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Strange Fruit - We speak with Denise Rawls

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by Startacus Admin

Last week we offered some handy hints and tips to consider when starting a part-time business while working and now we have decided to go one better. We speak with the lovely Denise Rawls about her new stationery and greeting card business Strange Fruit and her experiences of setting up an enterprise from home whilst working at the same time.

denise rawlsStrange Fruit offers greeting cards and stationery that aim to highlight and celebrate our cultural diversity and “add colour to the moments of life”. Denise has got lots to say for herself so without further ado...

Greetings Strange Fruit! Startacus loves the name, could you tell us a little bit about the company and how the name fits in with the ethos of the business?

"Strange Fruit" is a poem written by a Jewish teacher from the Bronx, NYC in 1936 - it was his reaction to the lynchings in the Southern states. The poem was set to music and eventually recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939 when it became a civil rights anthem.

Calling my company Strange Fruit is my way of giving a nod of respect to the past and being enthused by the future. The fact that my husband’s family moved from the southern state of Georgia to the Bronx where he was raised and that my Dad is Jewish, loves jazz and was an English teacher adds even more meaning to the already moving poem. I also love that this song, named song of the century in 1999, was written by a white boy from the Bronx. We are all used to making too many assumptions!

When did you decide that you were going to have a go at setting up your own business?

I thought about starting a greeting card business reflective of our diverse society for many years but I always found a reason not to. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any time. I didn’t have any experience of the greeting card industry. You name it I claimed it. When I got married (in New York) I loved how many stylish cards friends and family gave us with a black couple on. When we got home we threw a party in London for everyone that didn’t come out to the wedding, we got no cards reflective of us. I started writing my business plan on a napkin at the party. I launched Strange Fruit a year later.

Last week we featured an article about setting-up up a business alongside your regular job, what advice would you give to someone who is also considering taking this brave step?

Just do it. My calculations told me I needed £12,000 to start the business – just another reason that put me off. Then, when reality kicked in, I worked out I could do my first print run, buy a second-hand Mac and set up my website with £1,000 so I sold some designer shoes and some bits and pieces from around the house. In my day job I am lucky to meet really successful business people. Theo Paphitis told me it’s best to just get started and grow at your own pace without incurring risk than taking on a loan you cannot really afford and making life difficult for everyone around you. It was good advice.

At work I’m really open about Strange Fruit but I never let the lines get blurred. When I am at work I am being paid to deliver for them not me. Remaining professional is a must. I just keep my notebook handy for any ideas I have and make sure I check emails and make phone calls at lunch time – in a coffee shop or the park, but always on my time not my employers. I would be lost without my smartphone though!

At Startacus we try to give people advice on running a business from their own home. Speaking as someone who is actually Strange Fruit doing it, what have you found are the benefits/drawbacks?

The benefits are easy - you can just get on with it from a laptop at your kitchen table with hardly any risk or impact on your family life. The drawbacks are you can work from home so work is always there - for me that means little sleep.

When I first started in October 2010, I had a few boxes of cards, envelopes and cellophane wrappers taking up a corner of the kitchen. By October 2012 the whole of the ground floor of our house was full of boxes – it was time for Strange Fruit to move out. But I have a day job and a family who I quite like so I really didn’t want to spend time away in a studio / storage space. Our solution was to move home and make sure Strange Fruit had its own space. Finding the house was easy but as we are renovating it is quite difficult at the moment as I don’t yet have a finished studio space. However, the boxes are neatly stored in the basement which will eventually become a proper studio.

It’s wonderful that your greeting cards are stocked in both the UK and USA. Can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced when establishing the business internationally?

For me, getting a US agent was easy. I knew I had to secure this early on to generate an income and give the company credibility. I researched agents and wrote to around six. Three responded and I went ahead with the one who offered the best deal for me. My real challenge is generating PR for the cards in the US while being in the UK. I have just hired someone to do this for me as despite being in PR myself I just don’t have the time.

Thanks very much for your unique insights Denise. We wish you and StrangeFruit the best of luck in the future and we look forward to putting an order in soon!

So there you have it - living, breathing card-making proof that it can be done - so what are you waiting for?

If you enjoyed hearing about Denise’s experiences you might like to check out our recent `Sent into Space` and `` features for more inspiration.

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Published on: 14th September 2013

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