insideKENT BUSINESS PROFILE: AUNTIE MIMS
Husband and wife business partners, Michelle and Peter Lanstone, took the plunge and made their home business their joint full-time careers, celebrating their 100,000th customer in December 2016 by selling through notonthehighstreet.com. This month, insideKENT’s Donna Martin spoke to them about how they did it, how far they’ve come and what challenges they face.
photos by Helen Schryver at Schryver Photography
Your story is quite inspirational for other small businesses – tell us a bit about what made you start Auntie Mims, and why you chose notonthehighstreet.com (NOTHS) as your outlet, rather than just your own online shop.
Auntie Mims started back in 2008. Michelle (Auntie Mims) originally created textile based items such as personalised toy storage tubs and Christmas stockings whilst working part time as a teacher with young children at home, but it was in 2012 when we bought a laser engraving machine solely to design and make everything for our wedding (from invitations to table plans and decorations), and then, when the wedding was over we had to somehow justify the machine! That’s when Auntie Mims really began and started to grow into the business it is today.
Michelle has always had a compulsion to create things, and when the children were small it was fun to share her designs with others; working from the kitchen table and accessing customers via the relatively new (at the time!) world of online gift shopping. NOTHS was really the only choice back then – Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish, the founders of NOTHS, were actively seeking creative ‘kitchen table’ based businesses and we were lucky to get on board early on.
The marketing power of NOTHS is a key attraction of course – visibility on your own websites is tricky; traffic is king and with 5,000 partners and their commission, NOTHS has a marketing budget small businesses can only dream of! That said, you do have to tick the boxes with your products based on what customers want and what NOTHS think they want at any particular time; not all things can be surfaced with hundreds of thousands of items on site. Search is important and the experience of knowing what NOTHS customers want is really important to partners. We know this better than anyone – we all know what sells.
How did you make the transition from your 9-5 jobs to both being full time in your business?
Michelle was on maternity leave with George (now 5) and it was becoming clear that sales were growing with Auntie Mims. It was a little scary to fully commit to the business, but Michelle decided that after returning to work as a teacher she would give it one year before trying to make Auntie Mims work full time. All went well and after our Personalised Wooden Spoons saw phenomenal sales one Christmas, we knew that there was more mileage in what we were doing, combining Michelle’s design skills with the technology we had available.
As the business grew, so we were calling in more support from friends and part-time help and Peter was managing to hold down his career as a music teacher but working from 4am before school and late into the night. One Christmas we had people working 24 hours to meet demand, from our spare room at home with the children asleep upstairs! After a health scare back in 2014, Peter followed suit with a change of career, and we were suddenly working on Auntie Mims full time. We moved from home to our first workshop and are now in a large studio and warehouse space near Dover with an extension currently being built for us as we grow.
What has been the most challenging part about your growth?
The hardest thing for us has been ensuring that our designs and ideas are always fresh and original whilst watching out for the copy-cats; as soon as we have new products available it is only a matter of time before other, less creative businesses, are imitating. This used to really upset us but now we just have to stay one step ahead and resolve to be better and better. We really like notonthehighstreet’s old strapline of being ‘a life less ordinary’ – this is what we aspire to for ourselves and our products.
Beyond this, making sure that our eggs are not all in one basket has been a key factor in the past year. We were far too over-reliant on NOTHS as our sole platform but now, as the Auntie Mims brand has grown, people find us. Traffic to our own site and via Etsy is up and we supply a diverse range of corporate customers from Buckingham Palace to Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Restaurants and Lily O’Brien’s Chocolates. We have also just acquired a new business called HOWKAPOW (www.howkapow.com). This is a successful online retailer which sources beautiful gifts and home items from small independent brands and artists – this is a very exciting move for us and sits nicely alongside Auntie Mims.
Was there ever a moment where you thought, ‘What have we done?’, and how did you get over that hurdle?
Never. There really hasn’t been time. We know we are truly lucky but are both very much forward thinking. We look for new opportunities all the time and when working for yourself you very clearly have your destiny in your hands.
What’s your most popular product?
Historically it has been our wooden spoon heads – we sell thousands of these, personalised, every year. Hammers are a close second but more recently our personalised destination Road Signs have taken off hugely. These were our best seller at Valentine’s Day.
Congratulations on your recent milestone of serving your 100,000th customer! When you first set up shop, was it always your goal to make a career out of it, or did the business grow organically?
Not at all. It is always a surprise and delight when the orders ping through, but the growth has been organic. Back in 2008 we were always excited with an order a day; these days it can be as many as 800 a day at Christmas – we still can’t quite believe that happens!
Where did the name ‘Auntie Mims’ come from?
Mims was the name Michelle was know by when she was young, and she has always been Auntie Mims to her nephews – it came from there.
If you could only give one piece of advice to a ‘beginner’ entrepreneur, what would it be?
Do it. Take the first step. Take every bit of advice you can. The ‘business’ bit is what is most tricky for creatives in particular. Online forums are a great starting place and small business owners tend to be the most helpful people around. It’s a great community.