On a trip to Canada in 2013, Donna Marie discovered a passion for lampwork, and spent the rest of her holiday going to workshops and perfecting her craft. Inspired by the experience, Donna returned home and set up Donna Marie Jewellery, turning what began as a creative hobby into a successful business. In 2016 the IOEE matched Donna up with a mentor, Debbie Carter, who is a Programme Manager in Business Transformation with Lloyds Banking Group (LBG). This month we chatted to Donna and Debbie about surprise careers, the importance of SMEs, and taking yourself seriously in business.
Although Donna had always had always been creative, in many ways she stumbled upon her talent for lampwork (a type of glasswork where glass is melted and shaped) by accident, whilst visiting her boyfriend in Canada during her university summer holidays. Donna says:
“I was studying Geography at the time, so it was a million miles away from what I’m doing now. I needed to spend the summer researching for my dissertation, and thought it might as well be in Canada, where my boyfriend was working as a snowboard instructor. He showed me the resort where he worked and there was a little bead shop there that I loved, and this is where I discovered their offering of lampwork classes. I’d never heard of it before, but then found myself going to classes every day. By the end of the summer I had so, so many beads - my luggage was significantly heavier coming home!”
When Donna returned to England to finish her degree, she joined the university’s enterprising programme, where she had to pitch her business to a panel, and it was through this that she got funding to cover some of the initial equipment start-up costs, such as buying a kiln:
“The beginning of setting up my own business was very unglamorous though! I originally set up a workshop in my Dad’s garage - so it was cold, had no lights or windows, and there were a lot of spiders!”
In 2015 Donna officially launched Donna Marie Jewellery, and she sells her handmade designs in a variety of different places - through her website and an Etsy page (on online platform and community for creative arts and crafts), as well as being stocked in several boutique shops and regularly attending craft, trade and jewellery fairs. At the end of 2016 Donna was introduced to Debbie, and Donna explains how the relationship has given her the confidence to really see herself as a businesswoman:
“When you do something creative, lots of people will talk to you about getting a ‘proper job’ - but this is a proper job! You’re really doing everything yourself, from actually making the product to the PR, the packaging, the accounting, and you’re also working all the hours. However, it’s still easy to sometimes slip into the mindset of, ‘oh, you’ve got this lovely little hobby job making pretty things’, but Debbie pulls me back and makes me take myself more seriously. When you’ve got somebody there asking you about your goals and your plans and revenue and marketing, it reminds you that this is real; you are running a proper business, and it makes you take yourself more seriously and work harder.
“I’m also a real money worrier, but Debbie has helped me to realise that I can afford to spend more time in the business. I was working three days a week in another job to give me that stability and help me get a mortgage, but Debbie helped me to set goals to shift the balance - so once I was earning, say, X amount, I could drop to two days etc. I’m now only working elsewhere one day a week, which is amazing.”
Donna has recently worked her first wedding season, creating bespoke pieces for couples, to match such things as their colour schemes, initials and birthstones, and this personal touch is one of the elements that she loves most about her job. Donna says:
“I have so many interesting commissions, and have just finished making lots of glass starfish for a woman who was getting married in Cornwall. Christmas is also a great time, as you’re making so many gorgeous sparkly things. However, whatever time of year it is, there’s always that magic when it comes to putting something in the kiln, leaving it overnight and getting up in the morning to see how it’s turned out.
“Setting up a business and working for yourself can be lonely at times, which makes having a mentor even more important - and Debbie’s one of my biggest promoters, always sharing my work on social media. There’s been a lot of little steps, but it’s all coming together now. Aspiring entrepreneurs - go for it! Yes, it could go wrong, but nothing too bad is going to happen, and there’s always support and guidance waiting when you need it. Every now and then when I get either overwhelmed by how much there is to do or start panicking that it’s not going anywhere, I step back and look at where I was six months ago - and everything’s always changed so much, so who knows where I’ll be in six months’ time.”
To find out more about Donna Marie Jewellery, you can visit the website: www.donnamariejewellery.co.uk
Debbie works as a Programme Manager in Business Transformation, where she and her team lead big strategic changes for Lloyds Banking Group. However, despite working for such a large corporation, Debbie has a personal pull to helping small businesses, having grown up with her parents running their own business when she was young. Debbie says:
“I have that background of a small business, but it wasn’t always easy in our house when I was growing up, as cash flow could be a problem, as is often the way for small businesses. In our house it was feast or famine, so we were either rummaging around in the bottom of the freezer for something for tea, or holidaying in the Caribbean. It’s possible that subconsciously is the reason why I’m now in a secure role with a comfortable salary, so perhaps mentoring is my way of staying in touch with that world of small businesses that is familiar to me.”
Three years ago, Debbie became involved in enterprise mentoring through LBG, and has had four mentees over this time. Debbie says:
“Lloyds is very strong on supporting community and helping Britain prosper generally, and at my level it’s expected that you do something of value and give back into the community. Enterprise mentoring seemed like the ideal thing for me - and it was. I absolutely love mentoring and being able to make a difference, and if I could do this full-time, I would!”
In 2016 Debbie was matched with mentee Donna, who was then in the throes of frantically trying to find her feet through the high demands of her first Christmas with Donna Marie Jewellery. One year on and Debbie says the difference in Donna Marie Jewellery is amazing:
“It’s wonderful to be able to look back to a year ago when Donna was beginning and was feeling like, ‘argh, there aren’t enough hours in the day!’ - as, because of that chaotic Christmas experience in 2016, we were able to set a plan for this year, and now Donna is ahead of the game and totally prepared for the 2017 festive season. She’s actually probably Christmassed-out already!”
Because of her leadership role at LBG, Debbie says that one of the biggest challenges she has found in her role as mentor is having to ‘pull back’ and ask questions rather than providing the answers. She says:
“My role as mentor is not to tell Donna what to do. And you know, I’m really not qualified to do that anyway - Donna is creative and intelligent and her business is absolutely fabulous, and I may work in business, but I have no idea about the beautiful work she does and how she makes it, so I’m in no position to advise on that. I have to bite my tongue all the time - I’m surprised I haven’t bitten it off! So that has been the biggest development for me - learning how not to take charge. Instead, our conversations are more about setting goals, creating plans, looking at the business and going, ‘have you thought about X, and how are you going to tackle Y’. I give Donna guidance and support, and it’s great to be able to help somebody in a small business to adjust their path just a little bit, because sometimes that’s all it takes to make a big difference.”
Debbie and Donna speak every few weeks and are planning to next meet up at the beginning of January to look at plans for Donna Marie Jewellery in 2018. Debbie says:
“Donna will ring and say, ‘I have this crazy idea’, and I usually say that it’s not crazy, it’s realistic, and then we look at taking next steps towards it. She’s very established now, but you still need that sounding board.
“Mentoring is a fantastic way to give something back, and small businesses are vital to our economy - not just for paying tax or generating revenue, but they prevent us from becoming solely served by homogenous conglomerates, and it’s vital that we support that! Mentoring really doesn’t interfere with my life or my work either. In fact, it’s quite the opposite - mentoring actually enhances them. I get huge amount of personal satisfaction from being able to make a difference.”