Ever been tempted to change your life? Throw in the 9 to 5 for the challenge of running your own business? It could be The Dream – but it’s also a risk. Helen Cordy did exactly that, when she launched Wood/Grey, one of the chicest lifestyle stores we’ve ever seen…
Imagine walking into a shop which is so beautiful, so thoughtfully curated, that it stops you in your tracks and you covet Every. Single. Piece. This is precisely what happened when I was introduced to Wood/Grey it’s a highly covetable collection of beautiful products, sourced from around the globe (including some very cool brands she came across in Brooklyn). I was also awed by the charming founder, Helen, who gave up an established career in finance to follow the dream of having “the kind of shop where you just want everything” (note to Helen: you’ve succeeded) – and spend more time with her son, Leo. She talked us through her inspiring, moving journey so far…
You can visit the site here and follow Helen on Instagram @woodgrey (it’s a beautiful account). AND stay tuned….tomorrow we announce a brilliant competition with the most gorgeous prize from Wood/Grey.
Tell me about your life before Wood/Grey)…
Life before Wood/Grey was a little different! I spent more than a decade working for large corporations in various finance roles, starting off my career with L’Oréal and ultimately ending up at a large US based chemical manufacturer. Manufacturing is a tough industry but a great place to learn the fundamentals of business. My roles were mainly analysis and forecast based which has been really helpful. I was very fortunate to work for great companies and with good people, but there was always a part of me that wanted to try something different.
I returned to work full time after maternity leave and had moved my hours to get in early to finish earlier (in theory), so I was leaving the house at 6.15am to be able to pick up my son at around 4pm. But after a day in nursery, he’d be ready for bed around 6pm so I was only seeing him for a couple of hours Monday to Friday. I just felt miserable, as it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to work, but it felt like the balance was tipped far too much the one way.
Another life changing event, several years ago, was learning that my mother was suffering from Early-Onset Alzheimer’s in her fifties. My parents had planned so much for retirement and yet mum has never been able to enjoy those retirement years. The only positive to come out of such a devastating situation was learning that it’s good to plan for the future, but living in the now is so important. Which really just became so clear when I was struggling to balance work with home-life after going back to work.
Were you very clear about what it was that you wanted to do?
I knew I wanted something a little different, something more creative where I would make more decisions and have more control. I think I’d felt like that for quite a while, but it wasn’t until I’d had Leo that I really felt capable of such a big change. It’s difficult to change path, especially when you’ve invested a lot of time in a career.
I’d always dreamed of having my own lifestyle store, the kind of shop where you just want everything! Having spent some time in New York over the last few years, I realised that they do this really well out there. I also can’t get enough of that slightly industrial vibe you often find in Brooklyn. I’d found several US based brands that weren’t available or easy to find in the UK, and that was when I decided to create Wood/Grey, to bring those amazing brands to the UK.
The focus is on sourcing thoughtful lifestyle products… whether that’s because of ingredients, production methods or philanthropic reasons for example. Our brands include Herbivore Botanicals, a Seattle-based company, which have amazing all natural bath and beauty products and Brooklyn Candle Studio, a small batch company that hand pour beautiful soy candles at their workshop in Brooklyn.
We’re also the first international stockist for Archive New York, an inspiring textile company based in Brooklyn. Amira, the founder and designer, interprets traditional Guatemalan motifs, creates a new, more modern design and then reconnects with the original Guatemalan artisan groups associated with the original pattern for production. The cushions are so beautiful and a huge amount of work goes into making them.
Instagram has been a wonderful way to source products and connect with other brands, it’s so vital to Wood/Grey. I follow many NY based blogs too, which often highlights amazing brands that we haven’t seen over here yet.
At the moment, I’m just working on expanding our current ranges: Living, Apothecary, Accessories and Paper. There are so many exciting possibilities, but I think it’s key to deepen our product range, refining the edit over time.
What’s the best part about running your own business? And the worst?
The best thing is being in control of your day (to some extent!) and being able to design my work around my family. It’s exactly what I’d hoped to have.
The worst thing is that there’s no real end to your work. There is always something to work on, to develop and you can easily overwork yourself for that reason. You often don’t end up giving yourself credit when you achieve a milestone or complete an important task as you’re instantly thinking about the next thing on the list.
How do manage your time?
It’s a work in progress! Leo is in nursery 3 days a week, so he gets there for 9 and I pick him up around 4. I try to cram as much work as possible into these 3 days, but then I’ll also work in the evenings after he goes to bed and when he naps on the other 4 days. The balance is much better now, I spend much more time with Leo but I don’t seem to leave much time for myself! Which is definitely something I need to figure out. I’m sure many mothers feel that way. We’re also very lucky that my husband works flexibly which helps immensely.
Is your work/life where you’d like it to be (or is that the holy grail)?!
My work/life balance is much better now, although I still need to squeeze in a bit more ‘me’ time. I think that it’s a continual battle to maintain a good balance.
How do you separate work and family/life? Is it harder to make the distinction when it’s your own business?
I’m very conscious of trying not to work when I’m in mama mode, but sometimes I just can’t switch off. It’s definitely harder to separate work and family life now, as I’m so invested in my business. But I’m sure with a bit of time, I’ll be able to compartmentalise a little better!
I think because I went into the business knowing that I had a huge amount to learn, I’ve not really felt like that too much. I’ve learnt so much since deciding to launch and I still have much to learn. There have been lots of moments where I realised I could have done something better but I think the journey is the valuable part.
What three pieces of advice would you give to someone setting up their own business?
- Someone that I have a lot of respect for told me that successful entrepreneurs are always thinking ahead about how to grow the business. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day tasks and neglect working on your strategy for growth.
- Don’t dilute your brand no matter how tempting. Your brand is what makes you unique.
- Don’t beat yourself up when something doesn’t work out. Sometimes things are out of your control, and even if they are in your control, running a business is a steep learning curve.
What’s next for Wood/Grey? And in the next year?
I’ll be focusing a lot more on the Journal, with wonderful features and interviews with our brands and other inspiring friends of Wood/Grey. There’ll be some new brand additions in the new year and a further expansion of our productsUltimately I’d love to have our own range of products but that’s a little while away, with a lot to achieve beforehand!
I recently heard two things about being a working mama which resonated with me: that to have a successful career, you need a partner who’s a feminist; and that it’s better to take the risk and have the adventure. Regret is worse than failure. Do you have a mantra/piece of advice which keeps you motivated?
I absolutely agree that it’s better to take the risk and have the adventure. I can’t think of another piece of advice that’s more reflective of how I feel. It took me a while to get where I am, but not a day goes by that I regret deciding to go down this path.