Case Study 14 The English Bear Company

The English Bear Company was founded in 1991 by Alise Crossick, 29, and her husband Jonty, 28. They now have ten shops in cities including Bath, Cambridge and London and have recently opened in Tokyo. Their annual turnover is £4m.

Jonty: 'Alise and I met at Cambridge in 1988 when we were both impecunious students. We knew we wanted to be in business on our own and that whatever we did, we would have to start with nothing. Designing and selling T-shirts was the obvious choice because it didn't need any capital, only an understanding supplier. The bear idea grew out of that. Our most popular T-shirt featured a bear which Alise had drawn, yet she'd never actually made one when we decided to launch the bear company.

'Being a typical Antipodean, she just got on with it: advertised for bear-makers, and then sat down with a bear manual. Most of the applicants patiently watched her demonstrate, and then showed her how it could be done 100% better.

'We always wanted to create a company that would communicate something from the heart, something magical. I think the bears do that because they express fun and cuddles. We make them out of distressed mohair which makes them look old and loved. Our customers don't want something pristine, they're looking for character.

'We initially made mistakes in identifying our customers. Our first outlet was a kiosk in Whiteley's which we thought was perfect as it gave us a start in London. The rent was so cheap that we didn't bother to carry out market research. It wasn't until we opened in Cambridge that we realised the tourist trade was much more lucrative.

'Our sites are now picked with greater care. It's about 50% strategic choice, 30% gut feeling and 20% scientific data.'

Alise: 'It was never just about selling bears, our vision was the whole concept of people wearing bear clothes, eating bear marmalade and drinking bear tea.

'When people love bears, they personify them and become absorbed in the lifestyle. We get young businessmen coming into our shops who look like they want to quickly buy a bear and run out again. The next minute they're captivated and umming and ahhing over which face they like the best. Occasionally we get people bringing old bears in for repairs, like the chap who rushed in with something his dog had half-eaten.

'There's not enough people in retail trying to help their customers, it's all take, take, take. We put our hearts into the business and believe passionately in the products. If you put enough energy and care into something it should work.

'We're not in business to suffer so we only work with people we like. Bears bring out the best in people because they cross gender and race and represent unconditional love. If we weren't working together I wouldn't find it so worthwhile. We generate so much love between us that it makes it wonderful for everyone around.'

Source: Lafferty21

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