'The first time I did a market it was terrifying' - Northern Ireland grandmother no intention of slowing down
Small Business Can
Most people in their sixties are looking forward to their retirement. However, having celebrated her 64th birthday recently, Betty Rodgers has no intention of slowing down.
The grandmother from Donaghadee, Co Down, set up A Blissful Blend last year and now has ambitious plans for her fledgling business - hoping her range of moisturising products will be sold in shops across Northern Ireland.
While Betty wants to make a success of A Blissful Blend, the business started quite by accident.
"I didn't set out to start up a business," she says.
"I have a granddaughter who has eczema and she would get itchy skin on her warm spots.
"She was being prescribed various creams but she would still wake up in the morning with very irritated skin on her warm spots where she would have been scratching all night."
Betty, who had a long running interest in natural products, set about researching different ingredients on the internet to try to help her granddaughter.
"Annie was five at the time and my aim was to find a cream that would break the cycle of itching and scratching using natural butters and essential oils," says Betty.
"It wasn't very severe eczema, it was quite mild, but I felt like I should try and do something.
"I didn't have any experience beforehand of making moisturising cream so I just kept researching the internet.
"I played around with a lot of different ingredients, but the most important thing to me was that it was all natural.
"There are a number of companies that you can buy base creams from if you want to make your own product.
"It was important to me that the product I made was unrefined and natural and I also had to find exactly the right essential oil because if you use too much it can burn the skin.
"My daughter was very trusting and let me develop a moisturising cream and tried it out on Annie.
"I didn't create a cure for eczema, I would be sitting on a yacht if I had managed to do that, but what I did do was create a moisturising cream that helped to ease her itching."
Betty continued to make the cream to help her granddaughter - but the idea for turning A Blissful Blend into an enterprise came from a chance comment from a local businesswoman.
"I was making it for other people as well as Annie as it brought her some relief and then other people started to use it for themselves and their children as well," she says.
"I happened to be speaking to a girl who owns a gift shop in Donaghadee and she asked me why I wasn't selling the cream and that's what started me thinking.
"Of course, selling it is a whole different ball game and there are certain standards that you have to meet.
"For example, I didn't want it to contain any preservatives, which means that I have to mark on the cream that it has to be used within six months of opening.
"I know that my cream lasts for 12 months but I have to stay on the safe side and put down six months," says Betty
"The big well-known brands all have preservatives in them so they last a lot longer, because most of them probably sit in the store room for six months before they even make it onto the shelf.
"I had to have my cream officially tested, it had to be certified, so I sent it off to see if it met those standards and I was absolutely delighted when I heard back that it did.
"I actually said to my husband at the time that I didn't care if I didn't sell one thing, I was just so pleased that it was safe and I had met all the necessary standards."
With the green light given to sell her moisturising cream, Betty then set about starting up A Blissful Blend.
In keeping with the original inspiration for the product, she turned to her granddaughter once again for a name for her business.
"She used to rub the cream in and tell me that it was bliss," says Betty.
"I think she would be quite happy if I called it Nana's Itchy Cream, but that doesn't have quite the same ring to it.
"I have also developed a calm balm which I made for another granddaughter when she was studying for her AQE.
"She would put it on before she was going to bed."
Brand development was important to Betty and she drew upon her location and got her daughter's help when designing the containers for her products.
"The tins have to be a particular material so they don't get rusty and we used blue as the colour to reflect the fact that we are close to the seaside," she says.
"My daughter is a photographer and she helped me with the design of the labels.
"The creams smell lovely but that is just as a result of the oils that I use, rather than something I have done deliberately.
"I make all the products at home and you can always tell when I am making them from the smell in the house when you walk in.
"I really enjoy that side of things but there is also a lot of paperwork and that takes up a lot of time.
"If I sell something I have to be able to say exactly where I got each ingredient that is used in the cream or bar."
Betty currently sells her products at a variety of fairs and markets, but she has become more selective when it comes to choosing which event to attend.
"I try to go to places where all the products that are being sold are handmade so people know that I am not selling something that is bulk made," says Betty.
"The first time I did a market I found the whole experience terrifying.
"I sat behind the table and waited for people to come to me and then I realised that I had to approach potential customers.
"I remember the first time I asked someone if they wanted to try one of my creams and they said 'no', I was absolutely mortified.
"I don't take it personally now though, I just understand that not everyone is interested in buying something from me."
Betty now relishes the interaction with customers - and she gets particular satisfaction that she is selling something she has created and produced herself.
"I can't describe the buzz," she says.
"It feels even better when it is a repeat customer."
As a start-up business with no marketing budget, Betty relies heavily upon word of mouth and social media when it comes to advertising her products.
"Facebook and Instagram have been essential," she says.
"I didn't really have much experience of either beforehand and I actually had to have help to set up my Instagram account, but they are so important to get your message out there."
She has also turned to businesspeople at the fairs and markets she attends to pick up tips and advice. And she is now part of the current intake at the Ulster Bank Entrepreneur Accelerator programme.
"It has been such wonderful help so far and I feel very lucky to be a part of it," she says.
"You get such wonderful support and you get to meet all sorts of other people with a range of experience, which is so important when you are setting up your own business.
"One of the first things I had to do was a pitch and I was up the whole night before practising because it was so important to me that I prove I had the right to be there."
Despite this, A Blissful Blend is not Betty's first experience of the business world. After leaving school, she started off her working life employed as a bank official.
"It was a different world back then and I remember going to the career adviser in school and telling them that I wanted to work in the bank and being told that girls from secondary schools didn't get a job in the bank, only people from grammar school worked in a bank," says Betty.
"That only made me more determined, that's the way I have always been throughout my life, if someone tells me I can't do something I work harder to achieve my goal.
"I did get a job in the bank and I stayed there until I had my children when I took a career break.
"I have four daughters and once they grew up a bit I went back to the bank, but I subsequently had a break down and ended up leaving.
"I can laugh about it now, but at the time I dealt with what was going on by going out to the garden and digging and I joke that I am lucky I didn't end up in Australia."
After leaving her job, Betty set up pottery studio Seaside Ceramics in 2002.
"Setting up a business for the first time was definitely a challenge, I made so many mistakes and probably the biggest of these was the fact that there are givers and takers in this world and I am a giver," she says.
"But I learned a lot along the way - it can be difficult when you start up your business because you think that you should do whatever you're asked by a customer, but I learned to say no and I really enjoyed it."
The business flourished but she was forced to pull down the shutters in 2010 as a result of her mother's ill health.
"I was told she only had a few months to live so something had to give as I was working 24/7 at the time and, of course, it was always going to be my business," says Betty.
"It wasn't a difficult decision and I didn't regret it at all.
"Then my four daughters all got married in 2014 and after that I started to wonder what I was going to do with myself.
"I felt like I was Betty the mum, Betty the nana, but that part of me who worked and ran a business didn't exist anymore, which is why I am enjoying myself so much now.
"Ultimately, I would love to sell my products in shops and I do have some ideas of how I am going to achieve that.
"However, what is most important to me is that I am loving every minute of what I am doing."