Inspiring Entrepreneurs Question Time at the British Library

Below is a blog which appeared on the British Library website in November 2012 following Stephen Fear forming part of a panel with Oral Kiely, Charlie Mullins and Sam Hargreaves. Please click here for the original article


Orla Kiely’s prints are well-known and loved around the world; you can find them on anything from handbags to cars. I think I might have spotted one on a London bus once too. She trained at the Royal College of Art and together with her husband, Dermott Rowan, she formed the Orla Kiely Partnership in 1997. The Guardian once described her as “the Queen of Prints”.

On Monday evening, Orla came to speak at our ‘Inspiring Entrepreneurs: Question Time’ event at the British Library to give entrepreneurs tips on how to get started and grow their businesses. She was on a panel with Charlie Mullins (Pimlico Plumbers) Sam Hargreaves (Gadgets4Everyone) and Stephen Fear, our entrepreneur in residence.

Orla knew at the age of 12 that she wanted to study fashion, and that art was her favourite subject at school. Through her education, she realised that she was passionate about textiles. She also claims that in the design world, it would be hard to get started without a solid education.

Her designs started with hats, but moved into bags after during London Fashion Week when her father famously told her everyone was carrying a handbag, but no one was wearing a hat.

She worked with her husband Dermott to build up the business organically. Today she sells in 34 countries and explained about the licensing process for her products, which is a good way to expand without being responsible for stock. However, Orla makes sure that they are responsible for the design process and final sign-off is essential. Dermott mentioned that it is the quality of the products that makes them sell, not just the brand. He gave an example of selling their Uniqlo rangein Malaysia, where her brand was not previously known.

Then we got into the questions.

The first was about whether Orla had any regrets. She said that instead of regrets, she could see times when they had been lucky that things hadn’t gone wrong. For example, when they decided not to take investment early on which allowed them to stay 100% in control of the business. She talked about how when things are at their hardest and when running a business can be a lonely business, it often forces you to be at your most resourceful and proactive.

Lastly, she was asked about manufacturing. Orla mentioned that she manufactures around the world, including in China, the UK and Portugal. But that increasingly production has been moving back to Europe.

Her last tip?  Make sure you are a do-er and a finisher. It’s not enough just to have the big ideas.

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