A Day in a Double Life


Clare Harris always enjoyed decorating dining tables. "I loved creating a theme, and making things go pop, bang sparkle," she says. In 1999 she spotted a gap in the market for design-led party accessories and left her career in technology to start her business Talking Tables.

From a kitchen table start, Talking Tables now has a turnover of nearly £8 million from selling stylish party ware, games and decorations such as flaming ice fountains and pretty birdcage cake stands, through its own website, department stores, supermarkets and party shops in the UK and increasingly, worldwide.

Clare says that her life as a town and country go-between benefits herself and her business. 

'I live a double life. My time is split between London, where we have a house and office (in Balham), and our home in Gloucestershire, where my son goes to school.

London days start at six-thirty. I know I should exercise but I don’t get time. I just choose a tidy dress and boots and whizz out, grabbing a flat white and plain croissant from a coffee shop on the way.

At the office in Stockwell I say hello to our 35 people, mostly women. This is a womanly business - visually our products are female so it naturally attracts women. There was a point when I thought we were too female slanted in staff terms but it's balanced up a bit now.

Some days there are samples of new ranges to look at. My design instinct is what prompted me to launch Talking Tables. The millennium was coming up and the only party poppers available were basic (ugly) and cheap-looking. I contacted a designer and came up with a smarter party popper and some party ware and hopped on a plane to see manufacturers in China - it helped that I had travelled a lot before. They were bemused - they just assumed party ware would always be cheap and tacky.

I showed my products to Heals and they ordered immediately so I knew my instinct was right. Since then we've just grown slowly. It's important for me to grow at a rate you can cope with, and I've learnt as I went along. I did the deliveries to Harrods myself at first, and learnt to do invoices by looking at other companies'. Now everyone wants smart party ware and as well as selling our ranges ourselves we supply retailers such as John Lewis, The White Company, Lakeland and Tesco. 

Once we've made design tweaks to the new products I'm usually in back-to-back meetings with our design team, product developers or sales (marketing) people all morning. I spend a significant amount of time on annual appraisals allowing for mentoring opportunities, I give my team opportunities to grow and develop in line with challenges that come with bigger projects and bigger revenues, and we promote from within.

I try to get out of the office at lunchtime, even if only to get a baked potato from the little café nearby.  I don't often lunch with customers - business is too hectic these days. Then it's back to meetings, though about once a week I visit a customer such as John Lewis or Paperchase.

I don't get home until about 8.30, except when I go to the theatre. I'm a member of the National and go often. Otherwise I grab some food, watch television and then read the Times in bed.

Gloucestershire days are totally different.

I'm up at seven for breakfast and then take my son Sam, 11, to school then it's back to Painswick to work. Some days staff come to my house for appraisals, so I cook us lunch; on others I meet with some of our managers at the Hotel du Vin in Cheltenham. We hole up in a corner for meetings over coffee or lunch. Then I collect Sam from school and take him to tennis or football. I enjoy chatting to other parents on the touchline, but I'd never be content to be a school-run mum alone.

In the evenings my husband Mark and I share the cooking. One of my tips for women aiming for the top is to marry someone who can cook healthy food well! Then I may help with homework, do emails, watch Question Time or do the garden before bed at 10.30.

I'm also involved in the Painswick Art Couture Festival, a festival of striking fantasy fashion. Students' creations will be judged by some high profile judges and include work placements with John Lewis or Superdry. It's stimulated my creativity.

Running my own business gives me the flexibility to be a mum and the business gains too. Part of my role is reminding my staff how people live outside London, because that's where the majority of our customers are. Helping with school parties shows me what it's like to use our products and keeps me in touch with the kind of people who buy them. Keeping in touch with customers has been key to our success.

I'm a go-between, bridging the London business world and the world of a Gloucestershire mum. It generates lots of ideas, though it can be hard work, but one of my favourite song quotes is, 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going'. I guess I must be one of the tough.