Karen Riddick is a light hearted observer, business-woman and enthusiastic writer from Dumfries.

She has gone from working 9-5 to building a successful online business which now fulfils over 1,200 orders per month without the need for any employees. Karen shares her real life experiences in business.

Meet the entrepreneur?

Last week, I took part in a ‘Meet the Entrepreneur’ panel at an event in Glasgow. It was hosted by Amazon and I was asked to share my experience of being a successful online retail business that can operate without employees. I stepped onto the stage; gulped at the 500 faces looking back at me, and presented myself with as much confidence as I could muster.

Can I confess that I also felt a bit of a fraud though? When I think of entrepreneurs then the usual faces spring to mind. Bill Gates; Anita Roddick; Richard Branson – but certainly not ‘Karen Riddick from Dumfries’.

Then I checked the dictionary and found that an entrepreneur is simply ‘a person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit’.

This is great because it means that, whether we are selling cakes at a farmer’s market; or launching a global service, we can call ourselves an ‘entrepreneur’, and it sounds fabulous. And what I really like about this dictionary definition, is that we do not even need to make a profit! We need only ‘hope’ for profit, and we’re up there!

Going it Alone

Seriously though, these days, there are more of us ‘hoping for profit’ than ever before. Recent figures show that the level of self-employment in the United Kingdom is at its highest level on record. In 2016, around 15% of the working population was classed as self-employed, compared to 13% in 2008 and 8.7% in 1975.

I have been a hopeful entrepreneur since 2008. At the time I worked full time in the public sector and, to earn extra income, I also set up an eco-friendly B&B with my other half.

Starting up the B&B was my first dabble with self-employment. It was a revelation; not just because people often left weird things behind in their rooms (my lips are sealed), but because I had never felt in control of my own earnings before. When the first guest handed me a wad of ten-pound notes, I felt like I had stumbled upon a remarkable secret – and it was this. My world did not need to be governed by the figure which appeared at the bottom of my employee payslip. And that made me feel very hopeful indeed.

Hungry for opportunity, and buoyed by the compliments that I received about the fair-trade homewares in our B&B, I began buying in extra’s and selling them at fetes. Sometimes, the term ‘selling’ was a tad optimistic because the day might be spent eating cake and chatting. There was always the chance that I might take £30 in sales but have paid £20 for my stall, £10 on fuel and £35 buying things I didn’t need from other stall holders (just to be polite).

Other days I might drive home, cackling over the pile of notes in my little cash tin. It was great experience but probably not something that would ever replace my day job.

Then I discovered Ebay.

Sell, Sell, Sell

On realising that I was accumulating surplus stock, I turned to the world’s most popular auction site and listed everything on there. Now I can’t say that my products flew off the online shelves but, over time, they did sell – and so my online business was born.

Still, the learning curve was a long one and my status as an online entrepreneur remained as one who was still ‘hoping’ for profits. I had terrible taste and my early attempts to expand the range of products in my Ebay shop included scented candles that smelled of toilet cleaner and varnished tree root ornaments which resembled something the dog did.

It took a while to work out my pricing strategy too, because I often forgot to account for some crucial overhead. I regularly misjudged postage and would feel the sting of a £10 postage charge for an item which I had only charged £4 to the buyer.

At the same time, I was working out which items were popular and, alongside the rancid candles, I had a few soft furnishing ranges that customers seemed to love. I don’t know if our B&B guests ever spotted that a brand-new rug laid out for their arrival would be gone again the following morning. An overnight sale on EBay would see me stealing the rug back off the floor while they were downstairs dipping toast in their boiled eggs.

And so, I continued to learn and grow until 2013 when I left my full-time job and opened a shop premises. Together with the original Ebay shop, a new independent web site and a blossoming Amazon store, the company Second Nature was officially no longer a hobby. Five years on, I am processing around 1200 orders a month. Over 40% of my sales are to other European buyers. I still don’t feel like an entrepreneur and it is only by the power of the internet that I have a viable business.

If You Can’t Beat Them – Join Them

And here I finish with some food for thought. At present, there is much discussion about the untapped potential of the internet. Many existing retail businesses have not adequately developed their internet presence – so what should we be doing about it? There is plenty of training and guidance about how to set up your own website but very little help on how to harness the powerful selling platforms that exist today; Ebay, Amazon, Etsy etc. Many independent retailers are struggling, but, at the same time, an army of entrepreneurs are selling straight out of their garages and spare rooms. The untapped potential is most certainly out there. There are many who consider that the internet is partly responsible for the death of our High Streets and the viability of small independent stores – but could the internet also help to re-energise our towns and rural economies?

Next Time: Is Fear of VAT Holding You Back?