I recently said to someone I wasn’t born a designer, but after I said it, I had to stop and think if that was true. Maybe I was. Maybe all those junior years on the plasticine and crayons were my training ground, and the years of being a make do and mend mum were really my dream it/make it masterclass. I was always very handy, making and creating at home and at the kid’s school. I was the go to gal for what you could do with sticky back plastic, a staple gun and yoghurt cartons. I absolutely loved it.
Anyway, that aside, I am fairly certain I wasn’t born an entrepreneur. I never had my eye on being the next Lady Sugar, I was an office worker, a stay at home mum and latterly a hairdresser. I didn’t know about tax, books, cooking them or otherwise. In fact I knew nothing about cooking anything at all, ask my kids. I fundamentally never had the confidence to think I could ever run a business.
Equally I had no idea what was about to hit me. So life happened, and whoosh, out of the blue I became seriously ill and an above knee amputee. Oh shit.
It took me a while to get back on my one foot. Learning to walk and dealing with my new body image all took time and all my energy. But my confidence grew and I got to grips with my new life. But when it came time to think about working again, being a ‘sister doing it for myself’ appeared high on my hit list. Finding work as a person with a disability was hard, employers didn’t want to take the risk on a disabled person. Try as I might, I did not have the confidence to go out into a work environment. Plan DIY was going to be my best option.
Spurred on by the ugly, grey, medical looking mobility aids I was using, I hatched my gorgeous acrylic walking stick plan. I had a solid idea, I’d done the necessary research and was confident the market was there. I had a name and a dream. It was fun at first doing R&D and making sexy prototype products. However, the reality of being in business and haemorrhaging money to set one up soon hit home, and my bank balance. It was tough to hold my nerve, surely life would be easier and cheaper not working and just giving in to my weaknesses, but I’m just not built to think like that. The struggle I had been through proved to me I had untapped strengths, so my nerve held.
I had an interesting introduction to HMRC very early on. Now, I know none of us like paying tax, but the model citizen I am, I had duly registered with them when I began trading. Despite the business making zero/zilch profits in those days, I was unlucky enough to be picked out and audited by the dreaded Tax man. They picked through my books, spending, income, hours I worked, did I advertise, suppliers, sock drawer etc. That’s their job I guess, but when you consider I wasn’t even making a profit, it seemed a waste of Tax man hours to me. It was stressful and even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, they made me feel like I’d swindled my granny. It was an initiation of fire into life as an entrepreneur.
I saw a thing on Instagram saying I never wanted to work 9 – 5, so I set up my own business and now I work 24/7. So true, said the author at 9pm on a Sunday night. I have learned that you are never off the clock. However when you’re passionate about what you do, you live eat and breathe it with determination, you wake up with ideas at midnight and somehow you don’t mind. Cut me in half and I would say Neo Walk like a stick of rock.
So what makes the hours feel worthwhile? E mails, messages and cards saying how much my walking sticks have changed peoples lives, giving them confidence to leave the house because the shame they had felt had disappeared. That’s what gets me out of bed every day. Messages saying their 6 year old son with leukaemia is taking his first steps with his Neo Walk sticks after a long term treatment, and feeling so proud of his light up bubbles! He can’t wait to show them to the doctors and nurses on the ward.
Years later, applying to go on Dragons Den was a big deal for me. The process was very intense, lots of form filling, interviews, and lots of numbers numbers numbers! Know your numbers! It was a pressure cooker environment, which only receded the day after the actual recording. Of course I was disappointed that another disabled entrepreneur had left the Den without an offer. But the next day I woke up feeling totally relieved that I didn’t personally have a Dragon to please and I still owned all the ducks in my row. It was the best result for me and my growing business. And ducks.
Very excitingly I am nominated for the National Diversity Award for Entrepreneur of Excellence this year and the shortlist is being announced at the end of June. Naturally I have to say I am happy just to have been nominated. But truthfully, I really want to get on that short list! I know I am up there with some really strong businesses and friends, and just being in their company on the shortlist would be an achievement in itself. So I hope to announce good news soon. The recognition would be very motivating and would make this disabled lady feel like she’s finally made it!
Looking back now I wish I had been encouraged as a youngster to look at doing some business qualifications, I think I would have loved it as a career path. Unfortunately, it was never suggested to me at school back in the 80’s. It could have been a ‘she’s a girl’ thing, or ‘pupils in skirts’ as one teacher called us. I honestly can’t imagine being someone with a disability back then. The opportunities must have been zero. Especially if you wore a skirt too. Sometimes it feels like we haven’t moved on!
Hope I’ve encouraged some of you to believe you could be the boss of your own ducks and get them in a row.