Home business heroes: Stephanie McIntosh

Can you sum up your business?

Fou furnishings ® - www.foufurnishings.com specialise in selling and sustainable sourcing internationally of luxury organic bedding, towel and nursery bedding collections for discerning consumers and high end hotels, yachts and spas.  

The company focuses on original design, exceptional quality and customer service in selling its luxury organic linens. All of our linens are specified to five-star hotel standards and tested for performance, in addition to the organic standard certification. 

Our customers range from five-star international to boutique hotels, self catering & B&Bs such as a new eco build on a remote Scottish island  to ethically minded consumers internationally who are seeking excellence in quality and anti-allergy bedding. We sell our organic bed and bath linens retail and wholesale as well as working on custom organic bedding and towel projects.

What's the business model?

The business model is online delivery of fou furnishings ® branded organic linens - bed, bath and nursery - via the retail website www.foufurnishings.com with a brokerage model added in 2010. We have designed the organic bed line ranges and established the supply chain from scratch. We also list some products on Amazon and a small proportion of turnover from 'drop shipping' - listing of fou furnishings products on other eco retailers' sites. Over 70% of ranges are certified by the UK Soil Association to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). As one of the few UK certified organic linen companies in the UK, this has given credibility and differentiation to fou furnishings ®.

What were you doing before?

To establish the business, I took a year out to plan, design, develop and test the product during an MSc in Product Design & Development.  After this year, it took a further year of searching and sourcing to find the very best organic bedding and towels that met with strict performance and (GOTS) standards. 

My career has always been focused on the retail industry; I have worked across markets from fashion to home furnishings, as practitioner, consultant and trainer for major retail and supply chain companies. 

Prior to setting up the business I had a retail consultancy which I ran for eleven years working on projects as diverse as retail opportunities for Scottish luxury goods in China, retail regeneration, running training courses and consulting in to small to medium sized retailers. Before that, I spent my career working in the retail industry in Europe and the UK where I worked in marketing, consultancy and buying & merchandising involved in buying, merchandise and range management, product marketing strategy, market research, market entry and competitor profiling. I worked internationally and studied French and Spanish and other qualifications include a Masters in Business Administration (MBA)

How did the idea come about?

Fou furnishings was borne out of one of those eureka moments, sitting on a plane at the end of a long day in retail consultancy. After a weekend of spending precious time trudging round the shops to find quality bed linen which was different from the mass produced look, I thought, there has to be an easier way. Then the idea struck me that I could design home products.  I had spent my entire career covering most parts of retail, from the shop floor to head office, and had been involved throughout in selecting or selling designs commercially. So why did I not then do a design course. Then I could design a range for the home which I, and many friends also, seemed to be looking for. A range which offered a different and distinctive choice from the mass produced product of chain stores, convenience, original design and good quality which didn't literally cost the earth and last, but not least, customer service which delivered on its promises.

There followed a year out to concentrate on product design and development, through a one year MSc in Product Design & Development, in spite of my children's concerns that I would be the oldest student ever!  At the end of my first week, my eldest daughter asked with concern if I had met any friends at my new 'school'. 

The end result, almost another year later of design and sourcing was Fou Furnishings organic cotton bedding, soft furnishings and eco-gift collection.  The selection of organic cotton as the key material was based on the traceability and sustainability of the supply chain as well as the quality of this natural fibre.

How did you fund it?

The business was funded through savings accumulated from the consultancy business, some investment from my co director and working capital from the bank.

How did you market it?

In the marketing, I was initially helped by a Marketing Director whom I had worked with when running the consultancy business. Marketing was initially through print magazines that would appeal to customers interested in organic textiles, sending them our retail brochure, using adverts and competitions.

Online, using Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) to ensure front page Google placement for keywords as well as our quarterly newsletter and SEO tools such as Twitter, Facebook and our blog and articles on organic textiles. I also now use the services of a PR agency to ensure ongoing coverage for fou furnishings and now have part-time sales help as we build a list of prospects in the hospitality industry.

How did you build a list of customers?

Online, through orders and prospective customers requesting our newsletter or brochure and opting in to hear about fou furnishings new products and promotions. In hospitality, as mentioned, actively contacting organic and eco hospitality establishments as well as this week, exhibiting at a hospitality conference.

How have you grown the business?

I have grow the business through developing the online retail web site, developing the product categories that we offer for sale and selling in to the hospitality, yacht and organic market internationally.

How do you attract people to your site?

I attract people to the site through concentration on keywords, SEO, running competitions and promotional offers on and off line. Our latest competition was to design a set of kid's organic bedding which will then be made for the customer and appear in our collection. We have a reader offer with a fantastic 25% promotion running in a major magazine which will come out at the end of November. Additionally, listing on specialist eco directories, writing in the blog, articles and through our quarterly newsletter.

Where in the home is your office?

My office is a dedicated space, set apart on the side of the house and was converted from the original garage.

Do you have set working hours?

I have core hours which I work - from 8am after the school run, to 4pm and outside those if dealing with e.g. North America or earlier if really busy.

How do you make sure you're focused and never get distracted at home?

I try to make sure work is planned and deadlines set. I am just working through version three of the business and marketing plan and will set activities and deadlines from there. I also try to plan the week and although it does not always flow as intended, I find if I do not set self-imposed deadlines and goals I can be distracted by researching a related but not necessarily key area. Time is precious so I have to use it effectively. Being a retailer, I am accustomed to deadlines.

What was it like at the start?

When I launched the web site, the marketing director who was advising me said that now I had done 5% of the work and had to get on with the other 95% to make it happen. I launched fou furnishings at the worst point of the economic cycle so time was spent trying to raise the profile of the business.

What's the worst thing about working from home?

 The worst thing about working from home is running a business in isolation; so having trusted people to bounce ideas and plans off or get creative with is important. During the school holidays it is dealing with non-work interruptions usually involving 'What's for lunch?' and providing a taxi service at short notice.

What's the best?

I chose to become self-employed when I had my family in order, like a lot of people, to balance work and family commitments. If I was not working from home, or close too, it would be very difficult to do that.

Will you ever move to an office?

I would like to move to an office which also had warehousing on site. I have commercial warehousing about twenty minutes away, but if I need to visit for any reason, it is a drive which takes a chunk of time out of the day. However, an office move is a few years away.

For more information aboutFou Furnishings, click here

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