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The ideas that helped three women to follow their dream

A trio of local female entrepreneurs tell Stephanie Bell why they have decided to take the plunge and set up their own businesses in the midst of these dark days of recession.

Thousands of people are beating the unemployment queues in Northern Ireland by boldly branching out on their own in business. While headlines highlight record numbers of local firms going to the wall, established companies struggling with reduced turnover and profits, a large number of hardy entrepreneurs have been undaunted by the recession and bravely set up shop.

New figures from Companies House show 2,423 new firms were registered in the six months up to July of this year, compared to 1,954 for the same period in 2010.

Of 506,000 new UK company registrations since last year’s General Election, a total of 5,326 were in Northern Ireland.

The Government believes that cutting business taxes, supporting start-ups and tackling red tape has encouraged more people to risk going it alone.

Also starting this week, new firms will benefit from a three-year scheme which exempts them from up to £5,000 of employer National Insurance Contributions (NICs) thought to have benefited over 15,000 businesses in Northern Ireland.

Whatever the reason it takes guts, passion and drive to leave your job and set up a new business at any time, never mind in the middle of a recession.

So just what kind of person and what new businesses are being registered in Northern Ireland?

We talked to an inventor who gave up her job as a secretary to follow through a unique pet grooming idea which has the potential to go worldwide.

Another Belfast woman who faced unemployment after becoming a casualty of the recession was forced to rethink her future and the third is a new mum who drew on her experience and expertise as a fashion consultant to set up a unique online service.

All three women have gone back to basics, retraining where necessary to equip themselves with new skills to set up and run their own companies.

From stay-at-home mum to online style consultant

Lynn McInnes (33) a stylist, is |married to Cole and they have two children, Finn (2) and four-month-old Frankie. She lives in Ballyclare.

If you struggle with your sense of style then a fresh new business set up by talented mum-of-two Lynn McInnes means you need never wear anything unflattering again.

The 33-year-old professional stylist from Ballyclare has created an easy-to-use online resource called The Image Mistress aimed at helping women to find fashion that suits them.

Lynn has embraced every aspect of the individual including size, shape, budget, colours, lifestyle and personality in a handy questionnaire from which she will guide on what current fashions you should be wearing.

With two young boys, Finn aged two and four-month-old Frankie, her new business has allowed her to bring in an income while being at home with her two babies.

“I love fashion and styling and image consultancy and its amazing how you can change people’s lives by showing them what clothes best suit them and so the business also allows me to do something I enjoy.” she says.

The University of Ulster Fashion and Textiles graduate had been living in Australia with her husband Cole, a finance specialist, where she worked as a professional stylist.

She moved back to Northern Ireland two years ago when Cole was made redundant and settled in her home town of |Ballyclare.

Pregnant with her first child she started to think of ways she could be at home while also doing the styling job she loved.

“I did a bit of brainstorming with my husband and friends and the idea progressed from there,” she says. “I have spent about a year researching it and developing the online guide. I wanted to make the website as user friendly as possible to appeal to my market of women aged 30 plus.”

Her website impressed several leading High Street fashion chains and they have come on board to support it. A wide range of brands offering clothes to suit a variety of tastes and budgets include Banana Republic, Long Tall Sally, Urban Outfitters, Jigsaw, SimplyBe and many more.

“The brands that have come on board so far are testament to the different types of women who use our website and we have more joining us all the time,” says Lynn.

With experience working as a personal stylist, Lynn knows the huge difference it can make to a woman’s confidence.

“By perfecting your image you can not only look and feel great but you can also create so many positive and lasting impressions,” she adds.

“People like Lady Kate Middleton, Kate Moss and Sarah Jessica Parker all embrace their own unique sense of style and are admired for it. I’m not saying women have to dress like a princess or movie star, all I’m suggesting is that you experiment and perfect your clothes, make-up and hair according to what suits you.

“The Image Mistress simply helps women look and feel their most |stylish.”

A personalised online consultation with Image Mistress usually takes 10 minutes and there are three options; Free and Fabulous, which costs nothing, Image Magic at £10 or Super Stylish which costs £30.

To find out more log onto www.theimagemistress.com

From secretary to inventor of a dog grooming aid

Nuala Bowes (42) was formerly a secretary. Married to Gordon and with a 11-year-old daughter, Olivia, she lives in Antrim

Nuala Bowes has her two pet dogs to thank for a dramatic change in her career. The 42-year-old is currently enjoying life as an entrepreneur and inventor after spending years working in a deadend job as a secretary.

Nuala has designed and developed a potentially global ground- breaking pet product for which she has patents pending for the UK and America as well as Design Protection in Europe.

And she puts it all down to her pet King Charles Spaniels Daisy and Lola.

“Daisy was my first dog which I got about six years ago and I fell head over heels in love with her,” she says. “Then I got Lola and both dogs needed a lot of grooming. I was doing it myself at home and decided to train so that I could do it properly.”

Completing her professional dog grooming certificates awakened the entrepreneur in Nuala and it wasn’t long until she resigned from her secretary’s post and set up her own pet grooming parlour.

It was while running her business she discovered how difficult it was for pet owners to groom their dogs at home.

“I had a lot of dogs coming in with very matted coats which really needed to be regularly brushed at home but owners struggled because the dogs didn’t like it,” she says.

“That’s what gave me the idea for the dog apron. In a grooming parlour you have two harnesses, one which goes round the head and one round the body, to stop the dog running away.

“I got the idea for an apron which the dog owner could wear with harnesses attached to restrain the dog so that they could have two hands free to brush them while sitting in the comfort of their own homes.”

With encouragement from her husband Gordon, a design engineer, and 11-year-old daughter Olivia, Nuala decided to give up her pet grooming business last summer to pursue her invention.

She made what she describes as a crude prototype herself and simply approached local apron manufacturers Ulster Weavers and asked if they would produce it for her.

“I was lucky Ulster Weavers were on my doorstep and they were happy to make it and produced a lovely 100% cotton product,” she says.

With her apron in production she overcome the daunting and often complicated patent process by putting it in the hands of her local solicitor.

Antrim Enterprise Agency helped her draw up a business plan and then her website — |thedogsapron.com — was launched. Now Nuala is focused on marketing her product.

“I am taking a stand at the UK’s biggest pet trade fair in Birmingham this month and plan to initially concentrate on the market in the UK and Ireland which is a huge market,” she says.

“I will then aim to go to America with it and get it into some of the big pet stores chains there.”

From a simple idea just a year ago, Nuala is thrilled to have come so far.

“I feel so confident about the product and that’s what has driven me,” she says.

“There are days when you get knock backs and you ask yourself is it really worth it, but I have such great support from my family and that has kept me going.

“I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. I’ve gone from a secretary and mother to opening my own business and inventing my own product.

“It’s the sort of thing that you think is not going to happen to you, but I believe if you have something that you really feel passionate about then you can make it happen.”

From redundant sales rep to driving instructor

Alison Allen (36) lives in east Belfast with husband Andrew (44)

Taking the name for her new business from the feel good movie Driving Miss Daisy is indication in itself of how fresh an approach Alison Allen hopes to bring to her new driving school.

The 36-year-old is bubbling with ideas and enthusiasm for the business which she has just launched — a little over a year after being made redundant from her job as a sales rep.

Alison, a Sports Science and Recreational Management graduate from Loughborough University in Leicestershire, enjoyed a successful career in sales in the hospitality industry until she became a casualty of the recession in 2010.

Finding herself unemployed just a month before her wedding to Andrew, an internet marketer, was a shock but Alison decided to turn it into an opportunity to do something she really wanted with her life.

“I’m a great believer that everything happens for a reason and I had known for a while that I didn’t want to do sales for the rest of my life although I |didn’t know then what I did want to do,” she says.

It was while chatting to girl friends about their teenage daughters learning to drive that Alison identified what she sees as a gap in the market for female driving instructors.

Doing her own research she found that it was still very much a male-dominated profession with only a handful of women insturctors and the idea of setting up her own driving school in Belfast and North Down was born.

“I thought about it and decided that it combined everything I enjoyed — meeting people, getting out and about and teaching which was something else I considered retraining for,” she says.

Alison, who lives in east Belfast, applied to do her Advanced Driving Test which allowed her to work with other driving schools.

To launch her own company she needed her Approved Driving Instructor certificate, a test she described as “the hardest thing I have ever done in my life”.

Driving Miss Daisy is, she hopes, going to be much more than a company name. Alison has ambitious plans to develop it as a brand which she hopes to eventually franchise.

“I would love to see loads of

little Miss Daisy cars on the road,” she says. “I would like to build the brand to the point that when people think of learning to drive they think of Driving Miss Daisy and know that they will be guaranteed a premium service.

“I want people to know they will get a personal service and have fun.

“Some people are petrified getting behind the wheel of a car and I want to ensure clients have a relaxed environment. Every single person is individual and I want to get to know my clients and their fears.”

She believes being female will be an advantage, especially for teenage girls learning to drive.

“It’s a bonus if my gender makes the process easier and as well as students I have found that I am getting a lot of people from the gay community who are more relaxed with a woman,” she says.

She is reluctant to be drawn on the age old women versus men drivers’ debate and opts for a neutral position: “If a pupil is taught safely and thoroughly, regardless of their gender, they should be equally good drivers. It’s the person, not the gender, who passes.”

You can contact Driving Miss Daisy on 07834 603 555 or go to www.missdaisy.me.

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