Nikki Hesford, Founder Miss Fit UK: From Glamour Model to Award-Winning Serial Entrepreneur

Nikki Hesford is a 25 year old award-winning entrepreneur, single mum and ex-glamour model now owning the Miss Fit group of brands that include clothing, lingerie and swimwear for big busted women.

Since Nikki founded it in early 2008, the company has flourished to include several brands that are supplied to the high street, as well as white-label manufacturing of fashions for large chains.

Nikki will be opening a small ‘British Made’ factory this summer, which will employ a dozen long-term unemployed local people.

Nikki's journey into business has been a turbulent one; after growing up in a deprived area, moving out of home at 16 and having a child at 17, she embarked on many small ventures to put herself through university before launching Miss Fit UK  aged just 21.

Nikki has gone on to have numerous business successes, including Lancaster Playschemes (a childcare establishment that was set up and sold within 6 months) and The Big Bra (a new online shop selling ‘Everything the Big Busted Woman Could Need’ which turned over £25,000 in its first 10 days of launching without any paid-for promotion). She shares her experiences, tips and advice through mentorship, via various speaking platforms and in her forthcoming business book due to be published in December 2012.

We spoke to Nikki about how she came to found her company; the difficulties of finding funding as a 21-year old single mum; and the chance to hear her speak alongside other successful female entrepreneurs at a UK event tomorrow.

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

NH: Miss Fit UK was founded in 2008 when I was buying blouses for job interviews and really struggling to get one to do up over my bust without the buttons popping off or flashing to the world. Initially, the plan was to make blouses and sell to the consumer online – this was successful and the range of clothing grew. Before long we were asked for lingerie and swimwear on a wholesale basis and the company started to grow beyond anything I had initially planned or imagined.

TNW: What is your business model?

NH: Initially, the business model was to make blouses and sell to the consumer online, however much has changed. Our company is now split into two companies – Miss Fit UK manufactures and wholesales business to business, and The Big Bra Bar is a new ecommerce solution selling clothing, lingerie and swimwear for D-H cup women. The Big Bra Bar will make its way on to the high street in time, and be available as a franchise. We now have a two-tiered plan to grow both companies rapidly.

TNW: Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them?

NH: It is very hard to attract customers; many people think trading online is a cheap solution to make millions and they don’t realise that online marketing and brand profile is an art in itself.

If you have a shop on the high street people will walk past, see you, tell their friends about you – but in cyberspace you are invisible.

Unless you have a strategy to inform the general public you exist, you will find yourself disappointed, with a trickle of visitors. Exposure costs money and this is something many online businesses don’t factor in when they launch – having an online store is anything but a cheap alternative to a shop.

TNW: Who are your customers and partners now?

NH: The Big Bra Bar has customers from across the globe, with around 60% coming from the US and Canada. Miss Fit UK works with independent retailers and high street names, and with a small factory opening this year we hope to also work with new and existing clothing and lingerie brands to manufacture their orders.

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

NH: Sourcing new customers is never easy.

In terms of meeting new buyers I believe the best approach is to rip up the rulebook and be a human being. People do business with people that they like!

I will give them a call, and be my informal northern cheeky self and ask for a meeting and perhaps make a joke about promising to bring cake. In terms of online customers, you have to stay on top of your pay-per-click, SEO, social media, blogging – we stay ahead of the game with customer service videos, HD catwalk videos linked to YouTube and various other forward thinking methods to tell people we exist.

TNW: What is next for your company?

NH: The Big Bra Bar is growing at a rate of knots – we are currently looking for an investor to help us take it to the next level and bring the brand on to the high street. For our lingerie and swimwear brands we are looking to focus on export to the American market. We also have a small factory opening in 2012 with a small output of around 25,000pcs per annum, we will be manufacturing our own orders and taking orders from other companies as well, in a bid to bring back British manufacturing and do something for our economy at home.

TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?

NH: Anyone that wants to set up a business needs to certainly have their wits about them. These are challenging economic times, and businesses have to use their wits and creativity to stay ahead of the competition – there is always somebody right behind you, ready to swipe your share of the market from your hands. Unless you think quickly, adapt quickly and respond quickly you will get left behind.

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

NH: Be yourself, be likeable – nobody ever does business with somebody that they don’t like. Protect your reputation – bad news travels fast, I always aim to be upfront, honest to the point of being blunt and everybody who works with me knows that my word is bond – no contract needed!

As a small business there are a lot of sharks out there ready to rip you off – question everything, check everything, ask for proof of claims people make – nobody else is going to do your due diligence for you.

Doug Richard is known for saying “Every pound you don’t spend is a pound you’ve been relieved of the obligation of having to earn”, so try as much as possible to minimise your costs.

TNW: Do you lie awake at night sometimes thinking about the company? What aspects of it specifically keep you awake?

NH: It is a lot of responsibility to take on, having people who depend on you to be paid, companies and businesses depending on you to supply their goods that their customers are eagerly anticipating and sometimes things go wrong. It may be beyond your control, like an ash-cloud causing a week delay on a flight of urgent products arriving, but you still shoulder that responsibility and have to find a solution because the buck stops with you. It is a lot to take on in your twenties – along with a child and a house, and sometimes the pressure of the responsibilities is hard to balance.

TNW: If you could get on a soapbox and get something off your chest about the world of entrepreneurship, something you’d like to change, what would it be?

NH: It is not what you know, it is who you know. I knew nothing about manufacturing, or fashion, or retail but I could learn it quickly from the right people who were willing to show me. Without those people who lent me their knowledge, opened doors for me and introduced me to the ‘right’ people, I would still be where I was in 2008.

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?

Funding was definitely a major hurdle for me. I launched the business when I was a 21-year-old single mum, so not exactly the first choice of customer for many lenders.

I needed £10,000 to produce prototypes and conduct market research, but was turned down by the bank. So I decided to take it upon myself and use a personal credit card to fund the business.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our readers?

I’ll be speaking at Business North West in Manchester, UK, on 17-18 April. It’s a great opportunity for budding entrepreneurs and business owners to hear from other successful entrepreneurs.

The line up includes plenty of inspirational women like Jo Fairley, co-founder of Green & Black’s and Kirsty Henshaw who was a successful Dragons’ Den entrant. Learning from other people who have been in your situation can be extremely helpful at every stage of your business’ development, so I always recommend that people attend events like these whenever possible.

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