To most people, starting a business from scratch while pregnant with your fifth child is bold, but for Celia Muñoz it was nothing less than necessary. “I didn’t find it a courageous move,” she tells me, “rather an attempt to reinvent myself after having my fifth child.” A psychologist by training, the bulk of Celia’s career was spent headhunting talent for the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors, before studying for her Master’s in Mental Health—day and night different from La Coqueta, the charming Spanish childrenswear boutique she founded in Hampstead, London.
Something of a slow burner – by choice – Celia spent two years researching and planning before putting pen to paper and officially launching the business. “For the first group of people, my headhunting skills and natural sales instinct were very important in order to find people,” she says. “It was an arduous thing to do, and I can’t hide that I shamelessly used the fact I was pregnant to squeeze in a couple of coffees unannounced,” she bashfully admits. “Few people would refuse to have coffee with you if you turn up pregnant with a buggy, begging for advice.”
Taking advantage of opportune situations, and constantly expanding her network is something that’s key to Celia’s success, and in turn, the growth of the business. She labours the importance of working with people you trust, whether that’s an accountant, a PR firm, and, on the flip side, your customer base. “I treat my customers as if I was on a date, showing the best of myself every time, and developing a relationship which is there to stay.”
From literally knocking on doors to find a space to rent, to committing to putting the children to bed every night, Friday date nights with her husband, and never feeling like she’s ‘made it’, Celia talks us through her path to progression and how she overcame the uncertainty and growing pains that came with nurturing her growing business. “The important bit is not about how many times you fall, it’s about how quickly you can stand after the fall.”
HOW SHE TOOK LA COQUETA FROM A SIDE-HUSTLE TO A BIG BUSINESS: I am a psychologist by training and my early career was spent it headhunting, working in the big pharma and biotech sector. I stopped working when I had my first child and went back to university while having my second and third child to read an MSc in Mental Health at King’s College. On the side, I was doing extensive research to see whether my La Coqueta concept was a viable one. I saw the business as an opportunity to reinvent myself after having my first child. I always knew I wanted to work after I had children but I knew it would be difficult for me to go back to my previous job and it took some time to figure out what the right formula was going to be. I wanted to have the flexibility to look after my family while also doing something for the rest of my life that I felt extremely passionate about. To me, it was clear… once I mastered a good routine at home with my children, I needed to focus 100% on making a job for myself that I loved. I feel I have been extremely lucky to find something that there is a demand for.
THE EXTENSIVE RESEARCH PROCESS SHE WENT THROUGH BEFORE LAUNCHING: It involved a lot of fact finding and answering questions for my business plan. It can be quite a tedious process but in my opinion, a very necessary step to increase the probability of your business concept working. It is one thing to have an idea, and another entirely to understand the demand and USP for what you are offering. To answer these questions, the main thing is to speak to people; key opinion leaders in your field, who can give you advice. My headhunting skills and natural sales instinct where very important in order to find people I could learn from through cold calling and chasing people down outside their work place… this was quite an arduous thing to do and I can’t hide that I shamelessly used the fact that I was pregnant to squeeze in a couple of coffees unannounced. Few people will refuse to have a coffee with you if you turn up pregnant with a baby in a buggy begging for advice! It’s a lot easier to say no by email or phone. I did extensive research looking for reliable suppliers and learning from them… I had no experience in retail or design so I needed to learn as much as possible before I opened my shop. I also produced questionnaires that people would fill in outside shops so that I could find out about KPIs that would be helpful when thinking about my business model. I still keep those questionnaires as they provided me with very valuable information about traffic, basket sizes, prices and frequency of purchase.
HOW BOOTSTRAPPING HAS LED TO STEADY BUT STRONG GROWTH: I financed the business through my own personal savings but what was clear is that I had to start selling and making a profit very soon, which is why I worked in my shop and had a very small team until a year and a half ago. I gave myself two years to make it work and I have always saved every penny when it comes to our business, from the amount of bags we use, to the amount of expenses we file. The business has never done more than it could afford, which means we have grown slowly but steadily … the only place we don’t save is when it comes to employees. Working with people who feel lucky to work with you and viceversa is the best asset a business can have.
FIVE STEPS TO TAKE A BUSINESS FROM AN IDEA TO A REALITY:
Extensive research: I worked out a thorough business plan that allowed me to cater for best and worst case scenarios and kept updating it yearly. I found that having full clarity about what you do is paramount and following to the letter a well thought through critical path is essential.
I managed to find manufacturers and build a very close relationship with them. Working with people who you trust and who you know will always be faithful is very important. I found that failing to find the right people at times did teach me at least about the type of people I didn’t want to work with.
I went into every single shop in Hampstead to ask if they knew about available shops. This took a long time as a mother of four children under 4 years, with a baby on the way and no retail experience. But I got there in the end, although beware of landlords! You should always ensure you reference check them as much as they do with you.
Customer service and a good product is key. You exist because of your customer and I never forget this. A friend once told me, a happy customer will tell 10 people about your shop, an unhappy customer will tell 30 people about their experience in your shop! Keep listening to your customer and deliver a product that they want and keep finessing things as well as bringing something to surprise them. I treat my customers as if I was on a date, showing the best of myself every time, and developing a relationship that will last. Trust is so important.
Be yourself, come up with your own concept and keep away from doing what other people do. I have always had that in mind and feel it has always worked, set the trend, let others get inspired by your work rather than the opposite… this way you are always ahead of the curve, never behind repeating what others do. Your customer will know that and will come to you because you are original and genuine and they like the fact that your brand is so special.
THE EVOLUTION FROM BRICKS & MORTAR TO EMBRACING DIGITAL TOO: When you open a shop you find your customers in the area your shop in located. This is a never ending job and we ensure we talk to lots of people and people talk about us to others. It is an organic process that takes time but through offering a good quality product and customer service word travels fast. The original business plan was more focused on bricks and mortar retail however as the business has grown and evolved and developed a very global customer base online has been the biggest area of growth. When I look back, I realise that what allowed me to open my own store was naivety and ignorance which sometimes can be a wonderful thing. I now realise that I did it the wrong way around instead of trying things out through wholesale but I was lucky and it worked out. Opening stores is a very risky thing to do and I would discourage people to do this in the first place… a shop can consume you… from my own personal experience I can only say that it took a lot of my time. Let’s say I spent too much time working “in the business” and “not on the business”. I chose Hampstead because it was close to my home and I needed that in order to take care of my family. Without this geographic advantage, I would have never been able to do it. It took me a year and a half to find a store. Nobody believed in my concept and I had lots of doors closed in my face, but in my mind, it’s a number’s game… the more doors you knock, the more likely you are to have one opened to you. If you persist, it always happens, sooner or later. Today, online sales drive 75% of the total business and 50% of that is from outside the UK. We have a truly global business and we sell all around the world, from Brazil to South Korea, from Finland to South Africa.
WHEN SHE FELT READY TO BRING ON A PR & WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT FINDING THE RIGHT MATCH: When I first started my business, I had no idea about what a PR agency did so I started without it as I had little money to spare.I eventually met somebody who lived in my neighbourhood who told me about it. My PR at the beginning was done through myself and my social media channels. Eventually, once we were able to afford it, we started working with somebody who could help. Follow your instinct and go with the person you feel understands you as a person and the essence of your business. Ask your PR to talk to you about other people they work with, the way they will do this is how they will talk about yours, and you should be 100% happy with it. Your PR is someone you can trust 100%, you can call at any time… if you don’t have this or they don’t have time for you, don’ t bother as they will never have time to talk about your business or you on your behalf.
ON CREATING A STRONG BRAND IDENTITY: I always knew what I wanted La Coqueta to look like. I followed my instinct, common sense and personal taste on this and people seem to like it. I guess I have always wanted our customers to think beyond our clothes to the values we project, the beautiful journey our clothes go through before hitting the rails in our store. I like to think when coming to La Coqueta people not only buy clothes but buy into a particular lifestyle. As a consequence, beautiful friendships have developed between my customers and I because ultimately, we have so much in common.
EARLY STRUGGLES AND LESSONS LEARNT: From having to look for my own customers in the streets or at the school gates, to receiving huge quantities of stock and not having storage, to having to work three weeks in a row, 12 hours a day with no day off, I could write a book about the challenges. All of this is part of the wonderful journey of being a successful entrepreneur. You learn every day and a big part of that learning curve is about failing in order to grow. The important bit is not about how many times you fall, it’s about how quickly you can stand after the fall and how much you learn from it so as not fall into the same trap.
JUGGLING BUSINESS WITH FIVE KIDS: At the very beginning when I first opened my shop I felt it was extremely hard, my fifth baby was only six months, my eldest was five years old, I didn’t sleep much and I had a lot of pressure because on top of the financial and time investment, I just wanted it so badly to be a success. It didn’t help that I had no retail experience and only knew about retail through being a customer myself so at the beginning it felt like a huge gamble with great uncertainty and having to keep a brave face to motivate the team in the shop, attract customers, keep a happy family and project happiness when I often felt I wanted to cry, scream or disappear. Deep inside I truly believed in my concept and I’m not a quitter but I wouldn’t say it was particularly enjoyable. I felt my husband was a huge emotional support, despite being extremely busy with his own work. The fact that he is such a calm and understanding man helped me greatly. He is extremely involved with our children when not at work and did all the cooking for the month we launched, so I didn’t have to worry about what to feed the children. Having the flexibility to run your business when you have children is of huge help. I never worked well with a boss and love doing my own thing, planning my own day and fitting it all in, including time for my family which is the most important to me. Through my business, I feel I am the master of my own professional destiny, whatever that may be.
HOW SHE DEALS WITH CHILDCARE: It’s a lot easier now, as my youngest is four years old and goes to school. I wake up, have breakfast and take all of my children to school. I have a Spanish nanny who works from Monday to Friday from 1 to 7pm and does all the tidying up at home for the children and picks them up at school. When they come back home at 4pm, I’m always there with them to do homework and play. Having a nanny helps frees me to do the things my kids will remember: playing lego, football, chess and hide and seek. If I go out in the evening I always make sure it’s after I put them to bed. I use Sitters – I have used them for the last 8 years and they have never failed me! Weekends my husband and I are with the children all the time.
HER NON-NEGOTIABLES, NO MATTER HOW BUSY SHE GETS: Time with my children every afternoon and putting them to bed and also Friday date night with my husband. Whatever happens, we always go out just the two of us. There’s nothing like a good catch up in a fun environment after a busy week of work. We have so much fun together, we would never have it any other way.