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Reclaiming Lives and Furniture

Laura Willoughby wants to recover lives as well as furniture with an idea to train women ex-offenders in upholstery.

Throughout my life I have dealt with big local authority budgets and voluntary sector grants and I can say that they are all much easier to get your head around than how much to charge to recover a dining room chair. Business really is something else.

I have always been attracted to social enterprise, not the outsourcing of Government or NHS departments that will continue to depend on the public purse, but ethical business that ploughs profits back into people or causes. But it was seeing the local upholsterers for sale that inspired me to look at upholstery as a way to give employment to women ex-offenders, something that has always been a passion of mine.

Before I go any further I need to confess that I am not an upholsterer and I know my limits, I never will be. But I love breathing new life into old furniture and have a great appreciation for the traditional craft industry and how training is important for its survival. Add some modern marketing and an emphasis on reuse and recycle and I believe I can create a company that has a very different feel from traditional upholsterers whilst also producing quality work.

Looking into setting up in an industry that I have no knowledge in seems a little bonkers, but when I drew up a list of other ideas I had in the past and saw how other people have created businesses from something similar, I decided that I would be foolish not to explore it further. If nothing else I will be learning as I go along.

So I have researched sources of help, learnt how to set up a workshop, been encouraged by soft furnishers and visited a similar enterprise in Aberdeen. My business model has changed, moved and developed and I have learnt a great deal. The idea has elegant legs!

So what has my schedule of visits, lunches and coffees helped me with?

  • There is nothing better than road testing your plan. If your idea makes sense to a wide range of people from the industry, friends and potential customers then you know you are starting from a strong base. The enthusiasm of others is very motivating and everyone has put me in touch with others who can also help. Letting them know how things are progressing will also ensure you have feedback throughout your journey.
  • Finding others doing similar work gives you a real sense of context. Pat Bend from Textiles at St Anne’s in Birmingham has been a real support. She employs people with mental health history to produce quality soft furnishings. Seeing their set up and understanding some of the pitfalls and opportunities was great.  Bennachie Upholstery in Abderdeen is an inspiring social enterprise employing disabled people. They kindly showed me how they work out their costings, what I will need to set-up and had lots of useful suggestions.
  • Industry training as well as specific social enterprise advice has been vital. As well as undertaking courses with the Social Enterprise Coalition, Social Enterprise London and London Rebuilding I have signed up for workshops with Wendy Shorter Interiors. Having a good grasp of issues around fire safety legislation, risk assessments and specific business legislation to the industry is a must. At the end of the day this will be a business that needs to make money.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Being a social enterprise makes you far more open to partnerships with the voluntary sector and with others in the industry. Those I have spoken to in the upholstery industry have been supportive and I see our business as a collaborator rather than a competitor – our trainees could be their future staff.  Equally, employing ex-offenders will not go without its challenges. Jocelyn Hillman at Working Chance is always looking for employers who will take on women after release from Holloway Women’s Prison. Working with the charity will ensure we get someone who is interested in the trade and that the trainee will have independent support that goes beyond the day-to-day working environment.

I am now at the stage where one piece of advice is at the forefront of my mind. Pat Bend told me some months ago “at some point you need to stop researching and just get on with it!” She is right, wish me luck!


This item was originally published on Simpl Ideas Marketplace