Setting up Shop: Steph Douglas, Don’t Buy Her Flowers

She started the ingenious company Don’t Buy Her Flowers; offering alternative gifts for new mums. Here, Steph Douglas tells us about her unusual childhood, raising two kids and setting up shop

Steph lives in St Margarets – near Richmond, London – with her husband and their two children: Buster, nearly five, and Mabel, three

Where did you grow up and what was your upbringing like?
I was born and raised in Stroud, Gloucestershire. I have five siblings so it was loud and hectic and there was always something going on. Some of it was very idyllic – we went to school on the common, surrounded by cows – and we all went to the same primary school so my mum was going there for twenty odd years.

My mum and dad also did fostering, so there were lots of people in our house, some for a short while and two who became my brother and sister. It’s a pretty unique upbringing, but as an adult I now understand what a big deal it was for them.

I think we learned a huge amount too – we were exposed to kids and families very different to our own and knew that not everyone is lucky enough to have what we did.

What was your first ever job?
I worked as a cleaner after school for a couple of family friends, and also stacked shelves in Boots and worked in a café on a Saturday. I probably had more disposable income than I’ve ever had in my life!

Do you like working for other people?
I never had a problem working for other people – I’ve had some very lovely and genuine bosses who I still get on with. I had one very tough boss, but it was at a time when I didn’t have kids and could work ridiculous hours and actually I now recognise I learned a huge amount from him.

Do some people have an entrepreneurial spirit, and where does it come from?
I never thought I’d work for myself, it wasn’t something I thought about at all until I had the idea for Don’t Buy Her Flowers, and even then it took a while. It’s nearly a year since I launched and I can’t imagine going back to working for someone else.

I love the freedom to make decisions – like with copy or artwork, in my previous job I’d have to get something approved by multiple people and now I might ask my sister or a friend to sense check something, but then I just make a decision. I know the business better than anyone I guess, so I know where I want to go with it.

I suppose the insight behind the business is that having kids is tough, therefore women deserve some TLC

When did you decide to ‘set up shop’?
While I was still working I started a blog, Sisterhood (and all that). I’m quite a talker and had noticed that before you have kids no one tells you how they really found it. In hindsight I think it’s largely that you’re too busy having fun to hear it, but anyway, I found that people responded to honesty.

If I was talking to friends and mentioned that I wanted to physically harm Doug when he got home late from work and I was home with the baby, they’d all come in with their own stories.

Motherhood can feel so lonely, and it’s bizarre really because a huge proportion of the world will go through it. It might feel unique to you, but once you start talking really honestly you find that most people had a baby that didn’t sleep, most people felt wobbly about their relationship, no one is happy about the deep crevice previously known as a belly button.

I’m a huge believer in the sisterhood and that rather than pretending everything is dandy and internally going slightly mad, if we are all honest and able to laugh and cry together about just how ridiculous life can be sometimes, it’s a lot easier to handle.

The blog went really well and that gave me the courage that a) my brain hadn’t shriveled to nothing post-babies and b) other women had struggled after having kids.

I suppose the insight behind the business is that having kids is tough, therefore women deserve some TLC. If everyone had read it and gone “that’s nice, but I didn’t feel like that” then perhaps there wouldn’t be a business. I wish I had time to write more often, but it’ll come.

Where did the idea come from?
I had the idea after having kids and getting lots of flowers that I didn’t have enough vases for. Combined with the realisation that in those first months you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re exhausted and hormonal, it made no sense to me that the go-to gift for new mums is another thing to care for.

Steph - hot choc
Photograph: Jake Turney Photography

How’s business going?
Good! Really well, sales have steadily gone up each month, with a couple of bumper months like Mother’s Day, and there are lots of exciting things happening at the moment – more articles like this, magazines that want to feature our packages, a new package for Christmas.

People get it – it’s not a hard sell, especially to other women who remember how they felt in the first weeks after having a baby. We have a lot of repeat customers and also people receiving a package and then going on to buy one. That’s a huge testament and tells me we’re getting it right, which is very cool.

What has been the greatest challenge so far?
Probably trying to stay steady – not get caught up in the excitement or rest on your laurels but also not trying to do more than is physically possible. It’s a rollercoaster and it takes up a lot of brain space doing your own thing. In part because you’re so passionate about it – I feel incredibly driven to make this work, but also staying on top of who needs new shoes, has anyone done the grocery shop, etc.

Sometimes Doug will say: “come back to me” and I’m lost in thought working through The List of Stuff I Need to Do. But I think that’s a challenge for all women, and I have chosen to do this. Not everyone has a choice so I’m not complaining.

And what have you been most proud of?
The feedback. We get lots of reports of new mums crying, overwhelmed that someone has thought of them. Customers and recipients take time to send an email to let me know how much they loved it, and that’s awesome.

Your working days are Wed-Fri, where are the kids?
Buster is now in school and Mabel has nursery Wednesday to Friday. It’s been quite a transition, dropping them at different locations and the school day is pretty short. But we’re getting there. He does after school club a couple of days.

For the first time since she was one and I went back to work, I have time on my own with Mabel on a Monday and Tuesday when Buster is in school and that’s lovely. Buster isn’t that pleased about it, but on a Friday I pick him up and have a couple of hours just us before we get Mabel. I hadn’t realised until now how much the kids love having one parent to themselves.

steph douglas + fam

Do you still end up working the other days of the week, mornings and evenings?
Inevitably I work most evenings and I’ll do something over the weekend, but I think for this first year or so that’s just the way it has to be. I’m taking on help with admin and I have someone packing boxes now, so that will help massively.

Once you can see the business is growing you can make those decisions, but those first 12 months are tough because we didn’t want to start outsourcing anything until we knew we were making sales.

What does an average day look like for you and your family?
Inevitably it starts with the kids climbing in to my bed at a time that is not acceptable. Doug will often have already left for work if he’s not on school drop-off, and if it’s a work day I try to dress the kids before they really know what is going on, quick episode of whatever is their current favourite while I get ready and find book bags, water bottles etc and get them dropped off.

Work out the finances. You will likely be working harder than you’ve ever worked in your life, and for very little return for the first couple of years. You need to know you’re ok with that

I get exercise out the way first – I don’t know why but I always feel like that makes me sound like a wanker, like someone that would have a treadmill in her office because she’s so busy but must maintain her figure! But I had a prolapsed disc last year so I have to fit it in for my physical well-being as well as my mental state.

Then I get home and crack on – ordering stock, responding to enquiries, and mostly working out ways to reach more people with the business.

Are you managing to successfully balance friends/family/career/me-time?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Every couple of weeks it all starts to get a bit much and I have to stop making plans for meeting up with anyone until I feel on top of work stuff. Weekends are about family first and my favourite thing is not having any plans, just hanging out the four of us and maybe hitting the pub for a 5pm tea.

Having said that, last Saturday I met with two girlfriends to get our nails done and then sit in a bar for SIX hours just catching up over lunch and drinks. It was glorious. I think women with babies are probably the worst at me-time (even though they probably need it the most).

My kids aren’t babies anymore so we’ve had a few years to work out that Doug and I both need time on our own, as well as time together and time with the kids.

For other parents thinking about setting up an online business, what are your five top tips?
– Work out the finances. You will likely be working harder than you’ve ever worked in your life, and for very little return for the first couple of years. You need to know you’re ok with that.
– Have a handful of people who are your support network – for good and bad moments – who believe in what you’re doing and totally ‘get’ it.
– Keep costs down – you don’t need fancy stationery or a fully bespoke website from the beginning. If you can run the business from home to start, even better.
– Get on social media and work out what you like and where you connect with people. There are courses and things you can read, but nothing teaches you like doing it. Social media makes starting an online business without a huge budget possible.
– You might not see friends for a bit, you might need to take on a cleaner and your partner might need to pick up some slack. You won’t be able to do everything you did before at home and socially and run a business.

Photo credit (main image): Emily Gray Photography