Kate Bell, Founder & CEO of Zip Us In
Running a business is a little like riding on the most insane roller coaster whilst wearing a blindfold.
Taking that leap of faith to get on board is daunting, but equally matched with the excitement for the experience ahead. There will be fantastic highs, for which you will be moving so fast, you might not even get a chance to lift the blindfold and enjoy the view.
No matter how prepared you believe you are for whatever big drop might be on the tracks ahead, they still hit you unexpectedlyand make your tummy flip. It is during these unexpected, inevitable dips that you may realise that, although you have worked hard to prepare your business for any eventuality, did you prepare yourself?
You will find a mass of information out there about the tools you need to equip yourself to be a successful business owner. Things such as, leadership skills, self-motivation, task prioritisation and financial understanding are things often associated with successful business owners.
However, there is one skill set that should be noted as one of the most important and often overlooked, and those are the tools to manage your own mental health. They are without a doubt vital to running any business. Knowing your limits, understanding your own signals, and having the ability to cope and respond with appropriate actions when the rollercoaster drops, will be key to the future of your business.
My story to becoming the founder of a global brand is not a unique one. Those who dive in to create a start-up often have a story of personal struggle, challenging work and tough lessons that lead to a higher level of resilience. Success, to me, has been about braving difficult choices, embracing the challenges, and becoming a better version of myself along the way.
For business owners’ success may be about a number or a lifestyle, for me, it is the experiences’ that have given me strength of mind and an interesting story to tell, that help me to almost believe I deserve the title of ‘Successful.’
I hope my story helps to remind you that mistakes are not only normal, but in fact an important and valuable part of the learning process; I have certainly made my fair share. My story will help to inspire you to make tough choices too, but more than anything else, I hope it stands as a reminder to take care of yourself. You only have one shot at life so look after your mental health and your well-being and enjoy every second: the good, the bad and the insane.
In 2002 I was celebrating my first wedding anniversary with my childhood sweetheart, while enjoying every second with my new-born daughter. Little did I know that I was about to hit a huge speedbump that would change the direction of my life plan. My husband decided that I was not the one for him. I was left with a baby and my modest dreams of a loving home, and 2.4 children shattered into pieces.
I faced dark days, trying to work out how to create a new dream and regain control of my own life path. My sole focus was to be the best parent I could in the knowledge that I was to be responsible for building a future for my daughter that would give her happiness, security and inspire her to live an amazing life.
Not long into my life as a single parent, I was due to return to my job in advertising sales for our city newspaper. Knowing that childcare was going to be an issue and I had a mortgage to cover single handily, I had to find an innovative approach to my income.
The newspaper was advertising for the position of editor for the property title. I really enjoyed writing but with no qualifications and zero experience, I knew I would not stand a chance of securing the role if I applied through the usual channels; it was time to think outside of the box.
I knocked on the editor’s office door, very aware that I was really going to have to sell myself and prepared to be laughed right back out again. I suggested to him that I was the best person for the job as I had experience with the newspaper and more than anything else, I was an adaptive person and incredibly keen.
The role was currently empty and so I offered to write, without payment on a trial basis until they found someone to fill the position. I pushed him to agree that if he liked my work and published any of my articles, I had to be considered for the role. I was given the job within a week!
Gaining this position was one of the first lessons that changed me as a person. My motivation for action was born from necessity, driven by a need to take care of my child. Without that motivation, I would have been too far out of my comfort zone to take such a bold step. My fear of judgement would have been overpowering.
When my husband requested a divorce, one of the things I struggled the most with, was that people would think badly of me for being a single parent at an early age. I felt out of control. It took time for me to realise that I was not the sum of my marital status, or my job title and that the thing I did have complete control of, was who I am as a person. My personal strength increased and my ability to be affected by other people’s judgement decreased. Indirectly, the negative experience of divorce, gave me the positive tools I needed to advance my career.
The job I had managed to secure, by a small miracle (and a willingness to take a chance) seemed ideal. I was able to write whilst my baby slept, not missing a moment with her. I loved the creative element and revelled in the freedom of planning my ownworking hours.
Unfortunately, it was short lived. After less than a year, the editor requested that I be office based, which of course changed the job for me and would have involved childcare costs. This was just not a possibility at the time and having explained my position, I was made redundant.
Everything Happens for a Reason
When the letter of redundancy arrived, my world shattered for the second time. My life had stabilised, and this was quite a shock, and another rapid change of direction that had been not through my own choice.
At the time, my parents were on a trip around the world. As a close family, my first action was to call my mum. In floods of tears and at a loss to know what to do next, my mum’s response was typical of her calming character, “you said you wanted to work for yourself one day. This is fate.”
She was right. I had often talked about setting up my own business but with a reliable income, leaving to work for myself seemed like a risky move that was far too frightening to take. That choice had now been made for me. By the end of that day, I had registered my first company, Fate Promotions and gained my first customer.
I started by offering copy writing services to contacts I had made during my time at the newspaper. This was a wonderful place to start, and it was not long before I was ready to try and add to my skill set.
The estate agents I had been writing for, had experienced difficulties with creating the artwork for their adverts and asked if I could help. Initially, I created a property advert just to help and was surprised at my natural level of creativity. I really enjoyed the level of detail involved and how to communicate the brand message to their potential customers. That night I spent hours online learning about graphic design. I began playing with different software and flicking through newspapers and magazines critiquing the ad creatives. My skills improved, and Iquickly began to offer a whole spectrum of marketing opportunities across multiple industries.
With just three of us in the team, Fate Promotions turned over more than £7m during its time trading and built strong relationships with the companies we represented. I had the ability to create my own wealth while constantly learning and still getting time with my daughter. There were challenging times, but I loved running my own company and I knew this was exactly what I was meant to do.
Lucky Number Seven
In 2007, I married for the second time and life seemed almost complete. The business was successful, and my husband and I had begun talking about having a child together. We agreed that as Lauren was already five and we did not want the age gap to be too large, we would plan to have a baby quickly.
Mother Nature had different ideas. Although we had no problem conceiving; my body was not so happy about carrying a pregnancy. Our first pregnancy was lost at only six weeks and although we were both disappointed, we knew it was more common than most would know, and so we tried again.
The next time we fell pregnant, we were a little nervous, but also more excited. The previous loss had made us both realise that this baby was very much wanted and was more of a blessing than we had previously realised. Seeing the heartbeat at our first scan was amazing, but sadly things went wrong soon after.
The heartbreak of miscarriage was going to be reoccurring and we experienced five over a period of four years. It was only through my incessant research that I came across the condition known as ‘elevated natural killer cells.’ We were able to understand that the babies we had lost, had been chromosomally normal, and therefore there must have been a reason my body was unable to continue the pregnancy.
I began treatment, and just a year later, my seventh pregnancy resulted in the arrival of an incredibly special baby girl.
During this journey, I had focused on getting my body as healthy as possible. This made me feel like I was doing all that I could to achieve the goal. I began running, took spin classes, went swimming, and paid special attention to my diet. This focus continued throughout my pregnancy, and I enjoyed outdoor exercise right up until birth.
It was on a beach walking in Weymouth that I had the lightbulb moment for my second business.
Getting Things Zipped Up
I had brought an expensive technical jacket as I had been spending more time outdoors. At eight months pregnant, I could not zip it up anymore and was not prepared to waste money on a maternity coat that would be used for such a brief time.
Stood on the windy beach, I commented to my husband that you must be able to buy an extender for a jacket but when google turned up no results, I was surprised.
I started drawing up a design that I thought would provide a simple solution to my problem. The idea ran around in my head for a while and before I knew it, our daughter had arrived, and life became even more full.
Despite the intense level of exhaustion that comes with a new baby, I had never felt more invincible. Specialists had concluded that my reason for recurrent miscarriage was unknown and untreatable; through sheer determination I knew differently. I had found a solution to the most heart-breaking problem I had ever faced and eventually achieved the second most important thing in my life. My energy was high and the idea I had months before,about a jacket expander panel, kept popping back into my mind.
During my daughters first few months, she spent a great deal of time in a carrier. I loved having her close to me and it made life so much easier to get work done or go out for a walk.
I have a vivid memory of walking to the Post Office when she was still quite tiny. It was about a ten-minute job to get ready to leave the house. I had popped my coat on, then placed the carrier on, put my daughter in her coat and into the carrier. When we arrived at the Post Office there was a short queue. I realised very quickly that she was at risk of overheating, being indoors without removing a layer was potentially dangerous as she was still unable to regulate her own body temperature.
And so, the undressing process began. I took her out of the carrier and removed her coat. This work up alone had raised my own temperature and so I asked the lady in front of me if she wouldmind holding my baby while I tried to remove the carrier and my coat.
After posting the letter, the whole thing took place in reverse. As I walked back home, I thought about how a jacket expander would have been equally as useful in that situation as it would have been to expand my jacket during my pregnancy. Surely a simple product that seemed to make so much sense to me, would also be useful to other mums-to-be and new parents?
I brought fabric and took my idea to the person I knew who was most capable of putting this item together, my mum. My dad took my design and cut a pattern out of the newspapers he had just finished reading. My mum cut the fabric and in a matter of hours, I had the first ever jacket expander panel zipped into my favourite jacket.
I was really pleased with the result and could not believe how such a simple item could make such an enormous difference to life with a small baby. Trips to the shops or the Post Office, now meant that I could unzip and remove my jacket, without having to disturb my sleeping baby. She no longer needed multiple layers as my own body temperature and my coat kept her warm, and so by removing my coat with her still in the carrier, we were both able to stay at the perfect temperature. I had my baby nice and close and was able to enjoy the benefits of babywearing, without a bulky coat between us.
In October 2013, I took the train to Brighton. Having fallen in love with babywearing, I did not want to have to take a pushchair but knew we would both need to be comfortable for the day. With my baby zipped snug inside my jacket and my backpack on, I boarded the train.
We had a wonderful day and my jacket expander made things so much more convenient. What I had not expected was the level of interest I would receive. I had parents stop me to ask where I hadbrought my jacket panel. I realised quickly that I had been right, other parents could benefit from this product too.
With my background in business management, I got to work in planning how I could get this product to market. I had already protected my design (with a patent), started work on a brand and began to build a simple website.
When Zip Us In launched, I had a wonderful lady putting the orders together on her sewing machine in her garage studio. Parents at once began to share photos on social media, commenting on my ‘genius idea.’ The brand growth was fast and completely organic. I was thoroughly enjoying my little side-line, whilst working full time for Fate Promotions and raising my two daughters.
The Turning Point
Just six months after creating Zip Us In, while selling around tenunits a week, a friend tagged me in a post on Facebook from the high street pharmacy Boots. They were looking for ‘Mumprenurs;’ Mums who had created a product to solve a problem they faced during their own parenting journey.
After being tagged in the post, Boots got in touch, and I was offered a place to pitch to their buying team at their head office in Nottingham. This felt huge!
I had not considered what the future might look like for Zip Us In and to have the opportunity to meet with such a big High Streetretailer was incredibly exciting. I was terrified on the day and so being introduced to other newly established product designers helped to ease my nerves.
When my turn came to pitch to the team, my nerves dissipated, and my focus kicked in. I told the team all about that day on the beach in Weymouth and my lightbulb moment. I talked in detail about why babywearing had been so important to me, and how wonderful it felt to be helping other parents in the same situation.
After rambling for about fifteen minutes, I was asked to wait outside. After a couple of (long) minutes, I was invited back in again. I had expected that I would be told, it was a nice little idea,and, in a few years, I would be able to go back to talk to them about Boots stocking my product; of course, that would have been wonderful. Instead, they asked just one question “how quickly can you get them on our shelves?” My jaw must have hit the table and I was not too sure what to say. Even though it was already September, I confidently announced that we could supply stock in time for Christmas sales.
“Always say yes and work out the details later” was a theme in my life! How naïve I had been.
While my husband drove us from Nottingham back to the New Forest, I made a stream of phone calls. My tailor certainly was not going to be able to put together one thousand products in just two weeks, so I needed to look for a commercial manufacturer.
Not only did I need to work out how to manufacture the kind of quantity Boots would require, but I also had to consider packaging, insurance, an even higher level of product testing, storage, and distribution. I made lists and worked through one thing at a time.
Anyone who has ever taken a product concept to market will not be surprised to hear that it was not until Christmas the following year that my product hit the shelves of 98 Boots stores across the UK.
Walking into a Boots store and spotting the product that I had created, sat on the shelf, was such a wonderful feeling. The process had been far more intense than I could have imagined, butfor that one moment alone, it had been so worth it.
Sales were steady but the margins were low, so I did not become the overnight millionaire I had almost dreamed I might be. That said, being stocked in a major High Street retailer gave the brand and the product great credibility. Consumer confidence increased, and in turn, more eyes began to find our social media pages and our web shop.
The years that followed were a contrast of immense pride and excitement, coupled with incredible levels of stress constantly trying to fund larger stock purchases. All the revenue was going back into the business for inventory and marketing and so I was grateful that I had a regular income from Fate Promotions. That said, trying to run both businesses simultaneously almost broke me on more than one occasion.
The most memorable of which was Christmas 2018. We had launched our latest product, the patented Universal Jacket Expander Panel. A clever innovation that enabled a customer to connect the expander panel to any zip type.
The method of connection had been in development from day one of the company starting. I was aware that picking the right product to match the zipper on your jacket could be difficult and so bringing customers a product that could fit ANY zip would be the ultimate solution.
I spent years ordering various fasteners from all over world to try and find the right mix of elements. I had invested heavily in twodesigns that had failed and we lost money, but I kept going. During 2017 in to 2018, I finally had the perfect design. We were ready to create another tool with everything crossed that we had learnt enough from the mistakes that this would be the one that was perfect.
When the sample product arrived from the manufacturer I was overwhelmed. The product worked exactly how I had anticipated, and we were ready to roll it out. We opened the listing on our website for pre-order with delivery expected in eight weeks, in time for pre-Christmas delivery.
To my absolute amazement, every one of the five hundred we made, had sold before the shipment was even due to land. Then we hit a huge problem. The factory had issues with our tool and had spent so much time trying to resolve it, that they had run out of time before the Christmas holiday closure, to add clips to two hundred of the remaining products. We had no choice but to receive them without the fasteners and try and find a solution to attaching them here.
They arrived at our warehouse on December 21st. Two hundredproducts, each missing twenty clips, meant that I had to stitch four thousand clips in to place and despatch the orders within 48 hours to ensure they reached our customers before Christmas, as promised.
This job was going to require help. By 3pm I was sat at my kitchen table with my eldest daughter, three willing neighbours and an impressive production line in place. We sewed, chatted, and ate vast amounts of chocolate and mince pies, with short nap breaks on rotation.
By a small miracle, we managed to get all four thousand clips attached, packaged up and every order sent in time for delivery on Christmas Eve. It was cutting it fine to say the least, but with huge thanks to amazing family and friends, the task got completed.
This certainly was not the only time that I sacrificed sleep, needed help from my support team or faced what seemed like impossible problems, only to manage to come through the other side, almost unscathed.
It is not difficult to understand why the estimated failure rate of start-ups is 90%. According to research, small business owners list the following reasons for failure: running out of money, entering the wrong market, inadequate research, bad partnerships, ineffective marketing, and not being an industry expert. The most important thing missing from that list, is resilience.
Every business can work to overcome the challenges noted above if the founding team is willing to constantly learn and adapt. Without resilience, it would have been easy to scream to get off the rollercoaster ride on more occasions that I can count.
Each one of the traumatic experiences I had faced in my early years had given me a valuable opportunity to build my own personal level of resilience. Something that without, I would certainly not have been capable of holding on tight and enduring the ride.
Embracing The Trauma
When I look back over the difficulties I have faced, both in business and throughout life, I can honestly say I am equally as grateful for the tough experiences, as I am for the good times. It isa strange thing to say, I know, but each one of the challenges that I have faced has given me a valuable opportunity to gain experience, grow and become a better version of myself.
Without having to pick myself up of the floor and come back fighting, how would I have ever built a level of resilience needed to achieve my goals? Realising that trauma can be embraced, has been one of the most valuable lessons I have experienced. We always have the choice of whether we let traumatic experiences consume us, or whether we take a positive from that experience, adapt and move forward.
How interesting would my story be for you if everything had gone to plan with no mistakes, no lessons, and no mountains to climb? My life so far has been an incredible adventure and I have no doubt there will be more obstacles to overcome. The one thing I do know, is that I will always strive to live an authentic and full life. I will never be afraid of taking risks if there is opportunity for greater happiness. I now feel more prepared and have the tools to manage whatever comes next.
Kate Bell – Biography
I am a second time entrepreneur, wife, and proud mother to two daughters. After watching my parents build a successful print business, I knew I wanted to run my own company one day. I started my first business in 2004 after being made redundant and as a single parent, my childcare options were limited. I called my parents, who were then retired and travelling the world, devastated that I had lost my job. My Mum reminded me that being employed had never been part of my long-term goal and that this presented a wonderful opportunity to begin working for myself. “It’s fate,” she said, and so that is the name I gave my first limited company.
My first business, Fate Promotions, a marketing agency, has grown from strength to strength and in 2014 I launched my second business, Zip Us In. Having found a gap in the market, I designed and manufactured a jacket expander panel for use in pregnancy and when babywearing. The product range is sold around the world and my knowledge and experience in marketing has been a huge part of the rapid brand growth.
I have often been heard saying “you don’t know, what you don’t know, until you know it”. Just when you think you have learnt as much as you can about your industry or your business, you are given an insight that changes everything. Each new lesson advances you further and you can often wonder how you managed before you learnt that single valuable thing.
I am always looking for knowledge, always wanting to know more, to learn, adapt and grow, standing still is never an option. I hope there is still much more for me to learn and the more I learn, the more I must share.