Emma Bridgewater refuses to sell her soul

Another nice example of a "founder brand" is pottery company Emma Bridgewater, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. They make cute, premium-priced, hand-made pottery at their factory in Stoke-on-Trent. Good to see a different type of business model to the dominant one of out-sourcing to China and slashing prices. In the face of the recession, sales increased +33% per cent in the last financial year to £11 million, with pre-tax profits up 40%.

Loads to learn from the profile on her in the Times. 

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1. Inspiration comes from being the consumer:
a lot of innovation doesn't come from logical analysis. It comes from personal experience, and not being able to find a product or service you want. In Emma's case  she was lookiung for cups and saucers as a birthday present for her mum, but couldn’t find stuff she liked. She designed some herself, using a traditional technique of applying designs to ceramics using a sponge.

2. Start in the kitchen: you don't need a load of investment to get going with a business. Emma sketched a mug, bowl and dish and got a local potter to make some unglazed pieces. She then experimented with sponges in her flat and then sent finished samples to 120 retail buyers. Harrods, John Lewis and the General Trading Company were amongst the shops placing orders. And In the beginning she delivered order herself in a rented van.

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3. People will pay for added value:
one key to Emma's success, and that of many of the best brands today (e.g. Apple, Nespresso, Gu, innocent) is premium pricing. She priced her pieces at double that of the competition. This allowed her to hand-make the product in a local pottery and still make a decent profit. People are ready to pay for the added value of unique designs, hand-made quality and, increasingly, the feeling of buying from a local, UK factory.

4. Keep control, control your destiny: I love hearing Emma talk about why she and he husband have kept control of the business. They not gone the classic route of selling out to venture capitalists, because they didn't want the resulting pressure of delivering more and more sales. They have avoided what I call "the tyrany of growth", where sales growth becomes the focus, rather than the result of doing great work:

“Why should everyone sell out to private equity and chase unsustainable growth? I would much rather take my own risks under my own whip. The thought of really heavy targets to retain ownership didn’t appeal at all. This is a family business. We don’t want to be driven by short-term profit goals. This has to be sustainable.”

5. Leaders are hard to replace, especially founders: Emma learnt the hard way about how hard it is to delegate leadership. At one point she brought in managers to run the company, but sales stagnated and profits dropped. She says: “With hindsight, I didn’t communicate my ideas properly. I would ask why the business wasn’t growing but the systems were so chaotic I couldn’t find the answer.”

Bridgewater took back control, got rid of five people and improved systems to cut delivery times by a third, and sales subsequently doubled.

6. Having your own business is "exhilarating and exhausting": a great summary of being an entrepreneur, for anyone thinking of becoming one. As she says, “It gives you terrific financial freedom if you can make it work. But it is really obsessive. You find yourself talking about it to people at dinner. There’s something always just disappearing over the horizon — and you are always galloping madly towards it.”

In conclusion, Emma is a great example of a brilliant brand leader: she combines passion for her brand and product with insight from her own experience, and also business savvy to turn this into profit.