Understanding Female Entrepreneurs

Nikki Hesford


Interview with Nikki Hesford

Nikki Hesford is an extraordinary businesswoman who has achieved a great deal in a short space of time. Nikki managed to make over £80,000 from savvy property investments with her student loans whilst bringing up her child as a single Mum.
She has demonstrated innate entrepreneurial skills and determination to establish a successful UK manufacturing and retail company supplying underwear. Her Northern grit, humour and open-mindedness are truly inspiring.
At 26 Nikki is at an early stage of her career and who knows what she will achieve, but it is likely to be exceptional!
Made in Preston is a manufacturing company based in the UK which specialises in clothes and lingerie that go beyond DD. Unlike other companies, Made in Preston covers the whole production process, from buying the fabric and bagging the finished product, to delivering it to their customer and dealing with any returns.

Aviatrix: What was the catalyst that led you to start your own business?

Nikki: In a way, it started when I finished university, back in 2008. I was a twenty-year-old single mother qualified to be a mortgage adviser. All my interviews would go really well until I told them I was a single parent. After answering endless questions about childcare, families and partners, all I would get was a NO. For many of the interviews I bought size 8 shirts, and couldn’t get them around my boobs. I was only a 32E – which isn’t that big compared to all the F, G and Hs out there. My only option was Bravissimo which is aimed at forty and fifty-year-olds, so there really wasn’t anything out there. That’s when it all started.

Aviatrix: At the beginning, did you have a big idea?

Nikki: I realised that there was little out there in the way of clothing for big boobs. When I started researching it to see how big the market was, I realised that the average bra size is 34E and that 65% of the population are over or equal to that size. What got me really excited about the opportunity was how little is available in that particular market. I slowly started to see how it could go.

Aviatrix: How did the big idea evolve over time?

Nikki: Massively! When ASOS or House of Fraser phone you up and say, “We have just seen one of your items in a magazine and we are really interested in your wholesale price list – can you send me one,” all you can say is, “Yes, of course.” But at time I thought, “Oh Shit – what is a wholesale price list?” I came across Clare Young from The Apprentice a couple of years previously, who I remembered was a buyer from Superdrug. Her tweets had popped up a couple of times so I contacted her and told her I needed half a day crash course on everything there is to know about wholesale. We met for four hours and she taught me everything she knew. I went from selling direct to the consumer to becoming a wholesaler overnight.

Aviatrix: At what point did you decide to stop looking for a job?

Nikki: When I knew about the size of the market and I had a decent amount of equity in the house I bought when I was eighteen.
After getting pregnant at seventeen I took a couple of months off before returning to sixth form college, then I did my A levels in a year instead of two. I wasn’t bothered about going to University. I had watched all these people buying houses on TV, putting some magnolia on the walls and making sixty grand, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” The only problem was I had no income and no deposit. I had enough to get a mortgage – a small amount of money I made through some self-employed glamour modelling – but I needed a deposit of £9k. I knew that if I went to University as a single parent I could get an £18k of student loan and various grants per year that would be paid in three instalments, and that’s what I did. As soon as I had the first two instalments of the loan I used it as a deposit on the first property. I got 0% credit cards to pay for all the improvements, which I paid off when I sold the house, and I used the profits to invest in the next property. I did that every six or seven months. I made over £80k over the course of my degree. So by the time I started my business the repayments on the mortgage were so small I wasn’t under loads of pressure to find a job quickly.

Aviatrix: Did your parents have an entrepreneurial background?

Nikki: My Dad was an ex professional rugby player and my Mum was a TV presenter and glamour model. So not really.

Aviatrix: When did you start having a desire to start a business?

Nikki: I would never have described myself as a business person. My degree was in English Literature so I thought about being a teacher. I even considered modelling as a career, but self-employment never crossed my mind. I did not have a clue about business, but I signed up for business link that offered quite a few courses about start-ups, marketing and finance.

Aviatrix: What were the three things that stopped you from thinking about having a business?

Nikki: Firstly, I did not think people like me could have their own business. People that knew about business, people who had parents that were in business, basically men in suits, those were the kind of people who had their own business. Not people like me – a single parent who worked as a glamour model.

Aviatrix: What was your perception of a ‘proper’ business person?

Nikki: Serious, with a lot of responsibility. I thought I wouldn’t be able to go out and get drunk anymore. Basically, my head was full of stereotypes about entrepreneurs.

Aviatrix: What were the obstacles you had to overcome?

Nikki: Money. I had a lot of equity in my house and I had my business plans, so I did not think getting help financially would be a problem, but it was. None of the three banks I went to see would even look at me. I thought I was a credible person – well presented, educated, I had made money and they virtually laughed me out the door because they saw it as a lifestyle business with no potential for growth.

Aviatrix: What was the biggest help?

Nikki: The workshops run by my local branch of Business Link Enterprise For All were invaluable – they were free and really helpful.

Aviatrix: Have you had a mentor or someone who inspired you?

Nikki: My inspiration is my little boy. My Mum was disappointed in me when I got pregnant because I was supposed to be the first one in the family to go to University. Everyone around me advised me to have a termination. They thought having the baby would ruin my life. This made me even more determined to go ahead with it. I just did not want to be a stereotypical single parent, and now that people know me locally and at the school gates because of my business, I feel proud. I wanted my son to grow up and look at me and think, “Yes, my Mum was a single Mum. But look at what she achieved.”

Aviatrix: At what point did you know that your business was going to be a success?

Nikki: You can always be one deal away from making it or going bankrupt. Until the deal is signed and the money is in the bank, something can always go wrong. It was great when I had the first investor put £50,000 into the business. I could then rebrand and I was ready for the second tranche of investment. I had to present to a panel of five potential investors for £90,000. When all five of them offered to invest I knew the business would definitely go somewhere.

Aviatrix: What is the one thing that has made your business a success?

Nikki: I feel that the last five or six years have been a rite of passage and if I look back on myself in the early stages, I cringe. I was so naive and knew so little. But I learnt as I grew and now I know how to do most things well. You need to have a few knocks in business to gain the experience and I was never afraid to ask for help.

Aviatrix: What was the key to scaling the business?

Nikki: The finance and the expertise. If you want to scale a business to millions within five years, you need investment and the experience of people that have done it before. Women are particularly guilty of trying to do everything themselves.

Aviatrix: As a result of running your own business, what have you learnt about yourself?

Nikki: I know I can get through anything. I am a lot stronger. When they talk about businesses failing, I don’t think it is about people failing at the business, I think it is people starting a business that doesn’t do as well as they expected and think they need to get a job instead.

Aviatrix: What do you love about having your own business?

Nikki: Flexibility. I always wanted to have a business that was not dependent on me. I have a manager and a team of people who keep me up to date but my role is in building the brand, sales, marketing, and product development so much of this can be done from anywhere and I don’t need to be chained to my desk 9 til 5 each day. The business runs without me at the centre. The quality of life I now have as a result of the work I put in during the early years is great.

Aviatrix: What don’t you like about having your own business?

Nikki: The bureaucracy and the responsibility that comes with having people relying on me to pay their wages. And decisions that need to be made when members of staff are not performing. You want to look out for your employees, but you have to do the right thing for the business.

Aviatrix: If you could start again, what would you change?

Nikki: I would probably have stuck with the consumer market and I would have learnt more about UK manufacturing. Getting products made in China meant I never witnessed the manufacturing process, so when I opened my factory I knew very little about how to make a bra. I had no idea what machines I would need or how many.
It took a while to get the manufacturing going but we are there now. Finding an experienced lingerie machinist wasn’t easy. The fact that I did not have the technical skills made it difficult for me to recruit the right person.

Aviatrix: If there was one piece of advice you could pass on to a new female entrepreneur, what would it be?

Nikki: Believe in yourself. If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do? If you have an idea, just get on with it and don’t worry about the ‘what ifs’.

Aviatrix: If you had to identify any particular female traits that make you a great business owner, what would they be?

Nikki: Women are quite balanced in their thinking whereas men tend to be more impulsive. Women are better with people and generally have more humility. Sometimes they find it hard to make tough decisions where people are concerned

Aviatrix: What do you feel female-owned businesses contribute to society?

Nikki: I think women are more ethically focused. They care more about people and less about profits. Women are more inclined to give something back, like really good maternity schemes and flexible working hours, because they understand how hard it can be to balance work with childcare. For example, a lady that works for me halves her journey-to-work time by starting fifteen minutes later than everyone else. She makes the time up at the end of the day so, what would be the problem with that?

Aviatrix: How is that different from male-owned businesses?

Nikki: I think men tend to be a lot more black and white. Women are more likely to look at alternatives.

Aviatrix: What makes you feel successful?

Nikki: To be able to afford nice things. To make a valid contribution and be recognised for what I know.

Aviatrix: What is the one thing that you feel would create more success for women?

Nikki: The way that children are brought up and how women are told off for being bossy and boys are celebrated for being smart. I remember being described as bossy in my year 4 school report. It said, “If Nikki becomes anything less than the Prime Minister, we will be bitterly disappointed.” My Mum was really upset and told me off for having too much to say for myself. She told me people didn’t like it. General attitude towards the genders from an early age needs to change.

Aviatrix: How is your approach different from other business owners?

Nikki: Thanks to my family and friends, I am very grounded and I never get carried away with my status. All I want is to get in there, do my job and make some money for everybody.

Aviatrix: Why do you think there are so few women who own a business?

Nikki: Lack of self belief. Not thinking they are the kind of person that can run a business.

Aviatrix: As women progress in business, what do you feel will be the impact on men?

Nikki: If women just got on with it and did a good job, then men would just accept it and move on. I think men hold too many stereotypes, and it is up to women to show them that they can be just as hard working, committed and able to take responsibility. When I start being ‘very female’ – losing my nerve or moaning about something or dramatizing an issue – my male shareholders become ‘very male’ and tell me to get a grip and get on with it, and I really appreciate it.

Aviatrix: How do you keep yourself sane?

Nikki: I like running and going to the gym. I leave the house wanting to punch someone and return singing. That’s always worked, but now I am pregnant I’m not sure – probably cake!

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