SMB to Big Business: Interview with Sophia Cramer, Founder and CEO of Inner Pieces
SMB to Big Business
After working for many years in the competitive London property market, Sophia Cramer launched an interior design studio business called the Inner Pieces in 2019. Her business provides bespoke furniture packages and interior design for estate agents, developers, students, build-to-rent schemes and many others. In this interview, she tells Dana Kessler how the company took off – and her plans for the future.
How many employees does your company have? How many did it have when you first started out?
We managed to build the business up from 0 employees to 13 in a little more than 2 years, and in COVID times, no less.
What services or products do you offer, what’s your USP? Tell us about the brand
It’s quite a unique business. We supply furniture for a few different types of clients. Our main client is estate agents. When a tenant moves and they haven't put any furniture in the property to rent, I’ll fully furnish it. It's basically a turnkey solution. My other clients are developers; I do a lot of show homes. When they build a block of flats, for example, I'll do a show home. Normally the client will buy the show home, or the show home will move to another property. Our other clients are people trying to sell their property, but they can't. So we furnish it completely for three months for rental. So, people will come in and they'll feel the property is lived in. We also do Airbnb, student accommodation, PRS [private rented sector] schemes… anything furniture related.
When did you start your business and how did it come about?
I was an estate agent for 10 years. I was doing a house for an HSBC client, and I needed furniture. I went to a company who let me down at the last minute. The same day a girl had sent me an email saying she does furniture, so I contacted her and she did the furniture for me. In the first year of knowing her I recommended so many clients to her, that she said to me: ‘Do you want to join my business and head sales?’ So I said yes. This was about five years ago. In the end we went our separate ways, and I started this company on my own two years ago.
So it wasn't like interior design was your lifelong passion – it just sort of happened?
Yes, I got very lucky. I took a risk. Or rather I took an opportunity which some people might say was a risk, but and that's how it happened. It’s not like I specifically wanted to go into furniture; I just wanted my own business. It took off in our first year; we turned over two and a half million pounds. So it was pretty good.
So, your ambition was just starting a business and being your own boss.
Yes. Interiors are not my passion, but I love owning a business. I love being flexible, I love building a brand and growing a team and that sort of thing.
You're not an interior designer yourself so you hired interior designers?
Yes. In my team there's 13 of us in total. I've got four girls that are all trained interior designers. I'm not an interior designer, but I've been doing it for so long, so I can put things together now and I know what's going on.
What was your mission when you started out as an SMB?
Growing my business and I’m still focused on growing it. There are so many things I want to do. I want to create an app and open an online shop. All I really care about is growing my business and making it work. When you start a business, at the beginning there are so many things that go wrong, you don't really know how to run it. And then, as the years go on, you correct those things, and it gets better and better.
Tell me about your business growth, from when you opened the business to where you are today.
I started with nothing. My business partner actually screwed me badly, so I was stuck. I had 100 people messaging me: ‘I need furniture!’ and I had no business name, no van, no warehouse. I had absolutely nothing. So within one week, I employed three people, I got a van, I got a warehouse, and I started a whole new business. All within one week. I had a week to create a business, it’s pretty insane. And I had no money either. I literally did it with no money.
So how did you get capital to get the business off the ground?
I was very lucky. My grandma loaned me £5,000 for a van and for the deposit on the warehouse. That was literally it. Then I just started making money and paying my grandma back.
How about marketing and advertising? How hands-on are you on that side of things?
We don't do any advertising. The only thing we did was paid posts. All our business is word-of-mouth and I rely mainly on repeat business. I'm not averse to advertising. I would definitely do it, but I just haven't really needed to. I get jobs mainly from socialising. I've got business from socialising on holiday, meeting property people, that kind of thing. I was an estate agent for 10 years, so I've got a lot of contacts in property.
Which social channels are you on and who manages your social?
The only one I really use is Instagram, in which we seem to do quite well at the moment. We've got Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest, but I don't really use them. I completely run Instagram by myself and all the followers are real. I built that up from scratch. I feel I could do more Instagram, and I'm trying to, but the problem is when you're so busy, it's hard to focus on it because it's such a big chore. But I think Instagram is good, I think you can make money from it. I did have asocial media manager for two months, but she wasn’t very good.
Do you communicate with clients directly on Instagram?
Sometimes. I think I've only got about three jobs from it, but that’s better than nothing.
How about email marketing?
It’s funny you should say that because one of the company’s New Year’s resolutions was to start using Mailchimp. We want to start doing email marketing. I think it's good for special offers. For instance, February and March are quite quiet in my business, so I was thinking of doing something like if you recommend someone, we will give you a £100 Selfridges voucher or something like that as an incentive. But that’s just a plan, we haven’t done that yet. This week I was planning on a massive send-out of our new brochure, but I don’t know how well that works. I’m also working on compiling a large email list at the moment.
How important is branding to you?
Very important, and this is actually something I've changed this year. Now we really know what we want todo. There are a lot of jobs now that I don't take on because they don't suit our brand. Also, when I think about opening an online shop, branding is very important. We're so obsessed with the branding of the shop because we want to be portrayed as a certain kind of company in terms of style. We're doing a lot of stuff in East London, which is quite quirky and eccentric. And we just want to kind of keep it a bit more cool rather than go down the route of a lot of our competitors which is very gray and dull. I don't want to do those sorts of jobs because I don't like it.
What major changes have you made in your business since you started?
We’ve changed the branding. We've got a warehouse manager. Before, we were not really managing the warehouse, which was a nightmare. And I've got a larger warehouse now. I think these were the main things that have changed in the company.
Was growing your business a calculated move or was it just something that naturally happened?
I think it’s actually better to keep it small. If you keep a business small you have less stress and you make more money. That’s what I would tell people today. But at the same time, I enjoy the growth and want it to keep growing. It just happened naturally. I just had so much work that I couldn't cope, so I had to employ more people. It wasn't a planned thing. I actually wanted it to be small, I never wanted to belike a massive establishment. But now that it's grown I kind of like the idea, and I enjoy the challenge. But I do think you do make more money if you keep its mall because you have a lot fewer expenses. And there's a lot less stress.
Is it more difficult to manage a large staff than a small staff?
Not for me, because I enjoy the buzz of it. But I don't think you benefit from it. I think you benefit from having a smaller business.
More employees might mean more stress, but you need more employees to have more clients.
Exactly. Your goal is more clients but then you’ve got to pay out more things. You have to pay a bigger warehouse, you have to pay more staff… so it equals out really. It’s a lose-lose situation.
I thought it's win-win.
It's not, because when you have more clients and you have more staff, you don't make more money, just have more stress. If you only hire one person, you don't need to be stressed about always bringing money in. Whereas now I've got so many people to pay and it’s all on my head. Now I have to always think about how much money is coming in. At the moment it's quiet, so I'm a bit stressed. And that's all down to me because I don't have a partner. If you have a business partner, you can share the stress.
Who is your ideal client?
I actually have a lot of them at the moment. My ideal client is a typical East Londoner. Someone with lots of money who doesn't complain. Clients that let us take over and trust us rather than telling us what to do.
What do you think is the secret to your business's success?
I think it's my team. I've got an amazing team, they're unbelievable. I went on holiday for three weeks and I didn't have one complaint from a single client, which is pretty insane.
Was there a moment in your business journey when you thought you wouldn't make?
Yes, when COVID first hit, it was really, really hard. It was really slow. There were no jobs and I was very stressed. I didn't think I'd have to close down, but I thought I have to get rid of some staff. I did try to, but they wouldn't leave (laughs).
Where do you see the business going in the future? What’s your business goal?
I’ve got an app that I'm trying to create and I need £100,000 for that. I've got a meeting to try and start to do a document so I can send that over to angel investors.
I'm not a five-year-plan kind of person. The goal is just to be happy and successful. To have a happy staff, a successful business and people speaking highly of you. Obviously I'd love to be a multi-millionaire, but I'm also realistic.
I want to grow the company and I want it to run better. I also eventually want to sell it. I need to grow it so that I can sell it and then I can open a little organic restaurant somewhere.
So after this business venture you want to pursue your real passion.
Yeah, definitely. I really want to open an organic restaurant. Maybe in Jamaica so I can be in the sunshine.
You said you want to be successful. How do you define business success?
That’s a hard one. Obviously, I'd love to have a high income, that is what I see as success, but I think it's more important for me that the business runs smoothly. Especially in my line of business, because there are so many logistics. It's very hard to not make mistakes. You're relying on a supplier, you're relying on the van to take the furniture to you, you're making sure that nothing gets broken. And then if it is broken, you need to change it or speak to someone else to return it. It's just a very long process with lots of logistics.
At the beginning, I lost quite a lot of clients because a lot of things were going wrong. That's because I was an amateur, and I didn't really know how to deal with things. Whereas over time, you get more experienced, so that's changed. I feel like I’m succeeding when nothing goes wrong. That for me is a big thing.
How do you see your business in three years from now?
Hopefully: another three-four staff members; turning over double of what I'm turning over now; making more profit; and an app and a shop. I want to have a very smooth app and shop up and running. That's my main goal for the next three years.
Do you think you need more marketing to achieve that?
Probably, yes, and I probably need some investment. I hope I’ll get a partner who can bring in money. Like a silent partner who can bring in an investment and advise me on the business side. I’m not that great at business, because obviously, I just fell into it. So, every day I'm learning.
Did you do any formal business training?
I have a book about tax that I read, and that’s about it (laughs).
What are the skills that you possess that enabled you to grow the business to where it is today?
I'm just a good people person. I'm honestly not clever, I'm just very good with people. I'm good at selling, and schmoozing. Also, I'm quite a quick person. So, I kind of knew what I needed to do, and just got on with it. I'm one of those people. I don't really moan, I just get on. I guess it's always been my personality.
I'm very good at hiring staff as well. My staff say they love me, and that I'm a great boss, so I must be doing something right. I don't micromanage, so that's probably why.
for your business
(not anybody else’s)