“Being a mum has made me a better businesswoman”

Pink Boutique sprang from a mother-daughter relationship. Now a new experience of motherhood is leading to even greater success for this Sunday Times Fast Track 100 business…

It can be hard for mother and daughter Julie Blackie and Alice Hall not to talk shopover a family Sunday lunch. Ever since the pair co-founded Pink Boutique in 2012, their business has dominated conversations. They have a lot of shop to talk. Their website Pink Boutique – which sells fun and glamorous party clothing – recorded sales of £6m in 2016 and is on target to reach £25m this year. Such success has led to the inclusion of 28-year-old Alice in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Europe List and her Pink Boutique in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100. Not bad for a business that began with six dresses. Initial investment: £90.

The story of Pink Boutique will inspire anyone thinking of starting their own business. In 2010 Alice, from Newcastle upon Tyne, was struggling to pay the bills. She worked as a teaching assistant by day, in a bar by night and sold cosmetics at weekends. During this punishing schedule, she made an observation that would soon transform her life. Alice noticed that online retailers were failing to cater for women who loved the “glam party look”. “I was a huge fan of that look myself,” she says. “You know – make-up, lashes, heels and sequin dresses. But I was buying my clothes from the US because UK retailers were just not glam enough.”

Alice began by selling some clothes she’d found on eBay. “I found an online wholesaler and bought a cool dress in six sizes,” she says. “Then I messaged a girl I knew from the bar – she looked amazing – and asked her to model it for me. She agreed. I took a few pictures and put the dresses on eBay. They all sold very quickly.”

Uplifted, Alice spoke to her mum, who’d initially lent her 50% of the money to buy the dresses. Julie suggested reinvesting the profits to buy more stock. So that’s what they did, over and over again until Alice was posting out hundreds of items of clothing each week. Every lunchbreak she’d visit her local post office, overloaded with packages, queue and then race back to work.

They soon worked out that on current sales patterns, Alice could give up all her jobs and afford to pay her own wages, plus bills. And so Pink Boutique was born. Alice focused on buying, selling, marketing and creative, and Julie took care of finances, planning and admin. By the end of year one, turnover had hit £500,000.

Pink Boutique has continued to grow apace ever since, driven by Alice’s energy and market knowledge, and underpinned by Julie’s robust financial and business planning. This natural division of business roles has been critical to their success. Both founders have very different strengths, which creates a powerful unit. “We’re like yin and yang,” says Alice. “I’m the eternal optimist and mum’s more risk averse. I know she’s really good with the purse strings and she knows I’m good with the creative, so we have great mutual respect. The beauty of a family business is that you all muck in when you need to – you’re all 100% invested and committed. However, the downside is that you tend not to filter what you say to each other.”

Despite the inevitable friction, Julie’s focus on the nuts and bolts of the business allows Alice to zoom in on customers, and vice versa. And it’s this intense customer focus – delivering exactly what glam-clothes fans want, while hitting the right chatty tone – that’s made Pink Boutique, with its 1.5m Facebook followers, so successful. “We’ve always stayed close to our niche,” says Alice. “We’re here for the glam girl; no one else. That’s why we’re growing so fast. We’re a ‘Marmite’ brand but those who love us absolutely love us, and when you are as niche as we are you can be extremely focused with your creative. We try to make sure that every customer touchpoint has the right feel and the right tone of voice. Maybe that’s where High Street brands fall short: they don’t have a seamless approach and they sometimes try to be all things to all people.”

Ensuring Pink Boutique – which now employs 70 – stays in tune with its young and rapidly evolving customer base, while also growing rapidly as a business, has taken a huge amount of work from Alice and Julie. But it hasn’t stopped Alice from starting a family of her own. And the arrival of her daughter last year has led to changes that Alice sees as positive; from both a personal and business perspective.

“I worked from 7am to 11pm every day for around four years,” she says. “So when it came to starting a family we thought there was never going to be a ‘right’ time and that we should just get on with it. When the baby came, I struggled to get my head around the change at first but I’ve since settled into it and, for me, it’s been the most amazing experience. I finally feel I’ve got a good work-life balance, but I needed motherhood to force me into it. My daughter has also been good for my relationship with my mum. Now, when we have family time and the baby is with us, we focus on her rather than on the business or on our differences. Mum looks after the baby on Tuesdays, which is lovely and that break gives me some space.

It’s not just her work-life balance that’s improved since Alice became a mum. She believes it’s good for business, too. “I work part time now and that’s great because my team feel more empowered. They have decent autonomy when I’m not there and they focus on delivering when I’m away from the office. Then, when I do come in, we innovate and push things forward together. The reality is that you can come up with loads of great ideas, but you actually need time to deliver them. It’s no good creating a perpetual to-do list; something which I’ve been guilty of in the past. Motherhood has taught me to become much more effective and single minded at work. Now instead of coming up with a stream of plans, I try to achieve two or three big things each year.”

Pink Boutique sprung from a mother-daughter relationship and now the fruits of a new mother-daughter relationship are driving it forward into new, exciting and uncharted territory. Despite the old-fashioned business assumption – perpetuated by men – that motherhood is detrimental to commercial success, Alice and Julie’s experience proves that this idea is nonsense. Being a mum not only gives businesswomen greater insight and better perspective, it also – with the right support in place – encourages more effective work patterns. “If you believe there’s no barrier, you’ll achieve,” says Alice. The Pink Boutique story clearly shows how far you can go if you simply ignore all those perceived hurdles and just start running.