“Sometimes it feels like people think I'm just playing at shops because I don't work an obvious 9–5 job.”

Image of Audrey Allan
From Teaching to Silverware

Audrey Allan nearly moved to the other side of the world to escape her career. But when her sideline business started to take off, she realised she could find fulfilment and a family life much closer to home. Here's her story.

What work were you doing previously?

I worked as a primary and nursery teacher for nine years.

What are you doing now?

I run an online gift shop from home, selling hand-stamped vintage cutlery and personalised jewellery.

Why did you change?

I was losing motivation in my current job and had always dreamed of starting my own business.

Getting the working mum balance right was tricky and we were paying a small fortune in childcare. So, we decided to downsize so that I could work around our kids.

When was the moment you decided to make the change?

We had been looking into emigrating to Australia, and my husband and I were chatting over dinner about it.

I confessed that I'd wondered whether I was only so keen on the big move as a way to try something different. There and then we decided that I would hand in my notice and we would move house!

Are you happy with the change?

I'm so much happier and so grateful to my husband for being so supportive.

It's not been easy and I've had to work my socks off but it's fantastic to do something I'm passionate about.

What do you miss and what don't you miss?

I really miss the company.

It's a lonely old business working on your own with no one to bounce ideas off. I also miss people taking my job seriously. Sometimes it feels like people think I'm just playing at shops because I don't work an obvious 9–5 job.

I love that if my children are ill I don't need to stress because I can work at another time. I sure don't miss the noise and mess of crazy kids at school, or the paperwork!

How did you go about making the shift?

I started my business off small while I was on maternity leave to give me something to think about other than being a mum.

I began by making personalised wooden heart gifts for friends' weddings, and then sold them via Facebook. It cost me next to nothing to set up, so I had little to lose. I did this for about a year, but found it was far too time consuming and the profit margin was too small. Also, I never really truly believed they were brilliant.

I had seen some hand-stamped pieces online and loved the style, so I invested in my first kit and started selling on Etsy. It was a tricky skill to master and it took a lot of practice, but I gradually improved and was really pleased with the results.

I felt so much more confident in my hand-stamped cutlery and could really see it selling well. I realised that the best way to get seen on Etsy was to have more items in my online shop, so I focused on increasing my listings. This worked well and I finally started to make a bit of money.

I wasn't enjoying my teaching job and we'd started applying for a visa for Australia. However, this all rested on me teaching when we got there. I realised that as much as the lifestyle would be great for the kids, a job is still a job, sun or not!

So, we made the big decision to downsize, so that I could work from home while the kids were at school and nursery. We had a friend who had died quite suddenly of cancer at 28 years old. This really put the life–work balance issue into perspective. Life is too short to do something that makes you unhappy.

A year ago we moved house and I bought a workshop (well, actually, a big shed!) so I had space to work in without taking over the house. My son turned three and started his free nursery place every morning, so I finally had a bit of time during the day to work. This made a huge difference and suddenly I had orders pouring in, especially at big occasions like Father’s day and Christmas.

I began to focus a lot more on my social media pages to drive business. Within a couple of months, a few gift shops approached me through Facebook and Etsy to supply wholesale, and I joined another two marketplaces, All by Mama (created by Gemma Whates, whose story you can read here) and The Lost Lanes.

It's been a fast-paced two years but, having more than doubled my sales from last year, it's all been well worth it.

What didn't go well? What 'wrong turns' did you take?

A big mistake I made was trying to do too many new designs too quickly.

I was so excited and desperate to be creative that I bought supplies I never had time to use. This meant I had to stock a huge amount to be able to have at least one of each item. It is a great skill to offer gifts that would suit a range of customers without spending every penny made on stock; I'm still working on this.

I also didn't keep close enough track of how much I was making per item and cut my profit margin a little fine. When time is short it's so important to keep focused on the route that gives you the best income.

I made the mistake of taking too much on this Christmas and had to work very late hours to get everything done. There was blood, sweat and a lot of tears!

How did you handle your finances to make your change possible?

We downsized our house to give us less financial pressure.

I also cut back on stock investment for a few months so I could build up a fund in a business account; from then on I only used money coming in from the business to buy stock.

What was the most difficult thing about changing?

The hardest thing is time management.

Almost everything takes longer than you expect and I'm not the most patient person. Working a couple of hours here and there around the kids' routine, rather than getting a good run of seven hours in a row, can be frustrating.

I also find it hard having deadlines like Christmas and not yet having the experience to know if I can meet them. With a lot of my items being personalised it's difficult to be organised in advance.

What help did you get?

My husband was very supportive about the move; it was actually his suggestion in the first place.

My dad has also been a great help. I use him as a sounding board and he looks for stock for me at auctions.

I'm in the process of applying for a grant through the Business Gateway so I can create my own website.

What have you learnt in the process?

It's really important to have someone to talk to about my business plans who's not my partner.

It's easy to let it become all-consuming; I could easily drive my partner mad with my non-stop ideas!

Customer service goes a very long way. I have a lot of repeat customers because I've gone out of my way to get a gift to them quickly or make something very personal for them. Keeping customers informed about the progress of their order really helps to build relationships and stop any tension.

What would you advise others to do in the same situation?

Be brave, work hard and you can do anything you put your mind to!

I love the quote: "You've always had the power my dear. You just had to find out for yourself." – Glinda, Wizard of Oz.

Find something that inspires and excites you. It's so important to believe in your product or service so you can sell it to others.

Also, think carefully about the long-term work involved in your chosen career. By that I mean what the job will actually entail. For example, if you become a successful t-shirt designer, a lot of your time will be spent packing and posting t-shirts, so the design process (which is the fun bit) is relatively short. Of course, if you are super successful you can then pay someone to do the less-fun bits! This is definitely my goal.

What resources would you recommend to others?

Believe it or not, I found YouTube very helpful; you can learn almost anything there.

I taught myself how to hand stamp with the help of some internet research. Forums are helpful too as there is one for almost any career.

Simple things like downloading an pre-formatted Excel spreadsheet for my tax return and setting up Drop and Go at the Post Office were very helpful.

Also, Business Gateway offers support for new start-ups.

To find out more about Audrey's designs, visit www.trulysilver.etsy.com

What lessons could you take from Audrey's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.

Plus, if you know someone who's made a successful shift into work they love, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at [email protected]. and you could win a £25 / $35 voucher in our monthly draw.