to promote her bright, simply designed shoes. Then a large wholesale order came in from Lithuania and she was able to invest in offices and take on her first apprentice. She also discovered Amazon Marketplace which made it easier to sell abroad. Helen sold £1.5K in the first month on the platform. “It can be a good way to test out products, try new markets and sell across borders relatively easily and safely,” she says.
She has also been working with the government on exports and now has a German website. The company exports 70% of its shoes, mainly to Europe, and has managed to keep the shoes selling with a price tag of £12.99. Helen has also been careful to seek expert advice from podiatrists to ensure the shoes, for toddler to six year olds, enable healthy foot development – a big issue on the continent, particularly in Germany. Other business support has come from online resources, Enterprise Nation and government grants.
The company’s name – Dotty Fish – came about because Helen wanted a name that was unusual and stood out. Originally the company was called Shimmy Shoes. They have kept that name for a particular line of shoes, but wanted a new name that was unforgettable, bright and fun.
There are now 11 staff working in the Dotty Fish office and Helen says its small size and adaptability has been part of its success, particularly this year. Because they work with China, they had an early warning about Covid and by early March Helen had sent her management team to work from home. Later in the month the team who pack the shoes were sent home and Helen moved all the shoes to her home. She and her husband filled their garage with 30,000 shoes. They wrapped up 2,000 pairs in the first week. “We had to do it to protect our staff,” says Helen, “and to show that we care. It was the right thing to do.”
By July they had developed an office bubble and have since kept everything under review, for instance, they switched to sea freight because of problems with air freight. For the next year Helen plans to extend her range of products, invest in marketing and build an Italian website.
Having come through all this turbulence, Helen has reached the end of the year and is celebrating this week at the NatWest everywoman Awards where she is one of three finalists in the Aphrodite category for women who have started a business while caring for a child under 12. “It’s so nice to be recognised when you work for yourself,” she says.
“All the changes we have experienced this year keep us on our toes,” laughs Helen. “My view is that if you adapt you will survive. We are really proud of the way we have handled it all.”