The leather goods entrepreneur: Expanding in the face of challenge

William Forshaw discusses the challenges of growing his leather goods company, from navigating Google algorithm changes to bouncing back from laying off staff.

Maxwell Scott is a luxury online retailer selling Italian leather goods, based in the UK. Here, managing director William Forshaw discusses how he increased revenues from £1 million to £2.5 million in the last two years..

1. When did you start the business, why, and what were you doing before this.

After graduating from university in 2000, I went to work for a big advertising agency in London as an account executive. At the time, this was my dream job, however, after working in the industry for just a short period of time, I realised that this career path wasn’t going to excite me. During this time, my mother was travelling around Italy and meeting some fantastic people during her escapades through the Alps and around the riviera.

She often brought a selection of beautifully-crafted leather bags home for her friends that she’d pick up from markets or small factories along the way. This soon developed into handbag events. She would throw parties at her home in Yorkshire and sell these exquisite one-off bags to her peers. After an opportunity arose for a corporate sale at an investment bank in London, I offered to help. The rest, as they say, is history.

2.Talk about the early days of the business.

My first real attempt at expansion was making the decision to attend retail exhibitions. This produced greater cash flow and enabled me to quickly build a customer database.

However, there were so many to choose, it was tricky to work out which ones would be fruitful and worthwhile. So in the early days it was very hit and miss. I very much learned from my mistakes. I also found it very frustrating to manage stock in the early days. For example, with the big shows, it was often the case that we would never have the right levels of stock to meet the demand. I learned quickly that it was important to manage inventory incredibly carefully if I wanted the business to be profitable.

As online technology has gradually occupied the main focus of the business, the main obstacle I have had to confront is SEO. As an e-commerce business, it’s vitally important to drive traffic through Google organic. Over the years, as Google has changed and developed its algorithms, we have not been best placed to deal with these changes. This has caused me many sleepless nights.

3. What was the single ‘turning point’ moment for the business and its revenues?

There are two protruding turning points that spring to the forefront of my mind when I contemplate this. Number one is the decision to expand the company internationally. As a consequence of building specific websites tailored to varied worldwide markets, it became evident that in order to get the penetration we wanted, employing native staff was essential. Secondly, in 2014, we decided to completely rebrand the business. Although this was a tricky task due to a lack of funding, it was crucial in order to keep the brand fresh and competitive within the industry. Unfortunately, as a result of this, I had to layoff two members of staff. This was a devastating moment for me, however it was a decision I regretfully had to make to keep the business afloat. After the initial settling in period of the rebrand, we have seen a 500 per cent increase in turnover. For me, this was a classic example of having to take the rough with the smooth in order to succeed in business.

4. From that point, how did your business scale? Any other key moments that contributed to success?

It became super apparent to me that hiring the right staff was of the utmost importance, even if it did mean paying a little extra. I am extremely proud of the team we have, as they are all experts in their field. When hiring, I always think to myself, ‘Can this person do a significantly better job than me in their defined role?’. If the answer is a ‘yes’ without any hesitation, I know that they are suitable to work for Maxwell Scott. I prefer to keep all day-to-day work in-house to create a hub where the brand is at the heart. Using the right agencies can work, however I feel that the strength of our in-house team has significantly contributed to our success in recent years.

5. How can similar companies in the sector learn from your success?

It’s important to build a secure structure from the ground upwards. It can feel like a slog sometimes, but slow and steady really does win the race. Trying to run before you can walk could seriously damage your business in the long term. Don’t focus too heavily on competition – it can be a waste of energy and sways your focus. Constantly striving to improve your product or service is absolutely imperative. Ensuring you maintain quality and desirability should always be at the forefront of your mind. Finally, if you don’t take calculated risks, you won’t reach your full potential. The word ‘calculated’ is key here – don’t take risks on a whim and just hope they will pay off. Make sure you have at least five valid reasons as to why you should take the risk.