My Business Journey: Carole Middleton
Where did the idea for Party Pieces first come from?
It was my children who inspired Party Pieces. I was planning Catherine’s fifth birthday party and all I could find were some basic ‘clown’ plates. I realised there was a gap in the market for partyware that wasn’t too expensive, looked good and added a bit of a special touch. Being a mother meant I understood how children’s parties worked from the point of view of the parent organising them, and the children who wanted to enjoy themselves. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for parents to create the perfect party for their children.
Did it feel daunting launching a business with a young family?
My husband and I were young and a little inexperienced, but very enthusiastic, so we didn’t worry too much. We took any early setbacks in our stride and had a lot of fun building the business together. When [my husband] Michael and I first started Party Pieces, we did everything ourselves. Taking orders, filling boxes and sometimes making the deliveries. The children were often there too after school. Partyware was a relatively new idea back then, so we worked hard to build our customer base and relied mostly on the odd letter or phone call for feedback.
My family have always been my biggest supporters and biggest critics. Their honest feedback has been invaluable in helping to shape the business. Party Pieces has evolved from just selling children’s products in the early days to curating pieces for all kinds of celebrations, including milestone birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings and new babies.
How did you balance motherhood and work?
There is no magic formula. Juggling motherhood and running your own business is a challenge. Like most working parents, I had to be really organised, get up early and fit my work into school hours, while after-school clubs sometimes gave me the gift of an extra hour or two. But working for myself meant I had flexibility, so I could squeeze in sports matches and school productions. School holidays were tricky, but Mike and I were a good team and we managed to juggle home and work life. Having a supportive partner or family is so important.
My advice to working mothers? Accept help when it’s offered. It can be tempting to try to do it all, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day. People like to help and it’s fine to say yes sometimes. It’s also essential to surround yourself with a good team that you trust, so they can step in if you need them to. Mike was also very hands-on, which meant I was able to focus on work when I needed to, and I knew the children were having a great time.
Also, try to ringfence 30 minutes every day where you have a little downtime to get some fresh air, move and let your thoughts flow. That’s what helped me juggle the physical and emotional demands of a busy job and young family.
Speaking of Mike, what's it been like working with your other half?
Michael and I work well together. We have complementary skills, so our roles have always been quite clear. I love spotting the latest party finds, curating and designing collections, while Michael focused on the operational side of things. Michael is no longer involved in the day-to-day, and we now have a new CEO who I work closely with to turn our ideas into reality.
What was the 'big break' moment for the business?
Party Pieces was literally born at our kitchen table, so I suppose the ‘big break’ moment came when I realised there were lots of other parents looking for more affordable and imaginative partyware, and that I had correctly identified a gap in the market for quality products that added something special. It was so exciting knowing I had a business idea that could work.
What have been some of your career highlights over the years?
Party Pieces has literally grown alongside my family, and I’m very proud of that. Pippa wrote our ‘Party Times’ blog, James did the cakes when he first left school and Catherine developed our first birthday and baby category. Moving from our kitchen table to some small office units and now to our current premises – a converted barn where our offices and warehouse are – has been another important part of the journey. I’ve also enjoyed watching our employees grow. We’ve had a number of staff move from picking products in our warehouse to being a part of our buying team. The pinnacle has been what’s happened in the last year – launching our own brand collection. I’ve now designed eight Party Pieces’ Collections and it’s been a wonderful creative outlet. We are about to launch two new ranges – King and Queen of the Sea – which are both eco-friendly ranges with a percentage of sales going to Big Blue Ocean Cleanup to help fund their vital ocean conservation work.
What's been the biggest challenge you've had to overcome?
We operate in a very competitive market, so the biggest challenge has been making sure we continue to offer a wide range of beautiful party supplies, while keeping prices affordable and delivering what customers want. We work hard to stay ahead of the trends and ensure we have original designs and ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ products. Extending the life of our partyware and creating more sustainable products is also a key challenge and focus for us.
How have you navigated the past couple of years?
Our sales did drop during the pandemic, but we were fortunate that our business did better than some because people still had birthdays and anniversaries to celebrate. Customers also got very creative with their celebrations – lots of imaginative deliveries like balloons in a box, personalised cupcakes and party streamer backdrops on Happy Birthday Zoom calls!
What advice would you give fellow aspiring entrepreneurs?
I wish I’d had the confidence to trust my gut instinct from day one. I had so many ideas, but I was a little risk-averse and should have taken opportunities to grow earlier. So, I would say trust your judgement and take that next scary step. I’d also say get hands-on in every area of your business. It’s the only way to truly get to grips with the challenges and understand what your team faces day-to-day. In a day, I’ll mop the floor, meet investors and oversee packaging in the warehouse. It’s full on!
Did you ever have a business mentor or someone you looked up to?
I didn’t have a mentor, but I did listen to any business advice that came my way. Someone once told me to ‘jump and a net will appear’ and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. You often need to take a calculated risk because it’s very rare that a perfect no-risk opportunity presents itself.
What piece of advice would you give your 30-year-old self?
Life only lasts two seconds, so enjoy it while you can. It seems like yesterday we were setting up Party Pieces with our young children in tow. Time really does fly and it goes faster as you get older. I would tell my 30-year-old self to worry a little less as things usually work out for the best in the end.
What’s the best thing about owning and running your own business?
I like being able to be myself at work and make decisions that instinctively feel right. I feel passionately about giving other women this opportunity too, which is why we have plenty of women making key decisions at Party Pieces. I always tell women starting out in business to do things their own way and be themselves. It can be easier said than done, but don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself or to make tough decisions, seek advice from trusted collaborators and follow your instincts.
And the most difficult?
When you run your own business there’s always so much to do and you rarely switch off. It can feel a little overwhelming at times, but I would say surround yourself with a trusted, passionate and expert team who you can rely on, and then just put one foot in front of the other. There are always going to be challenges but you can overcome them if you have the right people around you. Dust yourself off and keep going…
What does the future look like for Party Pieces?
I love what I do, and I can’t see a future where I won’t be involved in Party Pieces. Since our new CEO Steven has come on board, I’ve been able to take a new lease on life – focusing on building our own brand of product, giving our office a bit of a makeover; and our next step is looking at the wholesale operation of our business and expanding the distribution of our own brand in the UK and US.
Any tips for throwing a great party?
If you’ve got friends and family helping to host the party, make sure everyone knows what their job is! If they’re the sociable sort, ask them to get people chatting and to make sure no one’s left without someone to talk to. If they’re a bit shy but very efficient they can be in charge of drinks. I always like to make sure the party space looks beautiful. You can create an instant atmosphere by bringing in seasonal flowers or everlastings; working with candlelight for evening parties and having fun centrepieces for children’s parties. Make a party look amazing and you’re halfway to a good time.
How do you switch off?
I like being outside in the garden. I love dog walks and playing tennis. And I have a library of cookbooks. A fragrant curry or roast lamb are my go-to recipes – it’s so easy to put them in the oven before a walk and come home to a delicious family meal.
While we have you, do you have any tips for event dressing?
I would say work out what suits you, and then go with that. I like timeless style, and add interest with simple accessories. Always make sure you feel comfortable in what you’re wearing for big events. Looking good is no good unless you feel good, too.
What's your approach to health and wellness like these days?
My approach to beauty, health and wellness has very much changed as I’ve got older. When I was young, I didn’t have time to do that much, but now I spend a little more time taking care of myself. Healthy living, being happy and surrounding myself with the people I love is what works best for me.
Finally, what's on the agenda for 2022?
One of our company’s challenges is to move forward with making our products more sustainable and eco-friendlier. It’s the big question for all businesses but particularly for ours where traditionally so much of what customers buy is disposable. We strongly believe that being eco-conscious is an essential part of the business. We only have one planet so it’s a business challenge we must meet.
We’ve also joined forces with Big Blue Ocean Cleanup to donate a percentage of sales to help support their efforts to protect the world’s oceans. There’s a lot of excitement in the office at the moment, as we’re doing our own coastal clean-up next month – something we plan to do more of as a team.
I’m also really looking forward to creating more own-brand collections, seeing what the next big party trends are and continuing to grow the business across the UK and beyond.
For more information visit PartyPieces.co.uk to browse the new Party Pieces Collection ranges. You can also follow @PartyPieces on Instagram.
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