London is an exciting town, and for entrepreneurs the city is a thrilling place to start a business. As part of our ongoing interview series, we connected with Harry Cole, founder of the successful online retailer The Natural Curtain Company. Below, Harry shares the secret to his site’s success, his favourite drives, and why he’s a London foodie at heart.
The Natural Curtain Company has come from nowhere to become the UK’s best known online curtain company – where did the idea come from and how have you seen it progress?
There was a time when everybody seemed to be buying a flat, cottage or house. As I have found in my own renovation projects, the curtains and blinds are almost always the last thing to be considered, let alone measured, chosen and ordered. Energy levels can be low at the end of a project, so the idea was to make choosing and buying good quality handmade curtains easy as pie. In 2006 there was no online competition, even from the big department stores, so we jumped in and the rest is history. Since then, as with every other market, there are plenty of online curtain companies and all the department stores have got an online outlet of some sort. We like to think their offering tends to either be limited in terms of choice or at the low end of the market. We have seen a big trend in people looking for readymade curtains (off the shelf, pre-sized and prepackaged) and this is an area we’re expanding into fast. The difference between our readymade products and others on the market is that ours are well made from good quality woven 100% cotton fabrics.
Has the perception of ordering fabrics online shifted – how many people order from you without ever touching the material their curtains are made from?
A lot of our customers are over 60 and we’ve seen a big increase in the number of these ‘silver surfers’ being prepared to buy something as complex as a made-to-measure pair of curtains online which is great. There are some people in that age group who are still unsure about it and there are some people of all ages who won’t risk doing their own measurements or buying something relatively expensive and bespoke online without visiting a shop or see a large piece of fabric. However simple it is in reality, the perception among some people is that it is a complicated and risky process but this is not borne out by the fact that only a tiny percentage of our customers make mistakes with their measurements or their fabric choices. I think that time will change this cautious attitude. However, if you’re spending a lot of money on some made-to-measure fabrics, you will certainly want to see some of the fabric and we send out samples free of charge for this purpose. With the readymade curtains, we don’t offer this service because the curtains are inexpensive and can be returned within seven days for a refund for any reason. To make sure this doesn’t happen too often, we spend a lot of effort on the photography to make sure it’s good and informative.
What are the greatest challenges you face as an online retailer in growing your business?
Apart from making sure your customers are happy, the two biggest challenges are driving as much affordable good quality traffic to the website and making the website convert as efficiently as possible. Traffic is driven through SEO, Pay per click, PR, blogging, content management and various other avenues. As everyone knows Google is always changing the rules to extract more money from the online retailer, so keeping track of the changes they make and the most efficient use of our time & money to drive good traffic is a challenge as well. When it comes to the website, it’s a case of A/B testing all aspects which is very effective. We A/B test everything from layouts and copy to prices. The results can be very dramatic and unexpected and each small step in the right direction makes a difference when you have 1000’s of visitors per day. We think that making the most of the traffic you get on the site is just as important as driving good new traffic to it.
How do you see the Natural Curtain Company expanding from here?
In short, we’re focusing on simplification of the products on offer. We’re focusing on more off the shelf, self-explanatory high quality products at very attractive prices. We can’t see ourselves dropping the bespoke products from our offering but there is a large chunk of the online buyer who wants something attractive, quickly (next day) and at a great price , even if it doesn’t fit the space perfectly (or they have the local dry cleaner alter it to the right length for a few quid). This is the main area of expansion for us and it fits in the with simple e-commerce idea. At £1.5Bn/yr in the UK, the curtain & blind market is pretty big so there’s plenty of room for us to grow.
What makes London such an important base for entrepreneurs like yourself?
Well, it’s a wonderful city for a start but it contains a very large chunk of your market and a huge talent pool for suppliers or potential employees. About 50% of our customers live in London despite being a national, web based company. We also have a measuring and fitting service in London for this reason. When we advertise for new employees, we’re always inundated with fantastic candidates and I wouldn’t be confident that this is the case everywhere in the UK.
If you are looking to escape London for a few hours, heading to the countryside for a nice lunch or a long walk, where do you tend to go?
I love motoring up to the Cotswolds – it’s easy to get to from London, and such a gorgeous area. When I’m there, I always go to the Wheatsheaf Inn in Northleach. It’s a cosy, traditional pub, and I always have a good meal there.
How does travel fit into your schedule – are you constantly on the road finding new fabrics or are you firmly rooted in your London offices?
I’m fairly firmly rooted in the office most of the time but I visit key manufacturing suppliers and visit the main European textile trade fairs for new fabrics, contacts and ideas which is essential to keep fabrics fresh and spot any trends or innovations that might help us grow.
Finally, where are your favourite London haunts, are you rooted in West London or do you still venture across to the ‘edgy east’?
I’m a foodie who interested in substance over style. I’m very happy eating in a small café with fluorescent lights if the food is interesting and excellent. It’s the bane of my wife’s nights out. I’m also a real grumbler in stylish place where the prices are high and the food or service is average or bad. At the modest end of this spectrum, I would choose Baozi inn (northern Chinese street food) in Soho, Tay Do Cafe in Shoreditch (Vietnamese, with very rude staff). At the more glamorous end, I love the Hawksmoor steak place in Covent Garden. It has great food, it’s a great place, it serves great cocktails (try the Silver Bullet) and reasonable corkage fees so you can bring your own top drawer grog.