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Running an Alternative Business

Running an Alternative Business

Goth has always championed the DIY ethic and incubated the creative talents of those in its fold. It’s only natural therefore, that as our numbers grew, a cottage industry would develop as the creative flair of the especially apt became a commodity for those slightly less able. One such artisan is Ingela Lordsdotter the artistic force behind Veil of Visions, a company selling unique embroidered items. She tells us how her business started:

It all started when I was about 13 which is about the same time as I started to develop my personal style. I couldn’t afford the clothes I liked so I started to make my own, first in the sewing class in school then in my spare time. I wanted a Sepultura t-shirt so I made a shirt and drew their logo by eye, transferred it to the fabric and embroidered it by hand. It took a while but the great feeling to wear something you have made yourself is always worth it. After that I wanted a long black skirt, so I made one. And so it continued.

Then in my 20s I started to realise people’s interest in my creations. At this time I was sculpting a lot of gothic statues and candle holders and few of my mates insisted that I make a few more that they could buy for themselves. For years I did custom made garments on the side of my studies and/or work but the scene wasn’t big enough in Sweden for me to be able to make a living on it which was always my dream. So about five and a half years ago I moved to London and here I met my wonderful fiancé, and we started Veil Of Visions. He has been a great support to make our little company work and has always believed in me.

While many people fell into trading their talents in this way, others took advantage of the opportunities within the scene, using their passion and the scene’s own creativity as the impetus and resource. As Julia Goodall, the one woman entrepreneur behind the alternative online retailer The Gothic Shop, explains:

I’ve always loved the visual imagery of alternative clothing, particularly the long flowing skirts and classic velvets and laces. Also, after discovering Myspace I was mesmerised by the gorgeous gothic models / ladies on there, scrutinising every detail from their makeup and jewellery to their clothing and accessories. And subsequently, after buying probably too much of those items for myself (if that’s possible) I decided I’d like to deal with such things on a business level. I love being my own boss and I am passionate about providing the Gothic and alternative communities with a large selection of excellent clothing at an equally excellent price.

However the nature, size and scope of the alternative genre tends to mean that gaining sufficient revenue from a business serving the scene doesn’t always allow complete self sufficiency, and often these entrepreneurs need to take second jobs or run the business purely as a hobby. That’s how The Gothic Shop began, with Julia holding down a full time job as a scientist for a forensics company. Another lady juggling the two is Sally Leonard the designer behind the bespoke jewellery company Leonards of London who offers some sound advice on how to manage a full time position as well as a spearhead a growing company:

I’ve always worked two jobs; as there are so many jewellers and the work you do is very costly, I find most people have to work another job to support themselves. I work as a Project Manager for charities, with a focus on helping people set up their own businesses, or providing training and support to businesses. Until recently, I worked full time whilst running my jewellery business – you need to have effective organisational skills, but it’s possible as long as you make sure both your jobs don’t suffer for it. I arrange to call clients in the evening or during my lunch break and often order materials over the phone. I also conduct a lot of the design meetings online, which is often more convenient for the client as well.

It’s all about time management; sometimes it gets a little tricky, but generally if you keep good records and stay on top of your accounts, it is possible to work two jobs. I make sure I plan my evenings and weekends so that I always have some time for my business. I think if I were wanting to expand, I’d have to cut back on the employment – it’s all about balance.

Unfortunately catering to the alternative scene can be a double edged sword. On one hand you have readymade clientele, brilliant marketing network and support structure. On the other hand you have the obsidian ceiling, preventing anyone from becoming what may be seen as too successful catering for those outside the subculture, and be ostracised by their original clientele for “selling out”. It’s a delicate balancing act and one you need to decide how you’re going to manage early on.

Running a business is one tenths inspiration and nine tenths perspiration and sometimes where imagination reins business acumen can be left by the wayside. It’s important to take a number of things into consideration when starting up and running your own business. Here’s a couple of examples:

Planning is key

Starting up a business isn’t always smooth sailing, but a clear business plan can help matters along substantially. Be clear on your reasons, goals and objectives for your business and make sure it’s doing what you love as you’ll be spending a vast majority of your time doing it! This is exactly the reason many alternative people do venture out as entrepreneurs; so that they can feed their efforts into something that more closely aligns with their interests than their day job often provides. Ingela has this advice:

Do plenty of research to see if there is a market for your products/service before you start to invest in material/tools/etc. Getting good information can be difficult sometimes. There may be government grants or private company awards around for your geographical area, but we couldn’t find any for us, and there seems to be a huge wall of bureaucracy around the grants / awards system that takes a long long time to climb over – but it may make your startup a lot easier. You should also have a local Business Link office which can offer really good practical advice and local knowledge. Also don’t forget the word-of-mouth information from other traders, shop owners, stall holders, etc in the area you’re thinking about.

Find your USP

The great thing about the alternative scene is that it’s filled to overflowing with inspired people, but that also means competition! Not only will there be a fight with other vendors to attain the custom of the subcultures’ devotees but you’ll also have to be able to offer them something that they cannot attain themselves. The three ladies list out their unique selling points:

Veil of Visions
I put a huge amount of work and into the smallest of details. Be it a hairclip or a huge gown. And the style is very different from any other designer I’ve seen (always want to differ myself and not make anything that someone has already done. I see no joy or point in imitation.) Of course I take inspiration from other designers and artists but nothing more. I take the inspiration and merge it with my own creativity and style to make something new and different.

The Gothic Shop
I pride myself on hassle free online shopping. The majority of the products shown on the website are in stock so you won’t have to wait weeks for your order. Most orders are dispatched within 24 hours, and this has resulted in many happy customers, some of which have been pleasantly surprised to receive their order the following day! The waiting times on some other websites can be up to 45 days because items are not held in stock, but this is sometimes only stated in small writing in the terms and conditions so the buyers are not aware of the waiting period when placing their orders. When people buy clothing they usually want it ASAP, so it’s great to be able to meet their expectations.

Leonards of London
I’m not even sure that I have a specific style as my collections tend to be quite different, as do the one-off pieces I make for clients. If I’m working with a specific stone, I let that guide the piece. Or I could start with a theme or idea – such as a photograph I like – and develop collections from there. I am looking into doing more alternative styles of fine jewellery, including some steampunk inspired stuff and large, silver pieces.

Know the law

A business concern is a legal entity. You need to decide whether you’ll be a sole trader, partnership, private or public company etc. and what that all entails. Make sure all business documents are also completed and finances and tax are correct from the outset – it’s much harder to go back and get everything in order after running for a while.

Ingela describes how she set up her business,

I was glad that my fiancée had had his own business before so knew the procedures already. It is fairly simple to set up a limited company if you find a quality accountancy firm / financial advisor to help with the legal requirements and documents etc. They can be bought “off the shelf” fairly cheaply and then it’s just the bureaucracy of changing company name, setting directors, VAT registration, end of year filing (this is where the good accountants come in!) etc.

Julia concurs at the simplicity of the process,

I found it surprisingly simple starting up. I was employed at the time. As soon as I started working for myself I phoned the HMRC to inform them that I was self-employed. I had to provide them with my personal details (name, dob, NI number) and my business details (the date I started working for myself, type of business, business name). I started paying Class 2 National Insurance straightaway.

While Sally offers advice on the different options available,

I am registered as self-employed; the work I do and the scale of my business means this is the best option for me. It’s a personal decision; everyone needs to work out the pros and cons of self-employment versus Limited Company formation and choose the option best for them.

A business is more than a product
No matter how small your business is, if it’s to be successful you’ll need to employ a range of skills either in yourself or with the help of others; financial management, product development, people management, business planning, marketing and managing supplier relationships.

Ingela exemplifies this ethos brilliantly,

I’m very good at multitasking so can have many projects and orders running at the same time. While the embroidery machines are stitching I’m sewing/packing an order/checking/answering emails/etc. And since our work studio is in our home we work very long hours. We wrote and created our own database, data entry, sales and purchase order processing computer system, and are regularly changing this as we need when new opportunities and challenges arise. This allowed us perfect control over the information we have right from the “bill of materials” of each item we produce (even how many metres of thread is used!) right through to VAT returns and multi-year sales and financial reports.

Start your own business

With all this in mind, what is the final piece of advice these tenacious trio give for those thinking of starting their own business catering to the alternative market:

I think there is certainly a need for more alternative businesses. There are plenty of people who don’t want to follow fashion. They’re not necessarily Goths, but people who like to stand out from the crowd or wear something unique, just to be different from what everyone else is wearing. However, with regards to the actual running of the business it is not much different from the running of mainstream businesses. The one difference being alternative customers tend to know what they want and stick with that, which helps keep certain clothing ranges or types permanently in stock, like black velvet corsets and jackets, for example. Compare that to mainstream fashion-based retailers who have to change their whole range of clothing every five minutes, I think we have the better deal. I also think my customers are more loyal, many of those who purchased from the website when it was brand new in 2006 are still regular customers who often update their wardrobe with our range of new items.

I also think there is a definite need for alternative businesses. Now more than ever since Camden Town gets more and more converted into the mainstream by the day and there seems to be a rise in the number of alternative style people as new niche styles pop up and spread. I do however feel there is a difference between alternative and mainstream businesses. Alternative businesses, in general, care more about their business, products and customers than mainstream business who, in general, care more about profits than anything else. Sure we do care about profits too, so we can keep on doing what we are doing, but not at the cost of the quality of products and service. We also try to research as much as we can about where we source our raw materials from, and make ethical decisions about where we buy from and who we do business with on a face – to – face level. Nearly all our materials are bought from local businesses that we visit to purchase from and we have built up business relations with over the last few years.

In terms of the mechanics of running a business, an alternative one is no different to a mainstream; they of course differ in terms of services/products and their target market. I think in some ways an alternative business may be easier to establish as you have a much more defined target market and if you are part of the scene, you have a much better idea of how to promote your work and establish contact with potential clients. So go for it! There’s nothing like setting up on your own and being your own boss; everyone should try it at least once!

So there you have it, words of wisdom from those who successfully etch out their mark on the scene as we adorn ourselves with their labours. Time to start putting your talents to work for you, or failing that supporting those who bring us these treasures! Supporting our own.

Published in Unscene