Although officially founded in 2016, the following six years have changed a lot for Sutton Coldfield-based kids decor business Styled to Sparkle, as owner Sarah Wan Min Kee explains to Katy Edgington
No baby’s nursery, child’s bedroom or playroom is complete these days without some beautifully designed bunting – and that’s exactly what Sarah Wan Min Kee, founder of Styled to Sparkle, aims to provide.
Always confident that she wanted a career in buying, Sarah – who lives in Sutton Coldfield with husband Anthony and daughter Arla – studied fashion retail at university in Manchester. With no desire at all to be a womenswear buyer, she embraced a love of kids’ style and even completed a dissertation on children’s fashion. With a clear goal in sight, her first role was as a trainee buyer in childrenswear for Next.
“I got promoted quite quickly and was a buyer there for 10 years,” she explains. “A lot of people would probably agree that there are good and bad things about working in the corporate world. I learned a lot, but it was very tough at times. I met some amazing people and I travelled the world, but it isn’t glamorous!”
The leap to party planning
In 2016 – keen to follow her passion for kids’ products and kids’ styling, but be more hands on with creating beautiful things – Sarah left Next to set up her own business. Styled to Sparkle actually started life as a children’s party design and planning service. But it turned out to be very up and down, losing momentum when she welcomed her daughter Arla at the end of 2018 and, of course, when Covid-19 hit at the start of 2020.
“The first bunting I ever made was for a little boy’s birthday party, to go across the front of a cake table,” Sarah says. “Because of the party planning, I had set up a little Etsy shop where I sold personalised bunting, but I’d never really invested a lot of time in it. I thought initially that my bunting was being bought for parties, but actually people were buying it for nurseries.”
What had started out as a sideline turned into Sarah’s focus when Covid-19 struck and her Etsy sales grew rapidly. However, it wasn’t until January 2021 that she made the decision to stop offering her party planning services, rebrand, and set up a new website.
Her online shop showcases the simple, traditional decoration that she’s given her own modern and stylish look. The current bestseller is pastel rainbow bunting which includes eight different coloured felt flags per metre. Sarah hopes it is more accessible to more people, from an ease of use and affordability point of view.
Holly Tucker MBE, co-founder of award-winning online marketplace Not on the High Street, has been a big inspiration as an advocate of small, female-led businesses. Sarah works with a professional photographer on her product photography. They often feature products from other small businesses, who she tries to tag in social media posts to make it easier to shop all of them.
A change of direction
Evidently, the impact of the pandemic was a mixed bag for Sarah and her young family. Although she lost income through not being able to run her party planning business, she still feels very lucky.
“My daughter is three now, so we didn’t have the challenge of homeschooling,” says Sarah. “My husband Anthony was only furloughed for a short period, then he was working from home. It was challenging having a toddler who’d just decided to walk at home full-time, but she went back to nursery two days a week in July 2020. Lockdown was a horrible scenario, but we were so grateful to have that time with her.”
And despite having completely changed the direction of her business, Sarah insists she would never go back to party planning: “It’s the commitment of time on the weekends,” she explains. “Although I still work long hours, I can be a bit more flexible about when those hours are.”
‘Stay motivated and use your time wisely’
As many small independent retailers do, Sarah finds that certain times of year, like Christmas, are busier than others – and she plans for that accordingly. Even so, the inconsistency of sales is one of the toughest parts of running her own business. The challenge is to stay motivated during those quieter months, like January, especially when it comes to admin, accounts, marketing and all the other aspects of the job that have very little to do with making beautiful things.
“While I love pushing the brand forward and seeing the direction it could go, it’s all the elements that go on behind the scenes to make that happen that are challenging. I’d love to sit sewing all day! But I have to plan my time really carefully. You’ve got to stay motivated and use your time wisely to grow your business in other ways.”
Day-to-day, the most enjoyable part of running Styled to Sparkle for Sarah is the ability to use her creativity. And although she’s not in a physical shop, she appreciates the direct interaction with customers over social media and email that she missed out on during her years as a corporate buyer.
Looking ahead, Sarah is laser-focused on keeping her product offering straightforward and high-quality, with plans to expand her product range only as far as hooks to help hang your bunting. But that doesn’t mean she’s not busy looking to the future of the business.
“I’m designing new collections and trying to establish Styled to Sparkle’s reputation as a kids’ brand,” she says. “I’m also doing more in-person markets and growing the wholesale business across the UK as well as internationally. I love to create the product and will always design the collections, but to grow the business I will need to hire somebody to help with production this year. It will be hard for me to hand that over!”
Looking forward, looking back
So, what advice does Sarah have for others who might be thinking about ditching the day job and setting up on their own?
“I think you’ve got to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, and that goal has to be your own,” she says. “It’s really easy to get distracted by what other people are doing – that might be other businesses, how many followers or likes they’ve got – but it doesn’t really show a true picture. Even well-meaning advice from relatives or friends can be distracting. We all have days of self-doubt and you need to be able to refer back to the goals you’ve set so that you know which direction you’re going in.”
Sarah’s also a strong advocate of regularly taking stock of your successes and achievements, however big or small.
“Joining Not on the High Street last year was a highlight for me. I really pushed myself to apply for that, maybe when I hadn’t been as confident previously. Even if it’s something small, I think it’s really important to stay motivated by looking at how far you’ve come.”
For more details on Sarah’s designs, visit www.styledtosparkle-kidshome.co.uk where you can use the offer code JAIME15 to claim a 15% discount.