Entrepreneur Interview: with Alice Hall, Pink Boutique
Posted on the 13 September 2016
Aged just 27, Alice Hall has turned an initial investment of £90 into a business that now turns over more than £7 million a year and employs 52 people.
Spotting a gap in the market for glamourous dresses and even more glamourous models, she set up selling on eBay and later migrated on to her own website. Four years later, the company sells around 2,000 items each day, with a customer base reaching across the world.
She is the winner of several business awards, including Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year at the PWC UK Private Business Awards, Women into the Network Young Entrepreneur of the Year and the Entrepreneurs’ Forum Emerging Talent Award.
Tell me a bit about how you started Pink Boutique?
I didn't mean to start a business and never imagined it would grow to this size! I graduated from university during the recession with a journalism degree, and it was impossible to find work as a journalist at the time. I got a job as a full time cover teacher in a high school, and paired this with working in a bar on evenings and doing promotions work on the weekends, but I was still struggling to pay the bills, even with three jobs. I knew I had to make some money on the side to continue having my own home and independence – so I came up with some ideas. The first was a cosmetics and make up artistry company – and the second was selling dresses online. The first one didn't seem viable as it needed too much investment to set up (and I had no money to put in!) so I decided to buy a pack of dresses for £90. Of course, I couldn't afford this – so I asked my Mum if there was any chance I could borrow £45.
The first pack of dresses sold! What do I do now, I thought? And then came our motto – reinvest! We reinvested the money we made on the first pack of dresses in two more, and then reinvested in four, then eight, and so on. About 3 months after we first started, I realised I had a scary decision to make. I was nipping out on my lunch breaks to send 30 parcels a day at the Post Office – and I couldn't squeeze it in! After roping in just about every member of the family to do the parcel runs for me, I realised it just wasn’t sustainable. I knew I could either stay where I was and continue teaching, or take the plunge and set up myself. I hated the thought of looking back and thinking 'what if?' - so I took the plunge and left work to focus on the business.
What were your first business premises?
My living room, the place that many a fantastic business starts! From there it moved into my mum’s attic, then into her garage, which we converted. My Dad wasn't happy that his car and lawnmower storage had become a start-up hub. We decided we couldn't employ staff to work in the garage, so we upsized into a lovely office premises, but it was expensive to store stock there, so we had to find a warehouse. We now have both office and warehousing space in Newburn, Newcastle upon Tyne. It's likely that we may have to expand further soon – but moving an ecommerce warehouse is a nightmare! Because we're open for business 24 hours, we can't move stock gradually because we can't pick and pack it all together. So all of our moves have to be done on Easter weekend, when we get 4 days of closedown.
How has the business grown?
Social media has been a great driver for us - Facebook was key to our early growth. We now have over 1.5 million followers across our social platforms. We're always trying to get onto the next big platform – right now my favourite platform is Instagram. I'm a creative person so I love the visual feed.
We've also had to hire lots of staff. We've made some amazing appointments recently – people from Harrods, Asda, John Lewis and Missguided – and they are brilliant at what they do. That's been a real highlight, and I'm learning from my staff all of the time. Understanding my limitations has been really important – and as a result, bringing in people that are much better than me at certain things.
How has the market changed since you started?
There’s a lot more competition now, as social media is so accessible. It's great to see other entrepreneurs setting up in online retail – but it does mean that we have to keep our brand and targeting very tight. I’m not sure you could replicate the growth we've had with such little budget now, as so much in the market has changed, although I'm still all about spending little to get big results. Freshness is very important to us, so we still add between 12 and 15 new styles a day to our site. It's as fast paced as it's ever been. Our average price-point is still around £22 per item, which makes us a very affordable little indulgence.
What would you say your USP is?
Really glam fashion, presented in the same way our girls would look on a night out wearing it. It’s a niche market, but it’s the same in all of the UK’s party cities. As the brand guardian I ensure all of our team buys into our brand.
We try to be as fun as possible internally. We have a company Snapchat account, which shows our latest styles, but also gives a very fun behind the scenes look at what's going on at PBHQ – whether it be Pina Colada Day (non-alcoholic, of course!) or Bring Your Dog To Work Day.
How do you handle internal motivation and staff rewards?
There are lots of opportunities for people who do well, as we’re growing quickly, which is always a good motivator. We want people to work hard, be positive, enjoy their job and build their careers with us.
We also recently introduced a company-wide bonus scheme. We have amazing staff all over the company who go above and beyond; from the warehouse pickers and packers to our stylists and customer care staff. So to us, it seemed wrong to only incentivise senior management. Now, if we hit target, everyone gets a bonus – and they all know how they can help – whether it's switching the lights off when you leave a room or telling all your friends about our amazing new stock.
How does your motivation now compare with that when you started the firm?
I find business very addictive – so I don't need much motivation. Of course there have been days over the past four years that have felt like the end of the world – but I haven't given up. The fast pace of the business is really important to me; I get itchy when things stand still and am always looking for the next big thing. I also love how flexible the company has remained; when we make a decision to change something it happens fast, often within hours. I know that our staff love this too. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. I haven't been bored or watched the clock in four years – that's pretty amazing.
Your business structure, how did it come about?
We acknowledged about halfway through that we weren't the best people for some of the jobs – and had to wait until we could afford it to recruit. We have now appointed a senior management team to fit the size of the business and bring on board new knowledge, including a marketing director and an IT director. It's brilliant to have that level of expertise in those areas, and no doubt we'll continue to expand the management team as we go forward.
In addition to being Creative Director I share the role of MD with my Mum and joint owner, Julie. We both have skills in such broad areas, and such a comprehensive historical knowledge of the company. We are like yin & yang – she is more process driven and I am all about the brand and selling. On a business level, it just works.
How does mentoring factor in Pink Boutique?
In the early days of the business we had a coach from the Growth Accelerator Programme. It was a real shame that the Government cancelled funding for this. I’ve done some informal mentoring when I’ve been able to fit it in, and am looking to do more through the Entrepreneurs’ Forum. I'd love to work with some super ambitious business owners who are really determined.
Any future plans?
Growth and continuous consolidation. At the beginning I just wanted to grow no matter the implications, but now I'm more about steady and safe growth. With our senior management team in, we're really starting to plan our strategy in a lot more detail; and I'm excited to deliver it.