Any other business

The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE): A startup hub for young entrepreneurs

15 min read

22 February 2015

Former deputy editor

As series 14 of reality drama The Only Way Is Essex hits TV screens across the nation, Real Business spoke to some of the most successful stars of the show about how they've successfully used their TOWIE fame to develop their own enterprises.

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The Only Way Is Essex – or TOWIE to the initiated – debuted in 2010 and yet series 14 of the show has already begun, demonstrating the seemingly never-ending appetite for the reality TV show that follows the lives of 20-somethings living in the tan-loving British county.

And when the group isn’t busy filming arguments with each other or having relationship drama, many of the stars can be found running their own businesses, something that’s become achievable as a direct result of starring on the show.

Take former cast member Mark Wright, who opened the ill-fated Deuces bar with money from his own pocket. With experience from the nightclub promoting scene, he was one of the first stars to open a business, but the venue suffered problems from the start when it opened in 2010, including an arson attack.

Thankfully for other TOWIE stars, they’ve seen their ventures achieve success, and Lydia Bright’s Loughton-based Bella Sorella fashion boutique has continued to thrive, even though she briefly left the show for a couple of seasons.

She joined TOWIE when she was just 18, having studied A-Levels in English language, maths, economics, business and IT. “I was going to study English language and then fashion journalism at university but TOWIE approached me. If I wasn’t in the show, I definitely would have worked in fashion, whether that was in journalism, designing or something like that. The women in my family have always worked in that industry and owned fashion shops in East London, so I’ve grown up around it,” she told Real Business.

The fashionista continued: “I’d saved up a lot of money and as the show provided massive exposure, I started to think about a long-term career plan, which was to open up a business in fashion, which I love. Initially I funded the shop myself, which is now self-sustaining to pay for new projects for us to reinvest profits”

She partnered with her sister, who was working for the NHS at the time, and the pair set out to visit retail sites. After finding the right one – now three and a half years ago – it was a case of getting builders in, then starting work on buying and forecasting stock for the store and online. 

“We did a massive four-month tour last year to visit shopping centres across the UK to promote the shop. I was there for most dates and met lots of TOWIE fans for pictures and signings – we got a really good response,” Lydia explained.

Interestingly, there’s a variety of customers that Bella Sorella attracts based on days of the week and whether the purchase is online or in-store. Bright revealed: “There’s a wide range of clothes on offer – online we have over 500 products at the moment. Weekdays we get a lots of mums and women between mid 20s to mid 30s, but the weekend generates lots of tourism and young girls visiting because of TOWIE, so then it’s around 15-22 year olds. We sell worldwide including Australia, America, and Dubai, which is because there’s a big expat community over there.”

With her sister on board as a co-founder, their duties are shared as Lydia visits the store around three times a week as filming and photoshoots permit, dealing with finance and business changes, while sharing buying duties. Meanwhile, her sister manages the day-to-day running of the shop, including talking to suppliers, sales and training staff.

Speaking of plans for future growth, Bright said she sees online as the future: “We want to keep on growing the website and run more advertisements in the future. We don’t plan on more than two stores but Brentwood is a possibility – the economy is moving from high streets to online because it’s so accessible. With Twitter, it’s easy for people following me to move online and purchase, so we’re also looking at mobile app development.”

In terms of social media, she explained that special limited offer codes can be really effective, with a member of the team sharing content across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and a newsletter to keep customers engaging.

In addition to that, Bright has also created a fashion blog which comes as a personal outlet for latest designs and the opportunity to generate commission through brand promotion platform rewardStyle if users click through. It also serves as a useful avenue through which the latest Bella Sorella stock can be promoted too.

On the next page we also look at the outcome of some of the other TOWIE businesses that have launched, and spoke to fellow business owners Samantha Faiers, Jessica Wright and Chloe Sims about the show’s influence on openings and also the choice to shut up shop.

While Sam Faiers is no longer a member on the show, she was one of the first to realise her rising popularity early on, teaming up with her sister and co-star Billie Faiers to launch Minnie’s fashion boutique in Brentwood.

“We met with my mum and aunt Libby after series one of TOWIE had finished and talked through how we could capitalise on the success of the programme. Everyone was asking me constantly where my clothing was from, so it seemed like the obvious step to look at setting up a clothing business,” the star told Real Business.

“We worked out financially what we could afford and then sat down and worked out a plan. We found a premises, arranged for our dad to do the shop fitting and then set a date to open, as well as sourcing clothing to sell in the boutique. We all jointly put in a small amount of money to begin with and it went from there.  The moral of the story is you can have something good with not a huge amount of cash.”

The plan wasn’t entirely straightforward though, as ITV executives waded into the launch schedule.

“We had planned to open mid series two of TOWIE, however, the producers threw a spanner in the works and told us they wanted the store open in episode one – there was a lot of stress but we managed to do it!” Faiers revealed.

The sister act is in charge of the social media for the brand and usually work in the store on Saturdays, depending on how tight the schedules are, though there are around 20 people supporting the operation overall, from sales staff to online employees working in the office.

Interestingly, the Essex store company expanded up north to Yorkshire last year, proving the impact of the show beyond its native borders – and that’s not the only plan for growth either. “We have plans to open more boutiques over the next five years – locations we haven’t decided yet, but there will definitely be more expansion.”

While we’ve seen Bright’s appetite for a balanced diet between fixed stores and online, and Friar planning to open more shops, Jessica Wright, the founder of With Love Jessica, has already closed her high street location to focus on digital.

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With a degree in business and marketing management, Wright also has past experience of working in marketing for different companies, so she had shrewd knowledge of how to to start a business as well as when to cut losses.

Talking to Real Business, Wright said: “I opened the business with my mum and dad, so it is kind of a family business. My dad and I invested into it and I took over all the creative side, as well as stock and logistics.”

Looking after logistics meant she made the decision to close the Loughton fashion store after two and a half years. “It was purely because I didn’t have the time to spend in the shop with my other ventures going, and we would also be saving on overheads just selling online, so I decided to let go of the shop,” she reasoned. 

With so much variation daily, from photo shoots with new stock, buying, meetings and so on, Jess told us that another store is unlikely. “Honestly, it is probably not a priority – increasing my products and business is more important to me than having another shop. I have experienced having one and it was fun, but it’s not a passion of mine. Running and building the business is what I prefer.”

With five members of staff involved in the business, Wright explained it’s a smooth operation that looks to continue that way as the product range expands with more brand partners, while a website relaunch is on the way.

Next, Chloe Sims offers a different business perspective with insights to her beauty salon and how she spotted a gap in the market.

Seemingly the entrepreneurial spirit is in the blood of cast members, especially ones with siblings on the show. Both Chloe and Charlie Sims have launched independent businesses, with Charlie opting to open a deli while his big sister went for cosmetics with Chloe’s Beauty Bar.

Speaking to Real Business, Sims opened up on her inspiration: “I visited a few blow dry bars in LA and was really impressed with the whole concept – the salons were really cool and sophisticated and you could have all your treatments done in one place. On my return I quickly realised there wasn’t anything similar in the UK to offer this complete one-stop service, so I decided to bring the concept to Essex.

“It so happened there was another Chloe in Essex who had similar ideas and since our families work together, we were introduced and it went from there.”

As a trained makeup artist, Sims often studies the latest hair and beauty trends and treatments to keep the salon up to date, while the other non-TOWIE Chloe has a business and finance background, making for a seamless partnership.

She added: “Chloe’s Beauty Bar is privately funded and after an incredibly successful first year, we are looking to continue to build on our local trade. We have hired the best of the trade in each area and are steadily growing the team and services we offer, we are about to launch a brand new VIP bar and we are also introducing hair colour and Brazilian blow dries. We are now at a point where we offer a service with the highest level of expertise.”

Of course, these aren’t the only business ventures to have come out of the programme: Gemma Collins, Lucy Meck and Danielle Armstrong all own boutiques, while Joey Essex launched his Fusey men’s fashion store, and we’ve seen the opening and sale of Ricky Rayment’s Bar Blanco to name just a few of the other Essex entrepreneurs.

So, there you have it – if you ever find you’re struggling to get business support or funding, it seems as though the solution could be to apply for The Only Way Is Essex. 

Like the opening song says – the only way is up, baby…