If the secret of success in business is who you know, then I have to work on my little black book. While Smythson’s can call on the Sam Cam effect and Mahiki can rely on a steady stream of royals to boost its profile, the only celebrity connection in my family is my sister’s boyfriend, who’s the keyboard player for 70s chart-toppers Mud. They can still fill arenas across Europe, but they won’t capture many column inches in Glamour if they make a surprise appearance at my shop.
Thanks to their hit “Lonely This Christmas”, December is a great time to be in Mud, except maybe when he comes to dinner and the whole family treats him to a drunken rendition. I’m sure that joke never gets old for him.
In the early days of Homemade London, the lyrics took on extra meaning. In my former working life, the Christmas party season would start in mid-November, and sheer adrenaline and stories of various colleagues’ escapades would see me through the party season. I’d often take much of January off to recover. Needless to say, for three months of the year, I probably wasn’t a very productive employee.
When you run your own business, however, all this changes: you’re unlikely to get invited to many Christmas parties (embarrassingly, I haven’t been invited to one in over five years), and it’s my job to organise one for my team. Last year, we were so frazzled from running parties for other people that we didn’t feel like having one of our own. We managed a pizza and champagne evening but everyone was home in bed by 9.30pm. Or maybe they all went somewhere better for an after-party while I locked up. Either way, it wasn’t exactly rock and roll.
Being responsible for the party is one thing, but being responsible for the finances is what can make Christmas feel really lonely. For a lot of businesses that lease their premises – like we do – Christmas Day itself carries an extra sting, as it’s a ‘quarter day’ when rent is due. This is apparently an old tradition – but one that could easily have been dreamed up by Ebeneezer Scrooge himself. Not so much of an issue for an established business that’s making a profit, but when you’re first starting out and cash flow needs to be tightly monitored, it’s a day to be dreaded.
My first Christmas as an entrepreneur was particularly dark. Worried about whether the business would be viable, I just wanted the ghost of Homemade London future to visit and tell me everything was going to be alright – or at least let me know if I was wasting my time. Christmas brings everything into sharp relief because it’s supposed to be a time of plenty and a time for family. Neither of these things is true when you’re a start-up.
Christmas also brings a lot of pressure because the normal patterns of customer behaviour go haywire and the stakes are raised for many businesses. For some retailers, their success in attracting Christmas footfall determines whether they end the year in profit or loss. Competition for custom is at its most intense, with every business investing and innovating to get people through their doors. Christmas cards are still one of the most effective ways of building your brand. For example, the designer of the Olympic cauldron Thomas Heatherwick’s cards have become so well-loved, the media begin talking about them in the summer and they have become collectors’ items in their own right.
For an experiential business like mine, the ways people spend their time changes completely in the build up to Christmas. Our mainstay – the hen party market – falls away and we rely on other events to stop it becoming a lonely Christmas. Ironically, that means I now spend my Decembers organising other companies’ Christmas parties.
Every corporate booking we take is looking for a tailored experience, but ultimately they all want the same thing – a bonding experience that lets their team show a little creativity. The secret to a good party, in my experience, is to keep it simple. Too fussy and people don’t relax. The food has to be great and the drinks need to keep flowing. Throw in a few little surprises throughout the proceedings to get people talking and you can’t fail. Great parties needn’t cost a lot; it really is the thought you put into them that counts.
This Christmas, I’m going to make sure I take some time off. There will be an email curfew for at least 24 hours, during which I’ll be spending time with my family and singing Mud classics to my beleaguered relatives. That never gets old.