Posted: Fri 25th Aug 2023
A chance discovery of a picture of a dog in a costume led to a side hustle business for Sarah Valovin and her photographer husband Wil.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Wil's usual method of income was no longer possible, so the couple took Yorkshire Pet Portraits full-time. They are now providing hundreds of portraits of pets as superheroes, historical figures, sports stars and more!
Sarah shares the inspiring story of her business and how the Amazon Small Business Accelerator e-learning programme has been “revolutionary”.
Tell us the story of your business.
During Christmas 2019, we visited my sister. Her daughter had received a gift of her pet dog portrayed in a costume. My husband Wil is a photographer and this intrigued him. He decided to give it a go.
He created a few portraits for friends and family and they shared them on Facebook. As they were so popular, we decided to start it as a side hustle. It was very popular and was creating a good second revenue stream.
Then the pandemic hit. Wil was self-employed and had no income. It was a very scary time. But he took the plunge and decided to create a website and see if we could raise more money to help us via this enterprise. He developed more portraits, perfected his technique and invested in a better printer.
It exploded, and by September 2020 Wil couldn't keep up with demand. He was up at 4am every day, working until late at night. I was helping as much as I could while having a stressful leadership role in a secondary school.
The next step was to stop dog adventuring and focus on Yorkshire Pet Portraits full-time. Meanwhile, the lockdown made me really evaluate my life and I didn't want the stress of my role anymore.
It was badly impacting my mental health and therefore family life – we have two amazing children. At Christmas 2020, I handed in my notice to help Wil.
I left work on 26 March 2021, when shops reopened, and immediately there was a decline in sales. This panicked me but we sought help from a local marketing company, I enrolled on the Amazon Small Business Accelerator e-learning programme and we upgraded our website and product range.
We were quite naïve in terms of business and the impact of the economy opening up and sales. But we make a good team and are resilient, so we've both upskilled ourselves.
We're still always learning and developing our skillset to make it work for our family. It's been a rollercoaster but I know we can do this and enable our family to be secure and happy.
What start-up challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Lack of knowledge about retail, marketing and handling accounts. I threw myself into learning how to control our accounts and make sure we were compliant as directors of a limited company. I took advice from a professional and we have employed them to take care of our tax and VAT returns.
Marketing is new to both of us. We had been boosting posts on Facebook and had no idea about using social media to develop a community and drive sales. I've taken a lot of advice and joined many webinar sessions from Enterprise Nation. I'm now much clearer about where we need to go and how to market successfully and not waste money.
Watch this webinar to learn how to use your social media plan to grow your business:
I've had calls with experts and we've taken a lot of learning from Social Progress, a local company that specialises in social media marketing. I'm constantly trying to increase our engagement and develop our community and am learning how to create more targeted Facebook ads rather than boosting posts.
We've learnt an awful lot about what drives e-commerce and how to account for the quiet times without panicking. The Enterprise Nation webinars and e-learning videos have helped massively and I enjoy watching them and then implementing the relevant actions.
How has the Amazon Small Business Accelerator e-learning programme benefited your business?
The 'Build online via content and community' e-learning videos have been really useful. We were just posting product pictures online as we were not aware of how to develop a community.
We've radically changed how we use social media to develop our community and it's grown our engaged followers to build our brand.
We've tried to focus on funny pet products (one post was massively popular, with over 100,000 comments and 10,000 shares) and ask questions about pets and life with pets. Without the e-learning, we would have carried on posting product pictures only.
Another video that has inspired me is ‘How to source reviews, testimonials and case studies’ with Rachel Whittaker. Her first piece of advice is to ask for reviews.
I'd just assumed that customers would naturally provide a review. To me, this was revolutionary. I now always ask for reviews with an automated email and include the link to the reviews section on our website.
We've also had an insert printed with a QR code that we add to our orders. It goes direct to the website and asks for a review, as well as photos of the portrait and their pet or unwrapping videos to use as user-generated content on social media.
Previous to watching the e-learning video, I was leaving it to chance and hoping customers would just leave a review as I felt a bit cheeky asking!
Which other entrepreneur inspires you and why?
Hedy Lamarr. Everyone knows she was a famous actress but what few people realise is that she was an entrepreneur and a prolific inventor. She had a workshop in her house and used her creative genius to develop the technological concepts that became known as frequency hopping spread spectrum technology.
While this may sound a bit dry, it's used in so many critical applications today, such as wi-fi, smartphones, GPS and scanners at shops. Her contribution to this technology genuinely changed the way we communicate and allowed the digital age to explode. An amazing woman who did all this with no funding and basically on her own in her back room!
What are your top tips for business success?
Always show up. If you're not there promoting, creating and working hard, nothing will change. Some days are hard but keep going forward.
And don't be afraid to ask for help. Most of my learning has come from asking others who are experts in that field.
The free Amazon Small Business Accelerator e-learning programme is advice from more than 30 business experts in over 200 bitesize videos.
If you’re already an Enterprise Nation member, log in to your learning dashboard. If you’re not an Enterprise Nation member, you can join the Amazon Small Business Accelerator for free here.