Staffordshire-born Sam is awarded Northern England Business Woman of the Year
44-year-old Samantha Burlton, co-owner of Make An Entrance, was born in Caverswall near Stoke-on-Trent and attended Moorside High School in Cellarhead, Werrington. Sam has now relocated to Lincolnshire where she runs the online bespoke doormat business alongside her husband, Stuart Burlton.
The company was first set up 50 years ago by Sam’s father-in-law as a social enterprise providing employment opportunities for blind and partially sighted people. Since then, Sam has used several years’ experience running various businesses through her time spent in high street retail, running beauty treatment rooms, online retail and manufacturing to take the business from strength to strength.
Thanks to her dedication, Sam was awarded Northern England Business Woman of the Year at the National Business Women’s Awards and Make An Entrance was nominated for two awards at the Lincolnshire Media Business Awards at the end of last year.
The company has big plans for this year having annouced its first ever ‘Charity of the Year’, and will soon be opening a second Lincoln workshop, allowing the business to train a new young workforce in the traditional age-old skill of hand stitching doormats.
What area are you from/live?
I was born in Kingsley, lived in Leek from the age of three to eight and then moved to Caverswall in the Staffordshire Moorlands. My family has lived in Caverswall village for generations and my parents still live there now. I moved away when I was 18 to go to university in Swansea and I now live in Lincolnshire, but the countryside and landscape of the Staffordshire Moorlands will always be where I think of as home.
How did the idea for your business come about?
Many years ago my father-in-law ran a factory for the Royal School for the Blind. In this factory, blind and partially sighted people were employed to make many different products, one of which was traditionally hand-stitched doormats. By the time I met my husband this had long since ceased but the product was still being made by one craftsman out of a tiny workshop. Back in 2005 there was no online outlet for the product and, as I was already involved in another online business, I decided to create MakeAnEntrance.com. I never imagined when I started out that we would become so successful, or that doormat making could be so innovative!
What does it take to be an entrepreneur?
There are a lot of skills and attributes that help to make an entrepreneur. I think you need to be a person who can generate ideas and is comfortable with change. You also need self-belief and determination to get your idea off the ground and to push through your own doubts and the negativity from those around you. When I first left corporate life to set up a business of my own, my Dad couldn’t understand why I would want to leave the security of my current job behind and enter the hardships of self-employed life. Creativity and the ability to think on your feet is essential when facing the challenges of setting up a new business. A large part of being an entrepreneur is the willingness to let go of things that are not working and change the direction of your business rapidly to survive. Most importantly, you need to be up for a huge amount of hard work, it’s not an easy path but it can be hugely rewarding.
What challenges did you face along the way?
After 15 years there have been plenty of challenges; it’s almost hard to think of what I haven’t tackled. We’ve been through a huge recession, preparations for Brexit, dealt with issues with suppliers and very occasional debts from customers. We’ve been in business online since well before everyone had smartphones and had to adapt and change every step of the way as new technologies have emerged. The rise of social media and increasing importance of reviews added a whole new dimension to the ways in which we interact with customers. We’ve set up a manufacturing operation and saved the traditional hand-stitching skill from dying out. Throughout all this, we have stayed true to our roots as a family business offering personal service and have always prioritised our customer service experience.
The biggest challenge of all has always been about working on myself as I strive to be the best version of myself and the best leader for my business. My husband Stuart, who is also my business partner, has always helped me to have patience, take a step back and put a plan into place so that the results we achieve are far greater. Without Stuart’s balance and stabilising influence, I could still be inspired to start a new business every week!
What have been your milestones/highlights?
2019 was an amazing year for the business and for me personally. In April we opened a new workshop in Lincoln where we are now training a skilled workforce in the age-old skill of hand-stitching traditional doormats, a skill that I was determined should not be allowed to die out. We now have a small team stitching our handmade mats full time and will soon be expanding our workforce even further. In the latter part of last year, it was amazing to be recognised for all our achievements; in October, Make An Entrance was announced as a Small Business of the Year finalist and I was shortlisted as Business Person of the Year at the Lincolnshire Media Business Awards. Then, to top off a fantastic year, I was deeply honoured to be awarded the title of Northern England Business Woman of the Year at the National Business Women’s Awards in December.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs?
Prepare for the times when it gets hard, bad situations can spring up out of nowhere and knock you for six. I have always kept a happy customers file, since well before online reviews ever existed. When you have the passion and dedication to create a business from scratch you care deeply what people think of it. Occasionally, there will be times when things go wrong and despite your best efforts, sometimes it’s impossible to please everyone.
A bad customer comment can be extremely hurtful, and this is where the happy customers file comes in. Grab a coffee and spend a few minutes reading through all the things you’ve done well. One mistake doesn’t mean the end of your business and isn’t the end of the world, even if it feels like it at the time. Those customers who take the time to write in to let you know that you’ve done an amazing job are so wonderful, it could be just the thing you needed to turn your day around and to put your mistake into perspective.
What’s the best thing about being your own boss?
Being able to generate ideas and implement them is the best thing about being my own boss. As a graduate I was lucky enough to get a great job for a big telecoms company in London and spent several years fast tracking through the business. It gave me lots of great business experience, but I always knew it wasn’t really for me. I struggled with the hierarchy and the impact of decisions being made many levels of management away from me determining the success or failure of my projects. By being my own boss I do have a huge level of responsibility to my team and my business but I also know that if I do my job properly it’s much less likely that someone else can come along and pull the rug from under me. I love being in control of my own destiny!
What’s next for your business?
It’s an exciting time for us as we’ve just come back from a big trade show in Germany where we found lots of amazing new products that we’ll be adding to our range in 2020. Our workshop continues to go from strength to strength and we will be employing more apprentices this year too. Sustainability is also a major focus for us this year. Many of our doormats are made from coir, a waste product from coconut, which means they can be composted at the end of their lifespan and this makes them a great environmental choice. 2020 will be all about communicating the message about this to more people and I have several exciting projects in the pipeline to minimise waste and increase the sustainability of all the other products in our range too.
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