We spoke to Cheshire-based entrepreneur Sophie Mercer, Founder of a British equestrian fashion brand, Eqcouture. This stylish equestrian clothing brand is now a global success story with a loyal customer base. Empire magazine spoke to Sophie about her journey to the top and the challenges she has faced in this exclusive interview.
Did you have any previous experience running a business before Eqcouture, and if so, what and when and has that experience helped you with the company today?
“In a way, yes, but not entirely. It was my father’s office supplies business, and I was the manager. I was able to pick up quite a few skills from my father, but I also self-taught myself within many roles; sales, accounting, email marketing, photoshop, and even graphic design! I also dealt with customers daily, so I was certainly able to transfer my customer services skills over to Eqcouture.”
What has been your biggest challenge setting up the business?
“I think maintaining an unwavering belief that you will have a successful business, even when things aren’t moving quickly or in the direction you had planned!”
What aspects of the business do you enjoy, and which do you hate?
“I really enjoy designing new products, and this is probably the aspect that gets me most excited; seeing my creations come to life and ultimately having them worn and adored by my customers is the best part. The aspect I dislike the most is constantly trying to get ahead of the seasons, i.e. you need to be planning at least a year in advance, and I find that challenging. Any delay has a knock-on effect, resulting in seasonal items being late coming out, so you need to be strict on deadlines!”
In a competitive marketplace, what USPs set Eqcouture apart from the rest, and did these evolve as you developed the business, or were they set in stone in your vision?
“My main focus and something that was 100% set in stone from the outset was QUALITY and I would settle for nothing less. There are far too many lesser-quality items out there that just don’t last. From the beginning, I wanted Eqcouture to develop a good reputation for quality items, which I know it has! I also wanted to create high-quality items at affordable prices, again something we have achieved.”
What is the most important consideration when formulating your business plan?
“To be agile in your business plan. Having a focus is great, but review and amend where necessary as you grow.”
Did any businesses inspire you, and if so, what and why?
“I have been and still am, inspired by my husband (boyfriend at the time!) and his clothing brand Mercier. I watched this business struggle, develop and grow from the start and helped along the way. This lit a spark in me that I’d been keeping under wraps for a long time. I wanted something that was my own, to make my own decisions on whether they were right or wrong. I saw the determination it takes to build a brand and wanted to try it myself.”
Setting up a business alone can be a lonely journey. Where did you find support and help, and from whom?
“In the first instance, I didn’t really tell anyone or ask for support or help. This is because I didn’t want anyone to put me off or dampen my dream! As I’d always helped manage my father’s business & also had input into Mercier, I felt confident enough to go alone for a while. That was until problems arose! I reached straight out to my father and Ben for advice and support. Which is still the same these days!”
What have you learned from being a successful business founder?
“That there are peaks and troughs! Good days and bad days! Because ultimately, your business is your ‘baby’, so you are bound to feel emotion towards it. However, when problems arise, you have to learn to get over them and carry on. This is something I struggled with at the start. I would become very disheartened, which would set me back a little. Now I’ve learned to dust off, find a solution and carry on!”
Did you ever imagine failure and have a backup plan? Is this important to consider?
“I definitely don’t like to imagine failure, and I don’t even like the word! So I wouldn’t necessarily have a backup plan, as I feel that’s setting yourself up for a fall. However, you never know if your original business can take a different turn or path, which I’d be open to if this happened. In terms of a full backup plan away from the business, I feel that if you’re like me and driven and business-minded anyway, you will always find a way or have something you can work on if something else doesn’t work out.”
Who inspired/inspires you to set up on your own?
“My husband. Ben’s grit and determination to drive his business forward match my focus perfectly.”
What was your most significant learning curve?
“Listening to customer feedback, especially in the early days when you are excited and confident and think your product is perfect. Your customers can often offer valuable insight that will help in further product development, so it’s important to listen.”
What hurdles did you have to overcome, and how did you overcome them?
“One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in this industry is problems with manufacturing; you can test and test products again, not change any processes or materials, then end up with a faulty batch of something unbeknown to you. This can be something so small during the manufacturing process that nobody knew about, which could lead to a catastrophic effect on the end product. This is a huge hurdle to overcome because you want to keep your loyal customers. When this happened in the early days of my business journey, we have been completely transparent and truthful with our customers & luckily, they have always understood and we have been able to move on from it.”
When was your ‘eureka’ moment setting up the business?
“That has got to be receiving my first pair of perfect leggings after being back and forth for a while. I remember getting them out of the package and trying them on, and I was delighted that if finally done it!”
The best piece of business advice you have ever been given?
“This is very short and sweet, but definitely one I live by – “The only way to guarantee failure is to quit,” I think this piece of advice speaks for itself!”
What credentials/qualifications and experience have you acquired that made this business successful?
“I definitely don’t think you need qualifications to make a business a success. I got good grades in school, but I left early in college. I was too business-minded and money orientated to still be in a classroom. This might work for others but for me, it didn’t. As soon as I left college and started working, all my skills started to grow. During my time at my father’s business, I did a few business courses & an accountancy course which I feel has helped with Eqcouture.”
How did you cope with the sudden growth in your business? What plan of action did you put in place?
“To be honest, I didn’t expect it! So there were no plans in place as such. I just took each week as it came, which is still do now. I feel you have to be careful not to look too much into the future (unless it’s about new products!) with business because you never know what is around the corner. If you focus on your business at present and how it’s running now and run it to the best of your ability, then you will be able to cope no matter the size as it grows.”
What plans do you have for Eqcouture’s future?
“To keep evolving and bringing our new innovative products and be a household name in the Equestrian world!”
If you could give your younger self some business advice, what would it be?
“I always tell myself and others just to “get to the table” you won’t know if something will work if you don’t try it! It’s better to have tried than to regret not trying at all.”
Do check out this website – www.eqcouture.co.uk