We caught up with Christopher Walsh the founder and managing director of The Easy Living Company to find out how and why he started his business.
When and why did you decide to start?
In late 2013 at the age of 26, I decided to set up my own business.
I had some experience in the mobility industry having worked previously for another local mobility company, but had a strong desire to do things my own way. I found that many companies in the industry relied on either online stores without a place to try the products, customer home visits or showrooms sometimes with unclear pricing and somewhat old fashioned ways of doing things.
What was your plan to be different?
It can be rather daunting for many people when purchasing these types of products, especially for the first time. Mobility shops have often been seen as somewhat dreary places for elderly people, with many tucked away on faceless industrial estates or in hard to access town centres. I wanted to do something different. I saw the need for a properly stocked, bright and inviting showroom with clear prices, well trained honest and approachable staff and easy access parking, as well as home visits from a company people, knew they could trust.
So, with that in mind I quickly (probably too quickly!) began writing a business plan. I wasn’t too sure what I was going to do with it, how or if it would even work, but I carried on anyway. I was working my normal job during the day and then spending long hours typing away on my laptop well into the night.
My initial idea was to setup a clear and concise website, which was easy to navigate for the client base I would be working with. I did not, however, want to become a solely online store as in this industry I believe it is essential that customers have the opportunity to get “hands-on” with the products and try before they buy. Many of the products we sell require specialist customizations for use by less abled customers and ours is therefore different from many retail businesses.
However, I did want our customers to have the opportunity to view the products online in their own homes and gather as much information as possible along with clear prices before making the decision to come into a store. I knew that to achieve this I would really need retail premises, but that would have to come later as at this stage I was not sure where the funding would come from.
How did you get started?
I approached my father, Alan, who had been a successful music journalist and had far more experience than me in running a business. He suggested that we approach a government backed small business start-up funding scheme, and between us, we took out a relatively small loan to start the business on the back of my business plan.
I had some very basic graphic design knowledge from my college days and put it into practice. I designed a logo and picked a colour scheme, and we started looking for a website provider. I soon found EKM by searching online. It was very easy to use and suited my limited knowledge down to the ground, and the cost was very low when compared to having a custom website built for me. I didn’t see the point in paying someone else to build something I could essentially learn to do myself.
I began building and was soon hooked. It actually became quite addictive and was very easy. I picked a basic template and edited it to look the way that I wanted, adding in my logos, building links, setting up my pages and eventually adding some products and getting the basic feel of how it all worked. The best part about EKM was the community and support centre. Any question I had would be answered very quickly and the design team went out of their way for me many times, either to teach me how to do what I wanted or by tweaking the existing design for me to suit my needs. For example, many of the products we sell are eligible for VAT exemption for disabled customers and I had to setup my entire online store to accommodate this. Nothing was too much trouble for EKM, who helped me every step of the way.
Did you have any setbacks when trying to start?
With the website underway and start-up funding secured, the next thing to do was to find premises to work from. We wanted to keep the overhead costs low at first and so my father and I decided to approach a garden centre to secure a plot on which to place a free standing cabin style building, and to allocate parking nearby. This idea was warmly welcomed by one local garden centre, who were keen to have us on board and found us some land at the front of their store, right next to the car park. We drew up plans for our cabin and were getting excited that things were getting underway so quickly.
We then approached the council to see if we would need planning permission to erect such a building, considering it did not have any foundations and we would be providing a useful service to the local community. We were swiftly turned down. This was a bit of a blow, however, we decided to carry on regardless and seek more suitable premises.
How did you find your brick and mortar store?
After a few weeks of searching and getting a little disheartened at finding nothing suitable (and some more website building!) we came across a beautiful shop at Watermead, Aylesbury, right next to the lake. It had ample parking, easy access, a good working/floor area and stunning views from every window. We snapped it up. I remember coming home and realising that it was actually happening and being a little apprehensive, but the excitement soon took over and within a couple of weeks we were inside, putting in new floors and painting the window frames.
How did you fund getting a brick and mortar shop?
We did everything ourselves, with a little help from some friends. My father and I spent many nights searching online auction and listings sites for slat walling, counter tops and even an old bath to carry out product demonstrations on lifts, stools etc. Our funds were limited but we (just about) found everything we needed within budget and fitted out the shop as best we could. We built a workshop with a motorcycle lift for the scooters and knocked through the rear storage room walls to bring machines in from the rear without disturbing the shop floor. It was a lot of work but it was worth it. We approached suppliers and took on the stock, and soon the website was ready to go live. The shop and website launched on the same day in late 2014.
How was the business when you finally started?
At first sales were a bit few and far between, however, we knew that with a strong marketing strategy and with the right driver behind it, the business model would succeed. Things improved steadily over time as word of mouth increased, and our popularity grew.
I drove traffic to the online store mainly with online advert campaigns focusing on local targeted audiences, as well as printed media in local magazines etc. By l ate 2015 the shop had become so busy that I needed to take on staff, as I was struggling to keep on top of deliveries as well as the day to day running of the store and knew I wanted to take it to new places and expand wherever possible.
My father also became ill, and sadly passed away in January 2016. This was one of the hardest times of my life but gave me more drive to carry on and turn the business into a success and carry on his legacy. We employed a full-time sales manager and delivery drivers as well as part time weekend staff. We have never looked back. The company turned a profit in our second year of trading.
What are your future plans?
We are now planning on opening new stores as well as a big re-design of the website, still using the EKM system. Our next step will be to employ online store management staff, who will be solely responsible for the upkeep and running of our EKM online store as it has become so extremely valuable to us. I would not consider using another online store provider. I have found it drives a huge amount of traffic to our “bricks and mortar” store and is essential to the running of our business.
Do you love what you do?
We spend our days doing what we love, which is helping people choose the right mobility or personal care product for them, fixing and altering peoples existing equipment and generally endeavouring to improve people’s quality of life. We sell everything from wheelchairs and beds to stair lifts and small aids to help around the home.
We do not mind if you spend a lot or nothing at all, our service and approach will be the same. I spend my time looking at ways to improve and expand the business, and overseeing the day to day running of the company. It is a truly rewarding business to be involved in. We employ fair and honest sales staff and have clear and fair pricing for everyone, and intend for it to stay that way.
Christopher Walsh – Managing Director of The Easy Living Company.