Mark McCormack, Talking Tables

Mark McCormack, Talking Tables

Preparing for when parties are allowed again is just one of the challenges of running a paper tableware business right now, says Mark McCormack, co-founder and joint Managing Director of Talking Tables, which has a turnover of £17 million.

What was the inspiration for the business?

My partner Clare Harris started the business in 1999 because she had always decorated the tables for large family occasions but found it hard to find accessories that would co-ordinate – if there was a red theme for instance, she couldn’t get matching napkins, plates and cups because they were all slightly different. She saw a gap in the market for co-ordinating sets of paper tableware that could be sold in higher end retailers such as Heals, Paperchase and Liberty. I met Clare when she had been trading for about six months. At the time I had my own design and print business which I merged into Talking Tables.

How did you finance the growth of your business?

Clare was lent some money by her father to set up and buy some stock. When that was repaid we financed the business with some overdraft lending and personal loans, and then after eight years we started using invoice discounting.

What has been the impact of the pandemic on your business and how have you dealt with this?

There was a slowdown in our sales when non-essential retailers had to close last year, and they are shut again now. So part of our market is closed and can’t sell other than through quite complicated click and collect procedures. But as a business we have always made sure that we sell through a variety of channels and sell a diverse range of products. Supermarkets and grocers account for 50% of our business and they haven’t closed. Meanwhile people are still having gatherings in their bubbles. We also sell quite a diverse range of products which has helped too – games and jigsaws have been really successful through lockdown. So our sales will be up £1 million on last year.

Have you changed your business in any way as a result of the pandemic?

We have cut down the amount of products that we are developing and how much we will purchase on the first order.

What has been the most difficult or challenging part of growing your business?

Right now it is making sure that we are prepared for what happens next. A lot of the market place is shut but because people are not going out or spending money there is this big potential pent up demand that will be unleashed when everything gets back to normal. So we have got to prepare for this – we can’t just decide that we are not spending any money and squirrel it all away while we wait for the green shoots of recovery to come, because when it happens there won’t be any time to react.

What has been your biggest mistake?

We got into a legal wrangle a few years ago with one of our customers who was selling our products on Amazon and affecting our brand positioning. It ended up involving lawyers and it cost us a lot of money and was very silly and annoying. If that happened now we certainly wouldn’t get to the point of using lawyers because they were the only ones to make money out of it. We would have tried to do a meditation.

What has been the secret of your success so far?

Spotting a gap in the market and having access to funding. When we started we were in our late 30s and we both had houses with equity so we were able to leverage that for personal guarantees for bank funding. But if you don’t have access to funding it is very difficult.

What advice would you give an entrepreneur just starting out about how to grow their business?

It is really important to do good forecasting of sales and purchases and cash flow management, because the wrong forecast can cause you to employ people or move into bigger premises or purchase equipment, and if the sales don’t come you will have spent that money unnecessarily.

What personal quality or characteristic has been most useful to you as an entrepreneur as you grow your business?


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