Taking plan B: when life gives you an unstoppable business idea

·6 min read

Having had a double mastectomy, Eleanor Howie wanted other women in her position to feel confident in their bodies after surgery, so she decided to start her own lingerie business

Eleanor Howie has been thinking about how to improve the lives of women who’ve had mastectomies for a very long time. She lost her aunt to breast cancer, and remembers from her childhood the effect surgery had on her mum’s self-esteem after she too was diagnosed with the disease.

And then, while still in her early 20s, she found out that she had a high risk of breast cancer. At 24, she had preventative surgery. This was a decade ago, before Angelina Jolie and others had raised awareness of such procedures. Afterwards, Howie went looking for post-surgery lingerie and struggled to find anything “age appropriate” – everything had a clinical look that put her off. Like her mother before her, Howie saw her confidence drop.

But the idea for better post-mastectomy bras was planted. “My story and the business’s story are so intertwined,” she says.

The spur to turn that idea into a business came in the form of her wedding in 2019. “I found it impossible to find any lingerie to wear under my wedding dress,” she says. “All the old frustrations and insecurities resurfaced. After I came back from my honeymoon, I thought: ‘I can do something about this!’”

She made the leap and started her own business, Valiant Lingerie, in January 2020, two months before the first Covid lockdown. As she trialled designs, fabric warehouses closed down, making it hard to assess the feel and texture of what she was ordering – this is particularly important for post-mastectomy bras, as scar tissue can be incredibly sensitive.

The experience of running the business in lockdown was, she says, a “mixed bag’. But technology enabled the business to keep developing. She did fit-testing, where a prototype is fitted to a real-life model, using video calls over Google Meet. It was tricky, she says, but it worked and allowed product development to move ahead.

Throughout the process of establishing and growing the business, Google has played a part, from “the most basic” first step – purchasing a web domain – to the day-to-day tools, such as email and calendar organising. Google Analytics has enabled her “to understand how I’m reaching people and how I might better reach people in the future as the brand grows”. For example, she says that Google Analytics revealed what content people were interacting with on the site, which resulted in her making changes to improve the user experience. “I have seen the benefits reflected in increased page views,” she says. “Understanding what content people interact with also helps me to plan strategy, for example, in terms of further articles for the site.”

Related: ‘I didn’t want to go back to my old lifestyle’: three entrepreneurs on why they struck out on their own

She also created a Google Business Profile – which gives company owners control over information appearing in Google Search and Maps, such as product shots and customer reviews. She says this resulted in more people finding Valiant and knowing what the company is all about.

Howie says a key part of the business is increasing representation for women who’ve had mastectomies and helping them feel less isolated. When she had her own surgery, she says, she struggled to find anyone of a similar age in the same position. With that in mind, she uses social media to help create a community and attract new customers.

It’s clear that she is really pleased with how the business has grown – especially given the pandemic. Asked what advice she would give someone who has a business idea related to their own lived experience, her response is simple: “Just start.”

She adds: “I think it’s really easy to strive for perfection, and to not want to get going and put yourself out there, particularly if it’s based on your own lived experiences.

“It’s easy to keep telling yourself: ‘Oh, I’m not quite ready yet, it’s not perfect’. But there comes a point where you just have to tell yourself: ‘Now’s the time to start,’ because things are never going to be perfect.”

To see the Valiant Lingerie collection, visit valiantlingerie.com

A fresh start: how one entrepreneur turned redundancy on its head

  • Janet Aspin, founder of JA Executive PA Services. Photograph: Shaw & Shaw/Guardian

Janet Aspin set up her own virtual PA business providing support for small- to medium-enterprises after being made redundant during the pandemic. Never having worked for herself, everything was new to her and she started with limited technical knowledge, but with perseverance and help from online tools, such as Google Business Profile, she’s seeing her business grow

How did you come to start a business during the pandemic?
I was made redundant after 25 years of working for the same company. I tried to get back into employment, and was offered a new position.

However, I had such a traumatic experience during their onboarding process that my health was suffering. I have multiple sclerosis and a risk assessment they wanted to carry out took several months and I didn’t have a start date.

Not long after, I went to the hairdresser who introduced me to his mum, Jacqueline Winstanley, who set up the Inclusive Entrepreneur Network.

Jacqueline told me about the support and advice for disabled entrepreneurs and suggested I work for myself. So I decided to walk away from the job and set up JA Executive PA Services. I created social media accounts and a Google Business Profile – the business started from there.

How has Google helped?
Google has been helpful in all parts of my business, from undertaking the initial research, to setting it up. When launching my business, I knew that I needed people to find it online and that I needed a digital presence. My first aim was to appear in Google Search rankings. So I set myself up with a Google Business Profile and updated my social channels. Now if I search for myself online my virtual PA business comes up, that’s what I wanted.

I’d never worked for myself before, so everything was new at the beginning, but I’ve started to understand more. Just seven months after launching, I’ve become more aware of things and feel more confident knowing what platforms and tools can help.

What’s it like to be a disabled entrepreneur?
It’s not easy, but I have a support worker who comes in and makes sure everything is set up as I need it and helps me proofread things when fatigue makes it difficult.

Working from home has made it a lot easier. I work in the kitchen, so I can easily just move from the living room. Working online suits me. There’s a lot more accessibility online now, with things such as video calls.

Having a group like the Inclusive Entrepreneur Network also gives disabled entrepreneurs the support we need. We get to meet, and see that everybody is kind of battling through.

To learn more about JA Executive PA Services, go to jaexecutivepaservices.co.uk

Discover the tools, training and support Google provides to help businesses across Britain grow at g.co/growbritain

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