Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Nick Griffiths. For 25 years I was a freelance journalist in London; now I run Any Old Lights, selling vintage nautical and industrial lighting, online and from a shop by the sea in Cornwall, UK. You never quite know where life will take you!
We’re always on the hunt for quality lighting that’s a little different from the norm. Much of the good stuff is up to 70 years old and supplies are inevitably going to dry up. So we also created our own Revivals brand of lighting. When a light looks like it’s disappearing from circulation, we create our own version, with little twists.
Noticeably cheaper than the originals, these Revivals lights are very popular with both domestic and commercial customers on a budget. We also sell higher-end products like our very own Lighthouse, which I dreamed up one evening during a walk along the cliffs near our home.
Given Any Old Lights’ strong nautical theme, I couldn’t resist delving into the maritime antiques and curios market - packed with salted history and stunning designs - so we also source and sell anything from vintage ships’ bells to brass engine-order telegraphs. Our vintage ships’ clocks are incredibly popular, especially with American customers.
Any Old Lights has won awards along the way and keeps growing in popularity, selling worldwide to anyone from high-street giants and celebrity bars to Middle Eastern hotel groups, turning over last year £250,000.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I must have written millions of words in my lifetime - for magazines, newspapers and my books - and I loved every minute of it. But kids come along and maybe the city life isn’t ideal for them growing up.
That’s the beauty of starting a business - you have to cram knowledge into your aching grey matter, day in, day out. And it’s really exciting. So new and different and initially bewildering. But cracking it is a major buzz.
So in Summer 2011, my family moved to Cornwall, a delightful and quirky county that takes up the final chunk bottom-left of the map of England, where my wife, Sinead, had grown up. Now the kids have beaches and boats and crabbing. And I had…
...To reboot my entire career.
I took a course in WordPress web design and started building websites. One was for a fledgling online vintage lighting business, set up by my friend, Patrick. I came up with the name, built the site, and within weeks we had orders coming in. Including one to Hong Kong! We were gobsmacked.
Patrick asked if I wanted to become a joint director, and in the absence of any better ideas, I said Yes. I knew nothing about lighting (though I have a degree in Electrical Engineering, I could barely wire a plug), less so vintage lighting. I remember when we opened a pop-up shop during our first winter in business, people coming in, discussing vintage lighting brands, and me nodding sagely (blankly), thinking: I’m going to need to learn a lot of stuff.
And I did. That’s the beauty of starting a business - you have to cram knowledge into your aching grey matter, day in, day out. And it’s really exciting. So new and different and initially bewildering. But cracking it is a major buzz.
Patrick left Any Old Lights early in 2016 and I gained a new co-director: my wife!
These days, I am actually an expert in vintage lighting - a veritable mine of information! Who’d have thought it? Certainly not me.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Aside from our Revivals versions of vintage lights, cast in metals, we’ve also been looking to the future. And that future has to involve acrylics (recyclable) and LED.
That future is RetroFutures, by Any Old Lights.
These are laser-cut acrylic lights with integrated LED COB (chip-on-board) rings, running off 12V so incredibly economical to run and eco-friendly. Our very first pattern - we call it Cage - was based on the design of a vintage Lemar nautical wall light (from which we’d already removed the wall-arm and added a hook to create a Revivals pendant light).
You can see the two side-by-side here.
Our Cage has been through numerous iterations during its year in development. Originally it had a hook, same as the original, and a light bulb, and screws holding it together - all gone. Our designer is a local colleague, and we have a profit-share agreement once we start selling, otherwise, the collective expense would have been beyond us.
I’ve had custom parts created, having chanced upon an excellent, trustworthy supplier of electronics in China. (That was a major concern - it seems such a lottery given so many options, and I got lucky.) But we’re keen to create the light itself in the UK, and I’ve been getting quotes for acrylic supplies, laser-cutting, assembly and packaging, such that we’re geared for the RetroFutures launch in January 2018.
For market research, we took a bunch of prototypes to a major London hospitality industry show in October, on the advice of a mentor, where we listened to experts and were deeply heartened by the positive response. Annoyingly, the timing was all wrong for us as we weren’t ready to supply, so bar gaining contacts we wasted our money.
That poor advice aside, we’ve taken advantage of plenty of free mentoring by local business organisations - funded by the European Union and devastatingly already disappearing thanks to the lunatic Brexit vote - who’ve advised on all aspects of our task, from design protection to wholesale pricing.
Putting this project together has cost us thousands - we’ll crowdfund our first 100 RF lights to help recoup - stressed me out more than ever before, and we’ve no idea whether it will fly. But I’d far rather try new things than coast along. Watch this space.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We launched online back in May 2014 - seems like a lifetime ago - with a few vintage ships’ lights sourced from a UK supplier. There was no fanfare.
When I went into partnership with Patrick, we put in £9,000 each of our own money, and have never taken out a loan or overdraft since. I feel if you get to that stage, you’re in the wrong business. The banks have zero interest in actually helping small businesses - likewise this government.
Come winter 2014 we were offered a pop-up shop in a local coffee shop that closed for the down season. We took it. Who wouldn’t? And it went really well: we sold things and got to meet our customers. It made us realise we needed a retail space.
So we moved into a shop-share in a 13th century ground-floor space, where the ceilings were so low I moved like Quasimodo. (One time I was serving a customer and hadn’t realised I’d stood up directly beneath a light shade, which I was effectively wearing as a hat. Oh, the japes.)
Come February 2018, we moved again, into a former boutique with tired decor. I ripped off the boarding and found 1920s tiling throughout the shop, which turned out to be a former butchers. Same outside, having scraped off layers of paint. It really fits our vibe and we’ve increased takings year-on-year by some 25 per cent.
Going back to the beginnings, then: the key to early success is working hard and learning fast. We made mistakes aplenty and always vowed never to repeat them. Sometimes we succeeded!
And be prepared to go with your gut and take risks. Where’s the fun (actual genuine terror) otherwise?
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Key to our success has been good SEO. I read everything I could about the subject - too often finding conflicting advice - and dived in.
Our website uses WordPress with WooCommerce, and the Yoast SEO plugin is a must. I also lashed out around £2000 to hire an SEO specialist; that was a couple of years ago and everything they instigated already seems to be out of date.
So I’ve just completed another, current SEO course, which tiresomely calls for a complete site rewrite - can’t be helped. The dividends will be reaped.
It’s all about diving into Google: Google My Business, Google Tag Manager, Google Search Console, Google Keyword Planner - all four are imperatives. (He set them up for me, or I’d still be gibbering in a corner, imagining little green men flying overhead.)
Did you know that there’s no such thing as “top of Google” any longer? Everyone - including me and you, when we check - sees slightly different ranking dependent upon our search history, location, etc (don’t ask me what the etc is). The only true check of keyword ranking is Google Search Console.
So I take my obvious keywords - Vintage Nautical Lighting, Vintage Bulkhead Light… - and run them through Keyword Planner, to find which is the most popular similar term, as well as checking alternatives I can pepper around my text. A blog is a great way of sneaking keywords in on a regular basis. No one reads the things, so be bold. Just don’t cram keywords - it has to read naturally or Google will penalise you.
I’ve spent nothing on Facebook ads and precious little on Google Ads, which I’ve always found impenetrable (and Google’s documentation, still more so). However, the recent SEO course tutor suggested it’s very hard for a small business to survive on organic traffic alone - heartening that we have done - so I’m lashing out more on hiring a specialist to help me negotiate the Google Ads maze. So much cash can be wasted on ill-conceived online advertising, the expert hire is a no-brainer, unless you have the time and knowledge to learn yourself.
Unfortunately, my demographic missed out on internet teaching at school, so the jargon is pure Greek to me.
Obviously, we also maintain Facebook (750 followers), Twitter (1825 followers) and more recently started focussing on Instagram (735 followers), alongside LinkedIn and email lists. Social media is both a blessing and a curse - don’t spread yourself too thinly.
Remember Google+? Thought not. In desperation to keep up with the Googleses, I spent hours setting up an account and populating it - only to get one follower (the only other person on Google+). I set up Pinterest, too, and allowed it to lay fallow.
Pick your weapons and focus on those: we’re keenest on Facebook and Instagram. But still there are only so many hours in the day and there are few of us.
Plus it’s bloody boring. Don’t beat yourself up.
We use ActiveCampaign, which has way more flexibility than MailChimp, though it’s paid for. We’d built up decent databases of well over 2000 subscribers, which GDPR helpfully massacred in one afternoon. So we build again.
I tried eBay selling, but it’s not right for our quality products - there are too many cheap, inferior imitators - and I’ve looked into Amazon but again worry it’s not a great match, for the same reason. Best sales alternative to the website for us has been Etsy, which suits our quality vintage vibe.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The fact that we’ve barely used online advertising and its remarketing capabilities, but are now gearing up to do so, surely bodes well, as it can only boost sales.
We turned over £250,000 last year, with net gains rising from a £7K loss in our first year of trading to £20K profit last financial year. Over the year the split is roughly 50:50 online vs shop, with the shop doing best in the summer when the tourists are here, and vice versa in the winter when they aren’t.
Overheads are a concern in this business, which requires a large warehouse space, as well as our bricks-and-mortar shop and its staff. Launching RetroFutures, coupled with online advertising and the building of our brands, we plan to take us to the next level.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
This vintage lighting business is a very traditional business, with heavy physical products that need shipping great distances, as well as the warehousing. It’s been a steep learning curve fraught with overheads and naive errors.
Finding trusted suppliers and a decent shipping agent has been key to our success. We’ve been burnt in the past - those madly heavy portholes were supposed to have been stripped and polished, my friend - so we dump the deadwood and keep the gold dust. That’s often trial and error, so we make small sample orders from new suppliers and build slowly.
Maintaining stock numbers is a constant quandary. If we have an unexpected run on one pattern, we’re looking six weeks minimum for a restock - production and shipping - and equally, we don’t want unsold stockpiling up in the warehouse.
I’d rather go Out of Stock, as customers are often happy with an alternative, though there’s a happy medium. It’s all about identifying your popular items and ordering big, and trimming off the less popular patterns. Identify and maintain the core.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our website runs on WordPress and WooCommerce, and we also sell online via Etsy. WooCommerce plugins such as WooWaitlist (notifying a customer when you’re back in stock) and Recover Abandoned Cart have been very useful. There are plenty more if you do a little Googling around your specific requirements.
ActiveCampaign, I’ve mentioned - you can use it to set up email automation, as well as creating the usual lists and campaigns. Worth a look.
And I’ve just started experimenting with the free live chat app, tawk.to, on our website. It’s a little complicated to get your head around, but the support is good and I’m up and running now.
We’re a small team, so I worried about replying in time, but it’s working out OK. I’ve definitely made sales that would otherwise have disappeared on the back of it, and customers go away with a positive experience even if we can’t help.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I Google everything. If I’ve a website issue - cut and paste the error message directly into Google.
Whatever it is, Google it. Someone, somewhere, will have the answer for you (for free).
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Learn fast. Find good staff to support you. Ask for help from anyone who knows better than you - don’t be embarrassed.
Research local organisations that advise small businesses and use them. Don’t expect miracles; appreciate the small victories. Build slowly. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes - just avoid repeating them.
Focus your resources on core areas that you can see are making a difference. Be resilient. And pat yourself on the back every now and again!
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: https://anyoldlights.co.uk
- Blog: https://anyoldlights.co.uk/any-old-lights-blog
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/anyoldlights
- Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/anyoldlights.co.uk
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/anyoldlights/
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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