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#SelfStarterStories: From deputy director to owning and leasing beach huts

This week's #selfstarterstory features Vicky Gunn, Founder of Millie's Beach Huts.

#PickYourselfUK caught up with Vicky this week to learn more about her entrepreneurial journey.

What was your last job?: I’ve always been the Maths geek and up until October 2016, I've spent the last 15 years of my career working as an Accountant. My last job was working as a Deputy Director of Finance for NHS England covering the South West Region.

When did you choose to PICK YOURSELF instead of waiting to be chosen by someone else?: I’m passionate about people, and even more passionate about finding ways to make their lives better. It may explain why I’ve worked in the NHS for 6 years.

Most people think of accountants as boring grey-suited humans, helping others make bonuses and more profit. I didn’t want that life and so had made the move into the NHS from private companies like BT, IBM and Britvic. 

I thought that working in the NHS would fulfil that need, helping those struggling with reduced funding and the complications of managing large complex processes.

I wanted them not to worry about those things and instead, spend their time doing what they do best. Saving thousands of lives every day. An early attempt from me to give something back.

But the reality was, that it wasn't enough. I frequently felt unfulfilled and the more senior I got, the more I thought I could influence but the less I could actually make a real difference to patients.  

The reality is it had been boiling way inside of me for some time but I couldn't' see a way to step off that wheel, until I headed off for a day at the beach on 14th September 2014. I was exhausted with working away on a contract and had snatched up a cancellation and booked a beach hut hire in Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex.

It was an Indian Summer and I spent the day in shorts with a good book and knew that Millie, my springer spaniel, would love a day at the sea. Nothing quite like being a dog owner to encourage you to get out and about.

Little did I know that I’d also end the day buying a beach hut. Yes, I know, that’s quite unlike an accountant. You would think that I would have spent days researching costs and working out the pros and cons of buying a beach hut.

But no, one post on Facebook asking whether I should buy one and I had all the validation I needed. Some would say crazy, others would say spontaneous. I think there may be a little truth in both!

It took me another two years to finally make that big jump to leaving my permanent job full time and I've since started a second business Millie's Pet Services too! It seems that the creative and entrepreneurial streak is here to stay!

What was the most challenging part of starting a business?: I think I took an easy route and stated out small while working full time. I now realise I didn't really start my business until I chose to give up work full time.

So I'd definitely say cutting off that tie to a full-time income was by far the biggest challenge and managing my emotions and confidence around not having that regular income (particularly in a seasonal business).

Ann Handley Book-everybody writes.jpg

I made a lot of sacrifices to make myself more comfortable with this but managing cash flow and expectations was difficult!

What is your favourite business book and why?: I read a LOT! But I find myself constantly dipping in and out of Ann Handley's book, Everybody Writes.

I love blogging and find Ann's advice easy to understand and in great bite-size chunks. It's so easy to dip into chapters of this book and not feel you have to read it back to front - yay!

Do you do everything yourself? What do you outsource?: This varies! I did have a VA to deal with holidays, basic queries etc but the reality is that it's only productive to do so at certain types of the year. I like to keep close to customers (particularly my Millie's Beach Hut club members) and so I flex outsourcing based on personal and work demands.

What is your favourite marketing tool ?: Meet Edgar! While many see it as being expensive, it's my go to scheduling tool. Super easy to use, great for large content libraries and those managing multiple accounts! They are constantly evolving and improving too so in the 18 months I've used them, I've found myself less inclined to look elsewhere for that new shiny object!

Millie's Beach Huts Website 20 Feb 2018

Millie's Beach Huts Website 20 Feb 2018

How do you market your business?: For me, it's all about content marketing. 

Being helpful, answering questions and making sure that our customers can be fully informed is my 100% focus on marketing.  

Chris Marr of the Content Marketing Academy explains this so well.

I really have knuckled down in this space and when I first started blogging pushed out 42 blogs over 90 days as a challenge to myself to create the habit.  

My SEO results started to change dramatically. My website traffic more than quadrupled. Offseason sales increased and all those google analytics metrics started to move too!

I now regularly receive collaboration queries and press coverage due to this and was awarded the Content Marketing Academy Outsanding Achievement Award in January 2017. 

I know my business would not be where it is without following a content marketing approach.

Today, I've expended blogging and my efforts into more channels including email marketing (convert kit) and now pushing myself to get braver with video! My journey and learning in this area is far from complete!

When you first launched, how did you get your first paying customers?: Facebook has always been key to me and communicating our journey.

From the day I first bought Millie, my first beach hut, our Facebook page was set up and we shared it all. From choosing colours to choosing suppliers. I felt that this gave everyone time to get to know me, the huts and what we were trying to do. 

By the time, I came to open up slots to book, we had a growing base of people who really understood what I was trying to do.

There was, of course, a big ta-da unveiling of Millie when she was fully ready BUT the work had already been done to get those customers.  

I know take this approach with all of our new huts... it's very rare we keep them a full secret to the day they are ready to go and instead, share mood boards and ideas as we renovate.

How did you get your first traffic to your website?: Ok, so I'll be honest. I had a website from day one. BUT, did zero with it. I know.. what a waste.

I finally started to work on the website about 6-9 months before I gave up work full-time.  

The main aim was to streamline processes, making it the only place to find out about the beach huts, online calendars and the ability to book online.

I ran this alongside a big push on content marketing as I mentioned above.

Nominate one person/friend who believed in you from the start, and what would you like to say to them today?: I always talk about a slide during a workshop that helped me take the jump. It was a slide from Marcus Sheridan that asked the attendees in the workshop to tell their partner "what work would you do if you had all the money in the world".

My answer was not "what I'm doing now" and it really was the push I needed. Queue a conversation with two friends who are now in my accountability group, Pam Laird and Cara Mackay who told me that my family would understand that I wanted to be happy and not care about the financial security I'd be losing.

Sometimes you just need to hear those things from others so thank you ladies. If you hadn't stepped in then... well, I'm sure I'd still be in the NHS, still struggling!!

What would you say to someone who is toying with the idea to start a business but haven't yet?: I'm going to be honest and say it's not going to be easy!

You will have days where you question yourself. Sometimes day and weeks in a row.  

But I promise you, you will never go back. It will ease off and those days will become less and less. You will become more and more confident re 'why' you are doing what you do.

And well, what's the worst that could happen? Wouldn't you rather try, find it and know you have?

If you could have dinner with one entrepreneur, who would it be and why?: Gary Vee - I know, I know. So many people dislike his style and the whole 'hustle' attitude.  

BUT, he's high in energy and you cannot doubt his focus and straight talk. He's my go-to podcast on a tough day and I just know I'd come away motivated and with a clearer focus.

To stay up to date with Vicky's entrepreneurial journey, please follow her on the channels below:

Vicky Gunn has qualified for the #PickYourselfUK Small Business Entrepreneur of the Year award 2018. If you'd like to enter yourself or nominate a small business entrepreneur for this award, please submit your story below.