Lynda Cookson is an author and artist in Maam Valley, Ireland and has been an entrepreneur since 1979.
Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?
I am an artist (a painter) and an author of arts-related books.
What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?
I have a fairly interesting track record – and no, this isn't my first business. Thirty years ago, at the age of 25, I had been working as a legal secretary for seven years. We had recently moved to a new city and I found that the attorneys who were employing me at that time, were not exactly honest. That was the little nudge I needed (I only needed a tiny one) to push me into starting my own business. I used the only skills I had at the time and started a dancing studio. I taught ballroom dancing and disco dancing (Yay! Saturday Night Fever!) and employed other dancers to teach modern dance. When my husband's career took us elsewhere, I sold the business … yet continued to teach and organize dinner, dance and cabaret evenings in the small town we moved to.
Another move to a bigger city a couple of years later, with a six month old baby in tow, and before long I was selling lycra leotards to gyms in the area. That informal business quickly grew, and at 8 months pregnant with my second child, I opened my own Dance and Stage Boutique down a busy lane in the city centre. My little shop flourished and grew larger, moving into the fields of stage make-up and accessories (artificial blood, the lot!), ballet gear and a large costume hire wardrobe. I loved the total creativity of it … turning kids into pumpkins or big bunches of grapes, adults into Dr Doolittle, and big men into ballet dancers. I employed a staff of three – a saleslady, a creative assistant and a messenger-cum-cleaner, with a part-time bookkeeper on call. There were three moves to bigger premises over the next five years until I became very ill with a hormonal disease and sadly had to close the doors while I went in to hospital and spent the next 18 months in recovery.
The creative urge never left me, yet I also became interested in complementary therapies after a couple of nasty brushes with conventional medicine. Taking a lifelong love of words and the English language I began writing, while also studying Reflexology, Shiatsu, Aromatherapy and Iridology. Living in South Africa during the end of the apartheid years, I discovered writing was a difficult path to follow. Not only was it a very badly paid profession, but it was difficult to well nigh impossible, to find a publisher. So that meant I concentrated on building my complementary therapy clinics, which I did, growing from one clinic in one city to three clinics in two cities and a town, in the space of five years.
A change in my personal and financial circumstances, and a move to yet another city, meant that I had to take employment for two years. During that time, I researched creative markets, constantly working out where and how I was going to start my next business. I make a terrible employee! In 1994 "Paperways" was born - I had taught myself how to make handmade paper and had developed a unique tool to use in the process.
As "Paperways" I taught classes on how to make paper, manufactured my own handmade paper for sale in retail outlets, and manufactured papermaking kits which included my unique tool – the aluminium mould for making a picture in the paper. For the next six years I built the business, finally selling it when my children became independent, and my husband and I decided to emigrate from South Africa to Ireland. I kept a fair stock of papermaking equipment and continued to teach papermaking and to sell handmade papermaking kits from Ireland. I no longer teach, but I still sell those kits!
I had begun to paint creatively in the late 1990s and on reaching Ireland, and almost fifty years old by now, I realized I had to perform some nifty promotional footwork in order to get established as an artist in time to give myself a secure old age. To cut a long story short (the story can be read in my book entitled "Tea 'n Turps") I became the arts profile writer for a group of magazines out here in the West of Ireland and in that way developed both my painting career and my writing career.
It's taken a lot of risks, money, new grey hairs, exhibitions, and many, many hours on the internet working away at networking sites, to get me to this point where I have just published my fourth book, am employing two part-time personal assistants, and have taken my paintings from a position of "thoroughly buried" to "rising and noticeable".
I'm still going, and picking up speed …
That is quite a story, Lynda. I bet you would have a lot of advice for someone who was thinking of becoming an entrepreneur.
I would tell them to be tenacious. In whatever you do, always do it to the highest professional standard you can manage (or don't do it at all) – and do it with enthusiasm! Always enthusiasm.
Live with grace, respect and politeness and take the time to ensure that none of these three values ever slip when you are working. In difficult situations, which could destroy what you are trying to build, by employing grace, respect and politeness you will always come out on top in the long run. People will remember you as a strong and worthwhile person. And that includes yourself … building self-confidence is paramount.
Did you write a business plan? Was it an effective tool for you?
Yes. I needed a loan from the bank to begin manufacturing the papermaking kits so a business plan was necessary. It must have been effective because I got the loan!
Who did you hire to help you? Bookkeeper, Accountants, Lawyers …? Would you suggest others do the same?
I have always employed a part-time Accountant to do my books and annual tax. It's really difficult for a one-man-show to do everything and to do it efficiently. I employ attorneys if and when necessary and would definitely suggest other entrepreneurs do the same. As I said before, if you're going to do anything at all, do it professionally.
Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?
Yes, except for my Dancing Studio and Dance and Stage Boutique, I've always worked from home.
The only challenge is to separate work from relaxation time and to banish the should-be-working guilt. Benefits are great, and here are just some of them: Far less overheads in insurance, rental, utilities etc; the only traffic jam is the dog lying in the corridor; dinner can be prepared and cooked in between computer reboots, and quality family time is far easier to attain.
Did you have a partner when you started your business? How did you select a partner?
No, I have never had a partner in business. I have experienced two ventures, not full businesses, on two separate occasions, with a partner and did not enjoy either one. Each venture cost me more than it was worth. I would advise extreme caution with taking on a partner and to only do so with the assistance of a very good attorney.
Do you own a business with family members? What do you think are the benefits and challenges to running a family owned business?
Yes, since last year, my husband and I have branched out into running a picture framing business. The benefits are more time spent together, better earning capabilities, and better use of office space with less work-related travel. The challenges are the usual "who's the boss?" dilemma and the fine line between nagging and requesting when a job needs to be done!
For women entrepreneurs, what specific advice would you have for young women who would like to become an entrepreneur? Are there specific advantages, disadvantages to being a women business owner?
If you have a chip on your shoulder, don't do it! Go out there and be a person who succeeds and not only a woman who succeeds. Having said that, the gender issue will arise – and like I said before, handle it with grace, respect and politeness. For yourself, take the awe out of the situation and you'll be an all-round better-balanced business owner. Be an entrepreneur for yourself; be proud of what women do and support those who need this gender issue to be supported, when and how you're able to … but don't lose your business in the whirls of a social issue. Remain true to yourself as a person, not a gender.
Thank you for your time Lynda! I'll try to proceed with grace, respect and politeness!