We love speaking to women who’ve started their own businesses in male-dominated fields, so we were very interested to chat to Gill Burn, founder of Sussex’s Lady Decorators. Like the CEO of Van Girls who we interviewed recently, she spotted a gap in the market and went for it, quickly growing her fledgling startup into a stable business.
We talked to Gill about how the business came about, and all her top tips for decorating and starting your own enterprise.
Hey Gill. Tell us about starting Lady Decorators – how did you get going?
I set up Lady Decorators in 2003. After refurbishing several houses, my passion for decorating and transforming peoples’ homes into a space they could be proud of was ignited and I decided to create my own business.
At the time, I was working as a private flight attendant for the Saudi Arabian royal family and also for some big names in the music industry. However, once I started a family with my husband, I decided to give it up to look after my children and became a full time mum.
Between giving up my job and starting my business, my husband was unfortunately involved in a life-changing plane crash and at this point, as I hadn’t returned to work, I was able to nurse him back to health. Two years after the accident and with my three children all now at school I was ready to re-enter the workplace. I decided to start my own business as it offered me the flexibility I needed – that’s when Lady Decorators was born.
What kinds of people use Lady Decorators?
We get contacted by a wide range of people from young professionals and busy modern families who are time poor to elderly homeowners living alone who don’t have the capability.
The majority of our work is primarily private clients, but we do undertake the occasional commercial job and also sometimes work in schools.
How have people reacted to Lady Decorators? What kinds of feedback do you get?
When I first started the business, I was one of the first all-female decorating companies in the area so it was quite different from the other decorating firms in Sussex. We received a fabulous reaction from local people, especially female homeowners, and our name quickly spread.
We receive a lot of positive feedback from our customers with many commenting on how comfortable they feel having us in their home. As well as priding ourselves on our attention to detail and professionalism, we also take a great deal of care in making sure we leave our customers’ homes clean and tidy. That could be ensuring all furniture is put back in the correct place, cleaning up after ourselves or simply washing up the mugs we’ve used.
What’s been the biggest high for the business?
When I employed my first decorator, Maria. I felt so proud of myself and could see Lady Decorators expanding year upon year.
Any low points?
Yes, there was a time when I considered giving it all up. In 2011, my husband, (with whom I’d since spilt) sadly passed away as an indirect result of his plane crash injuries, and my new partner, Tim, also suddenly passed away on Christmas Eve of the same year. An unbelievable set of circumstances that took a huge toll on my personal life.
I just wasn’t able to work as hard as I once had because I was grieving and looking after my devastated family. My income was greatly reduced as I channelled my takings into paying my team. After a brief, and very scary, make or break year, I decided to throw all my energy into Lady Decorators and invest in new marketing material – I was determined to make it work!
That’s some incredible resilience – do you have any advice for other female entrepreneurs?
Believe in yourself and your idea. Research your market, target audience and, most importantly, your competitors. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve higher and always be confident in your abilities.
If, like me, you’re a female entrepreneur in a male dominated industry don’t be put off by stereotypes or preconceived thoughts from the public. Stay strong-minded and determined.
Treat your employees well, incentivise them, motivate them and keep them smiling – they are the forefront of your company and if they’re happy, your customers will be too.
Lastly, marketing is vital. It’s no good being the best in your field if no one knows about it.
What’s next for Lady Decorators?
I would like the business to become one of the most recognisable decorating companies in Sussex. I would also like to encourage young girls to consider decorating as a possible career path. Home painting and decorating has an incredibly male-focused mindset which has been hard to shake – however, we’re determined to show that women are just as tough and capable. It’s an extremely fulfilling career that involves passion, creativity and attention to detail and I think more women would consider it as a career given the opportunity.
And finally – could you give us your top 3 decorating tips?
1) Preparation is THE single most important step! It can often be overlooked or rushed but it you prepare your walls, ceilings and woodwork properly it will help you achieve a flawless finish, plus it will mean your efforts will last longer.
2) I also urge people to experiment with colour! It’s all too easy to stick to neutrals and to play it safe, but the right colours will completely change the whole look and feel of a room. Plus, it’s only paint and can be changed if your experiment doesn’t work out the way you’d hoped!
3) Don’t throw away any leftover paint, keep it, label it and store it somewhere safe for future touch ups. Paint colour can vary from tin to tin and using paint from a different batch will result in a mismatch.
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All images: Gill Burn/Lady Decorators