Podcast: Sophie Cornish, Managing Partner of Busby & Fox
June 16, 2022 •Sophie Colquhoun
Sophie joined us to talk about her career in growing and scaling businesses, how Busby & Fox are making women in their 50s not only look and feel amazing but also ensure they feel seen and heard, the future for small retail and lots, lots more.
Or, if you prefer you can read the interview transcript below...
Sorcha O’Boyle: My guest this week is an MBE, a two-time author, multiple award winner, founder of Not On The High Street and currently Managing Partner of the brilliant womenswear brand Busby & Fox. Sophie Cornish, it is such a treat to have you here, how are you doing?
Sophie Cornish: Ah Sorcha it’s absolutely lovely to be with you. I’m great. I’m feeling really good today. We are getting back into normal life, aren’t we? And it’s just such a pleasure.
Sorcha O’Boyle: Yes, it’s great, isn’t it? It just feels like, I don’t know if it’s just me, but this summer just feels like everything is just wide open, you could do anything.
Sophie Cornish: Yeah, yeah, absolutely and the sun has actually been shining.
Sorcha O’Boyle: Yes, makes such a difference.
Sophie Cornish: Yeah, no I’m good and how are you?
Sorcha O’Boyle: I’m good yeah, I’m great, I’m really excited about this episode. I think we’ll get into Busby & Fox in a minute or two, but I’d like to kind of start by winding back the clock back to 2006 when you founded Not On The High Street with Holly Tucker. It was an unusual kind of business to be creating at that time, I think. Can you tell me a little bit what your vision was for the business and what you wanted to achieve with it?
Sophie Cornish: Yeah absolutely, I mean it was, we felt quite like pioneers at the time. It was actually 2005 that we kind of first had the idea and if you think that I think Twitter was founded in something like 2005/2006, Facebook 2004, so these were really early days. About the vision for Not On The High Street? Well, we talked about a perfect storm in terms of what was happening at the time. There was obviously the kind of appetite and a kind of bounty of these beautiful hand made products around, people were making unique things as small businesses, things that you could have made sort of to order or customised and that felt like quite a, you know, not exactly a new thing but a kind of serge of that kind of product at the same time as the high street was just looking pretty bleak. There were six mobile phone shops in every high street and the small businesses that we love needed a better outlet really. It was hard for them to get seen, as wonderful as they were. So yeah, we just decided that we wanted to find a way to bring the customer who really wanted these products together with the makers who were creating such incredible unique things and digital just seemed the way to do it, so we decided that we were going to create this online marketplace. We did both have digital backgrounds we had both worked in, this is Holly Tucker, my business partner and I. So, we both worked in digital backgrounds before but in many, many ways, it was very new to us. But yeah, we wanted to bring together that magic and put it online and so we just sat down, wrote a business plan, started at our kitchen table and kind of the rest is history, I guess.
Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, and where there any hairy moments in the early days?
Sophie Cornish: Oh gosh. Many. Many. We had a very difficult time with technology, I think it’s well known now probably but we didn’t quite get what we expected with our very first platform and we had a very scary first launch date when the technology that we’d been planning to launch and we’d set up this whole, you know, we’d told the press and got publicity and announced it to all our, you know, we’d been accumulating a database and we announced it to our customers, we had no concept of beta really we just kind of jumped in and did it and on the night before we launched the technology just was not working. So, we kind of crafted this idea of a competition and turned it into a kind of preview and come and visit us and register and win money to shop on the site later and we just had no idea, whether people were going to come to the site or not. And if they were, were they just going to run away again because we weren’t actually delivering what we’d hope to deliver. And there was just this wonderful moment, like a movie, where we watched the screen as people did come to the site and register and say how much they loved it and honestly there was just thousands and thousands and thousands of people registering and, you know, we’d spun it, we’d made it into a success. So yes, definitely some hairy moments but they mostly turned into, to very happy moments.
Sorcha O’Boyle: That’s wonderful. Because you were there for a quite a long time, I think that you kind of left in 2018, is that right?
Sophie Cornish: Yes, the business was sold last year so I’m not with the business at all.
Sorcha O’Boyle: And was it hard for you to leave?
Sophie Cornish: Hard to leave? I mean gosh, yes absolutely. Very hard to leave. I think all kind of jobs are hard to leave, if you, I love work. I just love, love work. I love office life, I love my teams, wherever I am I have happy fond memories of every single place I worked, so it’s always hard. I think when you’ve built up something from scratch like that and been through so much, it is, you know, I think lots of founders would say it’s like a third child, for me, with having two already and it’s a very kind of unique bond that you have with your business. With that said it is a little bit like again, like having a child. Your greatest triumph really is when they successfully grow up and move on and leave you and you let go and that’s kind of exactly what happened, and I was excited to do new things. It was of course you know, a bit mixed, a bit bittersweet.
Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, I’m sure, huge mix of emotions and that kind of brings us on quite nicely what was it about Busby & Fox that, you know, kind of caught your attention or piqued your attention?
Sophie Cornish: Yeah, I mean so many things really. It was, part of them kind of quite personal and part about the business and kind of where that intersected really. As I was sort of reducing my day-to-day involvement with Not On The High Street, my husband and I bought a lovely home down in Devon and started to spend more time down there. We’d always had roots down there, my mother grew up there, etc, etc. But we started to spend more time down there and Emma Vowles who’s the founder of Busby & Fox was already a great friend and was running the business with her husband Felix and we just started talking more and more really and I’m a little bit compulsive with businesses generally. I mean I can’t, just itch to get involved and see how you can kind of make the magic even greater and so yeah, I kind of started talking to Emma and Felix about how perhaps I could help them to grow or to do things, to make the business kind of more what they wanted and fulfil their dreams for the business. And I guess it was also an opportunity for me to get back to fashion. Before Not On The High Street, I’d worked for 20 years or so in magazines and the cosmetics industry and in advertising. So, cosmetics and beauty and fashion had been my world and I missed it, I really missed it, so there was that for me too, but why particularly Busby & Fox? Many things. Emma’s brand and magic is just something to behold, it really is. She’s one of the most engaging, talented, creative people you could ever have the good fortune to meet and customers just, they just love her and what she brings to their lives in terms of, you know, how they dress and how she shares in personal experience with them and how she kind of makes one feel confident and able to kind of experiment and so on. She just has real magic there. So I knew that there was something there that we could make more of within the business but then more kind of from a commercial point of view, I was reaching my fifties, in fact I think I just turned fifty, and I’d realised that women of my age had become rather kind of an invisible, neglected, group of women which is crazy because half the population is over fifty and they hold around 40% of the nation’s entire household wealth and of course half of those people are women and they’re just being neglected as consumers. I think any research you find will tell you that sort of 45%, 50% of women of that age, feel they kind of just vanish from public life as they get older and reach menopause and so on. But in many ways actually this is a really great time to be a woman. We’re pleasing ourselves again; we’re free of some of the worries and responsibilities of our thirties and forties; we’re doing new things; enjoying more time to ourselves and building either new or getting more, reinvolving ourselves in our careers. Woman are working for longer because we’re living longer of course and, you know, it might be because we need to, and it might be because we want to but that’s often what we’re doing and within all of that we’re dressing for ourselves in our careers but this time choosing clothes probably more purely to make ourselves happy and express who we are. But in fashion there’s just this big gap in the market and although there, of course there are brands. I’m a shopaholic and I know there are brands everywhere for me but the ones that, where I really feel I belong in that kind of aspect of my life. I think at Busby & Fox we are really enjoying bridging that gap right alongside our customers and kind of creating an environment and our own labelled collection of clothes that we know works for them. And I think that is what really drew me to the business and made me feel there was something, very special that I personally wanted to engage with there. And then of course, because I’ve grown a business before, I felt that I could maybe help them in ways that, you know, introduce ways of working or new developments or strategy or whatever that could help. I thought I could bring something to the party as it were.
Sorcha O’Boyle: That’s fantastic. You can really just hear the passion and the excitement in your voice. I love it; it’s brilliant.
Sophie Cornish: I do, I just love it.
Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, I can see that. I’d love to know what do you want your customer to feel when she walks into your store?
Sophie Cornish: Well, I guess exactly, that really, like I do. I’m not in the office every day so I do still feel like a customer myself. So that means feeling very special. The most important person to walk through the door that day, even though of course, everyone should feel like that. That I belong and I’m among friends and that my kind of wardrobe is solved, as it were. It’s better than solved that I’m having that lovely experience of getting dressed every morning, rather than it feeling like a burden or a challenge. And also, that sort of, what I think is really important for the customer as they come into the store or go online is that really implicit trust that the customer can sort of settle into what we have to say. That our staff or Emma, when it’s Emma online doing her online tutorials and so on, that they’re experienced and have their own life story. So, we introduce our customers to shapes, colours, fabrics that really work for them and we also tell people when things aren’t working, and we really do and why. So, there’s no flattery. Yeah, so I’ve learned so much as a customer about what works for me and I just think that feeling that kind of confidence as you, you know, you want to feel confidence as you walk in as much as you do when you walk out of a store or a shopping experience or an online shopping experience and I think that’s what we want them to feel.
Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, and I think that really comes across. You know I think you have quite a lot of customer testimonials on your website in particular, you can really see people say that they really trust, and they really connect with the store teams, you know, that’s huge and it’s a difficult thing to do.
Sophie Cornish: Yeah and it’s interesting you raise that point because they really do speak for us and, we often talk about, I don’t know, a tag line or a definitive way of describing us and obviously we do have those things, but the best way, of course, is when your customers say it for you and they really do and that is really great to hear.
Sorcha O’Boyle: And can you tell me a little bit about what you’re focusing on right now? Are you kind of looking at expanding your stores, are you focusing more online? What are your big priorities at the moment?
Sophie Cornish: Well obviously, it’s been a tough old two years, so a lot of what we’re doing now is simply consolidating after two challenging years. But, you know, we’re good. We’re in a good place. We haven’t just survived, we’re thriving. So now I think what we’re thinking about is scale and growth and how we kind of plan to do that really is to reach more of the women that we know we can serve. I think women can spend their entire lives feeling that they don’t look right. Whether that’s about shape or size or age or something else and you add to that the struggles and changes that the years invariably brings to, you know, our health or our lives and so many women are missing out on that, what I talked about, that kind of sheer joy of getting dressed every morning. So, connecting with more of those customers is at the heart of the plan and at product level we’re getting better and better at creating collections that our customers want. During the pandemic we switched completely to our own brand label collection and that was a huge thing to do at a difficult time, but in fact the pandemic served us well and allowed us the breathing space, to take stock, rethink and in particular make that transition. At a marketing level we’re looking at the full spectrum of channels, not least with More2’s help, and for me personally scaling Busby & Fox is an opportunity to apply some of the things that I learned first time around with Not On The High Street. And what I mean is that I know the preciousness of having the entire team in the same room, when their connection with the brand is instinctive and where interdepartmental communication is sort of personal and immediate rather than something that we need to construct. And if you’re not careful that does slip away as you grow, so I’m very determined that to make sure that we hold onto that and grow in a very an intimate way that just holds onto our values really.
Sorcha O’Boyle: And was it difficult for you or maybe difficult is the wrong word but how was it for you coming from a big, big business like Not On The High Street to much smaller brand. How was it?
Sophie Cornish: Yeah, we are smaller we’ll probably 40 or so as a team. I guess we weren’t a big business on Not On The High Street. We certainly got a lot bigger, but we always had that smaller business feel and of course we were working with 5000 small businesses, so small was our absolute world. So, the transition was in many ways fairly seamless. I think the other thing is that I just love this stage of business or this size of business. It’s me in my kind of real happy place and it’s a lot of fun. I went into the office – I’m in and out of the office all the time - but one time recently at Easter, one of the team brought everybody an Easter bunny and it’s just those kind of little touches that are only possible when you’re small that every single person, all the team, can get their Easter bunny from her and we will do that as a company as well, for our team, but the team, a member of the team can come in, go, “You know what I’m going to buy a Bunny for everybody.” And that’s the sort of magic of being small and the relationship that you have with every single person. So, I think that’s what’s so special about being small.
Sorcha O’Boyle: That’s the magic, the magic of being small. You mentioned a little bit earlier that you your stores were doing quite well even during the Pandemic. I think one thing that’s quite interesting is that a lot of your stores are in holiday destinations like Exeter or smaller kind of market towns like Henley on Thames. How do you balance the off season when you don’t have any tourists coming into those stores? How do you balance the productivity of those stores? How do you balance your store teams? Because that must be a little bit challenging.
Sophie Cornish: Yeah, it’s a good question. Yes we are, we are kind of even over-performing so far this year which is great and there’s a kind of almost two cycles that we work with but that is actually one of the great things about the business because instead of the single cycle that most businesses have, we’ve got the sort of Spring/Summer focus cycle that’s sort of focused on our coastal stores and then the sort of second half of the year cycle that’s more around our online business and some of our other more urban stores. So actually, what we do is have a strategy that embraces both and has the sort of, the waves and cycles of both sort of interconnecting very healthily with each other. In order to do that we’ve reimagined some of the core principles of fashion really. Our collections debunk the notion of being tied to a season and instead we focus on a sort of timeless, consciously designed collection of pieces that will serve you all year round and for many years to come, it’s the ultimate easy to wear collection that you can layer up or pair down. And then that comes with a ton of ideas and guidance which happens either very naturally in store as part of the shopping process or online where customers can watch Emma in action in her weekly styling tutorials. So, we do have the cycle that comes from our coastal towns and that can be wild. Salcombe in peak season is a sight to behold, if you haven’t already. But there’s so much else going on everywhere and all the time that we’re able to really make that work.
Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, and it’s a tricky thing to manage because a lot of businesses I think struggle a little bit with getting online and offline to work together. So sometimes they can be a little siloed and they’re seen as two very just separate channels but actually the customer experience bridges, you know, your online channels and your offline channels, so the fact that you can manage that and balance that is a testament I think to what you are doing. Because a lot of what you do is quite pioneering especially with Not On The High Street and so on. I’m really interested to hear what you think, what is the future for the small retailers, the small independent retailer and what can they do to kind of fight off the big multinationals with deep pockets and big teams? Because we hear a lot about, you know, the death of the small retailer but I’ve a feeling you’re going to be quite optimistic about the future of small retail.
Sophie Cornish: So transparent. Yeah, I just don’t agree with that at all. From everything I see and know women love nothing more than to walk into a store where they are known, and they have a voice. Where they can say “I’d love to see more of this,” and it’s not a survey or a piece of data it’s a really personal point of view and I think we’re thriving on that. We’re just absolutely thriving on the fact that we have stores in all sorts of different locations but all of them with this kind of common thread, which is that they’re busy, buzzy towns, that’s where we are, smaller towns or market towns or coastal towns. Never say never, but we don’t really have any great interest in being in the big towns next to the multinationals. And I think the advantage that we have of being that sort of something special and powerful that comes from being small is more than, you know, more than enough to sort of fight our corner and I think a lot of multi-nationals would dream of the level of customer engagement that we have. The feedback that we’re able to sort of very quickly and in a very agile way incorporate into what we do so we can be responsive. So yeah, we’re very proud to be a business that’s small enough to focus entirely on what matters to our customers and yet big enough to create a fashion collection with our customers front of mind. Because we are, we’re seven stores and online and we will continue to grow our stores as well. So, we, again, we kind of marry, we’re able to marry the two and make that work for us and have a decent amount of leverage ourselves.
Sorcha O’Boyle: That’s brilliant and it’s lovely I think as well for the towns that have independent retailers like that as well, you know, sometimes you can go into some towns and they’re just full of big brands and they all kind of look the same but you know when you get the small kind of quirky interesting shops it just, it adds so much character and so much life to a town so I just, I’m also a big fan of independent retailers so I think it’s great.
Sophie Cornish: You must come visit.
Sorcha O’Boyle: I would love to, you know I actually I used to work in Exeter, so I know exactly where your shop is, I was looking at, yeah, yeah, so.
Sophie Cornish: Oh, did you? Oh, Exeter’s a lovely town. So, you lived there in Devon obviously.
Sorcha O’Boyle: I did yeah, just briefly just for a year, yeah, but it was lovely. Yeah, really, really lovely. Lovely, lovely part of the world but yeah, I will definitely come visit. So, my kind of final question because we’re slightly running out of time. But if you were to speak to somebody who is at maybe four or five years into their retail business and is looking for advice to scale, sustainably, you know, without kind of losing that magic that they have, what would you say to them?
Sophie Cornish: I think what I’d say is the same as I would always have said, even when I was at Not On The High Street and working with those 5000 small businesses that we did. I think first actually is to think big. Women in particular don’t think big enough with their businesses. I mean for example when we first went for venture funding back in 2007, I know that around 6% of institutional investment went to female led businesses and now that is down to 2%. So, if anything women are thinking less big and less ambitious. So first of all, think big. I think second, make friends with data, but don’t let it take over, you stay in charge. I have a bit of a mixed relationship with data. I’m a big believer but I think the big advantage of multi-channel retail is the intimate relationship you have with your customers as we talked about and how you bake that into everything you do on and offline. So, I think as far as data is concerned and science is concerned, I would say stick to your core values, what got you to where you are, and then hold onto your instincts and then layer the science on top and the data and that’s where the magic happens. And then third I’d say always put people first. I know everybody says that, but it is because it’s true, whether it’s customers or your team, they’re one and the same, they’re just as important as each other. Our customers often come and work for us and our staff are among our top customers, and they completely believe in the brand and the product. And you have to make that your goal on both sides, so getting it right for them and keeping that love alive on both sides should drive every decision and every hire, and I think if you lead with that you really can’t go far wrong.
Sorcha O’Boyle: That’s brilliant. Sophie, thank you so much it is an absolute pleasure to speak with you
Sophie Cornish: It’s a great pleasure to speak with you Sorcha.
Sorcha O’Boyle: That was Sophie Cornish, Managing Partner of Busby & Fox, and founder of Not On The High Street. I hope you enjoy this episode of the Industry Leaders Podcast and don’t forget that you can catch up on all our previous episodes on Spotify or wherever you get your Podcasts. That’s it for now so from me Sorcha O’Boyle and all of us at More2, take care and bye, bye.