Spotlight on Sam Hood of Amara
Today's Business Feature is Sam Hood of Amara a very successful interior business. Amara has been through several iterations of the business as it has grown from an interior design service and shop (pre-2005), to an e-business (post 2005) and finally to launching its own label. It is a fascinating journey.
Most of the businesses I focus on are start-up businesses, but as part of creating this community of business stories, I want to feature those that have had great success too, as I've always said, when starting out you need to have a goal in mind and if it is growing a large and successful business you need to understand what success looks like and what is involved to get there. This is one such journey.
Amara has gone through many changes since its inception in 2005, but in every step of the way we haven’t lost touch with what’s important to us, luxury style and quality service. Initially starting life as an interior design business, Amara has always been about bringing designer style and expert knowledge to every home. Created by husband and wife team, Andrew and Sam Hood, the company has utilised their combined strengths from the very beginning. Sam’s career in retail fashion nurtured her innate talent for styling and staying ahead of the trends, and she found her calling in interiors after project managing her own home renovation. Andrew’s business know-how and acumen come from spending over twenty years as Head of Equity Trading at a large US investment bank until 2004.
These strengths saw the interior design company migrate into a shop on the stylish Baddow Road in Chelmsford. Stocking the best in home accessories and carefully curated interior must-haves, the shop helped to initially build their client base and relationships with the world’s most coveted luxury brands. Soon Andrew spotted a gap in the online market place for a distributor of true luxury homeware, and taking an entrepreneurial leap of faith they created Amara.co.uk.
In the early days, the website was run in a tiny office, with a small yet dedicated team, and an even smaller rented storage space. Beginning in this way the team learnt quickly, mistakes were never repeated and the true art & importance of customer service was honed.
You can shop AMARA here.
1. What was the reason behind you starting your business?
Whilst decorating my home I struggled to source designer interior brands such as Missoni Home, so I took the leap and launched Amara as an interior design service but also as a boutique home store. In 2005. My husband left his career in the city and we launched the first Amara website and very soon it became clear that this was the way forward so we decided to concentrate our efforts on our e-tail business and leave our original high street location in Chelmsford. It’s been a really exciting journey and we’ve been lucky enough to hit some amazing milestones along the way-the launch of the Amara own label collection A by Amara is a dream come true.
2. How did you start up?, kitchen table? Mum’s garage, renting premises?
I originally started in a small shop, with the idea very much coming from lots of talking around our kitchen table; my two girls were still relatively young so had to take into account running a family with a business that I knew would require a huge commitment. After making the decision to focus on the ecommerce aspect of the business I also wanted to retain our interior design service to continue our commitment to our growing and loyal client base so we sought a location that could grow with us but we could also make it our own so we landed where we still are today in converted farm buildings in rural Essex.
We started renting a unit with five members of the team who were responsible for every part of the business from telephone sales to packing boxes but as the years went on the business grew from strength to strength and we are now a team of over 80 members of Amara. Given our growth, in 2013 we had to move our warehousing and logistics to a third-party company Delamode; fortunately, it is very close to our offices so ideal for us to manage and facilitate product for use in our photo shoots.
3. How did you fund your business?
We funded the beginning of our business through personal investment and savings.
4. What was the most difficult part of starting up your business? Access to money, advice, finding people to buy, marketing etc?
Initially it was hard to gain trust from interior brands to allow us to have accounts, the main stumbling block for them was that we didn’t have ‘bricks & mortar’ which in today’s market seems bizarre but we persevered with the confidence that our business venture had the niche offering that was lacking in the interiors industry. Throughout the years we have grown Amara as an interiors emporium which is home to a wide variety of brands and designers and we are now in the fortunate position to have brands coming to us, a real turn around after all these years!
5. What help was missing for you?
Advice was plentiful from our close friends and family who would help on matters such as finance, accounts and even brand suggestions but what we struggled with was the lack of expertise on the ecommerce side combined with very little visibility online for the interiors market. It was an open market which in many ways played to our advantage but it gave us nothing to compare to or measure ourselves against.
6. What went wrong in your first year? Few months if you haven’t been trading that long?
We have had plenty of things go wrong on our journey and we are still constantly learning but we always endeavour to run everything in-house with our young energetic teams always being innovative as well as reactionary.
7. What have you learnt?
You can’t do it alone. As entrepreneurs, it’s in our nature to be in charge and make decisions but it’s important to surround yourself with people who want the same goal as you, and will help and develop your business as a whole.
8. What is the most important piece of advice that you could give others thinking about starting a business?
Gain as much experience as possible to hone in on your talent and to create a unique selling point that will make your business stand out from rest of the market; ask lots of questions on your journey but also be nice – I know that seems a bit odd but it does make life easier if you work and relate to people in a positive manner.
9. And what do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy bringing a variety of brands to Amara and helping our customer discover new and exciting homeware accessories for their home. We visit a range of trade shows throughout the year and I love that the Buying team and myself can make designer brands accessible to all but also to be a platform for new designers that we think our customer will love. With A by Amara I am now very lucky to be involved with creating a collection and designing products from around the world as well as working on collaborations with our existing brands such as Missoni and Baobab.
10. On a scale of 1-10 how hard do you find it to run your own business?
Running your own business is extremely hard work but I wouldn’t change a thing, it is challenging but rewarding in equal measure! Some days might not go to plan, but learning and resolving issues help me creatively as well as strategically. Putting all of that on a scale is very hard; some aspects of the business I find extremely hard and would place those as a 10 but on the other hand I find other parts such as choosing and styling collections relatively easy.
Nicola says "Sam mentions some of the challenges that come with being an innovative business in a new market, which Amara was when it launched its online boutique. How do you know you are successful if there is nothing to compare to? and how do you persuade established brands to work with you, when you are doing something perceived as different? Clearly these days, brands come to Amara, but this was not always the case, especially without the Bricks and Mortar shop!
The other challenge is how you grow yet retain your identity and engender your culture? what I mean by this, is you as a brand and a person have a certain ethos, and you often recruit people along the same lines, therefore creating a team of people who all want the same thing and have the same goals. But if you grow quickly or pass off this side of the business to someone else, how do you maintain this identity and ensure your business goals are being met? this is one of the biggest challenges in business growth and one of the reasons I always say people, people, people, are one of the most important aspects of your business. If you recruit the wrong sales people you may lose the side of your brand that says, "we have the best customer service"
Thanks for sharing your story Sam!
The Girl with The Green Sofa