In autumn 2019, James West gave three face-to-face mentoring sessions to Claire Canning at Today Bread café after she’d signed up to Waltham Forest’s Forge Programme for people needing Creative Business Advice. Claire, 42 had all sorts of design experience but wanted to run her own business creating and selling high end, ethically sourced and beautifully designed textiles. Three years on Claire recalls meeting James helped her with marketing and business growth planning. 

Walthamstow-based interior designer Claire Canning’s website is a look book for fabulous interiors ranging from Paul Smith at Heathrow to a Halloween-themed Mayfair club. But it was the transition of how to market her textile business, created with business partner, Lindsey Hesketh, who is based in Scotland, that Claire was finding tricky. There seemed to be innumerable problems for this small start-up from dealing with the textile mill to cashflow as well as the challenges of giving a passion project enough time between contracts and family demands.

CC: I’d been working in design for 10-15 years and wanted to go out on my own and make my own products. I have design experience but not a lot of all the other sides which are integral to starting a business or knowing how you present yourself to the world.

JW: You’d spent five years developing your product. You had some really firm ambitions and you knew your approach.

CC: It wasn’t really five years – more when we could fit it in around projects and we were self-funded. We knew we wanted to use British wool and worked with a very small weaver in Halifax to make the prototypes of our Granite + Smoke blankets. When we tried to scale up and make 20 there was a delay as we were just small fry for mills.

JW: It’s so important for Claire to explain that journey. I used the allegory of hands around your head, like horse blinkers. My advice was to shift perspective and look at things differently. One thing was 60/40 balance of time – do you remember the model? It was time to start talking about your market, but the temptation when you take so long crafting a baby is that you can’t tease the eyes away from it.

CC: (smiling) This has really taken me back. I remember I was in a very negative head space. We were so close… and had spent so much money and I couldn’t quite see the wood for the trees. I wouldn’t say that I remember James pointing out the 60/40 but that is what is happening. When we were able to position with a reliable supply chain, we then launched the website in summer 2022. We focused on getting to that point for so long and then realised we’ve still got so much to do. We’re now at the bottom of the mountain again!

Meeting you was a real breath of fresh air, I felt very uplifted afterwards. You helped me see past the point I was at and gave me insight into what I wasn’t able to see myself.

Claire Canning

JW: The reason I selected you for this story is what you’ve gone on to do so well… because at our sessions you were so timid about mapping out your future goals. And that was even in an ideal world and even with no timelines: you couldn’t see that picture.

CC: I think we were scared to take the leap. Lindsey and I kept saying we’d put time aside, but it was scary with mortgages and life. It’s interesting to hear how you perceived our public success as sales aren’t quite there yet. There is press interest, but we didn’t anticipate how long it would take and didn’t have the headspace to ask how do we evolve? When we met we spoke a lot about pricing, it’s taken a lot to get to this stage and that really is an ongoing thing. We’ve invested in a trade fair but we absolutely need cash flow.

JW: Prices are always a big debate. A lot of our relationship was almost a reflexology of business advice to give you confidence.

CC: I think we met at a great time. I was so hands over my head, and it was good to have a sounding board.

JW: I followed you on Instagram and all of a sudden, I spotted that you are stocked in TwentyTwentyOne on Upper Street, Islington. I love that shop!

CC: We’re really pleased about this just six weeks after our website launch. I went to meet them and showed them the products and talked through the processes and heritage and they thought we’d be great for some of their customers. We will be in Elle Decoration Christmas list for 2022, but we have to be patient as press has three or four month delays. We will be doing a store and Christmas fair at Birch, a members’ club in north London and we’re building up a targeted insta.

JW: So, let’s replay the journey: you launched the website in summer and it’s only October. That’s such a short window! If you compare the amount of energy and time spent making the product, your achievements are fantastic and the press got in touch with you – these are things people would dream of. But for you the journey seems long as you’ve only just started looking outside, so you may find that your 60/40 will end up being 80/20 ratio when press and marketing get momentum. That wave will come.

CC: I can see that now. I totally couldn’t see that a few years ago. Meeting you was a real breath of fresh air, I felt very uplifted afterwards. You helped me see past the point I was at and gave me insight into what I wasn’t able to see myself. We did one thing at a time, then dealt with the next. I clearly remember those feelings of positivity and clarity. I shared all those notes with my design partner, and they definitely helped steer us. Now would be a great time to relook at them.

JW: Business advice is a collaboration, it has to be a two-way thing. If it’s just me talking, you can get something like that anywhere. Some clients sponge up information, but with you it was about taking time and thinking how to help you widen your vision, which is always so hard when running a small creative practice.


Guide to writing a business plan

James West is a sector specialist Creative Industries Business Adviser and has worked with 400+ creative, cultural and heritage organisations across the UK.

James works predominately on government funded Business Advice programmes, where his expertise is focused on achieving targeted outcomes.

This article is part of a series of he has created recognising his first decade in business.