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Strictly old school: The importance of traditional businesses

Ancient crafts and tools still play a part in maintaining key industries. We have tips from three entrepreneurs on their success stories

Why start or run a business based on very old trade or product?

The dominant wisdom is that most trades or products have their day, and unless they can be changed to match contemporary tastes, they die out. Solution is evolution.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes there are lucrative niche markets made up of customers who aren’t looking for contemporary products or services, they want things that are more or less the same as they have been for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. So, who are the people who run such businesses and what motivates them?

Window of opportunity

Wayne Ricketts set up his Bristol-based stained glass business in 1993. “My customers are a mix of churches, private home owners, builders and glass studios, mainly in the South West, although I often have customers further afield. Business is good at the moment and usually we’re busy throughout the year.”

Ricketts did a degree in art and design with glass and ceramics at Stourbridge College, before getting a job in Birmingham making, repairing and re-leading Victorian leaded lights [ie a leaded window with no glass painting or staining]. “After learning the art of glass painting and staining, I became a stained-glass artist,” he recalls. “I worked freelance, before moving to Bristol to work for a small family-owned glazing company. I was getting more and more freelance work from a well-respected, local stained glass artist and I realised this was what I really wanted to do, so I set up on my own.”

Heart of glass

Ricketts says his might be a long-established market, but it isn’t diminishing. “If anything, there’s a resurgence of interest in stained glass, with demand for higher end work particularly strong,” he counters. “There will always be old stained glass and leaded lights to restore, but I am also finding high demand for new custom-designed stained glass.”

So, why does he continue to run a stained glass business? “First and foremost – I love my work. I trained as an artist and creating new artworks in glass is a pleasure and privilege. I never get sick of it, nor do I ever wish I did another job. It’s my life. Even if I didn’t need to work, I’d still want to create stained glass. The tools and techniques may be over a thousand years old, but the creation of artworks is timeless.”

Looming success

Daniel Harris set up his business, The London Cloth Company, in 2011. “We make high-quality woven cloth, particularly woollens and rope-dyed indigo fabrics, produced on nineteenth century shuttle looms that I’ve restored. I’ve repaired about 40, although we’ve only kept half of them.”

Harris uses the same decades-old weaving techniques, normally weaving to order, while also making some readymade stock for sale via his website. “We weave bespoke cloth for various customers, from high-end fashion labels to independent local tailors, and costume designers to artists, various types of cloth and widths. And we’re the only UK weaver that works with natural indigo when dying, which also sets us apart.”

The business started after Harris rescued a rusty old loom from an old barn in Wales. He restored it to full working order, learned how to use it and began weaving cloth, despite having no training or knowledge.

So, why do it? “Well, I love restoring old machines,” Harris smiles. “But they must work again. I’m not interested in restoring old looms to put them in a museum? The business makes a decent turnover, but I could earn more working for other people.

“I just love restoring old looms and getting them to run nicely again. When the cloth comes back from being washed and I open the bag and see the quality of a completely authentic, high quality product, it’s fantastic. I’m always slightly amazed that we’ve actually made it, if I’m honest.”

Mead in Peckham

Mead (sometimes called honey wine) is an alcoholic drink created by fermenting honey, while various fruits, spices, grains or hops are sometimes added for additional flavour.

Although mead has been enjoyed in Europe, Africa and Asia for millennia (some say 9,000 years), its popularity has waned in more recent history, with the humble grape’s pre-eminence. But Londoner Tom Gosnell, founder of Peckham-headquartered Gosnell’s London Mead, is trying to change that.

“I worked in strategy, first for a consultancy, then for a telecomms company,” he remembers. “It gave me really good insight into how big business works, but running your own small business is really different,” he smiles.

Gosnell had been an avid homebrewer, mainly making ciders and perries, before switching to mead, after sampling it on a trip to the USA. “It started as a hobby, but kept growing and I wanted to share my mead with as many people as possible. Obviously, mead isn’t as well known as other alcoholic drinks, but getting people to try something completely new is part of the fun.”

But isn’t it a small, shrinking market? “Mead is definitely growing in popularity in the UK,” Gosnell replies. “In other countries it’s even more popular. There are more than 500 meaderies in the USA. As more people discover how amazing mead is, it will only get more popular.”

Matter of taste

Gosnell says the first few potential trade customers he approached were “absolutely blown away” with his mead. “They wanted to stock it before I’d set up a proper brewery, which gave me real added confidence about launching the business.”

Gosnell’s London Mead is now available in some 250 outlets, mainly in the south east of England, with Gosnell eager to start exporting soon, having had interest from Europe and Asia. “What’s really cool is that when you ferment the sugar in the honey, you’re left with the tertiary flavours of the flowers the bees have been foraging. We use orange blossom honey as the dominant flavour, because it gives wonderful citrus notes.”

So, how did his friends and family react when Gosnell told them he wanted to start making and selling mead? “A lot people were surprised,” he admits, “but once they try it, usually they also love it and they totally understand why I started my business.”

Read more:

How three entrepreneurs turned a hobby into a profitable business

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