Lauren De Swardt: Entrepreneurs need tons of determination and must always persevere

by - September 23, 2016

Lauren de Swardt started Kids Emporium at the age of 22. The franchise offers the latest ranges of furniture, décor, maternity, children`s wear and toy store. Lauren is a finalist in the 2016 FAIRLADY Women of the Future Awards, in partnership with Santam. She shares lessons she's learned along the way in her entrepreneurial journey.

Tell us a bit about your business and what motivated you to start?

Kids Emporium is a franchise network of children’s boutiques, where innovation meets quality, under one roof.  With 30 stores in South Africa and one international store in Surrey, England we look forward to expanding into Africa soon. Kids Emporium strives to stock the latest ranges across all departments namely maternity wear, essentials, childrens' wear, travel systems, furniture, décor, toys and gifts. Our product offers peace of mind. You’re secure in the knowledge that all you’re doing for your child is backed by intelligent design, quality material, plenty of stylish product selection and service excellence motivated by our two ideals: the relentless search for the best for your child and to be the first choice for all parents… in quality, price and service. The energy of our stores comes across in numerous and frequently in unexpected ways, prompting the ‘home from home’ ethos as we offer a pleasant and enjoyable experience that you wouldn’t call “just shopping”.
My best friend had fallen pregnant and I followed shortly thereafter. When we went on the hunt for baby goods, we were horrified by the lack of products in South Africa. I saw a gap and that's how Kids Emporium was born.

How did you raise your start up money? 

I devised a business plan and approached various financial institutions who all declined.  I was young and they could not fathom how a young woman could build this brand in a country that they believed had a very small market.  If anything, when they declined my request, that lit a fire inside of me to ensure my concept succeeded.  I started very small and built my business slowly using trade exchanges and good trade terms wherever possible.

Did you write a business plan? Was it an effective tool for you?

Yes I did write a business plan and although the banks declined it with regards to funding, it was a great tool for me personally.  If I look at any new business concept, I write a business plan even if it’s for my eyes only.  Planning is crucial when building a business. A business plan helps you keep your eye on the ball constantly.

Would you suggest others do the same?

Absolutely.  Without a business plan, you will have little guidance.  It is also very easy to go off the beaten track.  A business plan keeps one focused and reminds us of our goals, both short and long term.  Further to my initial business plan, I often rewrite elements to cater for the growth of our business.  Goal setting and a SWOT analysis are parts of a business plan that I use regularly.

Who did you hire to help you with your business - bookkeeper, an accountant, lawyer …?

I used a number of experts including my accountant, attorney, business banker and I spent many months researching.  I have always been a strong networker and have built a powerful foundation of affiliations which I am able to consult with regularly.

Have you outsourced any portion of your business? And has that worked for your business?

We have an in house bookkeeper who liaises with our accountant who I outsource.  I also outsource all legalities to our franchise attorney.  I have both of these entities on speed dial.  

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business? 

As my business has grown, so has my team.  Support is imperative.  We have developed various departments of the business ensuring each section has an expert.  By doing this, we are constantly performing at the highest standard ensuring we lead the way in our industry.  I have an open door policy and will never turn down a meeting hence it’s important to always be approachable.  Having this ethos in our office has ensured we have never missed an opportunity.  

How do you effectively manage the finances of your company?

I have an in house bookkeeper as well as a financial director.  Accounting was never my strong suit hence I leave this to the experts who report back to me during our financial meetings.  

Do you have rainy-day savings for your business?  

Yes.  This is very important as there are always variables in a business that are out of one’s control.  Rainy day savings can be very useful at times.

What's a financial mistake you made as a business owner in the beginning? And how did you bounce from it?

When I first started Kids Emporium, I had little financial knowledge.  I am a creative and, in the beginning, I could not afford to employ a financial manager.   The first few years were very difficult as I never fully understood how to read a balance sheet, calculate VAT or run formulae’s on excel.  I knew this information was crucial hence I asked my accountant for a basic lesson in finance which gave me a much better understanding of the financial side of a business.  I would recommend that all entrepreneurs do an accounting course up front, ensuring the ‘profits’ one makes are in fact real profits.

With the current economy slump, what cost saving tips would you share with new entrepreneurs?

I would recommend one looks closely at your supply chain.  Hold off on price increases wherever possible and try and ensure you offer your consumer good value.  It is important to keep your overheads as low as possible and think twice before spending even a cent.

What advice can you offer female business owners on making sure they're being compensated fairly for their work?

I have never identified my business as being ‘female owned’ and as such I only believe in fair trading.  I am in the children's’ industry hence I work with more women than men and in fact, this is an industry where men are probably inferior as our knowledge as mothers is really priceless.  I would like to think that in 2016, females are being treated the same as males in the work place however if they are not, I would recommend that they use their voice and have their say.

Do you have business mentors, and if so, how have they helped you develop as an entrepreneur?

In my early days, I looked up to many international entrepreneurs namely Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, etc, however as my business has grown, I have found mentorship in my team, my franchisees, my affiliates and my partner and Drew, who is a world of endless knowledge and support.  

What have you learned from starting your company that might be useful to would-be entrepreneurs? 

Don’t give up.  Giving up is the easiest thing in the world.  Entrepreneurs need tons of determination and must always persevere.  Create your business plan, set your goals and go for it. Its more often than not that as one is about to give up, something amazing happens.

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