From bank clerk to entrepreneur

What seems like a century ago, I left school and joined a well-known High Street Bank. In those days working as a bank clerk was a well-established route for many school leavers and perceived to be a proper job with prospects. It wasn’t long before I became disillusioned with the world of banking and sought a change of job. In complete contrast to my previous job, I became a clerk in the local hospital dealing with the injured and infirm, but it was a role that I found strangely interesting and rewarding. In today’s parlance, it is known as job satisfaction.

My career progressed rapidly and after working in a number of different departments I became Admissions Officer of a major regional hospital where I soon gained valuable front line experience. There is nothing more conducive to honing your powers of communication, persuasion, resilience and empathy than dealing with people when they are at their most vulnerable. Working in an Accident and Emergency Department definitely puts one’s life completely into perspective and is like being part of a TV medical soap opera.

My career came to halt when I met my husband and moved away from the area. I have to admit that back in the early 70’s marrying and having the obligatory 2.4 children was still the acceptable norm, although liberation for women was gathering pace. Being a conservative soul, I slipped into the mainstream and before I knew it I was the wife of a career man and the mother of two children living in a three-bed semi. Returning to work was not a consideration and this proved to be a sensible decision as my husband was posted to four different locations throughout the UK in the space of 6 years.

At the end of this period, the children were at school, our relocation days were over and we were finally able to establish some roots and settle down as a family. It was time to start considering my own needs and to plan a return to the mainstream work environment. This was not an easy thing to do after almost seven years of raising a family, but I plucked up courage and found myself back in the health care sector as a part time receptionist at my local doctor’s surgery, a role that I found very satisfying. My confidence increased and my job gave me a focus outside of my immediate family. I regained some independence, earned my own money and met a new circle of friends. At last I had an opportunity to talk about something other than children and I felt that the old grey matter was once again being stimulated!

After a while, the novelty of working in a doctor’s surgery wore off and I felt that I needed a fresh challenge. At the same time my husband also felt that he had had enough of corporate life and wanted to do something completely different. For a couple that had had a very structured life, the crossroads seemed to be particularly difficult to negotiate. After two years had passed and a couple of false starts, I decided that I wanted to pursue my own business interest with a little bit of help from my husband. He had pursued a portfolio career and had the time and expertise to help me develop my plans and make sure that I was on the right tracks.

The idea was quite simple and was borne out of my own frustration of finding quality lighting products locally for the home. Although we didn’t live in an isolated area, we still had to travel at least forty miles to find a lighting outlet that sold, what I considered to be, quality lighting. Upon further investigation, I found that there are many areas in the UK that are not well served with lighting shops and therefore I felt that there must be an opportunity to fill this gap in the market.

Once this need had been identified, the next problem was where to start. Opening my own shop was an option, but the economics of doing so were really not that attractive. Lighting is space hungry and the overheads associated with running a shop can be phenomenal. The other drawback was that whilst one shop would satisfy a few people, it didn’t really address the fundamental issue of providing a wide range of quality of lighting to as many people as possible as conveniently as possible. The answer lay on the Internet and via a mail order system, where people would not be bound by geographical or time constraints.

As the concept developed, I managed to enlist the cooperation of a couple of lighting manufacturers. This was not easy, since there are few suppliers who are prepared to take time to listen to your idea, let alone help you when you are not able to offer them any tangible evidence that you can deliver in any way, shape or form. Having secured the supply of products with David Hunt Lighting and Le Dauphin Lighting, I needed to find out how to set up a website and develop a mail order catalogue. I actually began by looking for an accountant, which is testimony to my optimism about the business empire that I was planning to build over the coming years! Within two meetings I had been introduced to a web designer and a marketing company, both of which were based locally. The brakes were off and before long I was immersed in a completely new world. After months of contemplation and planning, The Light Company (Direct) Ltd was formed and was rapidly taking shape. It was a further six months until all the pieces of the jigsaw came together and, on the 19 January 2004, the website was launched and the mail order catalogues delivered.

As with many new business ventures, the early days are the most difficult and I am spending all of my time exploring ways in which I can make people aware of the extensive range of contemporary and classical decorative lighting that is on offer. I have already decided to open a showroom that will double up as my office design studio and mail order room. Although compact, the showroom will be far more suitable than the lock up on an industrial estate that I am currently using. It is a leap of faith, but having come this far, it is one that I feel has to be taken.

Ceiling light in an office

It is certainly a long way from the Accident and Emergency Department. I have swapped a career in the NHS to become an entrepreneur, even though I do not believe that I have the archetypical qualities of such. I am still nervous about taking risks and I still worry about what the future may hold, but my course is set and there is no backtracking. Although completely unconnected, my years working in the health sector have proved to be useful particularly in dealing with customers and suppliers. It seems that good communication, combined with the ability to deal positively with people who are demanding across a whole spectrum of issues and events, are distinct attributes irrespective of your industry sector. In a perverse sort of way, this is the aspect of the business that turns me on and which fuels my enthusiasm to succeed.

About the author
Carolyn and Laurence James own The Light Company Direct Ltd, an independent, family run business, based in the heart of the Cotswolds. The company offers a superb range of distinctive and stylish lighting for homes and commercial establishments via mail order and the Internet. Carolyn and Laurence have selected lighting that represents the very best in design and craftsmanship. They have developed close links with key manufacturers throughout Europe and are able to offer customers many designs that are rarely seen in the UK.