Money Matters

Set up a £1m mail-order business from £0

The dreary days of the pandemic made Natalie realise there was a need to spread happiness and keep in touch with our work colleagues who we were...

Natalie Bamford

Never miss an episode

Subscribe to the Sound Advice podcast

Subscribe by email and get the Sound Advice podcast delivered to your inbox every two weeks with a ton of related articles, templates and problem solving guides for small businesses so you can put our Sound Advice podcast into practice.


The dreary days of the pandemic prompted Natalie Bamford to devise a business idea that would spread happiness and help people keep in touch with colleagues and loved ones.

But she didn’t anticipate that Colleague Box would become a £1m mail-order business.

Natalie is a kind-hearted and positive spirit who began this journey with a simple idea to bring a smile to those around her.

During the bleak times of lockdown, her mission was to add a little bit of joy to her colleagues by sending them gifts in the post to brighten their day.

Let’s dive right in and see how this brilliant businesswoman bootstrap a successful small business to be so successful.

One small act of kindness can become a booming business idea

Find the perfect price point

You might not need to spend on marketing

You don’t need e-commerce experience

You can’t do it all – putting your trust in others isn’t easy, but it is essential

Overcome Christmas chaos with preparation

This is what happens if you grow too fast to forecast

There is nothing wrong about asking for payments upfront

Take the leap to get into a warehouse

When should you make your small side project your full-time job

Adapting and innovating are key to keeping your business relevant

Turning over a million doesn’t make you a millionaire – so what do you pay yourself?

Prioritise the welfare of your staff

How to maintain a healthy work life balance when running your own business

Paving the way for women in business

Business bloopers – learn and laugh from them

Take time to celebrate your own milestones

Count your blessings and always stay positive

Bex Burn-Callander:

Today on Sound Advice, get year one in business right, we meet a woman who created a mail order business from her home with zero budget, and hit £1m in turnover in just five months.

That’s right, Natalie Bamford and her husband created Colleague Box while on furlough and thought they’d sell 7,000 boxes in their first year.

Instead, they sold 100,000.

Before we get stuck into how she did it, a little reminder that this series was created by the software powerhouse that is Sage. Sage helps small business owners with big dreams, just like Natalie.

Now, back to the startup tale.

So, Natalie, wow. What a phenomenal first year in business you’ve had.

Thank you for taking time out to come and talk to us about it, because I imagine you are still frantic. How are you? Where are you? What’s been going on?

Natalie Bamford:

Frantic is a good word. It’s just been crazy.

And honestly, if I think about it too much, what’s happened in this last year, it can actually be quite overwhelming.

I literally have to take every day as it comes.

Although we started in our home, in a little spare room, we are now in our warehouse, which we call the Smile Factory. It is a working warehouse so apologies for any background noise.

Bex Burn-Callander:

No, it’s amazing. We’re right in the thick of it and I can see behind you all those colours. You’ve got pinks, greens, blues and oranges. It looks really dynamic and fun there. So I’m getting the vibes.

Do you want to just explain to our listeners, what is a Colleague Box?

Natalie Bamford:

So a Colleague Box, it’s a gift box that you can send one of, or one to your entire team or your entire company.

And it’s a gift box that is delivered directly to their door or office or workplace and the contents can vary.

It’s mainly food, drink, alcohol, nice things that put smiles on people’s faces, but ultimately it can be anything basically.

And the idea, the whole ethos behind what we do, is we deliver happiness. So it’s just about putting smiles on people’s faces.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And what made you set up this business?

Because I mean, I’m a complete outsider, but I would presume that mail-order gifts have been around forever. People send hampers, people can send gifts. There’s loads of companies doing that already.

What are you doing that’s so radically different and what makes it so perfect for your teammates?

Natalie Bamford:

The first time we sent out a gift box, it was actually to our own colleagues, and it wasn’t necessarily meant to be a business. It was just something nice to do for our colleagues at the start of the pandemic.

And the brief was basically to, and I keep harping back to this, Bex, I do apologise, but it’s to put smiles on people’s faces. And you’re never going to please everyone.

So the contents we chose had sweets in there, some chocolate, and a little tiny bit of alcohol for those that wanted it.

And so no one’s expecting this, and it had a message inside from our CEO that just said, “Look, I know this is a really difficult time that we’re going through. We’ll all be together soon.”

Obviously, we thought it was going to be sooner than it is but, “We’re going to be together soon. Thank you for being on furlough. Thank you for working from home.”

And basically it was low cost, but high quality.

So yeah, the hampers are out there and they’re gorgeous and brilliant and extravagant. But, for someone wanting to send to their entire workforce, their entire team, there wasn’t actually anything that fit the bill.

There wasn’t anything that was just perfect.

So therefore we had to create it.

Bex Burn-Callander:

So that’s the really smart thing, that you actually found the right price point.

Because if you’re sending something to your mate at work, it’s different from your best friend who you might send a £150 hamper to.

You want something for around £20 and you want it to be really easy for them to access, so it has to go through their letter box, you don’t want to send them to the post office.

So you’ve combined all of these little unique points into something that’s really, really powerful.

Natalie Bamford:

Yeah, we think so.

And then obviously the initial feedback was really great and that just helped us to spiral and build on what, essentially, became a new business for us.

And then, from that, we’ve listened to the feedback.

So we do now have bigger gifts. We do have more expensive gifts because people were saying, “Well, I love these £13.99- £20 mark, but I actually want to spend a little bit more because it’s a special occasion or someone’s moving house or etcetera.” So we’ve gone, okay, no problem.

The lovely thing about being a small business is that we can pivot and move quite quickly, and it’s good to go and ready to buy within 24 hours, if not sooner. Because we like to listen. We are a new business, and we are for people.

And if we don’t listen to what is needed and what’s wanted, we are not going to go very far.

Bex Burn-Callander:

There’s great advice.

And how did you go then from sending some boxes, putting together some boxes for your old employer, to then actually creating a business that is sending stuff for individuals and other companies? Because that’s quite a big jump.

Natalie Bamford:

It was. And, as I say, when we sent out those first 76 boxes to our colleagues, we didn’t really anticipate then moving into our warehouse and having sent over 100,000 boxes.

So it’s a bit crazy really.

But I suppose the initial thing was that we sent them to a company who heard about what we did. We’d worked closely with them as a business. They heard about what we did and said, “Can we have some for our team who are on furlough?” No problem. And they did a press release for us.

So, they did a press release that obviously got us out there a little bit more, more people heard about us, they said, “I love this idea. Can we order some?” And it literally just snowballed from there. And I think we knew we were on to something when we didn’t actually have to do any outward marketing.

People were coming to us and saying, “I love these gift boxes. Can we get involved somehow in this?”

So we just said, “Yeah, absolutely. We’ll create things for you.”

So we started with one box only on our website. We only offered one thing and it was called the Colleague Box. And I think we have over 60 in the collection now.

But the majority of boxes we do are actually bespoke.

So people say, “I like this as an idea. I’d like this from that box, this from that box, and also can we put some of these things of ours in the box?” We say, “Yeah, you know what? Absolutely.” We’re happy to make things bespoke because not one size fits all, does it?

Bex Burn-Callander:

That sounds enormously complicated.

So I’m going to come back to that and the logistical realities of doing something like that. But first you said that your first external customer put a press release out about you. So were they a media company? Was that just good fortune?

They were like, “Oh hey, actually we’ll tell people that we know, or we’ll create this piece of marketing material for you.”

How on earth did that happen?

Natalie Bamford:

They were a football club. So they’ve obviously got their own marketing team.

They put a press release together for us, which went out on their website and things like that. And obviously to their fans, who potentially are business owners that want to send to their own colleagues.

And obviously we do individual orders. So there’s no minimum order. So if you just want to send one to one particular person and, I shouldn’t say this, but it doesn’t even have to be a colleague, we can cater for that.

So that’s how word got out initially.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And so did you have any grounding in e-commerce before you started this business? What were you doing at your previous employee?

Am I right? It was sort of an HR and financial tech business? Because that’s quite a far cry from mail order.

Natalie Bamford:

Yeah. It’s a technology business and I was just basically an admin assistant. I’ve got a little one, so I worked part-time and just did admin. So, it’s absolutely completely out of my comfort zone.

Both Adam and myself have never done anything like it before. It’s been the biggest learning curve we’ve ever been through, I think, personally and career wise, it’s every day we learn something new.

Bex Burn-Callander:

So what did you have to learn? Break it down for me.

Did you have to build your own website, do your own social media, work out your own online shop?

Break down the biggest barriers to making this work, that you had to just fill your brains with all this information in order to move forward.

What were the pieces?

Natalie Bamford:

So, first and foremost, we knew that the best tool for marketing at this point was going to be social media.

So I had to get my head around that to come up with a brand voice, which is basically me. Because I thought I’m not experienced enough to go, okay, this is how we need to sound, this will be the tone.

And I thought, I love these boxes and I’m very passionate about what we’re doing, what we’re trying to achieve.

I think if I can get that through via our social media, then that will be fine. And to be honest, all the way through I thought, I’ll just do it for now until we can get someone better.

It’s our press releases and award submissions and things, I’m like, I’ll just do this until we can get someone better in.

And actually the more you do it, the more you think, I’m not so bad at this after all.

Coming up with the actual contents as well, we were nowhere near a wholesale size when we first started.

And if you remember when we weren’t allowed into supermarkets, you had to queue outside. So poor Adam got the short straw and had to go and queue outside supermarkets to get supplies in. So that was a big obstacle.

I’m trying to think now, I mean it was only a year ago, but it seems like an absolute lifetime ago. I think when we took on a team of our own as well, that was a massive learning curve.

Also the sense of responsibility really kicked in at that point, because you were thinking, if this goes wrong, it’s not just myself and my husband that go, “Oh well, we gave it a try.”

You’re responsible for someone else paying their bills and things like that. I think we quickly realised that we couldn’t do it all and that we needed to get help in, such as an accountant.

Adam was trying to do all the books himself and last Christmas was just crazy. He said, we are going to end up falling behind and the last thing we want to do is get in trouble with HMRC as a new business. We need to do things properly. So it was just about spotting what are we good at? And what can we take on ourselves? What are we not so good at? What do we need help with?

Bex Burn-Callander:

And how did you go about finding that accountant?

Because it’s quite a big step to trust someone with the financials of your business. So I imagine it was quite a frightening, exciting, but frightening prospect.

Natalie Bamford:

Yeah, absolutely. Like you say, it’s that trust aspect, isn’t it?

And I think, when you’re doing everything yourself, you go, well, if it’s not done right, at least it’s only my fault. It’s that trust element.

It’s really tricky, I felt that even, not just the accountant, but even taking someone on to help pack the boxes and put the content together was a massive step.

Because we’d just done that all ourselves and it was just, oh, hold on.

But what if they don’t put everything in? What if it’s not right? Let’s get the training in place and then it can’t go wrong and if it does, it’s still on us.

So the accountant we’ve found. We’re based in Derby, it’s part of our Derby network and we were connected through LinkedIn and things like that. I saw that what they were doing, and I think they were relatively new as well at the same time as us, which is maybe a good thing, maybe a bad thing, but we’re happy with everything today.

So I think we went through a local accountant that had been used by the people that we knew and worked out the trust element that way. I guess you don’t know until you try sometimes, do you?

But that’s how we found them.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Did you have to speak to lots of accountants or was it just more about making one very strategic move, having seen that she worked with people that you knew, that she was trusted by people within your network and then just go bang?

Natalie Bamford:

Yeah. That’s what we did.

And on hindsight, we’ve done that a few times and it’s probably not the best way to do things, but I think we’ve…

Bex Burn-Callander:

You’ve been lucky.

Natalie Bamford:

I guess so. Yeah.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s part of startup life sometimes. You have to go on gut instincts and your feel about people.

But I understand that you look back and think, “Oh, I should have approached that slightly more empirically, in hindsight.”

Natalie Bamford:

Absolutely. Yeah.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You mentioned there that it was around Christmas that you hit a crunch time. I’ve seen a little something on my Googling adventures about you, that there was kind of a Christmas gate moment.

Tell me about Christmas gate?

Natalie Bamford:

So we’d taken on an order of 23,000 for one company, who were sending to their entire workforce, which was amazing. They were bespoke advent boxes.

They had 12 gifts in each that had to be put in the correct order because on the flip side of the box, it had a little riddle that related.

So, it wasn’t a case of chuck them in. Not that we ever do this! Chuck them in and off they go. They had to be placed specifically in the right places. So that was the 23,000 order.

We also had around about 14,000 other orders. So corporate orders of various sizes, some were thousands, some were tens, twenties and hundreds. It was chaotic, and it was crazy.

To say we were under prepared is an understatement.

But having said that, looking back, I guess you look back with rose-tinted glasses, but you think, gosh, it was crazy, but it was brilliant. We loved every minute.

I think at one point we had 65 people helping us. I drafted in lots of family members. It was stressful and it was crazy, and we learned a heck of a lot from that experience, probably from those two months.

And it really helped us move on as a business.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Had you sorted out your wholesale sorting or was Adam there with his trolley, raising eyebrows in Asda, as he cleared out the whole tiny gin, miniature gin bottle aisle?

Natalie Bamford:

Luckily, we did have wholesale suppliers sorted by that point, thank goodness.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And talk to me then about growth.

What do you have to consider when your business massively outstrips the growth that you had forecasted for it?

Natalie Bamford:

See, that’s the thing. I don’t know if we even forecast for it. To say we hit the ground running is an understatement.

We didn’t have time to sit and think about forecast and cash flow.

It was just, these are the orders, this is what we need to get in, this is what we need to create on this day, this many boxes, this is where we need to ship them to.

It was in the sort of January that we thought, okay, now we’ve got some breathing space. Let’s formulate a plan.

Maths has always been my Achilles heel, so I massively lean on Adam for that side of things. I’m more of the creative, the marketing, and the words, I can do that part.

The numbers I’m not so great at. That’s definitely Adam’s part. It shouldn’t be, but I suppose that’s how we work well as a team.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Yeah. It’s good to have complementary skills. And then with that growth, I mean, I suppose the cash flow element.

You get paid when the order comes in, right? So you get paid upfront, which must make things a bit easier?

Natalie Bamford:

Well, no, we don’t actually.

So we’re on a 30-day payment terms, which makes things tricky.

Because we’ve obviously already bought the stock and we’ve got the team in to create the boxes. So we’ve already got the cost of staff and overheads and things like that, because that’s just the way it’s been.

People just say, “Well, this is our payment terms.” And I guess, in our infancy, we just went, “Okay, that’s fine.”

Whereas now we’re thinking, hold on, would you actually pay for something after you’ve had it, or do you pay it on order?

So we’re starting to go, okay, the ones that we’ve already done it for, that’s fine. They’re returning customers, that’s what they expect.

But moving forward, we really need to think about, as you mentioned, cash flow and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking for payment first.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Especially because you are an established business now.

So maybe when you are brand new and you haven’t been around very long, you have a little leeway where you’re saying, “Right, I’ll deliver the product and then you pay me.”

But now you’ve got a proven model.

It makes more sense to say, “Hey, we’ve been doing this for a year. We’ve not messed anything up. You can pay upfront.”

Natalie Bamford:

Yeah, I think you’re right.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And when you decided to move into your first warehouse, I mean, where do you start?

Is there like a How did you move out of your home and make that leap?

Natalie Bamford:

We had to. So we set up in the May and then I think it was either June or July that we took the order for 21,000 Halloween boxes with actual pumpkins inside, real-life pumpkins.

Although our house was actually resembling a warehouse anyway, we thought there’s no way we can do this from home. So it was all hands to the pump.

And again, this is where I was saying, perhaps we could have had three options and weigh them all up, but we just had to move really, really fast.

So it was July, sort of August time that we set on the hunt.

Once we’d had this order confirmed, we set on the hunt for a space. We happened to find it fairly quickly. I think it was about six weeks in total from actually finding it to getting the keys and moving in.

We moved in on the 8th of September last year, ready for the first order of boxes, first and foremost. Then the pumpkins started to arrive mid-September, to pack and put out.

And it’s kind of nice because, without that portion, that catalyst, would we have made the leap or would we have remained, oh well, this is just ticking along nicely as a little side project?

Bex Burn-Callander:

No, I was going to say, was that a tipping point as well to leave your previous jobs?

Or had you already done that?

Natalie Bamford:

No. So I started Colleague Box full time in the August and Adam started in the October.

So we had a couple of months where obviously we were doing the two roles, which was tricky. Because you want to give your best to both. One’s stable and secure and good, and the other one is new but exciting. Where could it go?

So it was making that, again, that leap almost of going, look, let’s give it all and see what happens. And then, if it doesn’t work out, least we can say we tried and gave it our best shot.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Because you’re sort of all in when you get a warehouse, because before that you are such a lean business and then suddenly a warehouse is a massive overhead.

So how did you adjust to that? Because did you have to raise your prices as well?

Because suddenly that’s a big bill to pay.

Natalie Bamford:

No, we didn’t want to do that because we are all about affordability and you could go anywhere and get a really expensive gift.

That’s kind of what we thought sets us apart, that and the personalisation.

So we didn’t want to start raising prices because it’s not the consumer’s fault that we’ve moved into a warehouse. So why should they be punished, really?

And it just meant that we had to up a gear in terms of, I think, like you said, that we take it seriously now. We’ve got the space, let’s get a team. It’s not just me and Adam anymore. It’s not just us working from home.

Let’s make the most of this because we didn’t know how long it was going to last.

It was very much a Covid business, that boxes were being used for a variety of reasons, virtual events and online things mainly, because we were still in lockdown.

So we were just thinking, we need to just make the most of this while we can.

And as we come out of lockdown, how do we stay in the forefront of people’s minds? Because people are still wanting to buy gifts and send positivity and joy through the post to each other, whether they’re working from home or back in the office.

But yeah, that did turn it up a notch in terms of the seriousness of, okay, let’s go for this now.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And I’m going to be a real meanie, but I want to ask you about this whole Covid effect because when we were all…

Well, I work from home anyway, but when whole companies are working from home, the idea of a Colleague Box makes absolute sense.

But if, in a year’s time say, and there’s lots of big ifs in this question, but if everyone is back in the office in a year, do you think that Colleague Box would maintain the kind of growth that you’ve seen thus far?

Natalie Bamford:

Yeah, I think so.

And we are working on different things in the background, more experiences and things like that, and even subscriptions.

So we’ve just launched an office subscription box whereby you can get your box of snacks delivered for the workplace.

So even though things are changing, we can adapt quite quickly and innovate and change with them. There’s always going to be a need for corporate gifting.

There has been, there was before the pandemic, and I think that will continue through.

So it’s just about staying fresh, new, innovative, and in the forefront of people’s minds.

We’ve got a lot of returning customers, which is brilliant, that have gone back to normal. Let’s say gone back to the office, but they’re still wanting to use the gift boxes to celebrate company milestones or colleague’s birthdays.

There’s still reasons and it’s a lovely, I don’t like the word staff, but a staff perk or reward.

So moving away from Covid and the pandemic, there’s still very much a need for them.

And I think, as long as we can keep our boxes fun, exciting, memorable, something that people actually want to receive, I hope, and this may be me just being overly positive, that there’ll still be a need for colleague boxes way into the future when we’ve said goodbye to Covid.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Now, you’ve convinced me. I’m thoroughly on board.

I love the idea of the subscription where it’s not just a one-off gift or actually it’s the gift that keeps giving. I can imagine that being a real hit. It’s great that you are able to be so adaptable.

And I think that means that yeah, however hybrid working, whatever’s coming, however all these changes manifest, you’ll be able to adapt the business to suit it.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Some people might see that your business turns over £1m and think that that makes you and your husband millionaires.

And it’s always useful to actually point out that is so far from the case, because it’s actually quite tricky to extract any sort of personal benefit from a company.

So I know you said you’re not that au fait with figures so just say skip if this isn’t the question for you, but how do you do it? Do you have a salary and then a dividend?

How do you make any money from this thriving business that you’ve created?

Natalie Bamford:

Yes. It’s a funny point because I had a friend text me out the blue when I’d been in the paper and the headline was, “Mum makes £1million.” And she texted me and said, “Are you a millionaire?” Just came right out with it, no beating around the bush.

Sadly had to say, absolutely not. That’s not the case at all.

Makes for a great headline though. So yeah, it’s a salary and then dividends, but there have been times where we’ve gone, it’s not right for the business to have the dividends at this time and that’s fine.

We are in it for the long haul and that’s just the way it goes sometimes, isn’t it?

I’ve listened to a couple of podcasts with the Moonpig founder, and Holly Tucker, Not On The High Street. And I think they went through similar things.

And you think if we, I’m not saying we’re going to be the next Not On The High Street or the next Moonpig, but you think it’s nice to know that a company that is so successful and has been around for so long, went through similar things as we are.

It’s kind of comforting in a way that you go, well, we’re not the only ones and it’s not because we’re doing something massively wrong. It’s just cash flow and things like that.

So I think it’s normal. That’s what I’m telling myself anyway.

Bex Burn-Callander:

So you basically have to look at the cash position of the business and think how much should I really be paying myself this month?

As long as I can make all my staff salaries. You are always going to be the ones that pull the short straw, I suppose?

Natalie Bamford:

100%. Yeah, exactly. Because they are our priority.

We need to make sure we can pay our own bills, keep a roof over our children’s heads but yeah, you’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head that we always make sure that our team are sorted first and foremost.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I’d like to talk about your kids.

You say you’ve got a toddler and a teenager, which is like, oh my goodness. Probably the most stressful combination I can imagine. So how…

Natalie Bamford:

Did I mention that we have a puppy?

Bex Burn-Callander:

Oh my goodness. You are a sucker for punishment.

How do you juggle it all with a fast-growing business, two kids and a puppy? What gives and what kind of support do you have in place to help you manage everything?

Natalie Bamford:

So the lovely, lovely thing about being self-employed, or being the owner of the business, is that I can kind of choose my hours without putting pressure on anybody else.

I don’t want anyone picking up where I’ve left off. I make sure I do a really good job.

So at the moment, because my youngest is, well, she’s just turned four. So I don’t know if she’s technically still a toddler, it’s just sounds good, teen and toddler.

So I still have two days when I’m not in the office. I used to say when I’m not working, but that’s not technically true because I’ll always answer emails and do social media and things like that.

So I have it where I’m not in the office, which is our time. I’m very conscious that coming up to school is around the corner.

So that time will be over. And I know how precious, obviously having the older one, I know how precious this time is and it goes super-fast.

So sometimes I’m thinking I could really do with being in the office today. I’ve just got this, I needed to get on top of that and it’s do this. But I’m just like, no. This is quality time with your child that they need at this stage.

And then equally I’ll feel guilty when I’m at work and think, oh, I really should spend more time with the children.

I’ve always felt like this in whatever job I’ve been in.

I don’t think you can ever win, but it’s lovely that I’ve got that time. I think that’s really important to keep that, even though it can be really tempting to go, I’ll just pop her into preschool for another couple of days, and that means that I’ve got more time to work.

I just think I’d massively regret doing that.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I can feel your frustration. I can feel it emanating out of you. Just the sort of, there just aren’t enough hours in the day quandary.

Natalie Bamford:

Yeah, exactly that.

Bex Burn-Callander:

But it must be amazing with your older daughter to be this sort of go-getter, inspirational businesswoman.

Do you feel like she now sees more paths opening up ahead for her in her future? That she could be her own boss, just like you?

Natalie Bamford:

She has helped out here a few times, but she’s not been massively interested, and I’ve not taken offence at that because I’m just her mum. I’m never going to be cool.

That’s okay.

I’m all right with that.

But just recently I won an award, and it was ‘East Midland businesswoman of the year’. And she has been totally inspired by that.

And it’s just made me beam with pride because she wrote down this massive list.

On the night that I won, I Facetimed her and said, “I won, I can’t believe it.” And she wrote down this massive list in her notes of just all the things that she took from that, that she can apply to her own life.

And it was like, always be yourself. And I was just almost in tears, listening to this, that I’ve obviously created a little spark in her, which I’m over the moon about.

And yeah, I think she’s showing an entrepreneurial spirit actually, which I don’t think is a bad thing.

I wish that she could learn a bit more about it in school because, as you know, it’s not all, “Oh, you’re your own boss, you can do what you want.”

It’s like, well, yeah, but there’s a lot of other things that come with that and a lot of responsibility. So it’d be great if they taught more about it in schools.

But, for the effect that we are having on her, I’m really pleased.

And I’d like to think that, if she did go down the path of starting her own business, that she might come to us for some help or advice, or we could help along that journey.

It’s something that we didn’t have. I guess you’ve got to let them make their own path as well but, if we can help in any way, I’d love to be part of that.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I think it’s about options really, isn’t it? It’s not about saying you should be this or you should be that, but it’s about just showing that there’s so many different things on the table.

Natalie Bamford:

That’s it.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Can you share any sort of hair-raising moments that you’ve had with Colleague Box?

Any things that have gone wrong, spoiled pumpkins, or peanuts going to a peanut allergy sufferer. There must be so many wonderful tales that you could regale me with.

Natalie Bamford:

Oh, that’s a good one. I mean, luckily, nothing too major.

For the 23,000 advent boxes that I mentioned, we were about, I want to say 1,000. It may have been more. Again, I’m looking back with rose-tinted glasses.

Of one gift short, which meant Adam driving up to London on the day that they were meant to be picked up.

So they were all being picked up at the same time.

Driving to London to get 1,000 bags of the gift that we needed. And I think we had two hours to spare, and it was just crazy.

Because we were waiting for one gift, we couldn’t then put the lids on, which meant we couldn’t put them in the outer box, which means we couldn’t put the label. So it was like a small cog, but in a big wheel.

And without it, the show couldn’t go on.

So although 1,000 short, about 23,000, it doesn’t seem that bad, but it was just… It was going to be catastrophic. And there was no other option.

You can’t just pluck 1,000 gifts out of thin air, and they’d all been signed off as you can imagine.

And, actually, bespoke.

Some of them that had bespoke packaging on and stuff. So it was just like, oh my gosh, what do we do?

So poor Adam drove up to London, got stuck in traffic on the way back. I think he got back at 9pm. The pickup was at 11pm and we were just all there filling.

And then another team were putting the boxes on, and I was just sat on the floor. And I just had a massive pile of address labels that I was just putting on.

And I remember there was some other Christmas song, I think it was Merry Christmas Everyone. And I couldn’t have been less in the festive spirit.

And I almost wanted to say, “Can someone switch that off?” I thought, no, don’t be the Grinch. Don’t be the Grinch. But I was just sat on a cold floor in the warehouse.

I guess obviously that was crazy but also it was really, looking back, it was quite nice because it just meant everyone had to join in together. And it was about very massive team effort.

I will always try and find the positive in every situation.

So I guess it was, although horrific, we did pull it out the bag just in time. And it was nice that we all came together to do that. So that was one.

And then, oh, actually on the same project, a couple of our gifts were held up in customs for two weeks. I think there was Santa hats and something else. Oh, some gloves. And so that meant we pushed just two weeks behind where we should have been, which was just a nightmare.

And then the delivery finally turned up.

We thought, yes. Okay. We’ve got these gifts. We can move forward.

And he opened the van and just, it was quite comical really, all the boxes must have been opened by customs to see what was in them. And so they were quite split. And so he opened up his pilot, all these Santa hats just piled into the road.

It was the most surreal thing you’ve ever seen in your life.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s like slapstick comedy. You’re expecting something Laurel and Hardy to tumble out with the Santa hats at this point.

Natalie Bamford:

Honestly. Sometimes you’re just thinking, are we being filmed here? Is this going to be a ‘gotcha’ moment?

So that was just crazy. Touch wood, it’s been quite plain sailing apart from those hiccups.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And when you made that 11pm pickup with all those advent calendars, did you celebrate?

I mean, do you have to take the time to really pat yourself on the back and thank your team when something like that, when you pull out the bag?

Natalie Bamford:

You know what? We’re really bad at doing that, to be honest.

I don’t know if that’s just quite common in business owners that you’re like, okay, that job’s done and complete, what’s the next task.

And actually what we should have done is gone, wow. What an achievement.

Yes, we had hiccups. Yes, it could have gone smoother. But my God we’ve learned a lot from it.

We definitely did thank the team. Over the next couple of days when it was just basically a mass tidy up preparation, but I don’t think we did with each other, ever look back.

And it’s the same with the pumpkin project. It was gruelling and really took its strain on us.

And I don’t know if we ever really did go, oh, wow. Well done us. Little pat on the back. It was just like, okay, onto the next.

So that’s probably something we need to really get better at, to be honest.

And even with the award that I mentioned, people saying, “Oh, how have you celebrated?” And I was like, “Well, I haven’t. I’ve just gone back to work.”

Bex Burn-Callander:

Well, maybe this is something that needs to come out of this podcast, is that you need to make a promise to yourself that you’ll start celebrating these milestones and figuring out a way to make them stand out and to reward yourself in some way.

Natalie Bamford:

Yeah. I actually really, definitely agree with that. I’m on board. I’m on board.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I’ve got another question for you. So I mentioned my frantic Googling of you over the past couple of weeks, and I saw a really brief news article about you surviving a childhood illness and how that has shaped your outlook on life and on business.

Can you tell us a bit about that?

Natalie Bamford:

Yeah, absolutely.

So when I was 10, I contracted Meningococcal Meningitis, which saw me going into intensive care and the doctors gave me 48 hours to live.

Did the whole parents into the little room that you don’t want to go in because, you know why.

And basically said, get anyone in here that needs say their goodbyes, really. Which, as a mum now, I can’t imagine how tough that would’ve been. I mean, I say I was fine, obviously I wasn’t fine.

I was dying, but I was out of it. I didn’t have a clue what was going on at that point. I was completely out of it.

But I always just feel so sorry for my parents and family having to go through that, my older sister and it just must have been horrific. But I think this is why I always try and find the positive in things because really, I shouldn’t be here.

So for me every day is a blessing. That sounds really cheesy, doesn’t it?

Bex Burn-Callander:

It’s cheesy but it’s true. We should not be ashamed of cheesy. Cheesy is good.

Natalie Bamford:

No, but it is honestly.

And to be sat here and I look around and we’ve got this business and I get to work with my husband every day and we’ve got our team here and to think, I mean, not only did I survive Meningitis, which is really deadly, it’s a real killer even now, which is such a shame.

But I could have been left with so many ongoing problems.

And I had Septicaemia, which I think is now called Sepsis. And that reached the top of my thighs. If that had gone past my hips, I would’ve lost my legs.

It can have severe problems moving forward with your brain, with speech, with sight, hearing.

So honestly, I’m super lucky. And I’ve got glasses, but other than that, super lucky to be here.

It did affect my memory. So my memory is what I like to call ‘shot to pieces’.

So I can’t remember things. And this is what people find really sad, but, for me, it’s just how I live. I can’t remember my children being born. I can’t remember my wedding day and holidays. And people go, “I don’t know how you can cope with that.”

But I had this when I was 10 and I’m now 36. So it’s kind of what I’ve always known. I’ve always known that I can’t remember these things.

But the lovely thing about living in this new digital age is that I have them all to hand.

So with my wedding day, I can look back in my head and see still images. So I can’t remember moving pictures, I can’t remember walking down the aisle, but I remember the day because I’ve looked at pictures enough times for them to be installed in my brain.

It’s the same with milestones for my children.

So I won’t remember what I’ve done for their birthday last year, but I can have a look back at photos, oh yeah, that’s it.

And that will help things come back to me.

So, I guess I just take each day as it comes, and just try and see the positives in everything. Because, when you come that close to death, you just realise how lucky you are.

Yeah there’s the memory issues, but I shouldn’t be here and I am. I’m here to tell the tale and, for me, that just means that every day, no matter how hard it gets or how tough it gets, at least I’m here.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Natalie, you are so fabulous, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every second chatting to you.

I could keep you here all day, but I can tell from the frenzied activity in the background that it’s hotting up at the warehouse. So I’m going to let you go but thank you so much for joining us.

Natalie Bamford:

No, thank you so much for having me. What an opportunity. I’m overwhelmed.

Obviously, every opportunity that comes my way, I just feel totally blessed.

And thank you. I really, really do appreciate it. It’s nice to tell the story.

Bex Burn-Callander:

To send your pals at work a little treat, head over to

You can also find the lovely Natalie on Twitter @Natalie_OB.

If you were inspired by this episode, tell me. Tell me everything you loved, everything you wish I’d asked. I’m on Instagram at SparkyBex000.

And don’t forget to tag in Sage and use the hashtag Sound Advice podcast. To find the show notes and lots of helpful guides around starting a mail-order business, head on over to

See you in two weeks for more Sound Advice.

Inspired by this small business story?

Wherever you’re listening or watching, subscribe to Sound Advice on Apple iTunes here.

We are also on Spotify and anywhere else you get your podcasts.

Join our community to share your insights and stories on Twitter @SageUK using the hashtag #SoundAdvicePodcast, on Instagram @SageOfficial or in the comments below!

And for more about Natalie Bamford, why not get involved in spreading some joy and follow @colleaguebox on Instagram.

And check out The Colleague Box website too.

Side hustle toolkit

Get your free guide, business plan template and cash flow forecast template to help you boss your side hustle and achieve your goals.

Download your free toolkit
969 readers have downloaded this guide

Never miss an episode

Subscribe by email and get Sound Advice delivered to your inbox every two weeks with the Sage Advice newsletter with a ton of related articles, templates and problem solving guides for small businesses so you can put our sound advice into practice.