Rachel Watkyn is a multi-award winning entrepreneur who set up Tiny Box Company from scratch in a bedroom 15 years ago. Winner of the 2020 Natwest Entrepreneur of the Year Award, 2020 Rural Business Award and 2021 Entrepreneurial Business of the Year Award at the UK Packaging Awards, Rachel’s mission is to now encourage and mentor other female entrepreneurs to follow their dreams and passions.
Tiny Box Company now employs over 90 staff, has an annual turnover of circa £10m, with a company valuation at £15m.
John was like one of these mad, scientist inventors. Where people’s car aerials had snapped off, John, who was an entrepreneur, had worked out a way to fix broken car aerials. My job was to put rubber ends on the car aerials and spot weld them together.
I worked around my A-levels, I was paid per piece and it was my first understanding of the faster I worked, the more I got paid. I learned every shortcut in the production line, taking out all of the unnecessary, but making sure all of it was quality. It was 1987 and I was earning £10 per hour which was good money then.
What John taught me was to learn the whole process, from the ground up, and don’t ask anyone to do anything you’re nor prepared to do yourself.
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It was unusual to employ a girl for spot welding but I experienced no barriers to entry or sexism. I was lucky that I wasn’t subjected to what others may have experienced at that age. Do a good job and I will pay you fairly, he said. He taught me fairness and democracy, but in the end he had the cheek to build a machine to do it and I lost my job.
I had a tough early childhood and spent my formative years in a children’s home. I was desperate for work, sofa-surfing and pretty much financially independent. I rolled my sleeves up and got on with it. It was brutal. I look at youngsters now and they think they’re above it, but nobody is. We’ve developed this culture where everybody is full of their own self-importance and not prepared to do the more menial jobs.
I knew that I wanted to set up my own business and be an entrepreneur and so I spent a year with the John Lewis Partnership on its graduate management training scheme, focusing on accounting. I quickly learnt that accounting didn’t offer enough variety. After roles in the treasury, I then sold financial systems for a large software company. One of my last roles was to travel to Africa where I was responsible for implementing a new financial system for the Sierra Leone government in the late 90s.
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I was 35 when I had the idea to set up Tiny Box. In 2006, I was ready to launch a jewellery business and my sister suggested that I would need ethical, environmentally friendly packaging. Finding “off the shelf” eco-friendly jewellery boxes, in small quantities and with low lead times proved difficult to find.
I disrupted the industry and nobody thought it would work. It was the start of the Etsy boom and no one was cottoning on to the industry where people needed packaging.
When the pandemic hit we were classed as an essential business as we supply medical and food companies. With everybody home and the fact that we had contingency plans already in place, every single office member had a laptop. We also had a cloud-based phone system and we were back up and running in an hour. It was purely about planning ahead and there weren’t many businesses that could do that.
I learned early on from John that money was a key motivator. Plus, if you have a boring, repetitive job you have to build a commission element in and I still do that today. I learned that so young, it drove me to produce more. It was a big lesson.
In our factory in Redruth, Cornall we have people who are hand covering. If someone is producing 90 units an hour and the other doing 60 and they are on the same base rate, where is the incentive for the fast one to carry on? I’m always conscious of how easy it is to slow down unless you have that incentive.
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In lots of ways I am the typical entrepreneur where I’m not the greatest day-to-day boss and have lots of ideas, but I’ve learnt the hard way that staff need boundaries, strong guidelines, consistency and everything prioritised for them. I’m not that person and so I took the decision to sack myself and hired a CEO to focus on the day-to-day running.
This meant I was freed up to engage with staff and customers. I recently went to the print room and learned that one of the jobs we make a big loss on. It’s not fair that we ask the staff to do that.
For me, the biggest lesson is humility and to keep going back to basics. It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO or chairperson, go and work with the staff, they have the answers and work with the customers. That’s what keeps the business in tune.
Rachel Watkyn has launched Chief and Turtle, one of the UK’s first sustainable and ethical activewear retailers
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