Not every online retailer has to be Jeff Bezos (yet). Whether you are making millions online, starting a fledgeling business or fusing bricks and mortar retail with an eBay or marketplace store, ParcelHero celebrates eTail heroes of all shapes and sizes. On the Norfolk coast, in a picturesque waterside setting, a couple and their children, with little to no money grew a passion for sailing into a business reality. We talk to husband and wife team Richard and Sarah Davies, owners of Snuggtopz.
Snuggtopz specialise in making robust and high quality covers for boats amidst a sea of other nautical equipment and paraphernalia. Online, the stock expands even further, utilising online retail outlets like eBay and their own Snuggtopz website. “It may sound very grand, but it really is a small business and everyone pitches in. Even our children help out by counting stainless steel fasteners and small parts for our inventory,” explains Richard.
Snuggtopz was born in September 2009 when Richard was forced to quit as a woodwork teacher due to contracting industrial asthma. “I began to look into doing something that I would enjoy. Up until that point we had been enthusiastic leisure boaters, but had never worked in the industry so had no comprehension of what might be involved. Not being one to shy away from a challenge, I decided that sewing boat covers was what I wanted to do but to start from scratch was a bit difficult.” Many budding online retailers encounter the same challenges, especially anyone who hasn’t ‘grown-up’ in the online generation.
Richard had to first learn his trade, but with minimal funds, he was forced to borrow from family to get going. Booking himself onto the best marine canvas courses possible in the USA, Richard attended the North Coast Marine Specialties in Ohio. After graduating, Richard began his long path to become the highly accredited specialist he is now, a title earned through dogged perseverance. “My wife tells me I’m too much of a perfectionist,” Richard begins: “but I just think if I am going to make something it has to be ‘right’. I must admit it has been a long hard road and has taken several years to get to a stage where I can happily make the right cover for the right boat. Even now, after a number of years in the business, I am still presented with covers I have never worked on before, so it can feel like a whole new challenge and not just a normal daily grind.”
The Davies faced another crossroads when, in 2009, Sarah was made redundant from her job in IT. Opportunity presented itself, and after little deliberation the couple decided to sell the stock Richard had accumulated for his cover making and keep it on rotation, buying and selling and continuously investing back into their business. The challenge was to establish Snuggtopz as an online business. An eBay store presented less of a barrier to entry while with a little help from friends and family sarah and Richard were able to establish a proper online store via their website… with a little help from their software programming friend.
Richard explains: “Even after he had set up the site for us in return for some work I did for him, it still took use a good 3 months of long nights tweaking the the site and inputting all the data. To this day it is still a work in progress and we just have to fit it in around everything else, including children.” Richard was now sewing canvas covers in his mothers garage to keep costs to a minimal, while Sarah looked after the online sales with very little initial profit. Long hours and good money was still not enough for the couple to make anything sustainable and were in need of a break.
But a bit of luck presented itself, Richard says: “At this point I had the good fortune to be offered a riverside workshop, it was basic with no running water and a tin roof so is pretty cold in the winter. But being beside the river, customers could pull up right outside my workshop in their boats. With a sewing table set up in the shop there was some spare space left which is when I thought a Chandlery would work well in the spare space. Little did I know how much work that was going to be.
“After the first year my landlord moved on. You can imagine how worried I was because the future of the shop was in real doubt with a new owner coming in, but he turned out to be a great guy.” The Davies were fortunate as their new landlord saw the potential of having Richard in the outbuilding, attracting passing customers on the river who could stop to have their boats maintained and then spend money in his restaurant. “In the past thirty years I have been sailing this area my workshop had been used for many different businesses, but none of them had lasted more than a year, so it has proven to be a very useful relationship for both of us,” said Richard. As a physical ‘shopfront’ for the business, a viable operation as a dual physical and online store began to take off.
The business is now getting stronger, but the journey has been long and very tough for the Davies. “We still work crazy hours for far less money than we had been accustomed to and we often beat ourselves up about not spending enough time with the kids,” explains Richard. With tight margins, a hard economy and the prospect of going out of business constantly reinforced with the news of so many others losing the financial battle, the Davies have had to dig deep to make their business work. But it is relationships with other businesses, explains Richard: “with our supplies and delivery partners, that is so vital. Some big companies just won’t trade with us because we are too small, but those that have helped us and given us the price breaks they give to larger accounts have seen our spending with them increase every year. We really do believe a little bit of give and take between businesses can pay dividends for everyone.”
In terms of promotion, the Davies’ are still working on promoting the business both online and off but have established a lively forum where sailing enthusiasts and experts can share information. “Word of mouth is a key driver for a business such as this, so our forum has proved an interesting place to engage and retain custom”.
The Davies have aspirational, but cautious plans for the future. With the possibility of taking on staff to help with an increasing workload and dedicating more time to maximising online sales and online promotions. It has hardly been plain sailing and for all the popular success stories of millions in profits and global retail domination, the Snuggtopz story reflects the reality of many start-up retailers, especially those who have a career reorientation thrust upon them by circumstance. “But hey,” says Richard, “this is no 9 to 5 for the faint hearted, this is an adventure.”
If you would like to tell us your eTail story and be profiled by ParcelHero, get in touch here. We’d love to hear from you.