In the first event of Oxford Saïd’s new Inspiring Women series, jewellery designer and entrepreneur Annoushka Ducas spoke to Kathy Harvey, Associate Dean, MBA and Executive Degrees, about starting and selling a business, the importance of brand, and why you need a partner.
Ducas’s first entrepreneurial venture was a sandwich business called ‘Lunch on the Run’, which she started so that she could stay longer in Australia, where she had travelled after leaving school. ‘I thought it would be a fun way to stay in Australia and earn some money,’ she said, ‘and the only problem with it was that everything I didn’t sell, I ate. By the time I left Australia I was definitely a different size to when I arrived.’
But her introduction to the jewellery business was, the way she told it, similarly unplanned. By this time she was in Hong Kong and working as an estate agent when her mother, who ran her own business supplying fish to top-end London restaurants, called. ‘She said “I’ve got 60 chefs. I need to give them a present. Have you got any ideas?”’ Ducas had enjoyed travelling from her base in Hong Kong and had discovered a craftsman in the Philippines who could make silver jewellery to her specifications. She commissioned some silver cufflinks with a fish’s head on one side and fish bones on the other – a far cry from the silk knot cufflinks that were standard in London at the time.
It was cheaper for Ducas to commission 120 pairs, so after she had sold 60 to her mother, she rang a buyer at Harvey Nichols and offered her the other 60 for sale. ‘She said “I wonder if you can get a collection and perhaps come back to me.” I thought, “Well, I’m going to try.” So a few weeks later I went back to her and I’d done a pig’s head and tail, golf bag, all of those working cuff links. She said “Fantastic, I’ll take them all.”’
This must have felt very exciting, but it was Ducas’s next step that really made the difference. ‘I rang every friend I knew and I said “Could you just go to Harvey Nichols, buy these cuff links? I’ll buy them back from you.” A few weeks later [the buyer] said, “Sales are amazing.” I think that was the first lesson I learnt, that if your sales team believe you’ve got something fantastic, it becomes self-fulfilling.’
It was from this beginning (and Ducas confirmed that, yes, she did pay her friends back) that the business eventually grew into Links of London. Kathy Harvey asked her about the challenges of the early years.
Starting up, and fitting it around the ‘day job’
As with many entrepreneurs, Ducas did everything herself in the early stages. ‘I remember making corporate gifts for ICI which were little Dulux dogs with a paint can on the other side. I’d asked for the dog’s noses to be enamelled but the manufacturers had forgotten -- so I had to nail varnish all night. You literally do everything from invoicing to polishing to counting, all of those things and still work out how you’re going to let go of some of those things in order to grow a business.’
Developing the Links of London brand
The first collections were sold by Harvey Nichols under the Harvey Nichols brand. But Ducas realised that she needed to develop and control her own brand, which she acknowledged was a risk.
‘I had a client called Mappin & Webb, who were a very big customer and they would order hundreds of pairs of cuff links but sell them under the Mappin & Webb brand. … I remember the day the buyer rang me and she said, “I must place a re-order.” And I said, “Tracey, I’m really sorry but I’m only going to sell them to you if you’ll take them under my packaging.” There was this intake of breath and she said “I don’t want to do that.” Anyway, they didn’t do that. That was a pretty brave decision, I guess, but I think it was absolutely essential.’
Going into retail
Ducas explained that Links of London started as a wholesale business and then became a corporate business. ‘From a marketing perspective a corporate business was perfect because the 200 clients who were receiving this present were potential new customers,’ she said. But then her husband and co-founder, John Ayton, who was still working as a lawyer, walked past a tiny shop in Moorgate, just above Liverpool Street. ‘He rang and he said, “I’ve found a shop.”,’ said Ducas. ‘I didn’t know we were looking for a shop. But the joy of that was it was an absolutely tiny shop. We were selling tiny things … I think that was probably the biggest moment of the development of the business.’
Deciding to sell
Over 40 stores later, Ducas and Ayton made the decision to sell. ‘I think I had always got this ambition that I wanted to sell it before I was 40… but more importantly we had four children,’ she said. ‘But the other thing for me was that when a business gets very big, it’s very hard to maintain the creativity. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I’m a real “now” person. If I’ve got an idea I want to do it now, and when I’m told I can’t do it for nine months or 12 months because the franchise department doesn’t know, or the marketing department doesn’t know…I find it frustrating.’
Annoushka allows Ducas to focus on her creativity. The brand is about fine jewellery, mainly for women, featuring 18-carat gold and semi-precious and precious stones. As she said, ‘It’s fundamentally different in its aesthetic,’ and ‘It’s fundamentally different in that I control all my own distribution.’
Rather than 40 stores worldwide, Annoushka has two standalone shops in London, one in Hong Kong, and the rest are concessions in department stores ‘where I own and control all of the stock, employ the staff, so it puts me very much in charge’.
In fact, Ducas believes the growth in online sales means that it would not be necessary now to open 40 stores around the world. ‘I am constantly amazed at how much money people will spend online. So I think in three or four years’ time I’d like 50 per cent of our turnover to be online. That’s not to say we won’t open another shop anywhere else, but I don’t think there’s a need to open in lots of different places.’
Ducas’s advice for would-be entrepreneurs
Most importantly, she said, ‘you really have to love what you do ... because ultimately it takes a substantial part of your life, your working life, or your life generally, and I think as you employ people you have to be able to motivate those people. You have to be able to encourage those people and if you don’t like it, they’re going to see that very fast.’
In addition, ‘If you can have a partner, it’s so much less a lonely road.’ This was later echoed by Ayton, speaking from the audience: ‘I cannot believe how difficult it could be to run a business on your own. … Having somebody who says, “Don’t believe your own bullshit,” on the one hand, and on the other is able to support when things go wrong is an interesting balance… and when there’s a problem, it’s just like “How are we going to get over this problem?” as opposed to thinking “Oh, my God.”’