Emily Bendell, now 32, got more from a university summer job than most students. Her part-time work in a lingerie and sex-toy store gave her the inspiration for what would one day become a multimillion-pound business.
"I really didn't like the lingerie being sold. Most of it was tacky and didn't look very comfortable." The places that did sell "sensual, designer lingerie" were "expensive boutiques". Despite spotting this gap in the market, Bendell decided to finish her degree. Having graduated from Oxford, she headed to London to work as a journalist.
However, that career was put on hold when she took time out to care for a relative who was unwell. Unable to work regular hours, she took a job at Ann Summers organising parties where she would sell the firm's erotic products to female friends.
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"It made me realise how effective party planning could be as a sales channel. All-female parties created the perfect atmosphere for people to relax and try new things." But, remembering the gap in the market she had spotted while at college, Bendell was convinced she could do better. So, in 2006, aged 26, she decided to launch her own erotica retailer, BlueBella.
Her plan was to aim for the mid-market between the expensive designer lingerie and the cheap, tacky offerings. "I wanted to offer lingerie that allows women to feel sensual." She sourced suitable products from some of the less expensive boutiques and began organising parties.
"For the first year I took my time perfecting my offering. The great thing about party sales is that you're in a room with your customers so you get a very clear idea of what they do and don't like." Then she recruited consultants' to organise parties on her behalf.
"They're self-employed so I didn't need to pay wages." However, they did need training and motivating, so Bendell grouped her party organisers in key areas to make them easier to manage. Her strategy worked and between 2007 and 2010, the firm grew at more than 100% per year as Bendell took on more consultants.
"To be honest, the margins were pretty small but I wanted to prove the concept worked before seeking investment for the next stage." By 2010, she had attracted £350,000 of investment including a chunk from rivals LoveHoney. "They liked the concept and the way I was using party planning."
Bendell used the money to start making her own products and thereby boost margins. "It allowed me to have a lot more control and offer customers exactly what they want." It also allowed her to beef up her management team she got Ann Summers' former head of party planning, Janet Mudge, on board as a director by offering her an equity stake.
In recent years, Bendell has worked to improve the internet offering. "Our parties are female-only, but we know there are lots of men out there buying the wrong things from other firms." Bendall believes that the best way to target party-shy men is through a sophisticated web offering. With sales this year expected to be £3.5m, she appears to be right.
One big challenge still remains for BlueBella persuading people who don't approve of the products. Bendell remains confident. "Times are changing. People need to realise that there is nothing dirty about sensual lingerie or sex toys. They help people enjoy life."
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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