When Lexi Tamasan and her partner Adam noticed that his mother was struggling to carry home heavy bags of pet food, and having to borrow from neighbours when she ran short, a business idea was born. Why not set up a website where people could order pet food and get it delivered to their door?
Lexi, a graduate who had just had a job offer withdrawn because of the recession, set up the online pet food delivery business PetShop.co.uk with Adam in 2010, when Lexi was 22. It now employs eight staff, has a 7,000 sq feet warehouse, over 40,000 customers and aims to turn over £5 million in 2014. As well as supplying pet food and accessories all over the UK, it is expanding into Europe, and already delivering to customers in Belgium and France.
This stellar performance was enough to win Lexi the NatWest everywoman Artemis Award for female business owners aged 25 and under. So how has the Artemis Award affected Lexi's business, and her life?
"The award has given a huge boost in credibility to the business and to myself and Adam," says Lexi. The business has won awards before but the NatWest everywoman Artemis Award is particularly special, she says. "This was the first personal award, just for me. It has given me more confidence and shows that a young woman can achieve in business.
It also shows other young people, particularly women, that even though they might not have been in the business world long, they can succeed."
One glance at the PetShop.co.uk's website shows just how much the business has grown since it was founded in London with a £5,000 loan from the Prince's Trust. "We spent the money on rent, a printer and packaging materials. We did not have a marketing budget - we relied on social media because it was free," says Lexi. When orders came in Lexi and Adam simply went out and bought what customers had ordered, packaged it up and transported it to the post office in their beaten up old Vauxhall car.
"Once we became confident about what would sell, we started buying larger quantities of stock at a discount," says Lexi. Now, just four years later, the website is a pet food and accessories supermarket with over 15,000 products, including foods and accessories for dogs, cats, rabbits, rodents, fish, reptiles, wild birds and even swans and hedgehogs. Customers can order on a one-off basis or use the Bottomless Bowl service that allows them to set up repeated scheduled deliveries - addressed to the pet - so food need never run out unexpectedly, eliminating emergency trips to the supermarket.
The business has moved from London to Stratford-on-Avon to reduce overheads and now trades from an office and a 7,000 square foot warehouse from which courier services Yodel and DPD collect customers' orders daily for next day or even same day deliveries. The company started shipping to Europe in December 2013 and Lexi says: "We are starting to get more European customers and expect to grow this side of the business in 2014."
It's a young business. "We have eight staff in our office and the average age is 21," says Lexi. "We've got plans for more staff on an apprenticeship scheme." The youngest employee is 17, and the oldest, is 31. "We've just bought a trampoline so we can have fun and keep fit, and we have hot dogs for lunch on Fridays. Our meeting room is a giant dog kennel - we tell visitors we are going to be meeting in the dog house," she says.
As you might expect social media plays a big part in the business. The company has a Facebook page with 113,000 fans, and in this year has started using Twitter, where it now has 3,000 followers and counting. Lexi writes a regular blog and the company has a YouTube channel where Lexi and Adam talk about their business and products. "Over a third of our website traffic is driven by social media," says Lexi.
Awards are an important marketing tool and help boost credibility, says Lexi, who was nominated for the Artemis award by PetShop.co.uk's NatWest Bank manager, Asha Shahi, one of NatWest’s Women in Business specialists providing tailored support to female entrepreneurs across the UK.
"We market the fact that we have won the awards on our website and on social media," says Lexi. "As well as posting news on these outlets and on my website blog, we also sent emails to our customers telling them when we have won awards and thanking them for helping us achieve them," she says.
But winning the Artemis Award is not just a marketing coup. "The extra credibility will help when we are negotiating with suppliers and customers, and even though it did not come with a cash prize, the award will undoubtedly help if we want to raise money in the future," she says. "It gives us a kind of stamp of approval."