The founder of the British stationery company Martha Brook talks to us about her inspirations, mantras and supporting women in business.
Reader's Digest: Tell us the story of how your business began
Martha Keith: So, it’s a bit of a cheesy story. It actually began on my first wedding anniversary with my husband, Chris. I was doing something very different at the time, working in healthcare, and I made him a box of love notes for a thoughtful, one-of-a-kind gift. It reignited a creative spark in me that I had had since I was a child.
I’d always loved paper products and I'd always made stuff when I was young but I'd put that to one side as I got on with my career. Chris cried when he opened them and it was such a lovely moment that I thought, maybe I can create a delightful moment for other people in the same way my gift did for Chris.
So, I took a week off work, wrote a business plan, and walked in with my resignation letter and a plan to pursue a personalised paper gifts company.
I’d never really thought I would do something entrepreneurial. I worked at a large healthcare company, I had a really good job, but I hit 30 and got itchy feet. The [stationery] idea was niggling at me. I much prefer to try something and give it a go than to look back and think, what if?
It’s never too late to try something new. Life is short and sometimes you just have to go for things. I think that passion and belief in something are much more important [than a raw entrepreneurial talent] and other skills can be learned as you go.
RD: When did you first sense that Martha Brook was going to be a success?
MK: I’m quite proud that I didn’t get any investment or take out any loans and instead took the decision to try and grow organically. Martha Brook is a business that has started from my spare bedroom and has grown to having a team with offices in West London.
The first time I knew it was going to be successful was about 18 months in on Valentine’s Day. A product based on that original gift I gave my husband really took off and we were getting hundreds and hundreds of orders a day. My husband was coming back from his day job and helping me and we had about 12 people in the house—we were literally roping people in that we’ve never met to help pack and sort orders out.
It was the first moment I thought, gosh, wow, there’s definitely an appetite if you can get it right and you can get the products to the audience. It was a moment where we needed to make a decision as to how far we wanted to take this which was exciting but also kind of quite scary too.
"I'd always made stuff when I was young but I'd put that to one side as I got on with my career"
RD: Which business achievement would you say you're most proud of?
MK: Oh gosh, that’s a really tough one because there’s so many—every year is different and every year brings something new that I’m really proud of. But I think it was last year, when we decided to do a stationery advent calendar for the first time.
At that point we hadn’t done much press ourselves, we only really promoted it through social media, but it went a bit crazy, sold out and was featured in a number of publications, from the Evening Standard, to Marie Claire, to Grazia, and people were just talking about it. It was something that seemed to capture people’s imagination like I hadn’t really seen any of our products do before.
I think what I’m most proud of is the buzz it created and the fact that we tried something that we took a real punt on, came up with an inventive design and it made an impact. It’s made me feel a lot more confident about trying new things.
And I think it's exciting that even though we’re becoming more digital as a society and we’re spending more time online, people are still yearning for beautiful stationery. I think it’s purely about having something tactile that you can touch and feel and use. People still yearn for that and I think that there’s still an energy around that.
The Martha Brook team in their West London office
RD: Do you have any business role models?
MK: About two or three years ago, I, with a couple of other women who run businesses locally, put on an event to help inspire other business owners, and we got Cath Kidston as our keynote speaker. She was so inspiring and she said that when you’re self-taught, you always worry you’re going to be found out. And I really love that because it made me realise that even somebody as successful as her, still worries about what people think and still feels that she’s not the finished package.
I also love that she found a niche in something she enjoyed and from just a single shop down the road from us in Holland Park, she’s built a strong identifiable brand. To know it can be done from small beginnings purely by having a fantastic brand and finding a niche I think is hugely inspiring.
"Even though we’re becoming more digital as a society, people are still yearning for beautiful stationery"
RD: What's the best piece of business advice you've received?
MK: So, when I first started, I think the bit of advice that I really held close to me was to leap and the net will appear. Sometimes, you can spend so long thinking about things that you never actually get on to doing them, and you have to just go for things and then you sort of learn as you go.
I think that’s very much been the case with us, I definitely didn’t know what I was doing when I started, but I’ve learned things, I’ve built a relationship with suppliers, I’ve grown my knowledge base as I’ve gone along.
Having said that, I do think there’s a lot of value when you’re starting out in spending time creating a business plan. A lot of people don’t necessarily do that but just really thinking about what your niche is, what you can offer, and how you’re going to reach those customers does make a huge difference. Having a map to navigate things with helps, because you have to be hugely self-motivated and disciplined when you start out.
The first two years of starting a business are the hardest time and it’s definitely hard to explain to people who haven’t done it. And it can be lonely at times too, when it’s just you when you by yourself and I think having a plan to hold onto is really, really helpful.
RD: Have you ever encountered extra challenges as a woman in a male-dominated industry?
MK: In the small business community there are a lot of women and there’s a lot of support for women now. I was lucky when I started to tap into communities like Enterprise Nation and Small Business Saturday, to meet other likeminded small business owners a lot which were women.
I would say beyond that, in the kind of wider and medium to large business communities are still very male-dominated. And I think to have your voice heard there is much more of a challenge as a woman and especially young women. I particularly remember going along to a local event and I think I was probably one of only two women in the room and one of the younger ones there. I definitely found you kind of have to be able to bring a presence to be taken seriously and I think certain situations can still be tough as a woman.
But I do think there are a lot of great things being done and I was lucky enough, a couple of years ago, to be asked by Facebook to be an ambassador for their She Means Business campaign, which is really interesting. They did some research and they said that one of the big things that hold women back from starting a business is the confidence, whereas men just don’t have that in the same way. The second thing is skills. So they, especially around the kind of digital side of things, are running a programme to upskill women and provide female role models who run accessible business to help inspire women and I think that sort of thing is hugely helpful.
RD: Do you have any personal mantras that have informed your work?
When I handed my resignation at my old job, I thought the the Senior Vice President would think I was mad. But instead on my last day, she came over to my desk and she handed me a card which read, “Follow your dreams.” It was a lovely note from her saying, “I really respect you doing this and I really wish you all the best.” I've had that stuck on my wall ever since because life is too short not to chase your aspirations. The path isn’t always easy but knowing what your main goal is and knowing what you’re ultimately aiming for is really important.
RD: If you could go back in time, is there anything you'd change about the business in retrospect?
We all make mistakes and we all learn from what we do, and I think that that’s definitely been the case with us. One of the biggest lessons I learned and something I wish could go back and change but actually in hindsight, was such a valuable thing to have learned at the time. About two years into the business, I took on an employee, it was lovely when I took them on, but essentially they became a toxic employee. I thought I could change them and I could help them—and I realise now that in a small business, every single employee affects the dynamic of a team—but it created a really difficult situation where negative energy spread, and it ended up with a heart-breaking situation.
I think I learned the hard way that protecting your team and managing situations rapidly is so important. One of the things I’m most proud of with our business is the culture we have; it's very fun, it’s very creative, it’s very open. If people follow us on our social channels, they’ll see that. That experience taught me an important lesson I’ve never forgotten. So, if now we make a wrong recruitment decision or there's a disciplinary issue, I’ll act extremely quickly to resolve it.
It’s so weird when you come from an organisation where you have an HR department where all these sorts of things just happen, to managing a team. When growing your business, the hardest thing is the people and getting it right. You want to have a great time and you want it to be enjoyable but that sometimes means being the person to make the difficult decisions.
RD: What does the future look like for Martha Brook?
It's very exciting. This autumn we’ve got stationery advent calendar coming back for a second year. We’ve also got our "stationery social" where we bring stationery fans together for a day in London. And we’re about to announce a collaboration with a major retailer that I love and I’ve been keeping under wraps for about a year, so I’m really excited about that.
RD: Is there a sense of positive change that Martha Brook is creating in the world?
I’m a great believer in the power of writing things down, and what I love most is seeing people use our products to record life’s special moments. Whether that's wedding gifts or a baby record book or something that’s a one off. Those things are going to last a lifetime and it's like a legacy of memories.
We had a lady who wrote to us a couple of years ago, she sent us an email on Valentine’s day which said, “Dear Martha Brook, my husband passed away a year ago. On our wedding anniversary before he died he gave me a box of your love notes and wrote down 20 reasons why he loved me. It's the only thing I have written down from him to me. I read them every day and I read them to my children and I know a bit more about what he thought of me. I’m truly grateful for that and I wanted you to know.”
A legacy is helping people capture these things in a non-digital way and create memories in a way that they would never have been able to do otherwise, and I think that that’s the positive change, that’s the thing I want to leave behind.
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