Broadcaster turns businesswoman
Interview: Carol Smillie
Changing roles to solve life’s little problems
She has been an actress and an author, and she spun the Wheel of Fortune, though her most famous role was introducing us to car-crash television in the smash-hit reality programme Changing Rooms.
Now turning her attention to being an entrepreneur, Carol Smillie admits that she is learning her new craft the hard way.
She was looking for something to do after the television work dried up and she did not fancy being told what to do by a 23-year-old producer.
She had done Strictly Come Dancing, but turned down several offers from the company behind I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.
“At least Strictly teaches you something, and there are beautiful costumes. It was lovely. But I had no desire to spend time with bugs in a jungle,” she says, screwing up her face.
Together with good friend and former British number one tennis player Annabel Croft she came up with DiaryDoll, described as the answer to ladies’ little problems.
The business route seemed like something she could do, and DiaryDoll emerged from a chat on the beach with Annabel who admitted to the personal ‘period’ difficulties she experienced on the tennis circuit.
Carol admits that starting up was tough and bewildering.
“I was naive and wide-eyed and just thought: ‘How difficult can it be?’ Well, it was bloody difficult!
“I am pretty gung-ho and I just knew I would learn a lot along the way.”
They approached buyers, the media and friends in television, but she soon found obstacles in the way.
“We thought our public profile would open doors, and it did to some extent,” she says “but we didn’t get the profile because most of the media is run by men and they don’t like talking about things below the waist.”
She also found women uncomfortable with the language around female issues. “To be fair, even the words – bladder, incontinence, bleeding…they all sound fairly awful,” she says.
Nevertheless, the market is huge and she reels off figures, including the staggering fact that the biggest paper products sold in the US are adult nappies.
“One in three women will wet themselves when they jump or sneeze. There are conditions such as endometriosis [a fusion of internal organs] which causes horrific periods.”
Undeterred by public perception of waterproof pants and the lack of interest in publicising them they launched the business in 2012 and joined Entrepreneurial Spark, the incubator scheme in 2014.
The company now turns over about £200,000 but Carol admits it has been a tough three years. The products delivered from the first Chinese manufacturer received complaints about poor quality stitching and fraying waist bands.
Manufacturing was switched to Manchester to a factory used by Mary Portas for her Kinky Knickers. But before the first order was complete it went bust.
They were made briefly in Stirling by a company whose main products were life jackets and boiler suits, but it could not cope when the orders grew. The products are now once again being made in China.
Carol is still making public appearances, though she says no day-time television programme wants to promote anything other than a book, a film or an album.
Speaking to students attending a conference organised by the Scottish Institute for Enterprise in Edinburgh, she also shows she can still entertain an audience.
Her talk involves some uncomfortable truths and she jokingly apologises to the girls when telling a story about “little leaks” when older women go to the gym. “Sorry, girls, these are things you may have to get used to,” she says.
Her journey through the business world has been helped by a few lucky breaks including an introduction to John Lewis boss Andy Street at a black tie dinner which got her a meeting with one of the chain’s buyers who hitherto had not responded to her calls.
She also got advice on how to “turn something taboo into a high street phenomenon” from Ann Summers boss Jacqueline Gold who invited her to meet her marketing development team.
“What has been important is how the product looks and is marketed. There are products out there but women want them to look feminine and pretty – as well as doing something about those little leaks.”
Education: Hutcheson’s Grammer School, Glasgow School of Art
Career: Changing Rooms, Postcode Challenge, A Brush with Fame, Hearts of Gold
What makes you frustrated?
Injustice. And bad manner and rudeness. There is too much of it on television.
Ambition for the business?
Maybe someone will buy it or license the product
Out of work?
I still paint, though just for myself