BearHugs offers a range of gift boxes designed to deliver all the warmth and comfort of a hug when you can’t be there in person.
The items in BearHugs boxes are lovingly made by talented British independent makers. For every 50 gift boxes sold, a personalised gift package is sent to a seriously ill child or their sibling through the charity Post Pals.
What is the Story of you starting up, from idea to first product sold?
After starting work as a Speech and Language Therapist, I fell very ill, with what I now know to have been Chronic Lyme Disease. I had to spend most of my days in bed, and if I did leave the house, I had to use a wheelchair.
The idea for BearHugs first came about when, on a particularly poorly day, I received an especially thoughtful package from a friend. When you can’t leave the house very often, anything arriving through the post takes on greater significance. That little package completely turned my day around. Although I wasn’t able to act on it straight away, it planted the seed in my mind for what would later become BearHugs.
When my health began to improve, I got in touch with the Prince’s Trust, who helped me set up to sell some prototypes. Once those sold, I knew I had an idea that I could carry on with.
What problems did you encounter early on?
I didn’t have any experience when it came to running a business. I had an idea I believed in and cared deeply about but very little practical know-how to make it a reality. There are a lot of different plates you’ve got to keep spinning when you’re trying to get a business off the ground – and fortunately this is where the Prince’s Trust really came in handy. I had a mentor who I was able to contact for advice and use as a sounding board for any ideas or concerns I had. I’ve since been able to access support from University of Sheffield Enterprise too.
Once BearHugs was actually up and running, one of the biggest problems I encountered was my Etsy shop suddenly being shut down. I’d had a great first Christmas selling on the platform, had built up a customer base and had been getting some lovely feedback but then one day I went to log in to find my shop no longer existed. This was due to the fact I had misunderstood that every component part of anything sold on Etsy has to be handmade. It was a worrying moment but it actually turned out for the best. I already knew I wanted to move away from Etsy and it prompted me to get my own website up and running a little sooner than I might have done. Now, 80% of my sales come through bearhugsgifts.com and I’m not reliant on another platform.
How did you get Funding?
I got a small grant from the Prince’s Trust at first that helped me get a few early materials that I needed. That then allowed BearHugs to grow organically on a small scale. Last year I then pitched at the University of Sheffield Evolve Startup Showcase event, and won a prize fund that allowed me to move the business out of my house, invest in packaging and start dealing with bigger amounts of stock which has allowed the company to continue to grow.
How quickly are you growing?
In our first year we sold just over one thousand gift boxes, by the end of our second year we are on course to have sold 5000. BearHugs has just outgrown its first office unit and we will be moving into a larger space by the end of the month. All the orders for BearHugs boxes still have to be put together and sent out for delivery. This requires a fair amount of space for stock, packaging, and enough room to actually put the boxes together. Our new office will give us enough space to have a designated ‘BearHug building station’ as well as extra room for stock, while also leaving space for the more office-y side of things. The desks, seating and space to have a nice cup of tea etc. Extra pair of hands (/paws) will mean that we can keep fulfilling orders but also have a bit of time to focus on growing the business.
How do you market the business?
One of the positives about BearHugs is that there is a small extent to which the business markets itself. As the process involves a customer sending a BearHug to a loved one, usually the recipient is a new person who is made aware of BearHugs, and our data shows that these people, happy with the box they’ve received, then very often go on to use the company themselves to send boxes on to someone else.
Aside from that, social media plays a big role and I used to run a blog that put me in touch with a network of talented and supportive people online. I’ve found that being in contact with the sorts of people who do things that I am interested in has helped me work out the ways to in turn find the people who would be interested in the work that BearHugs is doing.
What is the plan for the future?
With the new staff on board we are about to upgrade to a bigger office. We also have some new and unique designed packaging for the boxes about to come through, which I’m very excited about. We ran a poll amongst our customers to help with this, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Aside from that, I’m eager to continue BearHugs’ relationship with Post Pals, and focus on growing BearHugs’ social impact. From the very beginning, I’ve wanted BearHugs to be able to offer flexible employment to those who are eager to work, but perhaps can’t necessarily do a standard 9-5, due to long-term fluctuating health conditions.
What advice would you give yourself on day one?
Firstly, don’t be so hard on yourself all the time. Secondly, interact with other people who are in a similar situation trying to start businesses. They will understand the bizarre and stressful situations you’ll find yourself in, and you’ll be able to help each other, be it with advice or maybe just a cup of tea when it’s most needed.
What are you learning?
I’m only now starting to learn how to be someone’s boss. Just as I was starting to feel like I was getting to grips with running the business itself, I’m now going to have to learn how to be a good manager. It’s a totally different set of skills.
What’s the most important trait when running a business?
Being decisive. There’s always going to be a lot of people who say that things should be done a certain way. So far I’ve found that it’s important that you’re open-minded, that you listen to people who know what they’re talking about and learn as much as you can, but ultimately, it’s your business, and you have to make the decisions that you’re happy with.
What books do you recommend for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Number one would be Talk like TED by Carmine Gallo. I’m not a natural public speaker. The first time I had to pitch BearHugs to a room full of people, I froze, couldn’t remember anything I had to say and wanted the ground to swallow me up. Before pitching BearHugs for the second time, I read this book cover to cover. I practised like mad and now might even go so far as to say I enjoy getting up in front of people to speak. Number two would probably be The Lean Startup (Eric Ries). It’s one I think about all the time.