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From Hobby to Exporting Start-up Business - We chat with Harch Wood Couture
by Startacus Admin
Harch Wood Couture is a family startup business based in Northern Ireland’s County Tyrone that designs and hand sculpts wooden homeware products including chopping and serving boards. Much like our recently featured NI start-ups Receet and Sixty-5, Co-Founder Orlagh McVeigh is participating in Invest Northern Ireland’s Propel Programme, an intensive 12-month accelerator, aimed at fast tracking innovative start-ups. And since Propel is open for applications again, it seemed quite timely to chat to Orlagh about how she turned her hobby with all things home into a bespoke handcrafting family start-up business.
We all know that starting a business is never easy, and since Orlagh came from an entirely different work background, we wondered how challenging it was to turn a hobby into a fully-fledged business and also if running Harch Wood Couture as a family concern helped or hindered its overall commercial development. Also, since the Propel Programme supports start-up businesses that have export potential and can demonstrate a scalable business model, we thought it wise to ask Orlagh a little about the longer term business plans and her vision for the future.
Orlagh, let’s start with you! Before Harch Wood Couture, how did your own experience prepare you for creating a bespoke hand sculpture business?
My professional background was completely different from what we are doing with Harch. I worked as an Addictions Service Manager for a regional organisation. I fell in love with all things home when we were designing and building our own home. It all started out as a hobby that I became really passionate and a bit obsessed about. I loved using natural materials over manmade when finishing our home and we made a lot of the items ourselves. We were always looking for things that were a bit different which is why we made a lot by hand. We like products that are timeless and really high quality. Fintan, my husband, has years of experience working with wood and when I asked him to make the first wooden chopping board for ourselves the business idea was born. He has a knack for being able to articulate ideas from my head – and turn a pretty rubbish drawing into something beautiful.
What made you take that leap to develop Harch from its initial concept to being a fully-fledged and trading business?
When Fintan made the first board I was so happy with it, and as I spend most of my free time looking around for things for the house, I was pretty sure that there was nothing else out there like it. My mind was in overdrive with ideas of all the things he could make. I then started to think that this could be a business opportunity. I started to design different boards and Fintan made them as I came up with them. I started researching the market to see what the alternatives were and what the competition was like. We were really excited about the potential and we took the leap of faith by attending an International Trade Show first off. As we were both working in our day jobs, we would never have had the opportunity to go out and test the market so we reckoned this was the easiest way to get in front of a mass audience. We had initially planned on a 3 year period of building it up before I would commit to it full time. With the success of the initial trade show and a change in family circumstances with me expecting our 3rd child, we decided it was as good a time as any. It was a scary decision and still is some days, but it’s so rewarding!
And the hardest part of the process in setting up a business?
There are frustrating elements to it, things that I would not have considered before starting up. I spend hours trawling around looking for suppliers that may seem insignificant but are a big deal. For example it has taken me until now to get the right glue to glue the ribbon to the boards when packaging and the little red cord that attaches the label. Banking is challenging - as is getting to grips with the whole financial and legal side of running a business.
All the things that people can’t see are the things that take time, sometimes you go to do something that appears simple and you find out that you have about a week’s groundwork to do before getting it done. I would love to just be able to come up with ideas and not have to worry about the small things. The Propel programme has been valuable in developing these practical skills and knowledge about running my own business. It has also helped us build our confidence and ambition levels.
How easy did you find it to develop the brand and what help did you get in developing the business model?
The aesthetics of the branding was one of the easier parts of it because I had a really good vision of what I wanted it all to look like. I worked with a great Graphic Designer and he delivered what I wanted. Most of the early stage work on business planning was done by myself although it wasn’t until I started Invest NI’s Propel programme that I really started to think strategically about my business. Propel has given us space to focus on the business and realise its full potential. Propel has also given us access to a great business mentor who helps us with the business and financial planning side of things.
Who would be your target demographic and geographically how far has the brand spread in terms of sales so far?
We have three customer segments. We sell directly to customers through our website, to independent retailers and multiple department stores. We also sell directly to catering and food design companies. The products are premium quality, so they are placed as such in the market in terms of price and sales outlet. The core range is perfect for gifts for all occasions or for the avid cook or home enthusiast. We have sold our products as far away as the US and Switzerland.
Give us one benefit and one disadvantage of being based in Northern Ireland.
We have had great support from Invest NI to get our business up and running, particularly in relation to the Propel programme, which is a unique support for entrepreneurs. There is not the same level of government support for startups available in the rest of the UK - we are very lucky.
We did have to take our product out of NI before we sold a single thing here at first. This was simply down to the fact that the NI population is not large enough to solely test and sell our products in during the early stages – we had to reach out to other markets to make a sustainable business.
What's next? Any exciting plans you can share with Startacus?
We have so much going on! We have lots of exciting retail opportunities in the pipeline. We have plans in place to attend some of the main Christmas Fairs in the UK, which is great because the selection process for them is very competitive. We will be going to Ambiente in Frankfurt next February to extend the reach of our products even further and we are starting work with a UK PR company to raise the profile of Harch in the media.