This is a follow up story for Any Old Lights. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 5 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Hi again, I’m Nick, still the owner of Any Old Lights, purveyors of exquisite vintage and retro lighting. I run the company with my wife Sinead and we’re based in the seaside picture-postcard county of Cornwall in the UK. We run a store there and also operate online.
Our customers want lighting that’s above and beyond the generic home lighting sold in their local DIY depot and are prepared to pay a bit more for something special.
Besides importing original vintage nautical and industrial lighting to sell, we produce our own Revivals brand of retro lighting. We take a vintage light that’s disappearing from circulation and add our own design twist, creating exclusive classic lighting.
At the start of 2020, the business was tough. We were getting hit by competitors, old and new, and a general pre-Brexit malaise meant people weren’t spending. Then COVID-19 hit.
When the first lockdown began in March, we shut the shop and braced ourselves for the worst. But when shops reopened pre-summer, our town was deluged with tourists (who couldn’t - or wouldn’t - travel abroad during the virus). Shop sales went through the roof - a record summer.
It’s entirely feasible that COVID saved our business.
(Did I mention we also sell seriously stunning ships’ clocks and vintage theatrical lighting, like this Mole Richardson beauty?)
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
In light of our aggressive, increased competition, I reviewed our pricing structure - adding a Sale section to our website - and revisited our SEO. Was I using the best keywords? Was I using them enough or too much? How could I ramp up the use of keywords that were underused?
You may just have a website, no physical store, but the sense of who you are, of how much you care, of how much you know - they seep from the screen.
So I blogged more, with useful keywords, and I went through my product titles, checking I’d put the good stuff first. For example, if people search for “retro wall light” more than any other keyword phrase, I’m going to call my Green Industrial Steel Retro Wall Light this: Retro Wall Light - Industrial Steel Green (most-to-least important keywords). That might make a bit less sense, but at least a customer is likely to come to me first.
I’ve taken a few SEO courses and I’ve thrown decent money at the... dark art? The two SEO experts I used had completely different ideas. A bit like dealing with COVID, you have to decide for yourself which advice is best as your knowledge accumulates, to develop your own strategy (since you can’t keep paying these expensive people!).
Elsewhere, I got the Facebook sync with our WooCommerce website shop working properly (using the Facebook plugin, which was packed with glitches early on), and started tagging products on Instagram, so a user can tap one of our Insta images and be taken to the website product page.
Most recently, I’ve added an Etsy-sync plugin - having tried a few with varying results - that means when someone buys something of ours on Etsy, the order appears on our website and the stock is changed automatically. Conversely, it means when I add products to our website, it’s much easier to copy them to Etsy.
In terms of growth, we are slightly down year-on-year in both profit and turnover (£170,000 in 2019 vs £162,000 in 2020), but I consider that a massive achievement gave how many, often multinational, companies went under in 2020, due to recession and COVID. Our little business survived! And it survived in rude health.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
My biggest fear was that we couldn’t compete on price with competitors who could either buy in greater bulk (therefore sell cheaper since they paid less), or who had readier access to the products we sell (also paying less, selling cheaper).
I panicked, whacking down prices despite my tested pricing calculations suggesting our original selling price was the right one for us. Online, my Sale didn’t make a great deal of difference. Customers were instead buying the products not on-sale.
The bumper summer in our shop made me realize our original pricing structure was fine. We have a brand name that is respected in the vintage lighting industry because we employ great staff who know their stuff and we really care about what we do. Our customer service is fantastic, we’re experts in our field, and I only stock lighting that I believe has a serious Wow Factor. No tinny tat. I also love a gorgeous maritime rarity. Our customers have bought into our ethos, I realize.
Lessons: trust yourself and hold your nerve.
I also spent less on the stock this year. The last time we had a potential excess of money in the bank account, as I used to in life, I splurged. Then tax bills came in, the new stock didn’t shift, and suddenly I’m biting my fingernails again. Customers don’t like too much choice. They tend to be unable to decide and may shop elsewhere.
This summer when we did so well in the shop, I remember looking around and thinking it looked too sparse. I was wrong. Still, customers found something to buy, because I'd chosen the stock carefully to reflect our core values. If you buy something from Any Old Lights, you know you're getting quality, rarity and service you can trust.
Lessons: Less is more, and spend every penny as if it’s your last.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
During 2020 we hadn’t been able to ship in new stock from abroad - both vintage and retro - as COVID closed countries and ports. On Christmas Eve we received our first vintage shipment of the year and with help from our fantastic customer manager, Justine, and her son, had to offload this bugger and de-crate everything. (Cheers, Santa!)
On-board was a treasure trove of old ship lights and maritime antiques - many new to us, carefully selected to avoid clashing with our cheaper competitors - to propel Any Old Lights into 2021. Then, of course, we locked down again.
I’m also adding to our Revivals range of exclusive retro lighting while cutting designs that don’t sell. I’m extremely proud of our latest design, which I call the Mini Lighthouse.
We sold, before they disappeared from circulation, an imposing, tripod-mounted vintage 360-degree brass gate light (“The Lighthouse”), which was high-ticket but always popular because it was so impressive. I’ve long wanted to create a cheap Revivals version and finally hit upon the right design (and cost price). Here’s a snap of the prototype, which we’ve just had back from the manufacturer.
A five-year plan? During COVID (plus we lucky Brits get to add the catastrophe of Brexit)?! Just surviving is a great start! But we keep learning more, from an enviably sound footing, so I don’t see why we can’t keep moving on up.
I have no desire to open more branches, or to expand into different territories.
I turn 56 in 2021 and can see myself in an ideal world, with a reasonable nest egg in the bank, selling Any Old Lights in a few year’s time.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
My background is in writing. I was a journalist and author for more than 25 years, in London. When we moved to Cornwall for the kids, I fell into vintage lighting. I was the least business-like person you could ever meet. I never used to open bank statements because I was terrified of what I might find.
Over the past six years or so, I’ve had to fully immerse myself in a perplexing and deeply complex alien world. I have lived on Google and taken, or at least weighed up, every single piece of advice offered. I’ve been on countless courses. I have made loads of mistakes and have hopefully learned from them.
What I’m trying to say is that I am not a natural business person; it’s been relentless graft, and I’m not sure I even enjoy the corporate side of things - I’ve been compelled into business because I have a family who gets cold and hungry, and because I really like to buy books.
Not one of them is a business book. I read to escape that world.
So yes, I’ve read loads of great books this last year, and if you want one recommendation from me, it’d be David Sedaris’ first volume of diaries: Theft By Finding.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
If pressed, I’d boil down Any Old Lights’ success to two main ingredients: our stock choices and our staff. Don’t over-stock. Curate rather than buy - your stock is you. And make sure you have great staff you can trust. (If you’re just starting and your staff is just you, make sure you’re great!)
You may just have a website, no physical store, but the sense of who you are, of how much you care, of how much you know - they seep from the screen. They really do. (Example: I would never buy from a professional business with a Wix website.)
Put in the hours. Endless hours. Learn, learn, learn.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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