Following the launch of her eco-packaging and gift box business, Tiny Box Company, in 2007, Rachel Watkyn has encountered more than her fair share of major obstacles, from a warehouse fire to a maliciously hacked website to serious illness.
One of the most successful female entrepreneurs ever to appear on Dragons’ Den — and 2020’s winner of the NatWest Everywoman of the Year Award — she embodies the quality of resilience so many small businesses needed in spades this year.
It was in 2008 that she made her pitch to the Dragons. Back then, the concept of eco-anything was a much harder sell than it is now and, remarkably, with the power of hindsight, only two of the four Dragons saw a future for recycled cardboard boxes.
‘Duncan Bannatyne accused me of being on a green “crusade” and it was generally felt that what I was doing would never be mainstream,’ she says.
Rachel Watkyn (pictured) who is one of the most successful female entrepreneurs ever to appear on Dragons’ Den, founded eco-packaging and gift box business Tiny Box Company, in 2007
‘But Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis took a leap of faith and gave me £60,000. They still have a share in the business. Today we employ 80 people and are on track to achieve £10 million in sales this year.’
And yet, at first it seemed like Tiny Box Company was well and truly jinxed. In 2009, disaster struck with a fire at her warehouse in East Sussex and a loss of £10,000 worth of stock — ‘a drop in the ocean nowadays but then a big, big hole’.
Less than 12 months later, Rachel arrived at work one day to find ‘chairs floating about the office and more stock ruined’ by freak flooding in the wake of a sudden thunderstorm. Once again, she rolled up her sleeves and started all over again.
She is used to self-reliance, in large part, she thinks, because it was forced upon her throughout a wretched childhood.
She spent her first few years in care in Suffolk but, at the age of three, was returned to a violent father and neglectful mother who, from then on, successfully fooled and evaded social services.
‘It might have seemed like we were a typical middle-class family but it was all a lie. My two elder sisters and I were sent to private schools but, at home, we never had clean clothes or food on the table.
At primary school, my nickname was “Fleabag” and I used to dread changing for PE in case anyone saw the bruises.
‘It took me a long time to realise my childhood wasn’t normal. I do think it made me hugely independent. A lot of the time we were left completely to our own devices, running around this huge, freezing cold house in the countryside.
Rachel (pictured) revealed her inspiration came from using recycled cardboard for the boxes needed for her early e-commerce business
Rachel adds: ‘That kind of childhood gives you a different perspective, in life and in business. It makes you unafraid of not conforming. Whenever someone said to me “you can’t do this”, I’ve always replied “who’s going to stop me?”.’
It’s a bold, risk-taking attitude she thinks is vital for successful entrepreneurship — alongside having a fully-formed vision of the business right from the start.
‘One of my biggest tips for women who want to be entrepreneurs is to know what you want your business to look like in the long term. Are you doing it for a lifestyle that fits in with your family or do you want to be the next Jeff Bezos? Have an end goal in mind before you set out.’
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Rachel’s determination to forge her own path was obvious early on. Joining a software firm straight out of college in the 1990s, at a time when few women were choosing a career in IT, she quickly rose from the help desk to a highly paid role in technical sales
The job took her to Sierra Leone at the height of civil war in 1997, where she spent weeks implementing a high-tech payroll system for the national government.
‘I don’t think I appreciated how dangerous that was at the time. Millions of dollars were being pumped into Sierra Leone by international organisations but were being siphoned off by private individuals and disappearing. It was my job to go in and stop this fraud with technology.’
Her systems worked — until a bomb blew up the treasury building two months later.
Back in the UK, Rachel wanted to help alleviate the poverty she’d seen in Sierra Leone, and began a fairtrade business selling jewellery made by women there. A very early e-commerce business — Amazon was only just moving beyond books — it required sturdy packaging for posted orders.
She says: ‘But all I could find were boxes made of Chinese plastic. It was an ethical business; I couldn’t do that.’
Her ideal solution was to use recycled cardboard, but no one was making boxes out of it. So in typically can-do fashion, she decided to make them herself.
When that part of the business rapidly overtook the jewellery, she knew she was on to something. That it might be something big was confirmed when a competitor hacked her website in 2010 and effectively took it off the internet.
Rachel (pictured) had health scares including early breast cancer in 2016 and a recent surgery to remove a tumour from her lung
‘We never found out who did it, but it must have been someone who cared enough about our success to invest time in it and want to stop it,’ she adds. ‘We lost a lot of customers because, in effect, we fell off Google. But it was a very good lesson in security.’
Meanwhile, Rachel was being stepmum to three children, now aged 35, 33 and 29, and then a hands-on (and young) grandmother, too. ‘My best friend is my granddaughter Amelia, who’s eight. I’m all for being a grandma at this age, while you’ve still got the energy and can indulge them.’
She forgave and reconciled with her own parents towards the end of their lives. ‘I’m very glad I had the time to rebuild relationships, and actually became very close to my father in the end.’
Rachel has juggled her fair share of health scares, too, and is remarkably open about them all, with successful treatment for early breast cancer in 2016 and, more recently, surgery to remove a tumour from her lung, also caught in the nick of time.
‘I had a very bumpy start and I’ve had rough patches, but I’ve always had people who look after me and make it bearable.’
Rachel (pictured) said business rapidly picked up, while supplying lots of medical and food companies
After all that, Covid seemed easy, she says. ‘At first, business dropped off a cliff as people got their heads around it. But it picked up rapidly after about six weeks — we’re all about sending and delivering goods bought online, after all — and we supplied lots of medical and food companies.
‘At one point we sent 30,000 boxes to a Covid testing company. So things got very busy. It sounds ridiculous to say it, but it’s been a really good year.’
And then came that NatWest Everywoman Award — last year’s top garland from the networking organisation that celebrates female businesswomen.
‘What it does is give terrific credibility,’ she says. ‘I’m on a drive to help other small businesses, with free advice and help for entrepreneurs who might be struggling, or who might just want a chat.’
As far as inspiring, against-the-odds mentors go, you’d be hard pressed to find a better one.