Anna Campbell swapped the glitz of the fashion world in San Francisco to move to a farm in Donegal. With limited job opportunities Anna started her own ethical wool company Bogman Beanie, using the knitting skills she learned from her grandmother when she was a child.
Campbell talks to ThinkBusiness about being inspired by the landscape around her and the challenges and rewards of building a business in remote Donegal.
Why did you set up Bogman Beanie?
It was a case of creating employment for myself. I met my husband, a Donegal man in San Francisco and he was always saying he wanted to go back to Donegal. We came back 10 years ago and he took over his dad’s farm. When I was in San Francisco, I had a brilliant career in the fashion industry and here I was in the hills of Donegal with nothing to do.
“Being so rural is difficult. Even just to post something, I had to trek to the post office in Ballybofey, which is a fair distance”
Then I came across Donegal Yarns and started knitting sweaters and hats using this beautiful natural yarn. When I was growing up in the Highlands of Scotland, my grandmother taught me to knit and I’ve been knitting since I was 14-years of age.
“The best thing I ever did was get an accountant, but finding the right one was a challenge. It’s important to put feelers out to find people who connect to what you’re doing”
What makes Bogman Beanie stand out?
I’ve always been a fan of luxury yarns, I’ve never liked acrylic or man-made fibres. Bogman Beanie a fashion brand that’s born in Donegal and everything about it is authentic. The yarn is made in Donegal. The only carbon footprint that we produce is when we post items to our customers. Sustainability is important. We are starting an initiative for people who have purchased Bogman sweaters or hats and they’re bored and want something different. They can bring it back to us to reuse the wool and they’ll get 50% off their next purchase.
The name is based on my husband, it was my nickname for him when we were going out. When we came back to Donegal, we started going to the bog to cut turf. A lot of Irish people can relate to being in the bog in summer. It’s a family thing for us, we all trek up to the bog and foot and turn the turf. For a lot of people it brings back memories and the colours and fibres are inspired by this landscape.
What challenges did you meet and how did you overcome them?
It was easy enough to set up as a sole trader. I set up a business account to make paying tax easier. The best thing I ever did was get an accountant, but finding a good one was a challenge. I had three before I found one who suited my needs. It’s important to put feelers out to find people who connect to what you’re doing.
“Filling in grant applications is very complicated and there is a long wait time to get feedback on whether you’ve got it or the reason why you haven’t got it”
Údarás na Gaeltachta and the Local Enterprise Office could have done more to support my small business. I felt they were more interested in businesses they thought were going to be big and bring in a lot of money. The Local Enterprise Office was really good for running courses and meeting people who were setting up their own business. I did their Start Your Own Business course but felt it was more aimed at those already set up, rather than those at the very beginning of that journey. They need to bring it back to basics. For people who are starting small businesses from scratch.
Being so rural was difficult. Even just to post something, I had to trek to the post office in Ballybofey, which is a fair distance. Social media has been really helpful. Because so much has gone online, it’s made things a lot easier for people who are isolated in rural areas. .
Has your business been affected by the pandemic and how have you adapted?
Because I was running my business from home, there wasn’t much adapting for me. He pandemic turned out to be good for business because people were turning to online shopping. It forced people to go online and see what’s out there. It really improved my business.
What is the support for entrepreneurs in Ireland like and how could it be improved?
Because I live in the Gaeltacht, I could only apply for grants from Údarás na Gaeltachta. I could attend Local Enterprise Office courses but I couldn’t apply for any of their grants. The local Enterprise Office sent out regular emails on workshops and other events, which was great. I’ve just finished their accelerator programme, Ambition, for female founders and it was one of the best courses I’ve been on but they weren’t all like that.
“Údarás na Gaeltachta and the Local Enterprise Office could have done more to support my small business. I felt they were more interested in businesses they thought were going to be big and bring in a lot of money”
The support needs to be more readily available. At times when I’ve contacted the LEO, I may not hear back for a number of weeks and sometimes this is too long. Filling in the grant application is very complicated and there is a long wait time to get feedback on whether you’ve got it or the reason why you haven’t got it.
“Ireland is not a manufacturing country. If you have to go outside of Ireland to get your product made at a price that you can afford, then do it in order to build your business”
What lessons have your learnt and what would you pass on to other businesses?
Trust your gut feelings. Take what you know from growing up and everything you’ve read about starting your own business and believe it. If you’re not getting the answer that you want, keep calling, keep sending emails – even if you have to send one every day. Don’t be afraid – go out there and just do it.
On the practical side, Ireland is not a manufacturing country. If you have to go outside of Ireland to get your product made at a price that you can afford, then do it in order to build your business.
What is your proudest moment?
When I sold my first cardigan. It was through Edel MacBraide Knitwear shop in Derry. I had been telling her that I wanted to start my own business and she asked for a few items to take into the shop and see how it went. When she called me up to say it had sold, I was just delighted.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve spoken to several manufacturers in Ireland to produce sweaters and hats, but they’re not interested in taking on what they consider a small order. I was lucky enough to find a small manufacturer in Glencolmcille who uses the hand loom. But I often have to wait a few months for him to fulfil an order, as he’s doing his own projects too.
As a solution to this, I’ve been speaking to Donegal County Council about setting up my own manufacturing here. I want to keep the business in Donegal as much as possible. This is a long journey but one I’m very passionate about and that will keep me going.