Cheshire based Sharon Howe and her partner Kevin Hinds recently started Mulberry Tree at Home selling their own hand made home furniture and accessories with a strong countryside theme. Sharing their British country lifestyle ideas and inspirations, their new business harnesses their rural passion through their products that suit any classic country home, rustic farmhouse, sporting and equestrian home.
Samantha Hobden from Haynet recently caught up with Sharon and Kevin in its Chatting A Bit series to find out more about the story behind the brand:
You have a strong passion for the countryside and equestrian life. Were you both brought up in this environment as a child?
Not really. Kevin lived at the seaside as a child and his parents were self-employed small business owners so were always busy. He says that the closest he got to the countryside was cross-country running and playing football and rugby on school fields. As for me, although we lived in a semi-rural area, my dad was a fisherman and my mum stayed at home to look after my sister and I as Dad was often away at sea. When he was at home, my dad sometimes took us down to the boat when he was cleaning or repairing it and we spent many happy hours outdoors. He also loved a bet on the horses and would take my sister and I to local race meetings at Chester, Bangor On Dee and Haydock Park at the weekends.
My passion for horses was ignited when new neighbours moved in with horses. They asked if I could help turning them out in the morning and bringing them in in the evening. I fell in love immediately and offered to also help with mucking out and spent as much time around them as I could. Strangely, perhaps because of my petite build, I was always slightly nervous around horses, which wasn’t helped when after my dad agreed to let me have riding lessons, I was bucked off a pony at the local riding school. To this day my dad loves to recount the story of how he has never seen anyone fly so far through the air as I did when that pony bucked.
What were your childhood ambitions? Was it to always work in an industry that was rural based?
Actually, I always wanted to work in an office. My uncle had a small business and I sometimes went to his offices to help out during school holidays. I remember he had a girlfriend who worked as his secretary and I thought she was so glamorous. I wanted to be like her. When I started learning to use a typewriter at school, I worked hard and became quite good at it. I also loved being organised and always had a complete stationary set and notepads etc. Looking back, it all seems so “old school” now, however, I loved it and my first job was in an office.
In recent months you have both set up a countryside inspired lifestyle retail business? What made you step into this area of the business?
Kevin has always had his own businesses and when we met, he had a limo company and I was an accountant. When we finally started living together, he moved to where I lived and because the limo business was established by the seaside and there wasn’t really much demand where I lived, we decided the limos had to go. By this time I had grown tired of doing peoples tax returns and had often thought I would like to start a business of my own so we took our time and looked around for inspiration. One weekend I asked Kevin if he wanted to come horse riding and he took to it like a duck to water. We went to Burghley together that year and absolutely loved it. The atmosphere, the shopping, the lovely people and those wonderful horses, we were hooked and have never missed a year since.
Because we were at a loose end workwise, we decided to buy our first house together and looked around for a project house. We found a bungalow that had been built in 1930 on the site of an old plant nursery. It no longer had any land to speak of although the gardens were a reasonable size and the house had potential. The only problem was that it was in a complete state and needed an extension and a lot of renovation. We decided to take it on and do as much of the work as we could ourselves in the hope that we could save money and maybe turn a profit so that we could eventually get enough money to buy a house with land and fulfil what had by now become a lifetime’s ambition to have my own horse.
It was during this time that we discovered we could make things. I had always loved lots of wood in houses and wanted wooden floors, doors, stairs and a country style kitchen etc. When looking for furniture we found it was difficult to find the things that we loved and after holidaying in remote cottages in Scotland, Wales and also each year when we took cottages near Burghley we had developed a real love for rustic country style barn conversions and old farmhouse interiors. Most of the furniture in these places could not be bought from shops and had been handmade by local craftsmen. We started to make our own items and received lots of encouraging comments from friends and family who suggested that we should try making them to sell. So we did just that and finally, here we are.
Tell us about Mulberry Tree at Home. What are you particularly proud of with your company?
The idea started as a way to simply make and sell things. Kevin had always bought and sold or traded for profit and never been too worried about building a brand for the long term which was something that I really wanted to do, so initially, we had lots of discussions about how best to proceed. It was easy to decide on products as we already knew that we loved the whole rustic look and that these items might be popular with people who shared our passion for this type of look.
What came out of the blue was the idea to introduce a range of products decorated with used horseshoes. We loved the look of a huge old-fashioned wooden chest style coffee table that we had made using reclaimed pallet wood and iron hinges which sort of mimicked the current trend of fusion style furniture but in a really authentic rustic way. We thought, why not try making some items combining wood and equestrian related ironmongery which we could repurpose into truly unique items. We knew that people who have a love for something often will choose a piece for their home which reflects their passion and that the most interesting places we had stayed in always had something which told a story about the lives of people who lived had there and we knew that we would love to own pieces like that so we made some for own home. I absolutely love these things and whenever we design and make something new, the moment it comes out of our little workshop I find a place for it in our home and it becomes a treasured piece. Only then do we launch them as a new product so I know for certain that anyone who buys them will be receiving something I would be proud to have in my own home. I think that this is what I am most proud of.
The knowledge that our customers will receive a feeling of genuine pleasure simply by owning a product that we have made that helps to reflect their passion and tells their story just as it does with us.
What has been the up and downs of working within the retail side of the rural lifestyle industry?
The ups are simply being in touch each day either via social media or face to face meetings and telephone calls with people who share the same love of rural and equestrian lifestyle. It’s wonderful to see images and videos posted on Facebook or Instagram or wherever of people walking their dogs, being with their horses or chickens or lambs (I love all animals and would love to live on a farm) or simply of them in their own homes and be able to chat and comment each day. I get to justify spending time each day outdoors with my own dogs and chickens and every Tuesday go to the local riding school for my riding lesson and then sharing my day with these lovely people from all over the world on social media. It really isn’t like a job at all is it? It’s simply a hugely enjoyable lifestyle.
The downs initially were getting to grips with how to start promoting the new business. We are OK with using computers for work but had never really understood the importance of social media to new businesses these days. It can take a long time and lots of patience to learn enough to launch a new business, especially one which is not aimed at everyone. It’s a slow process and can be frustrating, particularly trying to get to grips with knowing exactly which social media platforms to use and how to set everything up properly. I remember nearly pulling my hair out when we first tried to start a new Facebook business page and they immediately closed it down because we had inadvertently done something wrong. It took weeks to sort it out and all the time we needed to get started in order to link our brand new website with Facebook and Instagram and Messenger and other platforms. The only thing that kept us sane during this time was the incredible amount of help, support and encouragement that we received from other people on social media who have been so lovely and encouraging.
Working in the retail industry can be tough. What would be your advice for a school leaver that wanted to set up their own business in retail particularly aimed at a rural audience?
It can be tough, however, the first piece of advice I would offer to anyone setting up would be to do it immediately and put your heart and soul into it. Don’t wait until you think you know everything you need to know as that time will never come. You will always keep learning and that is part of growing a business.
The second thing I would advise is don’t be afraid to ask for help on social media. There are loads of lovely people out there who are trying to set up retail businesses aimed at a rural audience and just about all of those who are succeeding received lots of free help and great advice from someone else online when they started and they will happily guide you too. Learn all you can about your target audience and be passionate about getting to know them on social media. Don’t worry too much initially about sales if you can afford it. It’s so much more important to learn about your audience and be open and transparent about yourself so that people can learn not just about what you do but also who you are. As they learn to trust you, they may buy from you if your product is something they are passionate about too.
What are your future plans for Mulberry Tree at Home?
We have an idea to launch another collection of home products to reflect another country pursuit although until we have a collection to show you we are keeping it under wraps. All I can say is I am excited about it. We also have a number of other ideas that we want to explore with Mulberry Tree at Home and hope that we can bring these to fruition sooner rather than later. We are also exploring the idea of a pop-up store at some country events to help promote awareness of the brand and meet some more of our online friends face to face.
With the madness of juggling the business and looking after animals and a family, how do manage to fit this all in your daily life?
There’s never enough time is there? We start early with a run to help us keep in shape, we then take our youngest son to meet the school bus and take the dogs out for a long walk in the lovely fields and miles of marshland that we are lucky enough to live close to. We often take a few photographs whilst we are out and about so that we have plenty of images we can use to tell our day to day story for social media. When we get back, Kevin heads into the workshop and I check on any orders and delivery updates, emails and social media. Unless it’s Tuesday when we head off to the local riding centre and help out with RDA before I have my weekly riding lesson. Later we have a healthy brunch and then it’s back to work until teatime. We like to eat freshly prepared food each day and since we live and work from home and don’t have to waste time sitting in traffic each day we are lucky enough to have time to cook an evening meal. Afterwards, it’s a quick dog walk, ensure Alexander does his homework whilst Kevin and I answer any late questions or emails and prepare our to-do lists for tomorrow. We end each day with social media posts and then it’s hot chocolate and a book or TV if we are following a particular show.
On a day off, where would we find you?
Country events, horse shows, local farm open days or anywhere we can be around animals. If not, then pottering around the garden.
Where do you hope to both be in ten years’ time?
Building the business to be the best it can be and living somewhere where we can keep horses at home. That’s always been our dream.
Against the Clock
Beer or Champagne: Champagne
Sunshine or Snow: Sunshine
Home Counties or Far Away Shores: Home Counties
Spend or Save: Spend
Home Cooked or Eating Out: Home Cooked
Music or Film: Music
Wellies or Heels: Wellies every time
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