Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Gillian Crawford and I’m the founder and MD of Lily Blanche, a demi-fine jewelry brand specializing in 1,2,4 & 6 photo lockets and personalized and engraved jewellery. Everything we design in our studio in Stirling has sentiment and meaning behind it.
Our hero product is our 6 photo Memory Keeper Locket ® in sterling silver, gold, rose gold, or white gold vermeil. The silver version was worn by Judy Murray to the Wimbledon Championship when her son Andy won the Men’s Singles Title for the second time in 2016.
This has become our bestselling locket and is a huge favorite with our customers in the UK and US where we sell mainly to women aged 30 -55 and their partners - around 50% of our customers are men. It allows people to treasure their precious memories and keep loved ones close, wherever they are.
We’ve driven a lot of our growth by having exceptional customer service and always going the extra mile for our customers, many of whom have become friends. As a result, we have over 1100 five-star reviews on Trustpilot and are rated excellent at 4.9/5.
I made a conscious decision to build a reputation for excellence before moving to scale the business as our strategy revolves around building a brand for the long term.
The Memory Keeper Locket by Lily Blanche
The brand is named in honor of my grandmother, the original Lily Blanche, who lived on the Hebridean Island of Skye. My grandmother inspired my creativity. She taught me to sew, knit, crochet and embroidery, and I spent my childhood making things. The house on Skye was a tiny, whitewashed croft on the banks of a loch (lake). I remember being around the age of seven and playing on the waters’ edge and finding freshwater pearls which had come from the mussels in the loch. It was a real eureka moment finding such precious stones in their natural setting at such a young age.
After school, I studied archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, where I specialized in iron age jewellery from the Central Mediterranean. This helped cement my love affair with jewellery and piqued my interest enough to start experimenting with simple designs.
A career in journalism followed, including working on the business pages of the Times of London, where I learned a great deal about what worked and what didn’t in business and interviewed leading business luminaries such as Sir Richard Branson, Sir Terrence Conran, and Prime Minister David Cameron.
Women often price their products and time way too low. Be bolder.
It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I decided to set up my own business, initially with my sister, who had her own exhibition and interpretive design business. Founding a business had always been an ambition but an exciting career in journalism, which took me all over the world, plus a busy family and a husband who was a hospital doctor meant working long hours meant the time was never right.
It wasn’t until the children were older that I started my business.
The first concept was Tartan Twist, which is a Scottish jewellery and gift brand, designed and manufactured in my Stirling studio. We sold mainly B2B, to outlets such as Edinburgh Castle, The Scottish Parliament and National Trust for Scotland. At its peak, we were selling to over 300 outlets in Scotland and overseas. Both my sister and I were running the business alongside our other commitments. In time, her design business became busier and busier and my journalism was demanding. We hit crunch time when my sister said she could no longer do both.
After a lot of soul-searching, I decided to buy her out and take the business online. I concentrated on my upmarket designs, particularly personalized gold lockets. I had always been fascinated with the stories behind jewellery, particularly lockets which are so personal and have such meaning. Both my archaeological background and my love of telling people’s stories through journalism fed into this obsession. I gradually pulled out of the B2B market.
It was a huge leap of faith, which was predicated more on hunch than data. I really didn’t have any date to go on at that stage and didn’t know about tools such as Google Trends but through luck rather than judgment, it was the right way to go.
The B2B market for gifts was contracting and many of our big stockists wanted products unique to them and were by-passing smaller businesses.
Ecommerce was still relatively new and many jewellery companies were very conservative when it came to technology. Most jewellery is unbranded and so there was an opportunity to try and grow a brand. Finally, personalization was really beginning to take off. And although lockets are a niche market, mainstream brands are introducing them to their customers.
Financially, I was in a position to buy out the business without bank loans and I had built up funds of my own to invest, along with some family money. While I often wished I had started my eCommerce business earlier, there are advantages to being older - financial security, experience, and confidence are some.
There is also good evidence that businesses started by women in mid-life are less likely to fail.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I was lucky enough to have a fabulous Arts & Crafts style studio with amazing stained glass windows in my garden. A stand-alone building, it had everything I needed to start designing prototypes.
The earliest Tartan Twist items took a long time to develop as I had to design a mechanism to secure the tartan ribbons into the silver ends for the jewellery catches. We worked with the head buyers at National Trust for Scotland and the Scottish Parliament to design our original ranges.
They gave invaluable advice about what would and wouldn’t sell and we changed our designs based on their information.
There may be a better idea than the one you have now. Don’t be afraid to hone an idea or pivot to something better.
When it came to Lily Blanche, my love of antique jewellery came to the fore and I turned to vintage designs for inspiration, some of them from my grandmother’s jewel box. We added a modern 21st-century twist to our locket designs and spent a great deal of time developing the technology for the photos. We do all our own photo editing and engraving in house and the lockets really come alive with photos and engraving.
Initially, it was just me working in the studio, coming up with drawings and prototypes. My first hire was a full-stack developer who is still with me as I realized early on that I wasn’t creating a jewellery business, I was building an e-commerce business. That has always been our thought process. If we can get the technology right, we can scale by bringing in new income streams and new websites.
Our team is now 6 in number. In addition to a developer, we employ a digital marketing manager, a creative content producer who does all our photography and video, a digital admin apprentice who oversees dispatch, and a manufacturing and logistics person. I oversee the strategy and the expansion of the business and am responsible for SEO, designing new collections. We outsource paid traffic and some platform sales.
Nearly all our best ideas and developments have come from our customers. We are always learning and developing our products.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We launched our original business Tartan Twist at the main trade show in Scotland, Scotland’s Trade Show. We really didn’t know what to expect but we generated a lot of interest and good sales. This kick-started our orders and gave us an idea of what to expect in terms of repeat business.
In terms of B2c sales, our initial website was quite primitive and we did not focus on eCommerce until I bought the business out and launched Lily Blanche as an eCommerce brand. I was extremely lucky with the website team as they were three people, a developer, an SEO specialist, and a graphic designer who was working for a big brand and were looking for a project to launch themselves as an agency. We did everything by Skype. Noone had heard of Zoom or Teams at that point.
Initially, they quoted an upgrade to our existing Magento 1 website and we were able to apply for a grant but once they dived into the site, they returned to say a whole new website was needed which was going to be more expensive. Had I known, I would have applied for a bigger grant.
I had a sleepless weekend where I had to decide whether or not to commit many thousands of pounds more to a group of people I had never met. I decided to bite the bullet and it was the best decision I could have made. The new website launched in 2016 and sales started to rise steadily. We relaunched on the Big Commerce platform in February 2021 and sales have gone from $700 a month to $40000 and growing.
I decided I needed to immerse myself in the world of eCommerce and spent many long evenings watching webinars, listening to podcasts, and reading blogs. We made lots of mistakes but slowly I started to work out how to drive sales, using Facebook and Google ads. We worked hard on our SEO building backlinks and paying for an Ahrefs subscription when most small companies of our size would have considered it an extravagance.
There is more data now than ever before to allow you to evaluate your business idea before you start. Use tools such as Google Trends and Google Keywords to work out the search volumes and markets for your products.
I needed training for myself and my team and I needed an eCommerce community in Scotland, so I joined together with other like-minded eCommerce businesses in Scotland and helped to launch an Institute of Ecommerce. A pilot course for senior eCommerce managers was launched at the University of Strathclyde in 2020 and taught by Dr John McSloy - an eCommerce expert. It allowed us to build a community of experts, many of whom are running multi-million-pound businesses and to whom we can turn for advice. It’s proved invaluable.
During this time the business was mainly self-financing for one-off big costs, such as our engraving machine. I took out interest-free credit cards and paid them down over a couple of years.
I’m not risk-averse but I am debt-averse. I’ve seen other companies get distracted raising finance and then spending it on the wrong things. We’ve chosen to grow organically and reinvest profits. If I were to do it again, I would launch as an eCommerce brand from the get-go and I would hire staff earlier. But much of what we’ve done has been in response to circumstances and events which you just can’t foresee.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Once I decided that we would withdraw from the B2B market and sell online directly to customers, I focused on customer service and personalization.
We did not push our product until I knew we had something really worth shouting about. Because of the personal nature of our product and the emotional connection with our customers - they give us their most cherished memories and photographs often at times of high emotion such as a wedding or the birth of a new baby - we have a unique connection.
As a result, we have over 1100 five-star reviews on Trustpilot and a growing loyal customer base with good Lifetime Customer Value.
We drive sales using a mixture of channels, the most important of which is word of mouth. We use paid and unpaid traffic channels. In the early days, Facebook advertising was crucial to our growth. While we still use FB advertising, we have a more balanced mix of channels. Google advertising has recently taken over from FB as our main paid traffic channel.
We also have great results from email - particularly automated flows. We’ve invested heavily in organic SEO which is paying results and should benefit us long term and we keep our social channels up to date, with daily posts on Instagram, Facebook, and our private members Facebook group. We also post Instagram stories daily.
We are present on Twitter, Pinterest and have a YouTube channel. We’re currently starting our TikTok channel which we believe will be very important to us in the future. We also do a lot of work with bloggers and Instagram influencers and we run competitions for our customers regularly.
Platforms are important to us but Amazon sales, which we're working OK have collapsed in the aftermath of Brexit. We are having more success with newer, more niche platforms. It’s an area we will explore next year.
This year, we participated in an event in China for Singles Day with Niaho Fashion. We are constantly thinking ahead as to where our next customer group is likely to come from.
Our packaging and gift wrap is also an extremely important part of the process. Every box is as gifty as possible. We are looking to upgrade our packaging again next year, considering our sustainable ethos.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we are in growth mode. In common with many eCommerce companies, growth during 2020 and 2021 has been extremely strong. New products such as our personalized birthstone necklaces have been a huge hit with our customers.
All our metrics are heading in the right direction. Our customers have proved loyal and the social proof we have garnered has been important to our growth. Sales have grown from $500 a month when we launched as an eCommerce brand to over $40,000 a month today. Growth is in double digits year-on-year.
We have several projects earmarked for next year, including a relaunch of our original brand Tartan Twist, as an eCommerce brand. We are also looking to do more in North America.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The most important lesson I’ve learned is to hire the right people. We haven’t always got this right and I’ve had to make some hard decisions around the staff. If you do have to let someone go, do it as quickly, sympathetically, and as directly as possible.
I’ve also lost good staff because I didn’t build my team quickly enough. The team I have just now is amazing. Really switched on and lovely people. The most important thing I have learned is to trust them, share everything with them and be entirely open. They are the driving force behind the business.
The other thing I’ve learned is to be generous with customers. Small businesses and start-ups can get ground down by nit-picking the small stuff. We have a very generous returns policy and we have values of integrity and authenticity. You really have to live that stuff. Be generous with customers. They really appreciate it. And treat everyone with respect. Word gets round.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We moved this year to Big Commerce and it has been a great move. We have a much more flexible content management system and it is very SEO friendly. The team liked it. The checkout is Braintree which is owned by PayPal. This has greatly reduced our PayPal charges as well as our credit card charges. We’ve added Klarna, Google Pay, and Apple Pay this year. Google Search Console, Google Merchant Centre, and Google Manufacturing Center are vital for us as, of course, are Google Analytics and Ahrefs. Our delivery partners are Royal Mail Click & Drop and DHL. Because of the personalized element of our offering, we do our own fulfillment.
Adding a bespoke app for filling our lockets has made a massive difference to the time the personalization team takes to fill and engrave the lockets. We also love Live Chat, as a tool. We’re using Searchinise for smart search online and nudgify. We’ve recently moved from Mail Chimp and we are looking to break with trustpilot because of the costs and aggressive sales techniques. Building a community through Facebook groups has been good for us and we’re excited about TikTok.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m a great fan of the Digital Marketer podcast and also the Perpetual Traffic podcast. We like Search Engine Journal and the Ahrefs courses with Tim Soulo. Anything with Think With Google is great and Benedict Evans is always thought-provoking.
In the early days, Neil Patel and Ezra Firestone were helpful but everyone is selling something and it is important to be aware of that.
I used to think all I needed to do was find an expert in eCommerce who could help me run my business. Then I realized I was the expert in eCommerce for my own business and nobody understood it better than me.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
There is more data now than ever before to allow you to evaluate your business idea before you start. Use tools such as Google Trends and Google Keywords to work out the search volumes and markets for your products. You may be surprised. Work out the competition in advance using digital tools such as Ahrefs and see what the cost of paid traffic is likely to be. Data is key to everything you do.
There may be a better idea than the one you have now. Don’t be afraid to hone an idea or pivot to something better.
Your business is a product - not a baby. You sell a product; you feed a baby. This was an absolutely vital revelation for me in growing my business.
Women often price their products and time way too low. As chair of the British Association of Women Entrepreneurs (Scotland) I see this time and again. Be bolder.
Where can we go to learn more?
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