From bereavement to business

My story

From bereavement to business

Jennifer Campbell Kirk is the Managing Director and Founder of London-based Vintage and Floral. She creates luxury handmade quilts to add the perfect finishing touch to bedrooms from South London to Sydney. Today, Vintage and Floral products are a regular feature on the pages of home interiors magazines. Here, Jennifer recounts how quilting provided solace after her parents passed away, and how she’s managed to turn this creative skill into a successful business.

What prompted you to start your own business?

I got into quilt-making after suffering a personal bereavement when my dad passed away. My mum had died about three years before, so it was a really traumatic time for me. My mother-in-law was very much my shoulder to cry on, and asked if I’d like to try making a quilt as a way of keeping busy.

She taught me the basics and I found it incredibly therapeutic. I was focused on something purposeful, yet at the same time I could get lost in it. About six months later, I took a whole month off work and flew to Dallas to work alongside her, learning the ins and outs of patchwork and quilting. I was hooked.

Did you go to Dallas with the intention of starting a business?

I went there to learn, but in hindsight I suppose it was in the back of my mind that it could be my opportunity to get out of the endless 9-5 cycle. I was tired of the crowded commutes and lack of flexibility, I was tired of working for somebody else and not myself. Like many people, I’d always wanted to do something creative and work from home.

That was in 2012. What were your next steps?

I came back and started looking for opportunities to learn more about the business side of things. I’d managed projects before, but mainly within the charity sector for local government. It’s a very different thing when it comes to running a business, and I didn’t feel confident that I had the knowledge.

I found a business course that had been set up specifically for creative people, called the School for Creative Startups. It aims to share the practical skills that are sometimes missing from creative-based degrees, from how to price your work to where to look for funding. Often creatives undervalue their work simply from a lack of education on the subject.

I launched my business alongside the rest of my class at [major London arts and culture landmark] Somerset House in March 2013. It was an incredible way to kick things off. I had been working full-time after returning from the States, and making quilts for around 40 hours a week on top of that. I’d come home at six o’clock, have a quick bite to eat and then I’d work until eleven o’clock.

So at one point you were working from 7am until 11pm by the time you’d factored in quilt-making. How did you find the energy to do so much work?

When I’ve got to do something, I put my all into it – if I’m motivated, I’ll find the time. Luckily, my day job as an Arts Development Officer in London local government wasn’t overly demanding. Coming home, I was motivated to keep on sewing. It gave me a buzz to sketch out my ideas and then see the quilt take shape.

How do you relieve the stress from running a business?

It might sound clichéd, but when you do what you love it can be a stress relief in itself, especially when it’s creative. I think that reflects how I got into quilting in the first place. It’s always rewarding to meet new clients and make personal things for them. They often find me through pop up shops, press coverage and organic search. Saying that, it’s a lot of work to promote myself and my work.

What have you found most challenging?

For me, one of the biggest challenges was marketing. I had a fantastic website, and spoke to contacts in PR who advised me on how to approach the press to drum up interest. That created a bit of buzz around my launch with some nice press pieces. But that petered out. I’ve realised that if I don’t tell people what I do, they’re not going to find out. I’m taking a more structured approach to marketing now, with a website optimised for search engines, raising awareness of my craft and how I can meet people’s needs.

What’s your top tip for someone looking to start their own business?

Find a mentor. It’s helped me to define my goals and keep my eyes on the long term. When you’re starting a business, you’re wearing lots of different hats, and it can be hard to pin down exactly what you should be focusing on. It also keeps me accountable, which has been a great asset in setting up my business.

Jennifer is based in our Regent Street office. Find out more about her company Vintage and Floral on her website