Ten years ago, university friends Polly Marsh and Helen Wooldridge, co-founders of family bathtime brand Cuddledry, appeared on Dragon’s Den to pitch their pioneering hands-free baby towel, and made the bold decision to turn down all offers of investment from the Dragons, deciding instead to go it alone.
A decade on, they have surpassed all their expectations to make the brand a global success story; not only is the range a household name in the UK (the original Cuddledry has won over 70 awards and retails in all the major multiples from Tesco to Boots) – but they now trade in over 30 countries, growing international sales to over 25 per cent of annual turnover, with exponential growth to come following a major e-commerce expansion.
However, going into business with a friend can have its challenges. Here, Marsh shares her advice.
When Helen and I first set up the business, we were completely new to retail. Helen had come from a career in PR and working in refugee camps, and I had been in the army. However, after becoming mums for the first time, we were both ready for a new challenge, and one that we could flex around family life.
Our ‘Eureka’ moment came while watching our husbands struggling to safely take our babies from the bath; with towels tucked under their chins, attempting to wrestle slippery babies from the bath, we both thought there had to be an easier way.
We decided to go into business together because we both saw the opportunity for a product to solve this juggling act that every single new parent we knew faced. After initial market research, there appeared to be nothing on the market yet it was cited as being the most stressful moment faced by new parents. So we created and tested some designs, registered the best, took it to a trade show, and it was an instant success; Mothercare ordered several hundred on the spot, we called the factory and started production… and the rest is history!
The power of trust
The best thing about running a business with a friend is that there is a huge element of trust, total dependability, and an inherent knowledge about what they really think or feel about any decision. We talk all the time, and although we’ve both faced challenges, our friendship always comes first. Working with a friend allows you to bounce ideas off each other, it allows you to celebrate the wins, and scream about the losses – to share the frustrations, the fun, the fears, the highs and lows – everything that is running a business. I wouldn’t want to do it alone.
Of course, the downside is that you live in fear of letting them down, and we probably both work far too hard in a bid to feel worthy to the other partner.
There are many examples of how our friendship has pulled us though. Our first trade show was one. We had got our design, our company, booked the stand, and had the banners made, yet the night before the show we were sat in Helen’s parents’ house waiting for the samples to be delivered from Turkey! If those six samples had not arrived, we would have blown our savings on a stand we couldn’t afford that might never return on the investment. While no one was at fault, this was a hugely stressful time, and we could have taken it out on each other; instead we decided to open a bottle of wine. We were in it together and luckily our risk taking paid off.
Dragons’ Den was also a test of our friendship. When we went to confer at the back of the room, the tension was huge – knowing we would never have this chance again, and knowing how much we were risking in choosing to say no. But we had decided not to give away more than 20 per cent of our business, so we stuck to our guns. As we drove home afterwards, we were both completely silent for a long time – brains whirring round and round trying to work out whether our decision had been the right one.
Over the years our roles have gradually separated in that I run the team in charge of operations and logistics while Helen manages the marketing team. Despite working on two different parts of the business, I know that I can take over from Helen, and vice versa, at any time. Families are unpredictable, and you never know when you may need to take the day off at a moment’s notice, or ask your partner to stand in for you at a meeting.
Top tips on going into business with a friend
Look at yourselves first. Is your friendship strong enough to make it through success or failure? There are so many stories about friends going into business, and when it fails they blame each other, and that friendship is lost. Be honest with yourselves and be prepared to work hard to make it work.
Being in the same situation helps. Helen and I are both parents, and have built our business to flex around family life. We keep each other sane, support each other, and that now goes for the entire team of over 10 working mums who we employ.
Being geographically close to each other is a bonus. Whilst out entire team works remotely, Helen and I are about an hour’s drive apart, which means we can have those crucial face to face meetings that are a must when you work together. Technology is great, and allows us to work flexibly, but it can’t replace face to face meetings that ensure trust and honesty are alive and well in the partnership.
Continue to be friends. Have fun, make each other laugh, support each other, and be positive in everything. Together, you can be prepared for anything.
Remind each other of your core values. We try to ensure Cuddledry remains true to its beginnings, and as we grow we will make sure it retains the key assets which have made the brand so strong – ethical, high quality products; charitable partnerships; and supporting flexible hours for working parents. And most importantly – making life easier and more fun!