Bespoke mentoring helped breastfeeding-shirt business to thrive

As a National Childbirth Trust trained Breastfeeding Peer Supporter, Lisa Lessware volunteered at her local Sure Start Centre for three years, counselling new mothers on breastfeeding issues. She would often see women embarrassed about feeding in public, wearing intricate breastfeeding clothes that restricted the feeding access for the baby. Eventually Lisa started making breastfeeding undershirts for friends and over the last few years, alongside her good friend and now business partner, Philippa Doyle. They have developed a unique design and thriving business - Bshirt.

As a part of its development Lisa and Philippa were connected with an UnLtd volunteer advisor and mentor, David Green, at the end of 2017. David is a retired business owner with 30 years’ experience running SMEs in the fast-moving Consumer Goods sector, particularly in the textiles and clothing industry.

Now over a year in, they are all still meeting regularly. With the support of a dedicated mentor and the hard graft of both Lisa and Philippa, Bshirt is expanding into the U.S. online marketplace, an exciting phase as the venture grows from their hub in beautiful Devon. 

Philippa and Lisa stand either side of a dress makers dummy, in front of a rack of clothes, with fabric cutting scraps on a table in front of them.


We spoke to Lisa and David about the relationship, and the incredible difference that mentorship made to their work.

 

Why mentoring?

David: “Now I am retired, I have the luxury of time and the desire to be useful, I was restless! When it comes to fashion manufacturing, there’s not much I haven’t faced during my career.  So when I was introduced to Lisa and Phillippa, I got a good vibe from two intelligent women who I felt had done brilliantly to get the business to where it was, but who I felt could now benefit from my specific industry experience to take the business forward.”

Lisa: “We needed some insight into the fashion and manufacturing industry as this was completely new to us and we hadn't a clue. Our expert knowledge around breastfeeding and clothes that support the mother and baby was spot on! We needed help understanding processes, terminology, how to build relationships with factories - basically everything we didn't know. That first meeting with David literally saved our business from going under – he noticed straight away that we weren’t going to make any profit in the first year of trading! He advised on where to make the right cuts, and therein, so much value was added from the get-go.”

 

What goals did you set at the beginning?

Lisa: “During the first year of trading, we were unusually cash rich and stock poor. Our main goal was to improve our manufacturing processes with the right factory to keep up with the demand for the garments. David advised us to renegotiate price and terms with our existing overseas factory and if possible, to source a second overseas factory to work with. We ironed out those kinks quickly and are now starting discussions with the second factory to further improve business relations and productivity”.

David: “Once we had identified two major issues – profit and cash flow and manufacturing processes – Lisa and Philippa astounded me with their resilience and bravery. Making such major changes to a business so quickly takes guts, and they did it, with such positive results! I was so happy I could help, a totally rewarding experience and continues to be.”

 

What was surprising?

Lisa: “I was less surprised, more grateful to now have David as a mentor and an advisor. When we all came to the table, Philippa and I couldn’t quite believe how close we came to not making profit in that first year. That was a real eye opener and now we do a stock analysis every month instead of every year! David’s sector expertise is invaluable, as is his great sense of humour and ability to listen when we are working through an issue.”

David: “I wasn’t surprised they missed the issues around profit and cash flow, it’s common but usually breaks a business – they were lucky and worked hard, taking on sector specific guidance. What really surprised me was how much I enjoyed volunteering my time in this way and being able to both advise and mentor Lisa and her team.”

 

What advice would you give to another social entrepreneur who is just about to start a relationship with a business volunteer? 

Lisa: “Make sure you make your knowledge gaps known so you are paired with someone who can actually be of benefit to you. Our first mentor pairing wasn't what we needed (we needed garment manufacturing experience), so we asked to be paired again. We're so glad we did because David's wealth of experience has been invaluable.”

David: “It's not the role of a mentor to pat you on the back and say 'great job'. A good mentor will be able to see straight through all the successes and point at what’s missing or what needs to be fixed. On the flipside, a good mentor should also be open to be pushed back by the mentee. It’s a combination of tough love, reflection for all and working together to improve the business and develop the entrepreneur”.

 

If you would like to be connected with a volunteer business mentor to support the growth of your social venture, please get in touch with your UnLtd Award Manager for an informal discussion about next steps.

If, on the other hand, you are an experienced entrepreneur interested in sharing your skills with social entrepreneurs, please contact the mentors team. We are particularly interested in engaging new mentors in the following locations: Devon, Cornwall and Newcastle.

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Author Info


Jennifer Clayton

My role is to manage the logistics and development of the mentoring community for UnLtd Connect. I have nearly a decade of experience working in the social innovation sphere – my previous role at UnLtd sat in the Ventures team, where I coordinated the pilot of Big Venture Challenge. I then spent six years at Nesta developing several challenge prizes and co-managing some large innovation grant programmes like the Second Half Fund and Connected Communities Innovation Fund.

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