Wednesday, 06 July 2022
NATALIE JOHNSON is the owner of two businesses, Miss Cufflinks, an online store specialising in beautiful cufflinks for women, and Handywater Cottage, an award-winning, five-star bed and breakfast hotel in Lower Assendon which she runs with her husband Ray from a 500-year-old cottage. She was born in Sweden, where she lived for five years before her family moved to Kiev in Ukraine. She was educated in Ukraine and Russia where she studied at three universities and graduated with a master’s degree. She is fluent in five languages and plays the piano. In 1995 she moved to London, where she met Ray at an entrepreneurs’ awards exhibition at which he was a judge. For many years they were keen sailors and they are both licensed master skippers. Natalie’s son is a sports journalist in Russia and she has two grandsons plus two stepchildren from Ray’s side. The couple live with their three cats, chickens and koi carp.
Describe your business
Miss Cufflinks designs and produces cufflinks exclusively for women. With cuffed shirts becoming increasingly popular for ladies, our range adds style, elegance and glamour to any woman’s wardrobe. Our B&B business provides high quality, luxury accommodation. We initially built two rooms in our grounds and have added two more since.
How many people does it employ?
Just Ray and me plus a cleaner in the busy season.
What did you do before you started this business?
When I came to London I lived in South Kensington and worked as an interpreter. Then I moved into event management and organised seminars and corporate events. Ray and I met in 2005 and we spent a lot of time sailing in the Mediterranean.
When did you start your business?
I started Miss Cufflinks in 2005 and we started the B&B business three years ago.
What was your objective?
I liked to wear smart shirts under my jackets but could only find cufflinks designed for men, so I realised there was a gap in the market. I did some designing myself in silver and went to Mumbai to find a supplier. Now they are made in the UK. The B&B was launched after Ray retired to give us something we could do together.
Who influenced you?
Nobody. It just happened as a result of an idea I had.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
Ray would tell you that he is.
What would you do differently if you could start again?
I don’t think I would change anything. We love the hospitality business.
How is your business doing?
Miss Cufflinks is doing better than last year. This is our fourth year of running the B&B and every year the turnover increases. We have a lot of guests who return regularly.
Do you compare your figures regularly?
We have a suite of software that enables us to keep track of everything on a daily basis.
How do you market your business/service?
I use social media all the time plus booking apps
What’s the best thing about running your own business?
It’s so satisfying. I can create and implement all my own ideas. It’s great to meet so many wonderful and interesting people from fascinating and diverse backgrounds. The two businesses work well together as I concentrate more on the cufflinks between November and March and the B&B in the warmer months.
What’s the most challenging aspect?
I’m glad to say that most guests behave graciously but occasionally I’m challenged by inconsiderate guests who are careless of the property. Obviously I can accept that accidents happen but I wish people would tell us.
Where is your business headed?
Occasionally I toy with the idea of opening a bigger hotel but I think we will just continue having fun running a small B&B.
How important are online sales?
Very. Most of our business comes from our websites.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
I’ve become so much more confident and feel that I can sort out problems. I used to be quite shy.
What would you advise someone starting a business?
Do lots of research first. Make sure that you are capable and confident you can do it, then put your plans into action.
What three qualities are most important to success?
Being well organised, determined and honest. And, Ray says, being a good marketeer.
What’s the secret of your success?
I love people.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?
Only small ones in business — and a few personal ones!
How organised are you?
Very — I have to be. When we are busy I need to know what I have to be doing every minute.
How do you dress for work each day?
I wear shirts with cufflinks. I want to dress professionally even when I’m cooking and serving breakfast.
What can’t you be without every day?
A smile on my face during the day and eight hours sleep every night.
Lunch at your desk or going out?
I have lunch here.
Do you continue to study?
Not any more. I have taken so many exams and tests.
What do you read?
I don’t have a lot of time to read but I do enjoy a novel from time to time. On a more regular basis I read the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and Henley Standard.
How are you planning for retirement?
We love this house but one day we may decide to move to somewhere smaller.
20 April 2020
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