British Isles is a retail store in Houston’s Rice Village that sells all things English, from tea, biscuits and sweets (including Cadbury chocolates) to linens, crystal and fine china (including Waterford and Wedgwood) to toiletries, toys and clothing. Its proprietor Guy Streatfeild, a former consultant and U.K. native (he was born in Kent), joined with two partners to buy the overextended company at a public auction in 1993 and eventually took over as 95 percent partner. It’s now approaching $2 million per year in sales.
Having too many business partners. When I bought what was left of the British Market at auction in 1993, I didn’t know much about retail. I was an accidental entrepreneur. I had explored the idea of doing a tea shop franchise in the U.K., but when luck and opportunity actually met, I hadn’t done much preparation.
I was lucky because I had two partners, one of whom was the original owner. They provided the experience I didn’t have. There was already a business, so we didn’t have to do a lot of marketing.
But I wasn’t sufficiently involved when we started running the place and things started getting out of hand. One of my partners had the idea of creating a separate web business but with the same resources. It didn’t work. Around that time we also opened a second store, which was fun and interesting. But we were already stretched. It was just me and my wife running two stores and we had a small child. It was Christmas and our manager quit.
After that, I realized I needed to have more control of the company. I ended up buying out one of the partners, with the original investor keeping 5 percent. The company succeeded, but the friendship didn’t last. I regret that I lost the friendship.
Everyone thinks they can be a shopkeeper, but it’s more difficult than they imagine.
It’s hard to work with partners, especially in a small business. It takes a lot of understanding. When you start, you’re scared and don’t want to take the responsibility on all by yourself. But you can’t keep looking over your shoulder to see what’s going to happen next.
After closing the second store, we expanded the original store effectively and consolidated our efforts there. That was the sensible thing to do. We also learned that it was easier to sell from a website than another outlet. We gradually increased it, and now we get 10 percent of our sales from the web.
Retail is a different type of business. It’s a bit like writing a book or acting in a play. Everyone thinks they can be a shopkeeper, but it’s more difficult than they imagine. You have to open your doors at 9 a.m. You have to keep landlords, suppliers and employees all happy. The money has to come in every day. You have to stay on top of things. We just had our 24th birthday, so if success is survival, we’ve succeeded.
Follow British Isles on Twitter at @britisles.
Photo courtesy of Guy Streatfeild