Winner of the 2011 Specsavers everywoman in Retail ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ Award: Ann-Maree Morrison, Managing Director, Labels4Kids.com

To celebrate the forthcoming 2012 Specsavers everywoman in Retail Awards, The NextWomen spoke with last year's winners in the "Entrepreneur of the Year" and "Woman of the Year" categories.

Now in their fifth year, these awards recognise the achievements of women in the retail sector. The awards are open for entry until 14 May 2012. To submit a nomination, click here.

 "Woman of the Year" Harriet Kelsall will be featured later in the week. Today we bring you our interview with Ann-Maree Morrison, MD Labels4Kids, winner of the "Entrepreneur of the Year 2011" award.

 Originally trained as a Chartered Accountant, Ann-Maree Morrison worked for a variety of companies including Disney and Kodak before changing direction and launching her own company in 2005.

Like many great business ideas, this one was born from personal need when Ann-Maree, the mother of 3 young boys, grew tired of her boys coming home from school with other children’s clothes.  Label4Kids produces vinyl waterproof labels for children’s school clothing and general items. The judges were impressed with how Ann Maree has created a dedicated following of supporters from across the globe through an active social-media strategy and online forum for parents and families.

We spoke to Anne-Maree about her tips for female entrepreneurs; why it's important to have a good elevator pitch when talking to men; and what it meant to be crowned everywoman Entrepreneur of the Year 2011.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Labels4Kids and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

AMM: I came across the idea for Labels4Kids in 2002 roughly, with the older 2 kids at school and losing things left right and centre!  I worked out there had to be a way of labelling things like shoes, water bottles, lunch boxes etc in a fun way and also a better way to label clothing other than having to sew on traditional sew-on labels.  The research started in 2002 and then by 2004 we were ready to go live with a basic website selling online.  I decided that by selling online the set up costs would be lower and I could test the market, selling to suit my family needs, spending time with the family as well and not having to travel to the office.

TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?

AMM: We care.  Labels4Kids being family run and with more than half our staff having children of their own means that we really do take to heart what our customers say and we aim to please. We listen to ideas for new products, frustrations and even offer a very-rare-these-days 100% money back guarantee to our customers.  We also offer a very wide range of products and our products are all home / child tested by members of our team as well as manufacturer testing of raw materials.  We also cater for allergy labels as well as Care Home requirements and businesses although our niche is for kids.  We aim for best quality and will drop any products not consistently living up to our rigid testing and customer feedback.

TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

AMM: I am still building the team as we are a rapidly growing business and we are currently looking for master franchisees in each country abroad, including in Ireland.  We look for friendly, customer focused staff who are fast learners and believe in our products and high service levels. We actually try to build a family rather than having a corporate atmosphere.  We are fairly relaxed here and we all communicate about our customers and any issues or new ideas on a daily basis.  Everyone in our team is keen for the business to succeed, to grow with the business in terms of personal development and the related rewards.

TNW: What is next for your company?

AMM: We are holding a franchise discovery day on March 28th for prospective franchisees to come from abroad and find out more. We are in discussions with several parties to drive forward the international expansion of the business via master franchises in each country and we will talk to anyone interested separate to the Discovery Day at any time.  Anyone interested can email sales@labels4kids for Ann-Maree Morrison to chat with them about their country of interest.  We are continuing to expand the product range for the UK business which currently serves all countries abroad and we are adding to our 5 current international websites with the additional of another 2.  We have brought more of our printing in-house this year and Labels4Kids has also set up a strategic alliance to sell personalised clothing which is already live on all websites too.

TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?

Yes, I do.  If you have an idea you feel passionate about and you have done some research to know that it could perhaps work, then go for it. 

Set a budget of how much you don’t mind investing and losing and stick to it.  Give it at least 2 years and you should have a good idea if you are recovering your investment and sales are rapidly increasing.

One year is too short to decide.  To be an entrepreneur you have to take a risk, but it needs to be a calculated one. Don’t keep investing year on year without watching your finances as well. 

Also, “Leaders are readers but not all readers are leaders”.  That means you need to read as much as you can on the topics that will help your business grow – marketing, e-commerce, optimisation, sales and dealing with people.  The E-myth by Michael Gerber is a great book to read to start, as it Dale Carnegie’s “How to make friends and influence people”. Those are my favourite two.  The more you read the more you find out. Actively seek out advice. Google for information and don’t be scared to follow up any leads you can. You never know where they can lead. 

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

AMM: I don’t have a particular role model and I don’t have a mentor. I think adequate mentoring is really lacking for women in SMEs. I did have a mentor allocated to me initially through a government agency but he did not understand e-commerce or how my business worked so I called it to an end.  I do think Richard Branson and Karren Brady have both done really well and are inspiring people to learn from.  They say it as it is, and this is exactly how I am. I would rather get things out in the open than beat around the bush!

TNW: If you hadn’t chosen entrepreneurship, what alternative career path might you have pursued?

AMM: I have a Chartered Accounting background and I did enjoy Management Consulting.  I suppose I may have returned to that at some stage but I find entrepreneurship is much more rewarding and provides a much more flexible lifestyle for me with a family.  The disadvantage of course is that you don’t turn off very often. I make a real effort not to log on to my laptop when on family holidays – I leave that to my husband and if there is anything urgent then of course the team would phone me or my husband would point out there is an important email to read.  I do take business books with me for my free time reading though – I enjoy that rather than fiction.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

The biggest challenge is to find the right advice from the right people at each stage of growth.  

This can be a great challenge and you have to use gut instinct at the end of the day, get comparisons, get out there and meet and talk to people then decide which feels right.  Setting up a new website, expanding your business or setting up strategic alliances all take a long time and a lot of planning. Planning is the key, then continual pushing and monitoring whoever you are working with to stay on top of the target dates. They will inevitably be 3 months behind what you are quoted so put that into your own internal plans.

Planning was good fun and so was set up. Execution can be a challenge and a bit frustrating, especially setting up and optimising a website and getting the developers to move as fast as you want them to!  You learn from this that websites take time to set up and optimisation does too. You cannot just go live online and that’s all. It is a continual learning curve as the internet, mobile commerce, ecommerce is a fast moving target.

TNW: Do you think that attitudes towards female entrepreneurs are changing?

AMM: Female entrepreneurs are becoming more acceptable among big businesses but in SMEs I think there is still a view that they are just doing a hobby, not a real business. 

If I say I run a name labelling business the attitude is very “oh, you sew labels at home?” from the men.  In fact it is rare to get past that opening line! 

Women are much more inquisitive. The trick is to have a great elevator pitch when talking to men. I had this interesting conversation recently attending a speakers dinner at the Going Global Conference in London as a guest of the business author, Emma Jones. At dinner every man we asked said “ I run a business in 5 countries and I have 350 staff” as an opening line.  The women more or less said “I run my own business from home”. We joked that it was a male thing to show off about how many staff you had and how many offices. The women prefer to go for lifestyle, working more from home or a small office and growing via outsourcing or temporary staffing instead.  At the end of the day many of the women were running just as successful businesses but just in a different way.

TNW: What do you think could be done to increase the number of women entrepreneurs?

AMM: I think there could be more female mentors that can talk at public events and encourage others.  I talk at a number of local events to help women starting up or looking to sell online and it is very rewarding.

TNW: How do you feel about being chosen as the Entrepreneur of the Year in the 2011 Specsavers everywoman in retail award? What impact did it have on your business? Would you encourage others to enter?

AMM: I was totally amazed to win such a prestigious award as the Entrepreneur of the Year in the 2011 Specsavers everywoman in retail award. I met some amazing women on the night from both large and small businesses, some self employed and some working for large companies. All of them were very friendly, encouraging and full of business advice.

The publicity it led to after the event was also invaluable.  I was very pleased and wish whoever enters all the categories this year all the very best.

It is well worth entering even for the networking on the evening.  I found out a lot from comparable and larger businesses and made a lot of friends with common views on business.

The awards are open for entry until 14 May 2012. To submit a nomination, click here.

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