Spotlight on the Monkey Puzzle Tree
Today on the Blog we have Charlotte Raffo from The Monkey Puzzle Tree. a fairly new start up selling fabrics and wall coverings that she licences from artists who get a royalty back off every product she sells allowing them to continue their work; a really nice collaborative business model.
Read on to find out about her inspiration, background and why she chose to start the business.
The Monkey Puzzle Tree was launched in July 2017 by Charlotte Raffo. Collaborating with established artists, the brand creates luxury wallpapers, fabrics and cushions aimed at those who want to add a touch of personality to their homes with an aesthetic influenced by music and alternative culture. Each artist receives royalties from sales of their products, supporting them continue to create original, ground-breaking work in their artistic practice.
The business emerged from Charlotte’s lifelong love of interiors combined with extensive experience in product development. Her successful career included working on designer collaborations between Liberty and Mamas and Papas, creating innovative fabrics for the brand's luxury range, and developing leather surface patterns and finishes for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton.
‘The Monkey Puzzle Tree’ name comes from the rare tree planted by Charlotte’s parents when she was born. The tree, which started off tiny, grew as Charlotte grew, and in a strange parallel to her own life, bore cones for the first time in the year of her marriage and grew small baby trees around its base when her children were born. Monkey Puzzle trees are noted for their unusual appearance and long life span of over 1000 years.
1. What was the reason behind you starting your business?
I’ve always secretly wanted to start my own business but I knew that if I did, it had to be something original and really worthwhile. I also knew that, much though I love making things myself I didn’t want to become a one woman sweat shop!
Throughout my life I’ve met quite a few talented artists, and I thought it was such a waste of talent that they were struggling to make a living from their work.
It was the artist Sarah Thornton, who I met through my children, who really gave me the idea. She said that she’d love to make her art into fabric but had no idea how to do it, and I thought ‘I could do that’. Being made unexpectedly redundant after 10 years working as the Textile Buyer for Mamas and Papas was also a final catalyst to make the leap.
The business makes the best use of everyone’s resources. It’s very hard to be creative whilst having to run all the other aspects of a business, and this way I take that side on, along with the Product Development which plays to my strengths, and also means that I can pull from an amazing pool of talent without having to think up all the new ideas myself. Paying the artists a royalty works well for everyone - it means that I don’t have to invest money in the design to start with, but also, as I pay the development and stock costs, it’s very low risk for the artists.
2. How did you start up?, kitchen table? Mum’s garage, renting premises?
I started up on the kitchen table, but as soon as I was in a position to receive my first delivery of huge boxes of very expensive fabric in the back of a lorry I had to rent a studio with access to a loading bay.
3. How did you fund your business?
I was made redundant after 10 years in a reasonably good job, so I had a modest redundancy package and some savings.
Throughout my life I have been quite careful with my money as I always wanted to build up to having what Bob Geldof called ‘f**k you money’ (I think he quoted that from Humphrey Bogart). That is where you have enough money to survive on without having to rely on anyone else. It’s the pressure of having to earn a certain amount of money that can make life stressful and also sometimes force you into situations you’d rather not be in. I’m not particularly materialistic, and I’ve always wanted to be in a position where I would have the freedom to do something creative without having to be too tied down to being commercial. So, when redundancy came, I wasn’t in quite the ideal position, but I had overpaid on my mortgage and didn’t have any other debt to service. I also made some money by renovating a house, have received some match funding through Ad:Venture and have borrowed some money from family.
4. What was the most difficult part of starting up your business? Access to money, advice, finding people to buy, marketing etc?
When I was first made redundant I allowed myself a couple of months for the business idea to crystallise. It was then tricky persuading my risk-adverse family who have never run their own businesses that this might be a good idea.
Other than that, the biggest challenge has definitely been making sales, and getting the brand out there. I spoke to someone from the interiors website Houzz who told me that on average it takes 5 months from someone clicking on a product on their website to them actually making the purchase. Making a high-end purchase for a house might require a lot of planning and money, and I hadn’t really accounted for that time lag. So, although I’ve had a lot of interest in my products it has taken a while for the sales to start coming in.
5. What help was missing for you?
I’m based in Leeds, and I have to say there is a massive amount of help if you look for it - The Business and IP centre at the library was fantastic, and also Entrepreneurial Spark and Ad:Venture and lots of networking events- good and bad! What I will say though, is that many small businesses are service or tech based, and it would be nice to have more retail focused help available. For businesses who have a product to sell as we do, there have slightly different challenges - buying minimum order quantities of stock, lead times, courier charges, distance selling regulations. I have found the most useful help from meeting others in a similar position.
6. What went wrong in your first year? Few months if you haven’t been trading that long?
I’ve only been trading for six months, and I’m lucky enough be able to say that nothing has gone hugely wrong. However, it did take me longer to launch than I was expecting and then longer to make sales than I accounted for, so with the overheads of paying for my studio that has been very hard financially.
7. What have you learnt?
A LOT! Starting your own business is like taking a degree where you have to write your own syllabus - you don’t know what you don’t know, so you have to figure it out and then find out how you’re going to learn the skill. I’m very keen to be able to understand everything myself, even if in the end someone else is going to do the job, I like to understand it first. My background is in product development, so I was confident I could make great product, but social media, marketing, sales, PR, photography and running a website are all new to me so that has been a steep learning curve. I love learning new skills though so it’s been great.
8. What is the most important piece of advice that you could give others thinking about starting a business?
Before I started the business, I had learnt to trust my instinct on design and other decisions, and I think that is the most important thing. To keep going when others question what you are doing means that you need to be resilient and confident in your idea. Being your own boss is great, but it also means that there is no one to bounce ideas off, to tell you what to do next or to give you a pep talk when you’re feeling down, so you have to be very self-disciplined and motivated.
Also, you have to be financially stable - especially if you need to pay out to buy stock or rent premises. You can’t guarantee when the money is going to start coming in. In an ideal situation starting a business on the side whilst you retain another job, or working from home to keep your overheads down is a good idea, but with my family commitments and the size and value of my stock that wasn’t possible for me.
9. And what do you enjoy the most?
So far, I have loved every aspect of running my own business. In many ways, it’s been like having children - you know it’s going to be life changing and hard but you can’t quite imagine how that’s going to feel. But most of the time it’s very fulfilling.
It’s also meant meeting lots of new people, maybe people that I previously wouldn’t have met in my day to day life and that’s really nice. I thought that I’d miss the routine of a normal job, but I haven’t once regretted it. Working on new products with the artists has to be my favourite part though. And I’m really looking forward to the day when I send each artist a handsome royalty cheque!
10. On a scale of 1-10 how hard do you find it to run your own business?
The main thing is that I love running my business. I work around two kids (aged 7 and 9) and also helping out with elderly parents with health issues. However, what I can say is that it is much easier to juggle all that now then it was when I was employed, commuting and also had to travel as part of my job. It is now my decision to make on how I divide my time, and what takes priority, and I love that freedom. I can walk the kids to school in the mornings, and help out with hospital appointments if necessary. I do work in the evenings and occasionally at the weekends, but I enjoy the flexibility. However, it has been hard financially. Overall, I’d score it 4.
Nicola says ' I like that Charlotte plays to her strengths which is product development, leaving the design to others; this means that she is not trying to do it all and there is a win win for all. Sensible financial planning has served her well, but as she rightly points out, it takes much longer than you think to make sales, so always plan a contingency fund of 3-6 months. it's advice I give to high tech businesses too. things go wrong, they always take way longer than you think, if you've budgeted for immediate success then you may find yourself short"
The Girl with The Green Sofa