Laura Tenison MBE is the founder of JoJo Maman Bébé, a leading retailer of maternity clothes, baby clothes and nursery products, which she started in 1993. With an initial investment of £50,000, Laura has grown JoJo Maman Bébé into a multi-million-pound business, with 70 stores across the UK and Ireland and over 550 staff in the UK alone. In 2004 Laura was awarded an MBE for services to business in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List.
We caught up with Laura to find out how she did it.
You set up JoJo Maman and Bébé in 1993 during a recession with £50k capital from the sale of your first business. What was that experience like?
Having started my first business with a £2k loan from my brother three years earlier I thought my £50,000 was a fortune. How little I knew! Putting together a collection and making samples, finding factories, doing a photo shoot and printing a catalogue then advertising and mailing it is all very capital intensive. Thankfully with this business, the bank supported me by match-funding my investment and gave me a working capital overdraft to fund the stock. But it was a hand to mouth start-up which was severely undercapitalized for the first 8 to 10 years.
How did you promote JoJo in the early days and how quickly did you start seeing sales coming in?
I had a small advertising budget for off the page ads, but I found that word of mouth recommendations, PR and customer-get-customer schemes worked much better. We also worked on producing reader offers for the baby magazines and kept finding ways to increase our house file. Little by little our database grew from the first 2,000 names of new mothers and pregnant women which I collected myself to our current list of over 1 million. It was and still is important to have a good solid database of customers who engage with your brand.
When you first started out online and JoJo was new to the market, how did you get people to trust in you and to buy from you?
Our primary concern is to get the clothes onto the children. Parents will come to know and trust a brand producing well designed garments, so something easy to wear, that their little ones find comfortable, and which washes well. We know that so many of our customers say they reach for JoJo from the drawer more often than not when dressing their toddlers. Every style we design is tried and tested and comes with so many extra details such as extra soft labels and bound necklines. We put more effort into the product than we do in advertising it.
You had no previous experience in fashion retail. How did you overcome this?
I was self-taught and had been making and selling clothes since the school playground. Garment manufacturing is a hugely complicated business and I am amazed that anyone would contemplate getting involved if they do not understand the technology. I learnt to sew by cutting up clothes from charity shops, then copying patterns and making them into new designs. If I buy a garment I always look at the inside first to make sure it is well made. The stitch length and tension is so important. I may not have studied at school but I learnt on the job from a very young age.
JoJo has survived two recessions; how did they affect business and how did you adapt?
When you launch a business with very little capital you learn how to be frugal and not to waste. My mother’s mantra was “Waste not want not” and the ethos runs through JoJo from the top down. We have always been environmentally sensible and have not over extended ourselves financially. Even now when we are cash secure, we will always be cautious about expansion working to ensure
the longevity of the business and secure the jobs of the individuals who work with us and have given up so much to ensure the growth of the brand. This is a team effort and the business is responsible for so many livelihoods – we would never allow an investor to push us to make decisions which could put the company into a risky position.
How do you use social media to promote your brand? Do you have any advice on how small start-ups can use social media to promote themselves more effectively?
Social media is essential in today’s multi-channel world. It is free advertising and a great way to get noticed. You need to be clever and find good content which others will refer to but it can be a bit of a lottery. Like all types of marketing being innovative is going to help. Start-ups should promote the advantages of being a small company; lower overheads = better price points, smaller teams = easier access to the boss. A start up can offer original designs or service which you will not find elsewhere. It’s important to be honest and never pretend to offer something you cannot fulfil – for example making sure your website does not oversell the service. Only offer what you can do well, you need to be the best in your field – that does not mean you have to be the biggest.
It’s incredibly tough starting an online business in this day and age, because there is so much competition online, it’s difficult to stand out and get noticed. What practical advice would you give to somebody thinking of starting their own online business?
I agree it is hard, but equally when I started with no internet or social media it was just as hard to find your customers. I would always advise people to try to find one product or service that has an edge or point of difference. This is of course easier said than done. But if you can get customers to talk about you and tell their friends – both in person and via social media, you are on to a winner.
However, I also think that you don’t need to re-invent the wheel. A great service from a very attentive supplier is always a joy to find and still pretty rare. Find some customers (even if you need to offer freebies), and get them to give you a good review and spread the news. Reviews are essential in modern day life – we trust each other much more than a billboard.
How do you drive traffic to your website and ensure JoJo is found online? What tips can you give for driving traffic and raising brand awareness online?
‘Content’ is the buzzword. But equally we have grown hugely online because we have so many stores. We have 70 boutiques across the country all with lovely teams who really understand our product range and the market; having had a week’s training at head office in Wales before they start work. Our teams push the brand verbally, our shop fronts bring new customers in, the quality of the clothing and product instils confidence and the shoppers go online to order more. We are truly multi-channel so all our offers are available online or in store.
Naturally we ensure our website is SEO friendly, we have plenty of blogs, competitions and interesting articles to read on our blog page. But JoJo is so much more than just making and selling mother and baby products as you will find by taking a look at our Community Website. There you will find details of our recycling initiative, From a Mother to Another, our entrepreneurs help page, Invent With Tom and much more. Content is the buzz word – I’ve said it again!
You still see JoJo as an independent retailer – has it been difficult to maintain that as you have grown? How do you do it?
It’s really tricky unless you are happy to delegate within a blame free culture. I have always enjoyed growing sections
of the business then finding the right team to manage them and on the whole allowing them to get on with the job. I employ a lot of people who are much better than me in certain fields. It is always hard to let go but if you don’t, the business will never grow. However, there should always be a brand custodian who oversees the brand identity.
We also find that putting good training into our teams is well worth the investment. When we recruit for a new stores we bring them to head office and I try to see them on their first day. With 700 staff this gets harder to co-ordinate, but we are doing our best to keep the practice going. My ethos is totally in tune with our other Directors who are all home-grown, our managers, supervisors and hopefully the whole JoJo family!
I believe you have just come back from Mozambique as you have been working with the charity Nema. Can you tell us about Nema, your involvement with the charity and how you got involved?
We have always wanted to make sure that our charitable spend went as far as possible. So when I visited Mozambique 8 years ago on a family holiday and heard that infant mortality ran at 30% I felt we had to do something about it. We decided to join forces with Nema – a small local charity and have done what we can to help. We have just bought 2 ambulances, built 2 schools, send 100 kids to secondary boarding school and we feed 1000 children a nutritious school meal each day. Things are getting better but there is still so much to be done. We can’t do it all alone, so if you could possibly forgo the next coffee or muffin and donate £5 by texting NEMA to 70 660 – we can feed a child a meal a day for a month with it. Thanks for your help! X Laura