After a career in teaching and having 3 children, Joanna Miller was encouraged by friends at her 40th birthday party to turn her hobby of writing witty personalised verse into a business.
Bespoke Verse was born and what began as a kitchen table enterprise, is now an established small business with 5 employees based in a studio in Berkhamsted that’s turned well over £1 million in the last 3.5 years. Read on to find out how Joanna’s way with words has brought her this success…
- What’s your story? Can you share a brief history of your artistic path to where you are now?
I read English at Oxford and worked for ten years as an English teacher/adviser before having 3 children (now 7,10,12). As a teacher I often wrote poems about the kids and ran poetry competitions. After making a funny rhyming speech at my wedding I was inundated with commissions from friends. At that time all I charged was a bottle of wine!
At my 40th birthday party I made a slightly risqué speech and in the 3 hours that followed a business plan was formed by some of my male friends who decided I HAD to be able to make money out of rhyme! So Bespoke Verse was born. I set up a simple website without a shop and worked part time on commissions that came mostly from recommendations.
In 2012 my youngest went into nursery and I leapt at the chance to expand Bespoke Verse. I chose weddings as I knew there was a gap in the market for quality writing and bespoke readings. I exhibited at wedding fairs and was soon featuring in wedding magazines and writing for journalists weddings. There was clearly a gap in the market for good quality rhyming readings and speeches.
- When did you realise it could be a viable business and how has it grown?
Requests from customers led to me introducing framed poems, and a focus on shorter and more affordable bespoke pieces. This led to a range of generic poems on mums, dads, marriage etc.
I began to stock local shops and was accepted on notonthehighstreet.com and my storefront opened 3 Jan 2013. I have now taken 47,000 orders with them and turned over £1 million in 3.5 years. I am very grateful to NOTHS for all I have achieved.
Our studio is manned by 5 part-time staff, 3 of whom work within school hours only. We sell on Etsy, Hard to Find Australia and our own sparkly new website.
I now have a small team of poets who help me write commissions, but I am very exacting as to the standard of the verse. We are professional poets who create skilled products to the highest standard. That’s what sets us apart from businesses that have set up in our wake.
We now have over 100 stockists, including Paperchase and Fenwicks. We exhibit at trade shows such as Top Drawer, and at retail shows such as Spirit of Christmas at Olympia.
- What are the advantages of a family run business? Are there any disadvantages?
The main advantage is the flexibility. To be able to leave when you want to, to go to a school play, for example. It’s also great for your kids to see that women can be successful in business and that you can turn your hobbies and talents into a business. My daughter works on the stand with me at retail shows sometimes, and will earn pocket money by stuffing cellophane bags.
The biggest downside is the school holidays, without a doubt – it’s very boring for the kids when you can’t just go out for a picnic. As we all know, it’s so hard to get time off when you run your own business, especially at Christmas. We haven’t had a holiday of longer than a week for 4 years now.
It’s hard on partners too – mine is super-supportive and I couldn’t run Bespoke Verse without his contribution to the business and to childcare.
This year I am trying to improve my work-life balance. I was making myself ill trying to do everything.
It has helped moving the studio out of the house, and taking on an office manager who can work through the holidays. I am able to segment family and work much more easily now.
- Congratulations on all of your awards – it’s a pretty impressive list! Which one are you most proud of and why?
That would be Partner of the Year 2015 at NOTHS. There are so many amazing businesses on the site, that even to be in the final was a great honour.
Like a lot of creatives, sometimes I struggle to believe that what I create has value. Before I had kids, I would never have dreamt I could sell my own writing. Awards can help to reinforce that you are doing ok and sometimes when you work very very hard you need to stop and celebrate!
- You’ve recently undergone a re-brand and introduced a foxy new logo (we love it!) What spurred the change, how did you know it was the right time and why the fox?
I felt that we had outgrown our old website. It wasn’t very reliable and I felt did not reflect the quality behind our brand. It felt like a momentous decision and it took a long time to complete, but it was well worth the investment.
The fox is actually a vixen. She represents our love of words and was inspired by the familiar phrase ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’.
Foxes are also quick-witted, determined and clever – that’s how we hope customers see our brand and our products.
As for working at night…we’ve got that covered!
We’ve even got our own ‘lazy dog’, Dickens, in the studio, so the design feels perfect for us in every way.
- For others thinking it’s time for a rebrand can you share a little bit about your re-brand process? How you went about it, the steps and decisions you took along the way and what you found most enjoyable about it all?
The rebrand started as a refresh, but as the designer Sarah and I got going, it became clear I wanted more than that, even though I didn’t realise at the time! So the project was readjusted to include a rebrand, which allowed us to start again. I offered up example of logos and fonts I liked and answered questions about the brand. From that she came up with some great ideas, and the fox was one of them. I loved it instantly.
The nib I had used previously had still been incorporated but it felt like it was time to let the branding tell a story too, just as our poems do. The colours came naturally and Sarah created a wonderful set of resources for us – compliment slips, badges, icons etc.
Because I’m a writer, not a designer by trade, it was invaluable to work with someone who could shape my feelings, tastes and instincts into a coherent brand.
- Where do you begin when that blank piece of paper is in front of you and the pen’s in your hand? Can you talk us through your creative writing process?
I have about 25 notebooks on the go in various places and I’ll jot down ideas to begin with. Then I might revisit them a few days or even months later. I’ll drop the ones that don’t work out and focus on the ones that do. Sometimes it comes easily and at other times it is hard.
I don’t look at competitor’s work, I just do my thing. It is very disheartening to see poorly rehashed versions of your own poems, designs and ideas – as I do increasingly often. The very definition of creativity for me is coming up with something new from inside yourself – it’s accessing that special quiet space and feeling the rhythm of the words. The edit stage is more analytical and brutal, but it’s necessary!
- What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
I recently did some filming for a BBC show involving reading a poem of mine. It was pretty amazing but unfortunately, I can’t talk about it at the moment. Watch this space!
- What are you working on at the moment and what’s next?
We’re prepping for Christmas and after that I’ll be looking at updating the designs for our prints. I’d like to manufacture some non-print products in house, so I can be a bit more experimental and respond faster to trends in giftware.
- What’s your big dream?
To write a book of verse about everyday objects, life events and family members. A book that people can dip into for every important moment in life, whether a reading for a wedding, or a verse to scribble inside a card.
Quick fire question round!
- Who or what inspires your work? I take a lot of inspiration from my own family and from customers. I’ve always loved Roald Dahl and how he can tell witty stories in rhyme whilst making it look effortless. This is what we try to achieve with our bespoke commissions.
- What 3 words describe you? Determined, Taurean, overstretched!
- What’s your preferred social media platform? Instagram. I find it challenges me to think about my brand and how I want to portray it. I love scrolling down my feed seeing shot after shot of beautiful products by other creatives, it’s very inspiring.
- What are your favourite hobbies? I’ve just rediscovered exercise after a long absence (spent mostly sitting at my desk.) I love bookshops, Cornwall, New Zealand, period dramas, dog walking, and laughing with friends and family.
- Can you share 3 things people don’t know about you? I was Oxford University Women’s darts captain – I am weirdly good / Last year, I won a poetry competition to have my poem about reading illustrated and sent out to all primary schools in the UK. A super-proud moment. / I am a ‘Cumberperson’. I make no apologies!
After a career in teaching and having 3 children, Joanna Miller was encouraged by friends at her 40th birthday party to turn her hobby of writing witty personalised verse into a business. Bespoke Verse was established in 2012 and became a limited company in 2013. What began as a kitchen table enterprise, is now an established small business with 5 employees based in a studio in Berkhamsted. Products include homeware, stationery and prints – all bearing Joanna’s original rhymes and sayings. Bespoke Verse supply over 100 stockists, including Paperchase and Fenwicks, and sell va their own site as well as via Etsy and notonthehighstreet.com.