Two years after moving to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland to work as a speech therapist, Faye Savory started to suddenly develop serious health problems including chronic fatigue and debilitating pain. “I struggled to concentrate,” recalls Faye, 29. “I was in a lot of pain and had to use a wheelchair. I struggled to work.” Doctors suggested it could be ME-related but further tests showed that she had contracted Lyme disease, an infection passed through a tick bite which she believes happened during a trip to Thailand a few years prior.
Forced to resign from her job and move back to Sheffield – the city where she graduated from - Faye's life was turned upside down. The infection meant she could no longer work as a speech therapist. “My symptoms fluctuated which meant I couldn't hold down a normal job,” she says. “I needed to work on something that fitted around my health.”
Faye was drawn back to when she was ill in Lewis and a package full of thoughtful treats such as bath salts, a DVD and sweets arrived in the post from a friend. “It meant a lot to me. I thought about it all the time as a potential business idea.”
Determined to create a business model around spreading joy, she set up BearHugs in 2015 as an online company selling 'hug-in-a-box' gift boxes made up of treats such as candles, mugs, hot chocolate and socks.
“To start with the boxes were filled with what I might like to receive. If I was having a tough time then what would make me feel better and comfort me?” With each sale, she reinvested the money back into the business.
Her first big hurdle came just months after starting the business when the platform she was using suspended her shop due to selling third-party products (the site focused on handmade and vintage goods).
“It was a small crisis at that point. I didn't realise that you could only sell products handmade exclusively by yourself.” Faye was forced to quickly create a website. Looking back, she feels that it worked to her advantage. “Now 90% of sales come through my own website so I made it happen sooner rather than laater. It affected short-term sales but only for about a month.”
Fast forward to today and the business has grown substantially since it was launched in 2015. Earlier this year Faye received an £8,000 Grow It award in funding from UnLtd, which allowed her to take the next big step, and hire her sixth member of staff in June.
Run in partnership with the disability equality charity Scope, UnLtd’s Closing the Disability Employment Gap programme, is funding and supporting social entrepreneurs with strong ideas to get more disabled people into jobs and training.
Faye says the hire has proved to be a game changer for the business, allowing her to pursue the ambition of moving into corporate gifting. “Although I would have reached there eventually, employing another person to answer queries and pack our customers’ orders has meant I can get on with my plans quicker that I would have been able to. We’d started receiving a lot of organic requests from corporates to send gifts to clients and employees.
This is an opportunity to work with businesses that share the same values and have a bigger reach. We have seasonal peaks such as Mother's Day and Christmas and this [offering corporate gifting] means we can have more of a steady stream [of sales].” The support from UnLtd goes way beyond just a monetary value. “The one-to-one support is brilliant,” enthuses Faye. “It's tailored to what you need. For example, if I have a particular challenge, I can contact them. Recently they helped connect me with a legal advisor when I was having intellectual property concerns.”
Disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people, and while Government figures have shown falling unemployment rates in recent years, the disability employment gap – the difference in the rate of employment of disabled and non-disabled people – has stayed at around 30 per cent for the last ten years.
One of Faye’s personal missions has been to employ people with a disability into flexible and remote working roles. Half of her six staff work remotely.
“Creating remote working opportunities that are accessible to people with long-term health conditions is important to me because when I fell ill there weren't jobs that existed that I could work around my health. I wanted to create those opportunities for other people.”
The company now sends an average of 1200 boxes a month and to date has sold an impressive 26,000 boxes.
Today, four years after she launched her business, Faye says she's most proud of “proving that a team can work together efficiently and cohesively even when half the team is remote and works flexibly”.
And that's something she hones in on herself. “Although I'm still affected by Lyme disease but less so, I still work a reduced week. I don't come in on a Tuesday. I need to look after myself. Generally I am able still able to do most things so I count myself lucky.”
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