Monday, 25 June 2012

The challenges of setting up an online business – my personal journey by Elizabeth Gaffney, founder of

Although I didn’t realise at the time, the foundations of Shophoppingmap were laid in a conversation I had with my uncle when I was 22. I had just returned to Ireland after finishing my first year studying the foundation year at London College of Fashion. My uncle had popped in for a coffee to break his Saturday morning jog and broke my Saturday morning lull with a barrage of questions; so, what exactly had I learnt during my Fashion year in London? What was I going to sell and where was my target market? Where was my business plan?  These questions were answered with a blank stare of dismay. Was he joking? No, he wasn’t.  I felt no more ready to start a Fashion business than fly a spaceship! Sure I was only 22 and had much more to learn. In fact, my plan was to further my skills in Fashion design with a degree course over the following few years.  My uncle shook his head at these protests but and urged it was very important to start something of my own as soon as I could.  And he reminded me of his own story.  He himself broke away from a prestigious career path early on and took some huge financial risks to do so.  Everybody thought he was crazy but he pushed forward with his plan in frantic blind faith. It took years of hard work to reach even ground but when he did, his business success rocketed.  And those who had shaken their heads at the beginning were left staring on from the sidelines in awe. 

My uncle warned that if I were to start a business at 25, I might spend the following few years watching my friends with their good jobs go on their ski holidays while I’ll still be broke but by the time I’m 35, they’ll still be working in someone else’s castle while I’ll be sitting on my own.

These words made an impact but I continued going about my business (although not a business) and graduated from Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication after a couple of sleepless years with a degree in Fashion Design. I was now 25.  So, what was I going to do?

I still loved fashion but was quite disillusioned with the industry. After seven years of university, I could not afford to work for free and influenced by the Green movement which, pre-recession, was in full swing, did not want to add any more products to the cycle of senseless fast-consumerism. But maybe I could add some directions to the process, so at least when people went shopping, they’d be buying tasteful high quality goods from a carefully chosen selection of retailers.  Internet shopping was at the time, in 2007, making the transgression from something some people did on Amazon to a mainstream activity and many shops and brands were opening their virtual doors.  However, not all of them were and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to build a sort of online shopping portal, not only pointing to the best quality retailers but also filtering out the brands that weren’t selling online yet?  A kind of simple timesaving signpost map for the discerning shopper… And that’s how the idea (and name) for Shophoppingmap was born! 

Of course, as with all business ventures, the idea is only the tiny first step of the journey and it took a year and a half of research and feeling around in the dark to build the site.  It didn’t go online until January 2009.  When I showed it to a computer programmer cousin for a professional opinion, he said he liked the way the site looked “homemade”. This was not quite the reaction I had had in mind but it did not stop me presenting it to CEO’s and head offices of top brands and retailers around the world.  I laugh when I think back to that “vintage” original version of Shophoppingmap but in fact companies reacted very positively, and many complimented it for its simplicity.  Simplicity is the key factor behind Shophoppingmap. It is a location-neutral, gender-neutral and interest-neutral shopping guide, with quality tasteful online shopping being the common denominator under all its different categories.

The biggest challenges about running an online business are the time it takes and the lack of immediate turnover.  We’ve all heard the enticing stories about many a multi-million pound Internet company starting in the garden shed but mine is very much still in the garden shed on a financial level.  Since the start, I have had to make ends meet with other work such as English teaching and freelance design.  It has been frustrating sometimes, not having the full time or financial backing to really push things forward.  On the other hand, when you are doing everything on your own, you really feel each step forward and there is nothing more rewarding than hearing from friends and acquaintances, (men and women) who tell me that they bought their shoes for their wedding/all their babies’ clothes/bedding for the new home/the perfect pair of jeans etc. through Shophoppingmap.  It is hard work and costly getting a site out there but it is good to know that the people who know about it use it and I believe that if you build a product that is genuinely useful and timesaving, success will follow. Eventually!

In the meantime, I am developing the site and will be running an offshoot shopping tour business in London this summer. Certainly being an entrepreneur isn’t easy but then again, what path is? You have to start somewhere and as my uncle said, you may as well start with something of your own.  And whenever I watch my friends go off on their ski holidays and I still can’t join them, I just remind myself, even castles start with a wheelbarrow and a pile of bricks!

Elizabeth Gaffney is a freelance stylist, designer, writer and communications consultant living in London. Having grown up between England, Canada and Ireland, she loves travelling and discovering exciting new places and pieces.  As well as directing Shophoppingmap, she is currently working on opening an online boutique for her finds and accessories designs.  When she is not working, she can be found rummaging around a market, in an art gallery or on a beach.

She can be contacted at 

Monday, 18 June 2012

Freelance Photographer Kitty Buchanan-Gregory blogs on a Quintessentially British Season... And the highs and lows of documenting it...

The Telegraph recently ran a list of the 'Top 10 Dream Jobs'; number one was a fighter pilot, two a charity worker, three a writer, and pleasingly coming in at number four was a photographer. Considering I've recently started my own photography business it was an assurance that, whist I am yet to make my millions, I have a really cool job. However people assume I work in warm studios, snappy glamorous models and drink champagne. As someone who recently spent 9 cold and wet hours on The Mall standing next to a Canadian with a stuffed beaver on his head (because how else would one celebrate both The Queen's Jubilee and one's country's national animal?), the reality is that whilst all about me are drunk and celebrating, I am often sober and in desperate need of a pee but can't leave in case that photographer from The Mail nicks my spot. 

I focus on 'Quintessential' British events such as The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, Chelsea Flower Show, Polo, Henley Regatta etc. They're beautiful events with beautiful people watching gracefully from the sidelines. It's the elegant English Season which seems to be stuck in the halcyon lazy summer days from the 1980's; evoking the magical air of Brideshead. Or at least that's what I'm trying to capture for my new coffee table book - a photographic representation of rowers with rippling bodies and handsome polo players doing impressive things on horseback. However it's bloody difficult to try and evoke a hazy summer day when it's tipping it down and everyone is wearing a plastic poncho. Not even Photoshop can save us, and there is a tipping point when the beautiful people drinking Pimms turns into a bunch of really drunk people who fall over and DEMAND you take their picture. NOW. 

But I protest too much, one of the wonderful things I've discovered is that I've gone from bystander to genuinely feeling part of the events. At the Oxford & Cambridge boat race I was around the crew for a few days, snapping them on outings and watching them prepare their boats for the big race, the culmination of years of training.  The PRs and companies who run these events are well oiled machines, but no-one could have predicated what was to happen. A swimmer, an arrogant and ignorant protestor, swam out into The Thames and stopped the race; he was damned lucky not to lose his head. I was at the finish, poised in my spot when Claire Balding shouted 'Cambridge have stopped rowing' and we waited for another 40 minutes whilst chaos ensued on the water. Once they crossed the lines it was us photographers who first spotted the Oxford bowman collapsed.  We frantically shouting at medical boats then watched  as doctors revived him, and I captured the heightened emotions of the two crews as they both came in, confused, angry and upset by everything that had just happened. There were tears and hugs from both sides, and watching from above, I was also getting upset behind my lens. I left emotionally drained but at least had the chance to say to both crews, "Well done, you were all amazing" and knew I had some powerful images that would remind me of a boat race like no other.

Other events have had their moments; The Chelsea Flower Show - you would have thought was a genteel event full of little old ladies. Wrong - on the last day a bell is rung an hour before closing and the flowers and plants from the displays are sold off. I swear it's like a stampede across the Masai Mara and the once placid pensioners have been know to cat fight over a prize-winning begonia. I took refuge behind the BBC camera crew as we huddled for safety behind a stall selling organic vegetable seeds, the wildebeest of ladies had gone wild, and I swear if Alan Titchmarch had turned up I  genuinely would have feared for his life. 
It's taken me few years to believe I have enough skill to make it, but now I have I've realized that following your passion really does make you happy. Having given up a commute to The City, my colleagues are now rowers and polo payers and their magnificent beasts, whilst my office is a press tent at Henley or the lawns of Operas played out on rolling English estates. Everyone I photograph is passionate about the sport they do, and hopefully my love for photography goes some way towards capturing that moment - that split second of a perfect image that will never cease to look back at you. 

As I stood on the Mall the other weekend, sandwiched between Bruce (with the beaver) and 70,000 other people, slightly downwind from the Portaloos and waiting for the 5 seconds when the Queen would pass, I heard a mother speak to her young children. "Out of all the people here today who would you want to be?" she asked, "A soldier? A Princess? A Policeman? Maybe one of the soldiers on horseback?" Her young daughter considered her answered then quite decisively answered, " I would like to be a photographer when I grow up".... By God I could have hugged her. 

Kitty Buchanan-Gregory is a freelance photographer who photographs quintessential British events and 'The English Season' 

KBG Photography

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Acclaimed 'Mummy' Blogger Susie McBeth talks about the genesis of her blog 'A Twin Adventure'...

I became a mummy blogger kind of by accident and mostly because of my phone bill. I didn’t wake up one morning pregnant and nauseous with a burning need to join the ranks of mum and dad bloggers out there. I woke up (pregnant and nauseous) logged on to my mobile account and felt my stomach clench at the size of my phone bill.

Whilst working out how I was going to cover it, I realised that having very chatty friends in lots of different countries is not fiscally good, especially when you are also a bit of a talker (marathon conversations that involve short toilet breaks are not unheard of for me) and, when you have news that you are pregnant with twins, those conversations make marathons look like a 100 metre sprint.  After hyperventilating and knocking back my decaffeinated Earl Grey like a whiskey shot, I knew I needed to come up with a plan that would keep me out of debt and my phone still switched on.  I needed an outlet to talk about everything that would be happening to me over the coming months as I have a tendency to fall into ‘interesting’ situations and my twin pregnancy was no exception. The solution to my problem  was to blog about it. I knew that this would allow me plenty of space to vent, air my fears, tell tales of my escapades and get much needed advice and that is how my blog ‘A Twin Adventure’ was born. My blog posts ranged from the ick of bodily changes, hormonal rants at taxi operators, scary Chucky-like dolls used as breast-feeding props at the hospital and the mortifying day when I found out I could no longer fit into a booth at Pizza Hut (not a good moment).

Blogging about my adventures in pregnancy was perfect. My friends could visit my page and keep up to date.  After a couple of months I noticed my page stats rising and I started to get emails from readers other than my friends. This was something that surprised me, and, I am not going to lie, I thought it was awesome . With this extra interaction I was spurred on to post more frequently and on topics that people asked me about. As cheesy as it sounds (and I am guilty of a little cheese here and there )I felt like my blog was evolving along with the twins inside of me.

After the twins were born and we escaped our overly long stay in hospital I really got to find out what my twin adventures were all about. Every day  has been different, more wonderful, frustrating and unexpected than I ever imagined it would be. I have learned that mangoes are a very dangerous fruit and have unanticipated instant hair-dreading effects; babies can throw food better than most baseball pitchers throw balls; teething is my worst nightmare made real; I can operate on tiny amounts of sleep and I have developed the power of changing nappies at superhuman speed (I would make an excellent tire changer for a Formula 1 or Nascar team). Best of all though, I have learned that when my babies smile, giggle or gurgle at me, I melt. Their cuteness is my Kryptonite.

Before I had my twins I was a little worried that I would lose who I was at the core of me, basically a very (emphasis on the very) geeky girl who loves comic books, Batman, and anime. But I have found that one of the most fun things about being a mummy and writing my blog is that I am able to constantly get my geek on. The geek and the mum are a perfect mix. From dressing my twins in whatever superhero outfits I can get my hands on to peppering my stories with Star Wars and Batman references. If anything, since I have had the babies, I have got worse and my geekdom has reached new spheres.

It is weird, I started this blog for my friends, then it became more about sharing my experience with a wider audience, and recently I have discovered that the best thing about this blog is that it is a constant record of how my twins and I develop. It has remained as personal to me as the day I started writing it and I can’t wait for the time to come when my twins are able to read through this chronicle of our lives. 

To read Susie's blog A Twin Adventure simply click here.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Critically acclaimed theatre director David Mercatali on the genesis of his latest plays 'Tender Napalm' and 'Someone to Blame'...

Since I started working as a theatre director several years ago, the vast majority of my work has been on new writing. There is nothing like a new story being told. All the best theatre is about storytelling, and I have had the privilege to bring many exciting stories to the stage over the last few years. Just recently I have had a particularly busy time bringing two of the best stories that I have worked on back to the stage following their original productions. The first of these concerned a young man named Sam Hallam, whom you may remember from recent newspaper headlines was freed on appeal last month after spending almost a third of his young life in prison.

Sam was convicted in 2005 of the murder of a young trainee chef Essayas Kassahun during a street fight, but he always maintained he was never even at the scene of the crime. The only evidence against him came from two very inconsistent eye-witnesses, one of whom tried to go back on their word in court, and the other admitted in court that when she accused Sam she had been “looking for someone to blame.” Nevertheless, the jury found Sam guilty and he was sentenced to a minimum tariff of 12 years, and to be worthy of parole, he would have to admit his guilt.

Following the dismissal of Sam’s first appeal, a campaign was formed to prove Sam’s innocence.  Supporters included Ray Winstone, who was the uncle of Sam’s friend. I first found out about Sam’s case in 2008 while researching miscarriages of justice online. His situation struck me straight away. Both of the two witnesses against him had given very contradictory, unconvincing evidence that changed from statement to statement. The first witness’s identification was prompted by a friend of hers.  The witness then prompted another witness to identify Sam also. No other evidence - forensic or CCTV – existed. It didn’t add up, and I was appalled that someone could be convicted on such poor evidence. But I didn’t know what I could do. So for a while, I did nothing and just followed the events online.

About a year later though it struck me that I could do something. I could tell his story to a wider audience using my skills as a theatre maker.  I consulted my wife Tess, a writer, and I asked her how she felt about putting his story together. She was keen, and when she saw the wealth of material provided by the campaign – court transcripts, witness statements, newspaper reportage – suggested that we should create a verbatim play, using the exact words spoken or written by the real-life characters concerned.  For additional material, we interviewed many of the young people who were there that night, and even went to meet Sam a couple of times, during which I formed a great respect for the courage he was showing in handling his situation. 

At the beginning of 2012, the King’s Head Theatre in Islington agreed to produce the play, aptly titled Someone to Blame, and it ran during the month of March, six weeks before Sam’s appeal was due to be heard.  Audience responses were fantastic and Sam’s case was raised in the public consciousness.  At appeal, there were over a hundred supporters watching in the gallery which included the actors, the producers from the King’s Head, Tess and myself.  After an agonising three hours of submissions, the Crown threw in the towel and admitted that they would not be able to contest Sam’s appeal. The judges released Sam immediately, and the conviction was quashed.  After seven years of imprisonment, he was a free man.

After the media furore over Sam’s case, we decided we needed to tell his story one more time. From 3 – 5 June, the King’s Head gave us a slot to produce the show again, but this time with a new, happy ending, based on the scenes at the Court of Appeal and the newspaper and TV reportage. It was a lot of hard work but hugely worth it. Sam’s story needed to be told, and we were just so privileged to be able to tell it.

From the 11th June, I will be bringing back to London another story I have already told, Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm. In 2011 we premiered the play at the Southwark Playhouse to a brilliant response and incredible reviews, and were on several broadsheets pick of the year lists. This was a very different story to Someone To Blame, coming from the brilliant mind of Philip Ridley. We had first worked on it together at the end of 2009 in development stage. At that point, Philip had written only a few pages in which a couple used a new ‘language of love’ in which to overpower one another with words.  Just the small bit that we workshopped was very exciting, and we knew we would have to get this story on stage. Philip went away to finish the play and came back with something extraordinary: a breathtaking love story told through explosive language, complete with a man conquering a giant sea serpent and a woman commanding an army of monkeys.

It's all underpinned by a story of grief - as the play unravels, we realise what had driven the couple into this fantasy world, and how they had met in the first place. I was excited to stage it, but it was a challenge. I opted to strip down to minimal set and lights, leaving all the main work to the actors to create these visions and to push each other to the max in the process. The result was explosive and the response was overwhelming. When we finished our run last year we knew we wanted to tour it this year, so that we could take the story out to more and more people.

I started work on that a few months ago with a completely new cast. This was the most exciting part because with all the emphasis on the actors’ dynamic and relationship in the show, I knew two new actors would bring a completely new energy to it, and I was right. It’s the same story, but with a whole new flavour, which has been wonderful to see unfold on tour over the last month. Audiences in all the touring theatres we’ve gone to have responded with equal excitement, and I feel huge anticipation for its return to the Southwark Playhouse June 11-23. It’s pure storytelling in its truest form, and that is what audiences, as well as myself, find most exciting.

Tender Napalm is at Southwark Playhouse for two weeks only, 11 - 23 June. More information and tickets are available here, or phone 020 7407 0234.