We chat to Pandora Stormonth Darling, founder of online nightwear business, PJ Pan, about how making her product in the UK was difficult, but not impossible, and that even the best product will not go anywhere without a good business structure.
What is your business? What inspired you to start it and how is it different to that of rivals on the market?
PJ Pan is an online nightwear business offering an extensive and exclusive British-made collection for men, women and children. I was inspired to start the company after a failed shopping trip in central London. After trawling the streets and failing to find some pyjamas, I came up with the idea of designing my own. I discussed it with friends who all encouraged me to go for it…and so I did!
What makes us different to other nightwear companies is a combination of things: the fact that our nightwear is British made, manufactured from high quality fabrics and available in three leg lengths. In addition to this we do our utmost to ensure our fabric designs are never run of the mill – they are interesting and different to what you’d find on the high street.
We place great emphasis on fabric quality and provenance, with our entire range being manufactured in the UK. Our pyjamas are made to fit, which means we offer the women’s collection in five sizes, but that’s not all, we also offer many styles in a long cut for taller customers. If that’s still not enough, we even have a third and even longer cut for those women lucky enough to have long, long legs!
What have been the key challenges for your business?
There are numerous challenges whether it’s stock control, cashflow, design, fabric selection, quality control, sizing or web design. Our single biggest challenge was the day our main fabric supplier went out of business. It came as a massive shock and at first I wondered if that might signal the end for PJ Pan. In fact, after months of research we discovered several mills which could meet our quality, price and volume requirements. We now source our fabrics from a handful of mills in Europe leaving us far less vulnerable in the event of a supplier going under. It was a negative that turned into a positive – and a great lesson learnt that however good your product is, you must match that with a strong underlying business structure.
We also have the constant challenge of competing with some huge multinational nightwear companies. Even if we know we have a better product, if people don’t know it exists, it means nothing. We have to somehow get it in front of customers and when you’re competing with companies with enormous marketing budgets that isn’t easy. Making our website more ‘Google friendly’ is one of the main reasons we are updating it.
What are your company’s biggest achievements to date?
The single biggest achievement was the day we could say our entire collection was being manufactured in the UK. Originally we were manufacturing in Turkey and we were being relentlessly told it wouldn’t be possible to manufacture over here. Although it certainly wasn’t easy, we got there in the end, after endless hours spent crunching numbers and discussing options with countless manufacturers. We now have a fantastic set up with a small family run factory.
What is a typical day for you? What sort of role do you play in your business and what challenges do you face in your sector as woman?
I remain involved in all aspects of the business from sales fulfillment to fabric selection, but at the moment I’m spending a lot of my time working on our new website and the forthcoming launch of our next collection. I think it’s incredibly important to keep a close eye on every area of the business, but as the business grows that does become harder. It’s then that you start to rely on other people which is why it’s so crucial to be surrounded by a good team.
It’s not just your employees you must like and trust. I once heard a businessmen being interviewed who said “We don’t do business with people we don’t like” and I think it was useful advice which I have always kept in my mind. I don’t think I’ve encountered any specific gender related challenges – perhaps that is why.
What has business ownership taught you about money management?
The age old saying ‘hope for the best, but plan for the worst’ is incredibly important. You always need a contingency plan. Growing the business has taught me the value of cashflow and never to put off important or difficult issues. Take them on straight away, know where you stand and deal with them. I take far more interest now in the value of the Pound – it’s amazing how a relatively small shift in the exchange rate can have a considerable knock on effect to the costs of our fabrics. As much we we’d love to source our fabrics from the UK, it’s just not possible to find high quality cottons here, which means we are generally paying for fabric in euros or US dollars.
What is the greatest challenge and the greatest reward in being your own boss?
The greatest challenge is knowing that it’s all your responsibility and doubting yourself and your decisions. When things are not going as you’d like, you can’t shut the door on them at 5.30pm. They stay with you 24 hours a day….until you solve them.
The greatest reward is hearing from happy customers. We are lucky in that we get a lot of great feedback and sometimes just one comment from one customer can make my day. The other thing I love about being my own boss, is I can take a day off without having to run it past anyone else!
Which other businesses outside of your industry do you admire and why?
Of course, there are many admirable professions out there, but being located in a remote highland glen in Perthshire, I cannot help but admire all the farmers, stalkers and gamekeepers who work at all hours and in all weather. Scotland is a beautiful country with wonderful wildlife for us all to enjoy and no one does more to preserve that than the farmers, stalkers and gamekeepers.
What’s next for your business?
We’re investing in a state of the art new website for 2017 which will improve our presence on the web and give our customers an even better shopping experience on pc’s as well as mobiles and tablets. We are also in the process of converting an old farm building into a 3000 square foot office and warehouse. This will make a huge difference to us in terms of space and organisation. We are also toying with the idea of introducing some tweed dressing gowns for men in 2017. Now, that is one of the few high quality fabrics we can actually buy in the UK!