The Tiny Box Company, now turning over circa £10m, was started from my bedroom 15 years ago. Since then, I have received the 2020 NatWest Entrepreneur of the Year Award and the 2021 Entrepreneurial Business of the Year Award at the UK Packaging Awards. My mission now is to encourage and mentor other female entrepreneurs to pursue their ambitions and passions.
Born in Devon in the early 70s, I experienced an extremely traumatic early childhood and spent my formative years in a children’s home. My parents, desperate for a new start, asked for me and my siblings to be returned from care and relocated the family to Suffolk. Unfortunately, financial pressures mixed with alcohol led to a physically and emotionally abusive environment. This came alongside continual moves from caravans to mansions, and back to humble beginnings. This meant a very disrupted education, swinging between private schools and state schools, but I also learnt to adapt quickly to any environment and despite my horrific home environment, I managed to put myself through A levels, moving onto De Montfort University to study Business.
Knowing from a young age that I wanted to set up my own business, but unsure of how to achieve this, I spent a year on a graduate management training scheme, focussing on accounting, with the John Lewis Partnership. I quickly learned that accounting didn’t offer me enough variety.
I moved into treasury roles and then onto selling financial systems for a large software company. This role allowed me to travel to Africa where I was responsible for implementing a new financial system for the government of Sierra Leone from 1998-1999. This was a pivotal moment for me as I witnessed another level of poverty. Sierra Leone was in the middle of a violent, raging civil war, and people were starving, many injured and maimed by rebel soldiers. Yes, my childhood was traumatic, but I always had a roof over my head and food – although sparse at times. I realised while working with the ministers in Sierra Leone, that although huge amounts of aid were being sent into the country, very little was reaching the masses. I vowed to myself that I would help in my own small way, if and when I was able.
Whilst formulating a plan for a fairtrade-type jewellery business to assist people in Africa, I went in for a routine appendix operation. What happened next is unclear, but complications led to me being more or less bedridden for 9 months. It took me a further 3 years to regain enough strength to work again and I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I took temporary jobs in clothing retail, at an art gallery and for a champagne company while I went back to forming my plan and focused on regaining my strength.
In 2006, I was ready to launch a jewellery business when my sister suggested that I use ethical, environmentally friendly packaging. This proved to be a much bigger problem than we originally thought, and after scouring the UK, I discovered it was almost impossible to buy ‘off the shelf’ eco-friendly jewellery boxes in small quantities, with short lead times. After months of research, out of pure frustration, I decided I would set up a box company to not only help the fairtrade business I had started, but all the other fledgling businesses in the same situation trying to find a packaging solution. In 2007, the Tiny Box Company was born from my bedroom in my parents’ house.
In 2007, broadcaster Robin Banks joined me at the Tiny Box Company, but he quickly realised this was not the best long-term plan for him as he missed broadcasting. Looking for a solution where he could exit the business without letting me down, he decided to apply for the TV show Dragons’ Den – without mentioning anything to me. I received a call from the BBC and, although confused as to why they were contacting me, I explained why investment was needed. We were invited onto the show which aired in September 2008, where two of the dragons – Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis – offered investment of £60k for a 40% share. The dragons stated very early on that they would forward the investment money but leave me to run the business, with little involvement or interference. Robin, feeling proud that he had found a solution, left the business to go back into broadcasting
Tiny Box Company grew rapidly, now employing over 90 staff, with a turnover of circa £10m per annum.
In 2016, I was frustrated with the manufacturers I was working with and stumbled upon a factory in Cornwall that had gone into liquidation. The original intention was to buy the equipment and move it to Sussex, where a new manufacturing plant would be started and operated from. I realised, however, that with no experience in manufacturing, the expertise of the staff in Cornwall was far more valuable than the equipment, so I pledged to try and make the factory a successful business in Cornwall. This proved to be a shrewd move and Tiny Box Maker has been profitable since initial takeover.
In 2020, COVID hit. Good fortune and contingency planning meant that I was able to send all office staff home when the UK government announced that people should work from home where possible. All systems, including the phone system and call centre were cloud based, and the Tiny Box Group were back up and running within the hour.
I soon realised that there was a fundamental problem: many of Tiny Box’s customers were small businesses who made their money at markets, street fairs, church halls etc. Suddenly there was no opportunity for them to sell their products, and therefore no need for packaging. Needing to come up with a rapid solution for both Tiny Box and our customers, me and my team created an online platform specifically for our customers to be able to list their products on the Tiny Marketplace platform. This ensured they could continue selling their products, which in turn kept the staff at Tiny Box employed. 10% of the profits from the platform go to helping small businesses affected by the COVID crisis.
In 2016, whilst running the Tiny Box empire, I had a run in with breast cancer and in 2019, lung cancer. They both went into remission, and we are looking forward to the launch of another business in 2022.
I advocate for sustainability and the circular economy. Described as an eco-entrepreneur, I ensure that not only do the products I sell have strong green credentials, but that the workforce and company ethos mirror these values. All damaged products/seconds are donated to schools and nurseries for arts & crafts projects. Tiny Box Company have been the proud winners of ‘National Small Business Recycler of the Year’ many times, as far back as 2010. The company has gone on to win many ‘green’ awards since.
My care for the environment has raised my awareness of the limited accessibility for easy-to-find, sustainable activewear. Being a change-maker, I felt something had to be done to shake up the industry and help make sustainable sportswear easier to find, whilst helping to increase visibility of many brands doing exciting things in the sustainable field. So, Chief and Turtle was born.
‘Chief’ represents us being a voice of reason and knowledge in promoting sustainable fashion and spearheading change within the industry. We’re here for the consumer to look to for advice and education in making better choices. ‘Turtle’ represents our care for the natural world and all living things. Globally, the turtle is a strong symbol in depicting environmental issues. The turtle is strong, yet graceful, with a long lifespan – a great representation of the brand from many angles.
Chief and Turtle launched in April 2022 and can be found at https://www.knowtheorigin.com/