In our ‘Inspiring small businesses’ series, we share and celebrate great stories from fellow small business owners who started and run their own business. By bringing you closer to these inspiring businesses we hope that you find motivation, tips and ideas for building yours.
Our first batch of interviews went so well, we decided to reach out for some more inspiring stories. First up in our second part of the series is Claire Pearson, founder of Chow Bella, a company that makes bespoke ceramic pet bowls.
What is it that you do?
I’m a traditional potter making bespoke, personalised ceramic pet bowls. Unlike most other personalised bowls out there, every single Chow Bella bowl is made from scratch, thrown on a potter’s wheel, the pet’s name stamped into the clay (no transfers here!). The bowl is then hand painted in a wide range of contemporary colours which the customer gets to choose. I love what I do, and pride myself on excellent customer service (I’ve had a 5* rating with Trustpilot since going on board with them 2 years ago).
I think in today’s world of next day deliveries, my customers like the fact that although they have to wait a few weeks for their order, they know that it will be absolutely unique to them and they can feel that it is handmade and not just churned out from a factory. In fact a few months ago I asked my customers if they would rather I change one aspect (impressing their pet’s name into the clay) so that they could have quicker delivery, and a resounding, “NO!” was the answer.
What’s the story behind your business?
Way back in 2006, I was working in publishing but had completed a ceramics diploma at London’s fantastic City Lit College. I’d been making sculptural ceramics for a couple of years, selling through galleries, but I lost my studio space and my huge kiln due to rental rises. So I set up a studio in my spare bedroom and bought myself a small, second-hand kiln from eBay. As I could no longer make the large sculptural work (due to the new, tiny kiln), I had to have a rethink.
Whilst this was going on, I’d taken on a little cocker spaniel called Bella. We had an issue because her ears kept draping in her food and water bowls and they really did get quite crusty and pongy! I’d looked for spaniel bowls but could only find huge, ugly brown ones which were far too big for her. So I decided I’d make her one – after all, I was a part-time potter!
A couple of trials later, she had a Bella sized bowl which I’d painted to match our new kitchen, and which worked beautifully to keep her ears clean. I was part of an online forum for cocker spaniels at the time (pre-Facebook!), and so I put a picture on there of Bella with her bowl and offered to make them for anyone on there who’d like one, with a view to this perhaps being a small sideline for me.
What inspired you to start your own business?
I didn’t really have a choice! Orders from Cockersonline started flooding in. I then started getting requests from various people to make other shapes and sizes – a large bowl for a German Shepherd for my electrician, a small cat bowl for a friend, even a saucer for a hedgehog. It became too cumbersome taking orders by email and having to cash cheques all the time, so I decided to set up a website.
As part of my publishing job I had to write and check SGML (the precursor to HTML) and so armed with a fairly basic understanding, I wrote and coded a shopping cart which I linked to PayPal, and so the first website was born. It was very clunky really, but it was a huge improvement as it began to streamline the ordering process which saved a lot of time. I obviously had to come up with a name for the business, and so because it was really down to Bella that it had started, I settled on Chow Bella.
I ran the business part-time for many years as I didn’t really think I’d be able to earn enough money from it full time. I would literally get up before work, make bowls for an hour, walk the dog, go to work (on The Strand in London), spend lunchtime queuing in the post office to post people’s orders to them, and then come home and do another hour in the studio. It was exhausting.
My first few Christmas seasons were pretty horrendous, twice as many orders to deal with as people wanted them for Christmas presents, so I was still working 4 days a week in a very demanding publishing job and then working 3 days (including weekends) getting all these bowls made and despatched.
I’ll never forget one particular weekend, about the 4th in a row that I’d worked without a break. My partner was going out for the day with a friend and dropped me at the post office to queue up, yet again, and post a load of orders, and I literally broke down in tears in the queue as I was so exhausted and knew that while my partner was out having a nice, relaxing day.
That was the point that I knew something had to change. I spoke to my dog walker to see if I could work for her, which would mean that I could quit my publishing job, do a few hours dog walking a day and have the rest of the time to make the bowls. It meant a huge drop in salary and money was definitely tight at the start, but it gave me the freedom and time to start to actively promote the business and turn it into something more solid.
I then left London in 2013, and was able to pay off my mortgage and go full time with Chow Bella. My partner and I turned our double garage into a beautiful, bespoke studio and the business has been able to thrive.
What is the most difficult aspect of running your own business?
I’d say it’s probably self-discipline. I still run the business by myself, so I do absolutely everything – ordering materials, making and firing the bowls, packing them up, running the website and social media and answering emails/phone calls. Generally I’m pretty good at getting on with it but there are definitely days when I really don’t feel like it and have to have a word with myself to stay focused! Christmas is still always a very tough, exhausting time, but I have strategies to help me get through it and I know that it is only 6 or 7 weeks so can cope.
One of the hardest things this year was that I lost Bella at the age of 14. She was, and is, such a huge part of the business, and for the last 6 years since I’d been full time had spent every single day in the studio with me, so I had a few months where it was really, really tough coming to work and her not being here.
On the plus side, because my customers are all pet lovers, they all understand, and there was actually a huge, collective outpouring of grief when I lost Bella because many of my customers had heard so much about her over the years. I had so many lovely messages of support from customers who I’ve never met (because I’m essentially an eCommerce business) and that really helped.
What is the best thing about running your own business?
My customers, without a doubt. I have many repeat customers who have been part of the Chow Bella story for at least a decade now and almost feel like family. I also have customers who come up with suggestions and new ideas – at least half of the products I make are a direct result of customers having a specific need for their pet.
For example this year I started making raised feeders specifically for dogs such as pugs and French bulldogs. What I love is that if a customer comes to me and says, “I have a dog X size – can you make a bowl at a specific size for him?” I can say, “Yes!”. Because every bowl is still made from scratch I can be flexible about what I do and that means that the customer gets something that actually works for their pet. It means I get to solve that problem for them, and in return, they often recommend me to their friends, and so I get more orders. It’s a win-win situation.
But ultimately I also absolutely love that I get to spend my days doing something that I actually really enjoy. I am immensely proud of the business that I’ve built up and hope that I get to continue doing what I love for many years to come.