Lulabelle founder Betty Stuart talks to Think Business about following her father into fashion and how much it means for her young son to be learning the ropes.
“I started the business when my son was two years old. It was a direct response to being a mum and wanting to be financially independent”
Why did you set up Lulabelle?
I’d been away for years and when I came back from London, my job didn’t exist in Ireland. I was going for interviews for jobs that weren’t me and I wasn’t getting them, so I decided to start my own business. I started the business when my son was two years old and it was a direct response to being a mum and wanting to be financially independent. And because I grew up in my mum and dad’s shop, I wanted my son to have a similar kind of upbringing, where he’d come to the shop after school and understand customer service and how money works.
What makes Lulabelle stand out?
We’re a fashion boutique for ladies and kids and one of the things I pride myself on is that I give honest feedback to my customers. If a woman comes into the shop and she’s trying on a dress, I’ll tell her honestly if it suits her. If she knows I’m giving her honest feedback, she’ll trust my input the next time she comes in. Everyone appreciates honesty and it prevents people from buying things they don’t love that end up hanging at the back of the wardrobe.
“I’m seventh generation Dun Laoghaire, so I’m selling to friends and neighbours. I know my customer very well and that sets me apart”
I stock three European labels that aren’t available anywhere else on the east coast. One of the labels is women led. Their entire studio, from design down is women led, which is very important to me.
Another thing that makes the shop stand out is that it’s super local. We’re very rooted to where the shop is. I’m seventh generation Dun Laoghaire, so I’m selling to friends and neighbours. I know my customer very well and that sets me apart. All my accessories come from two local mums, one in Dun Laoghaire and one in Shankill. Previously, I had a little workshop where I’d make candles and bath salts, now the workshop is in the shop, so customers can see everything being made. I’m a silversmith as well and I’m bringing a jewellery workshop into the shop before Christmas.
What challenges did you meet and how did you overcome them?
Cashflow is still a challenge because I’m a very young business. I am always asking myself if I should go for some investment to expand my offering, or whether I should go into exporting.
“Guiding the business is a daily challenge because it doesn’t stand still, it has pivoted a lot and that’s been a huge challenge”
And because I work alone, I only have myself to ask.
With decision making, it’s important to focus on your gut feeling about where you want to be and where you want your business to go. Guiding the business is a daily challenge because it doesn’t stand still, it has pivoted a lot and that’s been a huge challenge.
Having a shop on main street and being at the mercy of the local council is challenging. At the moment, my biggest challenge is navigating changes that are going to impact my business that I have no control over. To help pivot the business in response to these challenges, it’s important to trust your gut, be calm rather than reactive. Take time to make decisions and think logically where you want your business to go and then pivot the business in that direction.
What is the support for entrepreneurs in Ireland like and how could it be improved?
I engaged with the LEO a little bit. I did their Start Your Own Business course and an accounting course. But in terms of a small, local retail start-up there wasn’t a big amount of support for that. If I planned to export or was a tech start-up, there was a lot more support available.
Because I had my design studio in Dun Laoghaire for eight years before I opened the shop, I’d already grown a customer base in the markets that I was going into. I already had traffic through the website to get the customer I wanted.
“Take your time settling until you find your feet – don’t make any big judgments within the first three years of business. Change is going to happen all the time so be ready for it and when it comes, trust your gut with regard to how to adapt”
I’m at the point now where I’m established, I know what my focus is and I’m ready to keep going. I would love mentoring from someone who is in the business a long time, who really gets it. Somebody who wants to work with me who I can talk openly and honestly with and who’d give me feedback without judgement and advise on the nitty gritty of retail. That kind of advice would help a lot.
Also, there are no supports for single parents to go into business, unless you are already in the social welfare system. It continues to be a challenge for me to run my own business as a single mum.
What lessons have your learnt and what would you pass on to other businesses?
Take your time settling until you find your feet – don’t make any big judgments within the first three years of business. Change is going to happen all the time so be ready for it and when it comes trust your gut with regard to how to adapt.
What is your proudest moment?
My son who is five-years-old regularly comes into the shop after school and if he’s there when a customer buys something, he likes doing my Point Of Sale for me. I love that he knows what to do, he picks up the card reader and offers it to the customer and asks if they’d like a receipt.
“I would love to rival the likes of ASOS or Oliver Bonas – to give the Irish market more of a considered offering when it comes to fashion and homewares”
He knows to say thank you and you’re welcome to the customer. That’s a beautiful thing for me to see, I’m very proud to be nurturing him in that kind of environment of customer service and that he understands the value of the euro, which is a very important thing.
I was really proud opening my shop in Dun Laoghaire, where I’m from and my dad is from. My dad was a tailor, we’ve been in the clothing industry for quite a few generations, so having the shop makes me proud. Every time I open the shop door my heart swells. I deeply love it.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m changing the shop from a boutique and flower shop to a boutique and workshop. The candles, bath salts and jewellery that I make here will take the place of the flowers and I’m moving the jewellery workshop into the shop.
My long term plan is to grow the online offering. There aren’t many really good Irish online retailers. I would love to rival the likes of ASOS or Oliver Bonas – to give the Irish market more of a considered offering when it comes to fashion and homewares.