How a Manchester glitter stall turned into Manchester’s biggest Gay Pride shop
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When Ian Welham started selling glitter from a small stall in Afflecks in Manchester, he could not have foreseen that it would be the first step on the road to creating a hugely successful retail business which also gives back to the LGBTQ+ community.
Yet that was exactly what happened with his partner Jason Guy coming on board to help create Make Up Or Break Up.
The duo have significantly expanded their operations at the well-known Northern Quarter venue and have also founded two online stores, Festival Glitter and Gay Pride Shop UK.
They now sell thousands of different items and their customers include high street retailers and banks.
However, Jason says they have also had to endure some downs as well as ups, most notably when they came within a whisker of having to shut down entirely at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
How did the business get started?
Ian initially set up the business in 2014 as he had worked in retail for years and wanted to have a go at running his own venture.
Jason said he chose Afflecks due to being able to take short-term leases on a unit, meaning new ideas for start-ups can be given a try.
The stall sold festival make-up, glitter and similar items and provided Ian with a reasonable income for a couple of years.
It was then that Jason, whose background is in marketing, decided during a quiet period at work that he would put some effort into helping Ian’s business grow, with the result being the website Festival Glitter.
Jason said: “The stall was doing OK for Ian but it wasn’t going to be a business as it was. Afflecks has quite a limited reach to a student, young, alternative audience and I thought that if I was good at doing marketing for finance companies I could give Ian’s business a bit of affection and help it grow.
“We had saved £4,000 when Ian started and spent it on stock. You do wonder what you are doing spending £4,000 on glitter.”
What happened when Jason came on board?
Festival Glitter benefited from some social advertising and took in £133,000 of revenue in its first year.
The main item it sold was rainbow-coloured fan brushes, which had originally been created in Europe for dedicated football supporters to daub their favourite team’s colours across their cheeks at matches.
Jason said: “There was a rainbow one of these fan brushes and we thought that as we are a gay business we would get them in.
“They disappeared in a week. We got a few more and they went in a week. In the space of two months we were going to wholesalers and the rainbow items were selling faster than the make-up.”
What was the next step in their development?
Jason and Ian quickly realised they could sell a lot more rainbow-coloured items, especially for events such as Pride Month in August and LGBT History Month in February.
They came up with the idea of a store for LGBTQ+ items and launched the Gay Pride Shop.
It was an instant success and revenue began growing from £104,000 in the first year to £240,000 in the second.
Now Jason and Ian have 11 units in Afflecks and a nine-strong team of staff as well as their online presence.
There are more than 6,000 items in stock and the duo have major high street names, including clothing retail giant Next and a couple of banks, who placed mass orders with them to deck out all their national branches in rainbows to show their support for Pride Month.
Last year the business celebrated a major milestone by heading through the £1m in revenue barrier.
What was the biggest challenge Jason and Ian have faced?
That achievement was all the more remarkable as it came in a year when the majority of Pride festivals in the UK were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
And, even more incredibly, it came just a year after the arrival of the novel coronavirus on British shores almost brought an end to Jason and Ian’s retail adventure completely.
Jason said: “In February we always spend all the money we’ve got on stock. We’re buying in bulk and generally spend about £150,000.
“In 2020 we did that and the week after lockdown came in. It was supposed to be for two weeks and lasted until August.
“Our outgoings are about £25,000 a month but Afflecks closed because it was non-essential retail and we couldn’t get into our premises for three months and sales online dried up instantly.
“Revenue disappeared and within six weeks we had burned through all our cash. After 10 weeks we had burned through our overdraft. We had no money left in the business. The only way to keep going was loans and credit cards.”
Jason and Ian applied for a bounceback loan with a high street finance company but it would be 13 weeks before they heard anything back as banks simply could not cope with the volume of requests from struggling businesses.
Fortunately by that time help had arrived in the shape of Starling Bank, who managed to get a bounceback loan organised and in the business’ account within a few days of being approached.
Jason said: “It sounds silly to say that saved the business but I don’t know what we would have done without it.”
The loan gave the business a few months of cashflow alongside the help from the furlough scheme and enabled them to invest in rainbow-coloured face masks, which turned out to be a huge success.
A business at the heart of its community
Jason says that for him and Ian giving back to the LGBTQ+ community is extremely important.
The business splits 15% of its profits between three charities: the George House Trust which supports people with HIV, the Albert Kennedy Trust which works with LGBTQ+ people who are homeless and Mermaids, which helps the transgender community.
The majority of the business’ staff are also transgender as they often struggle to find retail roles where they are comfortable interacting with the public and not subject to bullying or prejudice in the workplace.
They have also stepped in to help people and organisations across Manchester, donating 300 books to a school in Gorton to create an LGBTQ+ section in the library.
What is next for the business?
After what Jason describes as an “amazing” January the business is hoping to break through the barrier of £2m revenue in 2022.
It is also making plans to head out onto the continent after Brexit threw a major spanner in the works of its European operations.
Jason said: “I don’t see how anyone who runs a business would have voted for Brexit.
“About 20% of our orders were European pre-Brexit, but shipping rates have gone up, customs regulations have come in, it has increased costs and it all really puts customers off.
“We want to have a European base for stock and we will have websites in four languages. We’re going to have staff in those countries too. We’re getting ready for that now.
“When I think what we’ve done I’m really proud of how we’ve grown our business.
“We don’t really have that many competitors, no-one else really does what we do.”