This week we are so delighted to feature our friend and Spirit of Christmas neighbour Jo Miller from Bespoke Verse. Jo write the most amazing poetry and has created an array of really cool products featuring her words!
Tell us about Bespoke Verse - what sort of business are you?
At Bespoke Verse we create and sell poetry themed gifts with a contemporary spin. The business started with me writing rhyming wedding speeches and birthday poems at my kitchen table, but has grown to include off the shelf products like prints, mugs and make up bags with witty slogans.
We have our own website and sell wholesale too. Our stockists include Paperchase, Fenwicks and Printemps in Paris. One of my poems is about to feature on a BBC TV programme, so it’s a really varied and interesting job and no two days are ever the same.
Poetry is really growing in popularity in the UK and sales of poetry books are up on ten years ago. The advent of social media has helped poetry to cool and accessible again. Just look at The Nationwide adverts! I like the idea of helping people find just the right words for what they want to say.
How long have you been running and how did you get into it?
The business was established formally in 2012, but I’ve been writing silly poems for special occasions for many years. I was an English teacher at Tring School when I got married. At the reception I made a speech in rhyme about the bridegroom and from then on was asked by friends to write for their special occasions. It became clear that there was a market for witty, non-cheesy poetry for events, so I set up Bespoke Verse.
It was launching on notonthehighstreet.com in 2013 that really helped the business to grow. I took on some local mums working 9-3 and eventually, we moved out of my garden studio in Bourne End into a suite of rooms in Berkhamsted and were joined by an office manager. We won Partner of the Year in 2015 and 2016 at the notonthehighstreet.com awards, which are definitely two of my proudest moments.
You were on Dragon's Den - amazing! How was that and has it helped you?
The Den was pretty terrifying but also pretty fantastic! I was contacted by a researcher from the BBC who suggested I could make my pitch in rhyme. It was hard to turn down such a great opportunity to have my poetry seen on TV, so I went for an audition at TV Centre and a few weeks later was speeding up the M1 in a rented van to film in Manchester. A huge amount of time and effort goes into preparing your figures and preparing answers to questions. It took over my life!
The Den itself was actually more like a bit mentoring session than the grilling you see on TV. And no, it isn’t really a lift. I was in there an hour, despite only 3 minutes being shown. Peter Jones was more interested in writing silly poems than in the business, but Deborah, Nick, Touker and Sarah were very complimentary and they loved the rhyming pitch. In fact, Touker said it was the best pitch he’d ever heard in the Den, although this was not shown on TV. I was told my business was too niche to invest in but that I should basically keep doing what I’m doing! I left with my girl crush on Deborah intact.
The show was aired 6 months later (January 2017) and we gained lots of new stockists and customers overnight. The most useful aspect of it is the fact that I understand my business so much better than I did before and the advice I was given in the Den was completely invaluable and I’m already putting it into practice. The Dragons really do know their stuff and I’m very grateful.
What are biggest challenges to running your own business?
For me it is finding enough hours in the day! I have 3 children aged 13, 12 and 9 who are all at different schools in the local area and it is hard to give them all the time I want to. We exhibit and trade and retail shows, such as Spirit of Christmas at Olympia, so I am often working at the weekend and this would not be possible without my husband Craig who is a big part of the business.
The second challenge I face is other people copying my ideas or poems. Everything we do is original, but selling on the internet means that your work is easy to steal. I find copies or reworking of my poems on a weekly basis, whether by sellers on eBay of high street stores. It’s very difficult and expensive to tackle and I am amazed by how brazen some people are!
Describe your design life
I work with different designers that I meet, usually people who share my more minimalist approach and know their typography. I tend to favour monochrome or colour designs without too much fuss. I leave the design mainly to them. My skill is words not design, so I stick to what I am best at!
My poems or slogans start life in one of my many notebooks and can sometime takes years to actually get used or completed. I often come up with an idea and then adapt it to different recipients. My aim is to put witty phrases and poems on useful, well made products that stand out from the crowd.
Who inspires you?
I take my inspiration form my family and friends – they provide the funny and moving content for lots of my ‘off the shelf’ poems and gifts. I think about what they would like to read and have said about them. I think about what makes me and my kids laugh, and what makes us cry.
I’m also excited by the success of poets who write about the everyday, in an ordinary voice, like Holly McNish. The fact there is a market for poetry right now is very motivating.
In terms of other businesses, I adore products by The Rifle Paper Company, Kikki K and Katie Leamon. I love to read and there is a local author and mum who has been working in our studio called Clare Swatman. Her success – right under our noses - makes you feel anything is possible.
If you could pick one rhyme as a piece of advice to take with you through life what would it be?
There is so much to choose from, but at the moment I’ve been thinking about the poem ‘Invictus’ by W E Henley.
The poem argues that although you can’t control what happens to you, you can control how you react to it:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.