Growth & Customers

The power of mentoring: The story of Suitcase Susie

Michelle Kent, designer and founder of Suitcase Susie Ltd launched her business in June 2014, and in the first six months of trading was stocked by the Royal Festival Hall shop at London’s Southbank Centre and had been selected by the Royal Academy in their RAted Open Call for Designers.

Michelle felt there were gaps in her knowledge and skills that would prevent Suitcase Susie from growing and so she entered the Sage ‘Mentoring Matters’ competition in the hope of gaining the extra support needed.

To her delight, she was successful and won £2,500 worth of mentoring, which she chose to take with competition partner Rockstar Mentoring Group. At her request, Michelle was matched with leading business mentor Chelsey Baker.

Michelle says: “I chose Chelsey because of her experience in marketing, PR and communications – areas in which I have little experience and I really wanted to create brand awareness and generate publicity. She’s also an expert in pitching for fundraising and I knew this was something I’d need help with too.”

The challenges of a new business

There were a number of challenges for Michelle and Suitcase Susie. Along with the time constraints of working full-time in a demanding role as PA to the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Michelle had never run her own business before.

Getting any new business off the ground is hard, but it was made even more difficult when Michelle was creating a collection of 46 new pieces, across three designs from scratch.

In addition to the difficulties produced by working essentially, two full-time jobs, there was the challenge and financial burden of producing new product samples and fulfilling the minimum order quantities from the manufacturers.

Then there were other practical issues to be dealt with such as sourcing couriers for shipping both within the UK and around the world.

Marketing and PR for a new business

Marketing and PR is essential for any new business. For a new brand and product range, it’s even more vital to spread the word as retailers and consumers first need to be aware of the brand in order to create a desire for the collections.

Michelle met with Chelsey once a month for six months and was supported via email in between these face-to-face sessions.

Objectives were set at each stage of the business which helped to plan, focus and set realistic expectations. Action plans were implemented then reviewed at the beginning of each session to acknowledge achievements and challenges.

As a result of the mentoring, Michelle was able to make the most of her first trade show, ‘Home 2015’ in January, which led to a number of new stockists. Another outcome was achieving prestigious press coverage, which would have cost thousands of pounds in paid advertising.

Using Kickstarter

However, Michelle has struggled to meet the 100-piece per item minimum order quantities and some stores have requested a mix of china and textiles before they’ll stock Suitcase Susie.

Chelsey helped Michelle to create a funding package and together they have worked on a Kickstarter campaign, preparing the strategy, scripting the video and planning the rewards.

With the help of crowdfunding, Michelle will be able to increase the range of home textiles as well as put more of the china pieces into production.

Then she’ll be able to supply more independent retailers and catch the attention of department stores to ultimately achieve regular orders that exceed the manufacturers’ minimum requirements.

The benefits of a mentor

Michelle says: “Winning this prize from Sage and Rockstar Group couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Chelsey has been fantastic to work with and she has really helped me take Suitcase Susie to the next level.

“Not only has Chelsey provided the expertise and insights that I needed, but she also helped me to prioritise and set achievable goals each month. Starting a business can be lonely, especially with no family in the UK, and Chelsey provided the encouragement I needed and believed in me.

“I highly recommend mentoring for the support it gives and couldn’t have asked for a better mentor than Chelsey.”

The mentoring relationship progressed right from the start and was equally rewarding for Chelsey.

Michelle says: “I admired Michelle’s determination and strength of character; she has worked extremely hard/tirelessly in launching this new collection.

“Not only is she highly creative with her design work but she has the passion and drive to go with it – a must for any start-up.

“It was a real pleasure to work with Michelle and pass on some of my knowledge and business experience. Setting up a business from scratch can be quite daunting and it’s very easy to become overwhelmed.

“By providing support, motivation and offering a different perspective I can help to spot potential problems. People often become so engrossed in the business they often miss many opportunities; this is where mentoring really pays off.

“I am incredibly passionate about helping anyone who is determined, driven and willing to work hard; Michelle knew what she wanted and now she is pursuing her dream.”

Michelle’s ambition is to partner Suitcase Susie with a charity that contributes to regenerating the environment and encouraging wildlife to flourish. Ultimately, she would like to expand the product range to include bed linen, other home textiles and travelware and to take the brand global.

She adds: “If you are inspired by travel and wish the holiday would never end, get on board with Suitcase Susie.”