11 September 2012

Mumpreneurs: Jules McKeen and Sheena Gunn

Jules McKeen and Sheena Gunn are the brilliant mumpreneurs behind Peaks of London who manufacture and sell beautiful breastfeeding clothing from tops to dresses. Jules was kind enough to spare some of her busy time and tell us all about them and their journey. You can see all they have to offer at www.peaksoflondon.com.

So first things first, tell me a little bit about yourself and your family?

I have two little boys, Alfie and Harry, aged 2 and 4, and Sheena has two girls, Rosie and Joy, aged 12 and 10. We met in London where we were neighbours but I recently moved out to the country in Buckinghamshire where we can romp through the woods of a morning and be in my office in Covent Garden, London within an hour. My husband and I met in the advertising agency where we both worked, and this was my career for 15 years before setting up Peaks of London with Sheena.

What's the story behind Peaks of London?

Sheena - who is my co-founder and the designer - and I were neighbours. I had just had Alfie and ran into Sheena as I set out on a mission to find something to wear to a wedding which I could breastfeed in. Sheena was adamant there was nothing decent out there and indeed she was proven right. We decided to right this wrong in our own small way! Whilst on my maternity leave from being Group Marketing Director at an advertising group, we developed a capsule collection and essentially spent a year researching both the concept and the product with breastfeeding women to ensure every item was easy and discreet to feed in, felt and looked uber-stylish, was easy to wash and which passed our quality test: each garment must be met with the words 'what a lovely dress/top' as opposed to 'what a lovely breastfeeding dress'.

Jules and her boys

Where there any struggles along the way?

Giving up well paid jobs was a huge decision, and without having big personal wealth or a monied backer, the financial pressure was immense. We still plough every penny back into the business and due to my children being so small - and Harry coming along two weeks before our first shoot - there's a constant wrestle to see the family, grow the business and manage the crippling cost of childcare. We have grown the business to selling into ten countries as of January next year (including Japan, Russia, France, UAE, Lebanon and of course the UK), and so far have managed pretty much everything ourselves and self-funded. Having no staff to help us has been a challenge, with orders on the website coming in late at night when one of us is abroad looking at fabrics...

Looking back is there anything you wish you could have done differently?

Like everyone, setting up a business is a huge learning curve. I wish we'd set up fulfilment management earlier to handle and ship orders. I wish we had known a little more about the paperwork involved in running a company. But having said that, I think sometimes blind naivety coupled with confidence in a good product pays dividends; we found our whole collection sold into the first store we walked into on the 'offchance' and within a couple of weeks it had sold out in Harrods. Similarly Isetan - like Selfridges in Japan - are on their third season with us, but it was a chance e mail from Japan which led to that. Had we followed a rigid 'three year plan', probably these happy accidents might not have occured. The trick is prioritising however as it's so tempting to take any and every opportunity to grow your business, and sometimes you have to accept you have limited personal bandwidth at this stage to do everything and stay sane!

Are there any new products in the pipeline?
Yes - a few designer collaborations in the print area which we're excited about, and our Spring/Summer 13 collection just sold into retailers with a beautiful, silk yellow occasion dress called the Audrey which you would never guess you could feed in. We also have a silk T-shirt in the offing which is something you NEVER get to wear when you're breastfeeding. I'm excited about a couple of 'high neck' options, living in such a cold climate as we do!

A lot of mums would love to work for themselves, what advice can you give them?

Think really hard about whether you want a working business or a 'hobby business' (a phrase I found utterly patronising until I understood that actually I would need to commit serious time and money to the business to really make it work). What's tricky is when a hobby business becomes bigger and needs personal investment to get to the next stage. Really plot out if you and your family are up for the ride. Be brutal about your product. Never be satisfied and be your harshest critic. Always assume someone is going to come and eat your breakfast. Consider where, when and how you will get a proper space in the week to dedicate to the business. Personally, my efforts to work at home made things worse for my little ones and for the granny or nanny looking after them so I had to absent myself!

Finally, make time which is utterly for you and your family - switch off fully for a couple of days per week otherwise the guilt will overtake you!

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