Jo Conrad – Fashion & homeware brand

Owner of Dotty Cuckoo

Jo Conrad is the owner of Dotty Cuckoo, a fun homeware and fashion brand for women and children, with each piece being designed and hand-made in her South London studio. After studying BA(Hons) Illustration in Bristol, Jo went on to make props for Aardman Animations and Bristol Old Vic for 8 years. A short stay in New York inspired her to design her own bags and t-shirts, and after selling them at market stalls in London, things soon took off and she realised there was a demand for her products. It quickly grew into a brand that sold in over 300 stores and boutiques all over the world and employed a team of 20, until Jo decided to take some time out to have a family. After several lovely years with her 3 kids (daughter Lily and twin boys Thomas and Charlie), Jo has now started the business again, and her style, influenced by crafting with her children, has evolved into a new brand.

If you did any training after leaving school, how was it relevant to what you’re doing now?

Although I have taken a slightly different route from the degree I did in Illustration, it still played a huge part in getting me where I am today. I had wanted to do children’s book illustration, but was introduced to model-making by a visiting lecturer (Jane Kite who I’m extremely grateful to!), which was completely new and exciting to me, and changed my whole direction in life. I made props for the rest of my degree, went on to work on animated films and pantomimes, and the designs I now sell all have a 3-dimensional aspect to them as a result. It was also a really fun three years and good transition between leaving home and working, so I highly recommend it!

How did the idea for your business come about?

I was really inspired by seeing young designers selling their work in pop-up boutiques in New York, and thought I’d have a go myself, but I hadn’t really thought about it becoming a business at the time. I had a few designs in mind, and selling on a market stall was a great way to try out and develop my ideas without too much financial risk (and could be done alongside my freelance work to start with), and I was lucky that things took off the way they did. It was a big learning curve after that, and I’m also very lucky that my partner came on board too to help with the business side of things, when he saw how busy I was and how much potential it had.

What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?

I’m afraid I really couldn’t narrow it down to 3 so I’ve chosen 5!

  • Self-motivation: Running your own business involves a huge amount of work and it can be difficult at times to have enough drive, especially if you’re not getting any immediate reward (financial or personal) for your efforts. You are your own boss so it’s essential to keep pushing yourself, even though there will be hard days sometimes, but this should come naturally most of the time if you love what you do.
  • Resiliency: Things rarely go smoothly so there will probably be set-backs and rejections, but you have to just move on and learn from any mistakes you make. There can be a long period of time when you’re not making any money at all so you have to be prepared to give up a lot, and not let it put you off your long-term goals and dreams.
  • Communication: It’s really important to come across as professional and friendly at all times, and get on with all your customers, employees and suppliers. Social media is a big thing in business now too, so you have to find the right kind of voice and language to make sure you engage with your target audience.
  • Confidence: This is a hard one for me as I’m not a natural saleswoman, but you do have to give an impression of confidence in order to make your customers and shop buyers feel secure that you can deliver the product or service you’re offering, and make them feel excited about your brand.
  • Organisation: I’m not as good at this I’d like either! But it’s very important as it cuts out a lot of time and stress if you can quickly find what you need, from materials in your studio to an invoice on your computer, or an inspiring image that you saw somewhere. It will make life a lot easier for your employees too.

What are the best and worst aspects about running your own business?

The biggest advantage for me is that my time is completely flexible. As a mum of three young kids this is essential to me, as I can take and pick them up from school, go to every school play or assembly, be there when they’re at home, and look after them when they’re ill. It can be hard as I have to make up the time by working at night, often into the early hours, but it’s completely worth it. (I can also go for a coffee or lunch with a friend without feeling too guilty!) It’s also incredibly rewarding knowing that you’ve generated your own money, and that complete strangers like what you make or do!

The hardest element is that you never really switch off, and there is always so much more you could or should be doing, so you never get that satisfying feeling that you’ve finished for the day. It can be frustrating how long it takes to achieve things, and the lack of money at the beginning is stressful, but if you’re passionate about what you do it will never (well hardly ever!) feel like work.

How important is education when it comes to building a career?

I think education is hugely important, as you might have talent in a certain area, but it’s essential to have strong skills at least in literacy and maths, and an advanced understanding in your chosen field. Bad grammar and punctuation can give a really bad impression and low level of professionalism, which is really detrimental in today’s ultra-competitive world. Maths is a big part of my job (ordering materials within budget, working out staff’s wages, calculating overheads) and it’s crucial to get it right to avoid any costly mistakes. Working hard at school also helps you develop commitment, focus and a good work ethic to deal with the challenges of being your own boss.

How do you juggle running your own business with being a mum, and can you successfully do both?

I’m not sure that it would be possible to do this until your children are at school, as it can be extremely hard to do anything (especially take professional phone calls!) with small children around. I tried when mine started nursery but that was only 2 days a week which really wasn’t enough and I had to give up. Now mine are all at school 5 days a week, I can use that time effectively (eg, making calls), and work again when they’re in bed. It’s good to work out which times you’re most creative, alert etc and do appropriate tasks at the best time of day for you. It is a challenge but for me it’s a good work/life balance as I get to see my kids, and also have something that makes me feel creatively and mentally fulfilled. It can feel like you’re not performing either role as well as you’d like sometimes, but I think each role benefits from the other as your life is so varied, and is as close to ‘having it all’ as I think you can realistically get.

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