Martha Swift: Think big but start small when launching a business

You don’t need a suitcase full of cash and a slot on Dragons’ Den to start your own business. It’s possible and much more common to launch with a small amount of money and then grow your startup as demand for it increases. Martha Swift, founder of Primrose Bakery is living proof, in this blog she reveals how starting small has allowed her to dream big.

Martha will be speaking at our Get a loan. Get a mentor. Get ahead.  #VSULIVE event in Leicester on the 3rd July. Book yourself a FREE ticket and find out how Virgin StartUp can help you turn your idea into a fully fledged business. 

My name is Martha Swift and I am the owner of Primrose Bakery, a cupcake and cake business with 2 shops in London, 3 cookbooks and an app. I started the business nearly 10 years ago with a friend of mine because we felt there was a lack of good cupcakes and cakes in London.

One of the biggest challenges in starting a business of any kind is finance and finding people who might either lend you money or invest in your business. I think there are a few things that are really important when considering starting a business, including a real passion for what you are proposing to do and also being prepared to work very hard indeed. This not only helps you get through the long hours that are required but will also show potential investors you are serious about what you’re doing and that they can have confidence in you. Many people are very sceptical when you first start your own business so you need to prove them wrong!

We started Primrose Bakery in our home kitchens to help keep our overheads as low as possible as taking on a shop would have stretched us too far to start with. We focused on developing a few good products and building up a reputation through word of mouth. We learnt to do every job ourselves to help with costs and also because doing every job teaches you so much about running a business and also helps you train staff later on when you expand. Getting your product perfect is so important at the beginning and maintaining quality and consistency is something you should never take your eye off. Other people's recommendations and building up regular customers is the best form of marketing and advertising you can get. You are only ever as good as the last thing you sell, so in my case every cupcake and cake has to be perfect.

After two years the business was able to consider taking on a shop lease and all the associated costs that went with it and we needed to find a location that was popular enough but not right in the middle of a high street where rent and rates would be super high. We chose Primrose Hill in North West London, because both my business partner and I lived in the area, which helped with the early starts!

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It is always important to work out how much of your product you need to sell to cover all your costs and make a profit. In my business and any food business, my biggest costs are always labour as we need quite a lot of staff to make and sell our cupcakes and cakes across two shops and the buying of ingredients. For other businesses it might be something different, so you just need to learn the key costs for your particular business and keep them as low as possible, without compromising too much on quality. At the same time as opening the first shop, we developed our website - - so that customers could quickly see what kinds of cupcakes and cakes we offered and what they looked like. Last year we started an online ordering system.

We opened our second Primrose Bakery shop in Covent Garden in 2008 and I am hoping to open my third shop in Wimbledon this year. We have bought our first branded delivery van this year and have been exhibiting at some food fairs and music festivals. As ever, it is still all about managing cash flow and trying not to overstretch ourselves.

I had no business training or a background in cooking when I started, but I firmly believe that with the right product and the right attitude you can make a success of anything, at any age.

You certainly don't need a huge budget to start with but nor should you start a business thinking you are going to earn a huge salary immediately or ever! An opportunity to get funding from an organisation such as Virgin StartUp would have been amazing especially in the early years to help buy some of the necessities we needed to get our cake business going - in our case, we would have loved to use any funding to buy cake tins, decorations etc. I try to listen and learn from as many people as possible, as much now as I did 10 years ago. There is always something you can improve on. Making mistakes is normal. Not rushing to do too much too fast is one of the most valuable things I have learnt along the way. Working for yourself doing something you love is one of he most rewarding things you can do, is a huge privilege and I wish anyone lots of luck if they want to give something a go.

Martha will be speaking at our, Get a loan. Get a mentor. Get ahead.  #VSULIVE event in Leicester on the 3rd July. Book yourself a FREE ticket and find out how Virgin StartUp can help you turn your idea into a fully fledged business.

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