Shortly after finishing her A-levels, Lauren Westwood headed off around the world on a gap year. It proved to be a life-changing trip, inspiring a ‘light bulb’ moment that has seen Lauren become one of Surrey’s most successful young businesswomen. We asked Lauren how she did it and how, at the tender age of 18, she managed to make her way in the intimidating world of international trade.
In case any of our readers haven’t heard of Westwood Rocks, could you give us a bit of background on the business?
Westwood Rocks is a British fashion jewellery brand currently trading from seven standalone stores and online. We sell handmade gemstone and freshwater pearl jewellery in a range of colours and styles. We offer a commission service and even teach people how to make jewellery themselves in our workshops.
When did you start the business and what inspired you to give it a go?
My ‘light bulb’ moment happened 10 years ago. I was travelling the globe after A-levels and spent time working for my father’s company (a Gulf based retailer). I was lucky enough to accompany him on buying trips in Asia and South America and saw what he did, how he traded and even how he arranged shipments and obtained customs clearance in Kuwait. He put me in charge of several projects: I set up and ran exhibition stands and even presented the brand to Prince Andrew! At 18 it was huge responsibility and I guess the whole experience gave me the confidence to set up my own business.
Whilst travelling I decided I wanted to bring the colourful and dramatic designs of Asia back to the UK – but with a twist. I invested £1000 on materials and started buying other people’s designs to sell in the UK. After selling my stock and creating more capital for the business, I decided to have a go at making a collection myself. That was the beginning of Westwood Rocks.
What was your background before that?
Other than working alongside my entrepreneurial father (his mantra was ‘you can do anything!’), when I came back to the UK and started my Business Studies degree I had a weekend job with an estate agent, and a waitressing job that only lasted one night. I don’t think I was terribly good – they never asked me back.
I started Westwood Rocks ‘blind’. I had to learn everything on the job. And quickly.
Could you describe the import process to us?
We import all of the materials to make the jewellery. Apart from blue john which is mined in Derbyshire, the UK does not have much to offer! I still travel out to various countries in Asia, South America and Africa to source the gemstones and pearls.
How do you ship them back to the UK?
The materials I work with are fairly low volume, but I always send them back to the UK via courier or Air Freight. Sea Freight is great for our packaging (high volume and low value) but for the high value goods I prefer to know they’ll arrive in my office ASAP.
Even in the most remote markets of the world, there’s always a DHL agent around the corner happy to help me pack and arrange a shipment for me. Using a courier is great because it means they deal with customs and it’s a door-to-door service.
You started out at a fairly young age. Looking back, what would you say were the biggest challenges you faced?
The biggest challenge was getting my head around how things work in a UK company. Having no background in the industry it was a very steep learning curve.
Early on, I found approaching commercial agents to find units to be a bit of a challenge. I literally had an agent laugh in my face when I dared to ask him: ‘how do I get a shop?’. With seven shops, it’s becoming easier – we now get approached with suggestions, rather than having to go knocking on doors.
But overall I think starting a company when you’re young is fantastic. If you’re anything like I was, you’re confident, fearless and over-excited at that age. I have two children now and I’m less inclined to make high-risk moves that would have given me an adrenaline rush when I was 18!
So how did you overcome the challenges you faced in those early days?
The main thing I did when I started Westwood Rocks was to religiously research brands I wanted us to be like. From packaging and presentation right down company policies and procedures and even the way the jewellery was assembled – I learned a lot through thorough research. My way of thinking was ‘well if that’s how Tiffany’s have done it, that’s how we’ll do it too’.
And the more I dug beneath the surface the more I discovered organisations like Business Link, and British Chambers of Commerce set up to offer free advice to people like me. I found these sorts of ‘free’ services difficult to discover, but maybe that was because at 18/19 I wasn’t regularly exposed to their advertising. I think support services should target school leavers whilst they are still at school.
Were there any other sources of advice you turned to for advice with import/export that were especially helpful?
The only advice I got at the time – other than from people in the queue at Heathrow customs – was from HMRC. They have a great online guide to importing and exporting and were helpful in explaining things like what a TURN number is.
Do you have any top tips for people thinking of starting out in import/export?
My top tip would be to do your maths before you start. Like me you may have a ‘light bulb’ moment and think “wow, these cost £2 in India, I could sell them for £10 in the UK”. But the price you pay for a product overseas is not the price it will cost to get it to the UK. On top of the cost price overseas, other financial factors such as shipment fees, import duty and VAT, and the cost of a clearing agent all add up. You might actually be better off buying from a UK-based wholesaler who imports a large volume of goods and has much lower overheads per item.
During the Budget, the government announced that it’s encouraging export of UK manufactured goods by making the process easier. Now is a better time than ever to consider exporting to the global market!
The business has expanded and you’ve got stores in a number of different locations. Could you tell us a bit about the process you’ve gone through?
The first 3 stores I opened were located very close together (Godalming, Guildford and Farnham). So launching in these towns was easy because we already had a very local customer base – the brand was fairly well established. We then opened in Cambridge and Wimbledon Village at the end of 2009. It was definitely more challenging to launch in areas where the brand was unknown. Finally at the end of 2010 we opened in both Bath and Reigate.
I have a map in the office with locations pinpointed where I’d like Westwood Rocks to open. Location is everything in retail, so even though we may be sure we want to launch in a certain town, it can take years to find the right unit.
Our online shop continues to grow and we are passionate about keeping in touch with our customers through our social media channels, namely Facebook and Twitter.
Finally, what are the main issues affecting your business at the moment and how are you addressing them?
Thankfully not many spring to mind!
I think owner-led small/medium businesses are at a huge advantage over larger organisations: we can adapt and change much quicker. It’s no secret that retailers have suffered during the recession, and in my opinion the reason Westwood Rocks has managed to keep its head above water is by thinking outside the box and offering something different. We don’t just do retail – we’ve also opened our workshop doors to the public and actually hold jewellery making parties to teach people how to do what we do best. This has been a huge success and bred fantastic brand loyalty amongst our customers!
To find check out Lauren’s fabulous handmade jewellery, head over to http://www.westwoodrocks.com/
Or follow Lauren on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/#!/westwoodrocks
For more on how DHL Express UK can help with all your international shipping needs, check out the rest of this website: https://dhlguide.co.uk/