My mum started it off as a hobby. She went to the Caribbean and brought some flowers over and sold them. Then a family friend asked her to do her son’s birthday party and a passer-by asked us to decorate for their party. Word of mouth helped, and the hobby grew into the company that is today. Along the way I went to university and helped where I could and found myself more and more attracted to what the business had to offer. Eventually it became a partnership. It literally birthed itself and we followed on the journey.
There were a few challenges in the startup phase that I didn’t put down to being black, at the time. Later I started to question that. Recently, I was listening to a podcast about one of the leading black hair companies, which is no longer around and the challenges they faced when they started. Even though they were turning over a million pounds, they couldn’t get a loan of five grand from their bank. One in five black business owners close because of difficulties getting finance. We were green and the business was growing fast and we weren’t ready for it. We just thought that you go to banks, and you get advice. But we found those doors closed. We’d see opportunities but couldn’t get the business support. It was a huge struggle, but the key thing was we had the business product itself and that was totally different. We knocked on doors of clients as opposed to financial institutions. That’s what kept us going.
We had a nightclub nearby with a lot of African Caribbean events. Mum started to decorate that venue free of charge to get recognised. And then promoters did recognise her. We got known within the community and slowly expanded. Mum met an Asian guy who owned a limo service. He introduced us to the Asian community and that’s where we started decorating for weddings, and that’s a fantastic market.
If we’d had access to finance or access to the business advice we needed though, our business would have grown differently. There are certain rules and opportunities that you’re unaware of and when you hear about them you wonder why didn’t my bank manager tell us that? At the time we started, black businesses were hairdressers or food businesses and being event decorators was a completely different field and there are doubts about whether it was viable. I always remember a bank manager saying to my mum that that business sounded schizophrenic because we’d decorate for a wedding, or a christening, but we’re also working for promoters. Essentially, it’s all deco, but because we worked in different markets and didn’t target one specific area, they said, ‘it sounds good, but you seem to be everywhere as opposed to focusing’. 20 years later, we’re still here. Just!
Covid hit us hard. We had a lot of events booked up and, being in hospitality, we were hard hit. We knew we’d got clients who would come back, and we held hold onto their deposits but then the deadline kept being pushed back. We didn’t know what was going on. If you’ve invested in equipment, some of it is perishable and that’s what the clients have paid for. You then have to find the money to replace it. Take flowers for an event. If it can’t go ahead, you have to buy the flowers again when it does eventually happen. My mum had given up everything else in her world, and that has become her full-time career. I had to go into universal credit and take work to balance the books, so the business has taken a real hit. Even now that things have started to pick back up, it’s not enough for me to be able to go back to the business full time. And now events like fireworks parties have been cancelled because people are hearing about plan B and are hesitant again, and there doesn’t seem to be support that recognises the smaller businesses. We need knowledge or information, from the accountant or your bank, but there was the point at which my mum was asked by one of these advisors ‘Have you signed on’? Even advice to downsize and rebuild would have been more encouraging. It’s demoralising when your go-to person says: ‘sign on, give up’. If family and friends say it, they’re not in that world, so you can ignore it but when your bank or advisor says it, they’re saying this isn’t possible. And then we got that glimmer of hope that as stuff started to pick up and the phone started to ring again.
We adapted to what the market allowed, advertising on social media for free. Social media has been a powerful tool to reach clients old and new and keep the business going. We’ll take a bit of time to rebuild but we’re still here. Once you get a job, you start to recognise the same caterer and you start to build a network of recommendations between each other. This guy’s going to cook for a wedding, and he’ll recommend us to decorate or vice versa. Those support networks have allowed us to recover more than the institutions. Because of where we’re at, and because of the power of social media, we can just keep going.
I know this is Black History Month and I don’t really want to link Black business success the Black Lives Matter campaign. But I think there is a change. Black History Month has been around for a lot longer than people appreciate. It was something you learned about in school. And even then, I didn’t, as I went to a French school. In terms of business, companies and institutions have started to be that bit more supportive, to show that they are inclusive and supporting the cause. But how long does this last? Is it a trend? A lot of companies have been birthed during the pandemic. It will be interesting to see what support they get. I’ve seen a change in the last two years, and I’d like to see that become a long-lasting change. Before the spotlight was on it, was there discrimination? This has opened people’s eyes and they want to give that bit of support. There was Swiss, a person from So Solid Crew who came up with the Black Pound Day and called to support black business on the first Saturday of every month. And that gave us the impetus to see what other businesses are out there. And Black businesses are in all different sectors now. That too has been empowering.
If your business is your passion and you’ve got the ability to do it, just keep going. Make yourself seen absolutely everywhere and anywhere, and don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to network, even with your competition. My mum always says it’s such a large pie, there’s enough for everyone to eat. There are times that we’ve recommended competitors if we’re busy. Sometimes you need to think outside of the box and look for opportunities of where you want to be and find ways to get into that world.
We’re confident. We do have some corporate clients who picked up the phone as soon as the opportunities came back. That kept us positive. They didn’t forget us and we appreciate it. If you deliver great service and are dedicated to it, you will bounce back. Even if I can’t do a wedding for 600 people I can decorate your front room for six people.