Movers and Shakers | Denise Rawls | Owner and Creative Force | Strange Fruit
Strange Fruit is a boutique greeting publisher proudly producing stylish and quirky cards reflective of black Britain. Delightfully we don’t have a typical customer; we just have customers from all cultural backgrounds who simply like our cards. The company was founded in October 2010 and is based in Walthamstow, east London
Why did you decide to start your company?
I thought about starting a diverse greeting card company for years, I didn’t like that me, my kids and my family were never represented in the greeting cards we sent and received. Getting married in New York and getting lots of multicultural cards made up my mind to just get on with it if it was a feasible business. I did lots of research into the greeting card industry and found that there are over 800 greeting card publishers in the UK, and less than 1% of those represent diversity, so there was lots of room for another company!
What was your career path prior to starting your business?
I still work in my career path! I’ve worked in government communications for about ten years now and I am really excited about moving to OFSTED soon to take up a Chief Press Officer role. It’s going to be really exciting.
Did you always know that you would become an entrepreneur?
I don’t know! Writing was always where I saw my idealist future. Before I started Strange Fruit I was halfway through my creative writing masters, editing my novel and speaking to publishing agents. But I see great business leaders running more than one business, so I figured if they can multi-task and have ‘portfolio careers’ so can I.
Tell us about the business planning stage (for example: did you write a business plan? did you contact any business support agencies?)
I did a lot of research. And I wrote a business plan. If I was going to invest my time and put my aim of publishing my book on the shelf I needed to be sure I was doing the right thing. I didn’t find any of the business support agencies were very helpful as the advice was really entry level.
I’ve been working since 1986 so I’ve learnt a few things on the way and those skills are totally transferable! But Start Up Britain and Enterprise Nation which I’ve discovered since starting the company are great and I would recommend them to anyone thinking of starting or already running a small business.
What are you working on at the moment and can you describe your typical working day?
No days are typical for me which is great. I try to have breakfast with my son before leaving for work. I make Strange Fruit calls and run errands at lunchtime and then crack on with designing when I get home.
I am exhibiting at a trade show in May so I am working on a new collection to launch at the show. I was also lucky enough to win a shop (it’s so small I call it a shop-ette) as part of the regeneration of a local market, so I am there at the weekends and working hard on making it the best independent greeting card shop in Walthamstow.
What have been the highlights of running your own business?
I love how emotional customers get when they see my cards. Older people especially tell me how long they have waited to be able to send a friend a card with a person of colour on it. I had one woman actually cry in the shop!
The other highlight is when buyers just get why they need my cards, no questions, no need for explanations, they just say yes we’ll have them like the buyers for the Mary Portas shop at House of Fraser did.
Being selected as a finalist in the PRECIOUS Awards was great too, it was wonderful having my hard work recognised but I didn’t win so I have to work harder!
What is the hardest part of running your own business?
Not having enough time is definitely the hardest part and living with so many boxes! The saddest thing I’ve found about running the business is that many other business owners are reluctant to share advice so when I meet people willing to share their experiences, I’m delighted. Although my experience is limited I try to be as helpful as I can.
What, or who, inspires and motivates you?
I like Alex Polizzi (from BBC The Fixer and Channel 5 The Hotel Inspector) she is a good example of someone who has lots of different projects going on. I love that she can do all the jobs in the businesses she runs.
From a historic perspective, Madam C J Walker is inspirational. She built her empire developing hair products for black women and in her later years dedicated her life to the Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Who can’t be inspired by the first black female millionaire?
As for motivation, my children are my motivation; I want to do my bit to make their adult journey in this world a bit more equal.
How do you work on making your business grow?
I try to focus on working towards the things that will make a difference to the business long term. It’s really easy to get sidetracked, but I have ten Post-it notes with my key goals written on them. where I can see them, to keep myself on track.
What’s the most important business lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
I spent the first year really worrying! That I wasn’t doing enough, that I didn’t have enough money to invest in the company and all those other self-doubts that we all have. I know now everyone has those same doubts, I feel really confident in growing the business at my own pace.
What other passions do you have away from your business?
I read as much as possible. I have just read Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christine Watson and I loved it so much I am going to read it again in a few weeks.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start their own business?
Just do it, you’ll learn what you need to know on the way and that learning is an experience you just can’t buy.