We’re celebrating our tenth #CanonSmallBusinessHero with not one, but two entrepreneurs; teachers turned self-taught crafters, Pete and Bridget Charlesworth.
The duo founded Clouds & Currents, a product design company focusing on personalised gifting, five years ago and since then have launched a whole portfolio of products for every occasion. Together, they’re designing, creating and delivering gifts to people in every corner of the world.
Our first hand-crafted product was born out of a very personal experience when researching our wedding in 2011. We loved the idea of a personalised hanger with your newly married name on it but couldn’t find one anywhere. There seemed to be a gap in the UK market, and after Bridget had to take some time off work to recover from an injury, Clouds & Currents was born.
After learning wire work and marketing the product online, we knew there was more we could create! We reinvested some of our profits, which allowed us to diversify and make a whole variety of personalised products for all key gifting occasions. Since starting in 2012, our business has grown organically, and we’ve continued to design, create and deliver everything from our little studio in Essex.
In the early days, we had no experience of running a business, so every day provided some kind of barrier or challenge – but ultimately you create the path by walking. We’ve been privileged to have become a part of the small business community in our own retail sector which is incredibly supportive and has enabled us to bounce our questions around - from VAT to our latest creative ideas. In the five years we’ve grown, however, we’ve faced two major challenges. The first is scaling our business. We grew over 1000% in our first few years and with that came the challenge of putting a structure and system in place to sustain the growth. When we started out, we weren’t a part of the business world so it was a real learning curve to establish how to best manage our growth and the processes we needed going forward.
The second major challenge we faced was staffing. When there was too much for just us to cope with, we knew we had to hire, but were clueless about the process. What were we supposed to ask? Have we filled in all the right paperwork? There were a million questions we had! We got there in the end and now have a strong team of ten to help our business continue to grow.
Five years ago, the idea of personalised gifts was new, whereas now it’s the “in-thing” to do. This has meant we have much more competition than when we started which has driven us to new levels of creativity and innovation. We need to constantly think outside the box and ask ourselves “what makes Clouds & Currents unique?” to encourage customers to come back.
In a word – very! We sell through four platforms, including our own website, globally, so all our sales come through online channels. Every single order is then processed digitally, printed and shared with the creation team, and is then ready to be made.
For us, it’s also important to stay in contact with our customers every step of the way. As they come from all over, digital is essential to enabling this. Operating solely online means we don’t have the face-to-face interactions other small businesses can benefit from, so we like to make our digital communications as human and personable as possible. Social media has played a huge part in this, allowing us to chat to our customers as well as tell the human story behind our brand.
Unfortunately, there’s a direct correlation between the growth of your business and the growth of your admin. We try to set aside a day a week for accounting and HR, but often this doesn’t cover everything. For us, we find doing admin little, but often, is the best approach to staying on top of things.
We’re also big fans of automation to make processes easier and quicker. However, the challenge with this is ensuring we don’t lose the humanity of our communications. We still like to ensure everything, from basic accounting tasks to those that are customer facing, maintain the high standard of excellence we aim to deliver.
As we sell worldwide across four platforms which all have unique dispatch processes, every single order needs to be printed out and detail the customer’s specific personalisation requirements. After all, personalisation is what our businesses all about! Our printers are the link between what the customer wants and what we provide - so for us they’re integral to our business operations.
Always back yourself and your ideas. There are over 7 billion people in the world but no one thinks like you do. When we began, people used to say, “those are really nice wedding hangers, just keep thinking and you might get a good idea to start a business” - five years later we’re running that business! As a small enterprise, there’s always the fear that it could go wrong, but it’ll only go wrong if you stop believing it’ll go right.
When we started in 2012, we both had just come out of teaching – a rewarding but incredibly demanding profession. By having our own small business, it was important for us to create a real flexible work-life balance. Our aim was to make work work for us.
Since having our first child earlier this year, the importance of this has become ever more prominent. As a business, you need to be watching the numbers and the bottom line, but if that’s all there is for you then you’ll end up running dry. Whilst we want our customers to escape the ordinary gift giving experience, creating something genuinely unlike anything else people may receive, we want our staff and those we deal with to escape the ordinary ways of working – and with that, escape dreading your daily alarm!
So success to us is creating that work-life balance that has a genuine impact – this stretches to not only us and our team, but the people we deal with every day.