New York to Dorset
This day in 1990 I started my first business, Possi. I was 21 years old and had recently returned from working in New Jersey as a private Art tutor. Finishing Art school that year, I had initially planned to travel the world, but an opportunity to visit New York was too good to miss. I was prompted to write this by all the social media posts of us at 20. Well this was me at 20!
I loved living so close to this incredible city, and the art side was fun, the domestic situation wasn’t. I’d met and fell in love with my first husband three weeks before I’d left the UK, as well as being offered a licence for a painting I’d done of Covent Garden to a poster company. They’d made a good will payment to stop me from travelling away, but I knew I had to go, or I’d always regret it. returned to England almost four months later, no job, missing the poster opportunity, but eager to start afresh. I’d been selling my paintings from an early age, my first exhibition was when I was 16, and so I had no question about what’d I’d be doing.
One morning as I was walking to the Tax office to register myself as self employed, I passed a welcoming sign outside the local Enterprise office. ‘Free business start up training’.
Dick Tracy was the man behind the desk. His character matched his name and he became my first mentor. Enrolled, I started on a life long journey learning about business and being an entrepreneur.
As the only artist amongst plumbers, electricians, IT specialists, and eager new retailers and the youngest as well as female, I wasn’t the usual client and the training reflected that. Many of the men were twice my age, changing career after divorce, redundancy, or relocation. All of us optimistic about the prizes self employment would offer us. Dick and his lead trainer Larry Smith, put me on track, introducing me to the Livewire program,and the incredible Princes Youth Business Trust (PYBT). After completing the course, I won £300 from Livewire and a £500 marketing grant from the PYBT and off I marched into the world of business.
Painting on Silk
My first business was selling my paintings, all on silk, mostly framed but I also produced a limited edition of hand painted silk scarves and ties. The PYBT was excellent at both training and getting their businesses into public and trade shows. I was able to exhibit at The ideal Home exhibition and The International Spring Fair in Birmingham. Before each event we had marvellous workshops led by Richard Denny, still my ‘go to’ marketing guru. I married, taught him how to paint and then he joined my business. ( He is now a very successful artist in America Simon Kenevan)
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
We developed producing greeting cards from our paintings and soon were exporting worldwide to 11 countries, including the USA and Japan. My hand painted cards were in Fortnum and Mason’s and we soon received a ‘book deal’ for the Ancient mariner Collection of paintings. Life was exciting, and then VERY stressful. The book deal was a steep lesson in business dealings. The people were not to be trusted, never paid for either the paintings or the book sales, but we carried on.
We expanded from the kitchen table to a Duchy of Cornwall workshop and converted the upstairs into a gallery, whilst downstairs was storage and packing for the greeting cards, now being sold in over 700 shops in the UK.
Then supermarkets happened, and many of the independent gift shops and galleries closed as new out of town shopping centres and ring roads destroyed town centres like a wave of concrete and cars moving Northwards from the South East.
Time to adapt and diversify. I’d spotted a redundant rope factory in Castle Cary, near where we lived. Not owning a property made running a business tricky. Noting to borrow against, and now as a director of Business Link Somerset I learned even more about the perks of entrepreneurship.
Castle Cary Somerset
From 5 years of investing everything into the business, and not paying myself, I could manage a business mortgage but not a domestic one. I was incredibly lucky to purchase the Rope Factory with a 50% mortgage from the Rural Development commission, and the balance as a private mortgage from the owner, who also then set up a second private mortgage for the adjoining cottage. Interest rates were matched at 11.9% for a fixed term of 20 years!
Thankfully, having gone from student to SME I had learned how to survive on minimal income. I could cook using a neighbouring farmers seed potatoes, Bertie Bond’s cider and a comprehensive spice and herb selection.
This constant pushing to ‘next year we’ll be millionaires’ took it’s toll. Miscarriages, pregnancies, two young sons, the foot and mouth crisis, then the inevitable divorce, leaving me to run the gallery, card business and bring up 1 and 3 year old sons alone. Stress and extreme emotions were always good for my painting. I thrived on it, producing some of my best work during the darkest years.
After two years alone, I sold the property, still not completely renovated, but considered a success. I had transformed the Gallery world in this region, showing international artists such as Mackenzie Thorpe and Philip Meninsky. The town had begun to support me and my regular art markets and the local Living History group became firm friends after I’d let them use the gallery for free during the Millennium celebrations.
After selling up, I could relax for a while. I was able to focus on my sons, and my own paintings. With lower overheads, yet still a drive to travel and exhibit my work, I had a studio built in my garden. Finally my boys had a home with a garden, without the public walking through it, or walking into our home at all hours of the day and night.
I met Greg and we married, after 5 years as a single mum. He had a job and for the first time I had someone to share life’s expenses with! My career blossomed with exhibitions in London and the USA, then all of a sudden, twenty years after I’d started Possi, I fell ill with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and spent the next seven years bed and wheelchair bound.
I’d thought that I had set up a business that would continue after my death, but chronic illness wasn’t the same. No rush to buy my work at extortionate prices. Everything I had built up, collapsed and closing a business was both heartbreaking and difficult, extracting myself from merchant agreements etc. At least I had Greg and my boys, so for once the balance altered from business to family.
Ehlers Danlos Syndrome & Bees
The rest is history, I transformed into a ‘Bee Lady’. None of my previous experiences wasted, grief at what was never to return, but excitement at how everything was also now so perfect. The ups and downs of Possi, my illness, learning about health and then bees. Everything is connected. So today I am celebrating thirty years of this journey. So much learnt, and I enjoy being able to mentor and pass on the wisdom.I don’t regret learning everything the hard way. At least I only made the majority of mistakes once, then moved on. I still trust people and look for the best in business, and thankfully, my age and experience now seems to shake off the opportunists hoping to earn a quick buck from a naive young artist.
I am so very blessed and grateful that on this 30th anniversary, I can spend a moment remembering all the very special people that have been part of my journey, staff, customers, suppliers, so many of whom went the extra mile to help me achieve my dreams.
The main difference between running a business during the recession of 1990, and today during the COVID crisis of 2020? Well now I can be myself, I can be feminine, and strong. Collaboration not competition are the current themes. Support and encouragement from competitors, and clients. Change can always be challenging, but looking back, je ne regrette rien….
My story of how the bees came into and took over my life is in my book ‘A to Bees’ available here