How one Co Armagh mum started a blossoming children's boutique on Instagram
Starting a business isn't for the faint of heart, but throw into the mix three kids and dreams of going out on your own are often shelved, or stay just that – dreams.
For Laura Black, who started a personalised clothing and gifts company Blossom & Ivy in 2019, that very prospect edges closer to the realms of fantasy at the best of times.
The County Armagh mum had the first of her three children at 18; the eldest – now 9 – was later diagnosed with autism.
"I suppose I became our eldest's carer, because at that time we didn't really have anybody that was able to manage him, or we didn't feel comfortable with anyone else minding him at the time," said Laura.
Aspirations of starting a children's clothes shop really did take a back seat for the 27-year-old.
It wasn't until Laura had her youngest child – and only daughter – that things started to take shape, even if she didn't realise it at the time.
"I had begun making little bows and stuff for her; I had been putting photos on Instagram and people saw what I was doing and they wanted them, it all kind of just started from there."
Laura had no business background, in fact she left high school and went straight to Enniskillen to do an equine course at 16, but was unable to finish that after falling pregnant.
"I have always been independent and it's always been in the back of my head that I wanted to work for myself but I just didn't ever know what that was gonna be," she admitted.
"I suppose whenever I did have the kids I kind of then started to think, 'oh you know I could maybe do a bit of photography' or, you know, I could have gone into a clothing boutique sort of thing, so ideally I would have loved to have had my own kind of clothes shop for kids but, just with the challenges that we have with my son, that has never really been an option, to be able to go out of home to work.
"So, after my youngest was born I didn't really know what I was going to do after her, because for us she was our last baby. I had suffered with postnatal depression after my middle child was born, so I knew I needed to do something, because I didn't want to fall back into that mindset."
Laura cites her battle to stave off post-natal depression as a major factor in why she started making the bows and other children's items, as it was an "outlet".
"After the kids went to bed, and with all the stress of the day, I would go in to the [craft room] and do whatever I wanted to do."
While it was a hobby, even a passion, Laura always had it in the back of her mind to make it pay in some way.
"You're always trying to think up what else could you can do to get an extra few pounds and because I was not in a job I was heavily reliant on my husband Leslie; obviously that's a strain in itself only having that one income coming in.
Laura said it was Leslie who had mentioned creating different types of things, one being men's workwear.
"But you know, men with these hi-vis jackets, it's not really my style," Laura laughed. "But I then started thinking 'how much are those embroidery machines, because in my head I'm starting to think what I could maybe do with it.
"Leslie, being the way is he, was on the phone to somebody enquiring about them, and just come back to me and said he was talking to a fella who was saying one of those machines is on offer for this weekend only – what were the chances of that..."
The couple took a jaunt down to Belfast to look about the machine. Before Laura knew it, she was the proud owner of an embroidery machine.
"I thought, 'oh brilliant! What the heck do I do with this thing now?'"
At £7,000, it wasn't something Laura could leave sitting clogging up space in the house – she needed to put it to productive use.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Laura now has three embroidery machines on the go.
With no business background to fall back on, Laura says she has been learning on the job ever since.
"It's definitely a learning curve and you're constantly just working it out and making mistakes and just trying again. Aside from the machine, I started the business with nothing; I had £100 to buy fabric whenever I was first starting.
"It's only now that the business has grown that there has been that little bit of extra cash flow, and to know it's there for when you do need to buy stock, or whatever; is good – it's been a gradual kind of progression for me."
Laura says the number one thing for her has been a good and active social media presence, for 98% of her sales come through Instagram.
It was her social media presence which landed her first shop order – a notable milestone in her career, and a poignant one at that too. That order came from Portadown children's boutique Bottom Drawer.
"I always wanted to have my own shop, or my own clothing line, but because I haven't been able to have my items in a retail space myself it's so lovely now that I'm able to have that there and I'm able to direct people there; even the fact I can go down and see the clothes and stuff in the shop and just talk to people.
"I suppose like any business, when you start from scratch and you've now got to a point where your clothes are in a shop, you know, it's surreal to be honest."
For now, Laura is content with how her business is developing. Maybe one day she would like a space of her own, but with the high street shopping experience ever-changing, keeping up that online presence is paramount for now.
As her followers – and ultimately customers – continue to grow, Laura knows running her business as a solo entrepreneur is going to become an even bigger challenge.
While she can dedicate time to social media now, orders, packaging, posting and everything in between will take its toll, on time, if nothing else.
"That's definitely something I'm learning at the minute, that it's okay to let other people help. It's only me myself but I'd love to employ somebody to come in and help me, because at the moment, I'm still doing the making, the packing and I know that I can't do that forever.
"I'm just trying to find the work-life balance. And because I didn't really expect it to pay off, and become my full time job, I'm now in that mindset that it's okay to bring somebody in for a couple of hours so I have more time to get more done, or to promote something a bit more."
With Christmas around the proverbial corner, that need could be more pressing than ever, but Laura would love to help another person out.
"I know what it's like trying to work around kids, or feeling that there isn't that many jobs that would cater to more flexible hours, so it would be nice to give someone a few hours, knowing that in the morning they could do it between school runs.
At the minute, for me, it's about finding that happy medium, because at the same time you want to be able to know that you're having enough coming in that you can afford to employ somebody; it's a big step to employ somebody full time. It's a hard one but if you want to expand and grow, that's the only really way to do it."
In terms of scaling, Laura has noble ambitions, without getting too carried away.
"It always comes back to my children – they are my why. I would just love to have something secure in place that when, say my eldest leaves school – obviously having autism is a big social disability and getting jobs is going to be so difficult – I'd love to be able to have a secure business that I will be able to, if he wanted, to come and work here. That's kind of why I want to grow and build the business more than anything."
Laura wasn't a university graduate but is testament to the old adage of 'self-belief and hard work will always earn you success'.
"University is great but you don't have to do that if you want a job or career," she added. "I suppose for my other children who don't have a disability they can do whatever they want to do and if they put their mind to that, they can achieve it. It's gonna take hard work and dedication but you know, you can get there."
Self-belief didn't come easy to Laura however, that self-imposter syndrome is never too far, lurking like a shadow above you.
"You're constantly thinking 'oh, I can't do that' or 'somebody is doing that better than me'. I found that during lockdown there were so many more businesses starting off, maybe doing the same thing that you're doing, but I just found that if I stay in my own lane and just focus on what I do best and where I want to go, I'll make it happen."
Modest in her approach, Laura's success has come down to what she says is "staying true to myself".
"It's hard to do on social media, one person might see you you come across one way and someone else will see it differently but for me it's about being honest with your customers. If something has happened, or there's been delays, I'm happy enough to come on be like, 'sorry' and explain. We took Covid there a couple of weeks ago and I just came onto stories and let my customers know that was that happened; everybody's so supportive.
"I think it's building that community with your customers on social media is the best way to do that. I believe small businesses are definitely at an advantage with their customers because you can just chat with somebody in your DMs, or build a rapport with them over the weeks or months, and that's a wee bit more friendlier compared to what you get with the bigger brands."
What has been the biggest challenge to date.
Unequivocally for Laura – "Definitely stock!"
"I have spent hundreds of pounds testing and trialing different items, different products, for quality wise. There would be times where I'd be thinking that this is going to sell really well and then you've been left with the stock because it hasn't. Over time, I've learnt to manage that better.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own business?
"Just start. I definitely don't work nine to five, I work nine to whatever time I have to pick the kids up and then whenever the kids go back to bed, I'm working or if I'm up in the middle of the night and maybe I'm thinking about something, I definitely work 24 hours at it, but when you think long term picture of where you want to be, it makes it worth it. You know, you do have that flexibility. If you do have to pick kids up from school, you can do that. You can be there for all school activities. Just start and do something that you really love."
But of course, like most business owners, self-doubt on those harder days creeps in.
"There are days when you're questioning if your products were good enough, despite the effort you put in, or were a competitor's better because someone you had brand repping is now with them. You're always going to have self doubt in your head but those are kind of the days where I just say to myself, 'no, you know what you're doing and you know where you want to go just put your blinkers on just concentrate on what you're doing because that's that's the only way you're going to succeed. All those other things are a distraction."
While business acumen didn't necessarily come naturally to Laura, she says there is plenty of help out there. From working on her mindset through YouTube videos, to watching a lot of what Holly Tucker – a UK Ambassador for Creative Small Businesses – has to offer.
More locally, Laura takes inspiration from Caroline O'Neill of Digg Mama fame.
"Caroline does great podcasts on business and supporting small businesses like mine. I would often listen to those and that's kind of where you get the epiphany moments and ideas. It gives me that wee bit more confidence about running your own business and even just being more active online.
"I know whenever a lot of people start out social media you are worried about what everybody in your communities might be thinking about you.I supposed listening to those kind of people like Caroline and hearing what things have worked for them, it gives you that confidence to do it yourself and just not to worry about everybody else."