By Clementene Coates, Apr 1 2015 10:46PM
This blog is a little bit different to my usual posts, but I was eager and excited to share my story with you concerning my recent trip to London.
You may be aware from my earlier blogs that I launched my business only a few months ago. And, as someone who is still very much in the early stages of growing a small business, I thought this a great opportunity to share my recent experience in case it inspires some to take the plunge and explore new career opportunities.
I’ll be the first to admit that on day one I, like most people, didn’t know the first thing about setting up and running a new business. What I did have, however, was a clear idea of what I wanted to do; it was something that I felt passionate about and I was determined to make my venture a success. I was also very lucky to be surrounded by friends and family who offered me advice and support whenever I needed it. Although I still needed some expert guidance to make sure I was headed in the right direction.
In just six months I’ve already had the chance to go to so many exciting places and meet a lot of very interesting people as a result of taking that first step and last week I was invited to Downing Street to showcase my business in front of the Prime Minister, which made all the hard work I put into the business leading up to this point so worthwhile.
The week before last I was knee-deep in the Country Living Spring Fair, blissfully painting furniture at the Marston & Langinger stand, showcasing paints in front of the fair’s many visitors. I was absolutely loving my time down in London and I thought the trip couldn’t get any better.
Then, around lunchtime on the Wednesday, I received a call asking me whether I would be able to attend an exclusive event at Downing Street to showcase my business to the Prime Minister.
It transpired that my business had been hand-picked out of 27,000 other businesses which are part of a government based scheme designed to help entrepreneurs, like myself, who have a feasible business idea, but no access to finance, get their venture off the ground.
For one evening only, a miniature trade fair would be held at Downing Street where twenty chosen business owners (including myself) would set up stands to present their products to business leaders and government officials, including the Prime Minister. I couldn’t believe that I’d been chosen - after all I’d only been going a few months!
On the Friday I received a formal invite which read: “the Prime Minister requests the pleasure of your company at 10 Downing Street on Monday 23 March between 5pm and 7:30pm” It was official. This wasn’t a hoax and I didn’t dream it up. I was going to Downing Street! I couldn’t be prouder. And because Pete has played such a significant role in setting up my business, I only thought it right that he come along too.
The big day was finally upon us. It's not every day that you get to programme 10 Downing Street into your car's sat nav...
As we stood outside number 10 we had to pinch ourselves. Was this really happening? We were about to knock on the famous front door when all of a sudden it opened all on its own, like a scene from Harry Potter. It wasn’t until we looked around the corner and saw a security guard whose sole role was to open and close it, that we realised it was just an ordinary door!
We walked into the foyer where we were asked by Downing Street staff to leave our mobile phones in these little pigeon holes as no camera or recording equipment was allowed. Security wanted to take my iPad too, but I managed to persuade them that I needed it to show the Prime Minister my website!
We were taken up to the first floor to the ‘Terracotta Drawing Room’ where the event was being held. We entered the room which was a hive of activity. Nineteen other businesses were busy setting up their stalls. There was a real mix of talent: everything from a milliner, a hip flask designer, a potter, a designer of cutting edge bicycles, a creator of a natural health food stuff and a clothes designer. It was great to see such a creative and entrepreneurial group of people who were living proof that it is possible to turn a good idea into a business if you have the determination to get out there and make it happen.
Pete and I set about putting our own little stall together. We carefully laid out framed pictures of my painted furniture alongside paint tins, paint brushes, business leaflets and business cards. Before I knew it, James Caan (former Dragon on BBC2’s Dragon’s Den) was stood before us. “Give me your pitch!” he said. This may have unnerved some people, but because I’m passionate about what I do I had no problem talking his ear off. He listened intently and then shook our hands before wandering off to another stall. I was glad he spoke to me first as I got the chance to practice my spiel before the big boss showed up!
Lord Young (the Godfather of the scheme) soon followed and he perused my work whilst Carol Kempton (No.10 events coordinator) and I chatted about different painting techniques - it transpired she loves painting furniture too! She took a business leaflet and card and said she’d be checking out my website!
I was then asked to do a piece to camera for the Downing Street press office. I was asked to explain how the scheme has helped me. I’m not a fan of photographs of myself or of being videoed, but this wasn’t the time to be bashful, so I gritted my teeth and did my bit.
Pete and I were then whisked back outside to the front door to have official photographs taken before being led back up to the Terracotta Room via the famous staircase which features photographs of our past Prime Ministers. There didn’t appear to be any room for any more photographs after Gordon Brown’s head shot and I wondered where David Cameron’s is going to go!
We were thoroughly spoiled with delicious canapés and drinks which were continuously being brought around by the very polite Downing Street staff. And every now and then Pete and I would look at each other not quite believing where we were.
Before we knew it the Prime Minister descended on the drawing room and he approached my stall. He spent several minutes chatting to me about my business and enquired as to how the scheme had helped me get to where I am. Political views aside, he did seem genuinely interested in the work I was doing. I showed him my website on my iPad and I explained that I would have brought a piece of my painted furniture with me, but the last time I did this at a similar event, Ed Balls had bashed the piece twice (quite accidentally of course) whilst carrying it down some stairs (that’s a true story!). Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister politely tittered (although I can probably guess what he was really thinking!). I ended my little speech by saying I couldn’t have done it without the help and support of Pete. The Prime Minister acknowledged this and enthusiastically shook both of our hands before more official photographs were taken and he moved on to the next stall.
We were then ushered into a side room where Lord Young, James Caan and the Prime Minister each gave rousing speeches about the success of the scheme and how proud they were of all of us. Whilst the event was put on at a very convenient time for the Prime Minister – just prior to the start of the General Election campaign – I won’t deny that the speeches had an emotional impact. I was so proud of how far I’d come and where I was standing. The scheme was without a doubt instrumental in helping me get my business off the ground and the continuous business mentorship has been invaluable.
After the speeches Pete and I went to speak to some more businesses. It was a great opportunity to exchange stories and it was a real inspiration to hear how far the other businesses had come. But eventually it was time to pack up. We said our goodbyes before being led back down to the foyer. We, along with a few other fellow business owners, thought we’d squeeze in a couple more photos outside the number 10 door. A very polite policeman kindly offered to take a photo of the two of us..
The moral of the story I suppose is that you can really surprise yourself with what you are capable of accomplishing if you have a good idea, determination and a real passion for what you do. My business is still very much in ‘start-up mode’, but every day I learn something new and for every new thing I learn it makes the whole thing feel more achievable.
Whether you agree with his politics or not, the Prime Minister made a very good point in his closing speech. The future of the economy in Britain today is not in the hands of the major corporations it is with the smaller businesses who have the spirit and the passion to turn a good idea into a thriving business.
I can’t tell you that starting a business is the right thing for you to do, but what I can tell you is that despite how scary the idea might feel, it isn’t as impossible as it might seem. That first step feels like a giant leap, but as long as you fully commit to it you will always find a way to make it work.