Talking to James & Florence Kennedy, Petalon & Kennedy City Bicycles
A Life Well Lived
As part of our journey to re-define Wealth we are exploring what “A Life Well Lived” means: interviewing artists, entrepreneurs, explorers, and change-makers as they share their stories and ask “what is my life well lived?” Here, James and Florence Kennedy talk to us about their businesses, what it’s like working so closely with one another and what living well means to them.
James and Florence Kennedy are the husband and wife team behind two very different businesses. Based out of Hackney, East London, together they run Petalon, a flower delivery company, and Kennedy City Bicycles, an urban bicycle manufacturer.
Having both been ‘conventionally employed’ as James puts it, the two of them launched their businesses within just one month of one another. Initially both businesses were run out of the same workspace – a space that also happened to be their home. James continues to make all of his bikes by hand, and whilst Petalon still delivers bouquets by bike in London (James’ bikes, of course), the business has recently launched a nationwide delivery service, as well as catering for events and weddings.
“I was the first of us to start my business” jokes James. “It was partly down to the fact I thought it would suit my personality, but if I’m honest, it was because I was also really bad at working for other people. I always struggled in a corporate environment and I recognised that quite early on. I had been looking for a way to work for myself for quite a long time.”
“Building bikes was something I’d been doing in my spare time as a hobby – a way to relax in the evenings – but through a series of happy coincidences I found out how much some of the parts I was using cost at a wholesale level, and I started to believe I could do things a little differently to how the rest of the industry was at the time.”
Florence tells us that whilst she was very involved with initial stages of Kennedy City Bicycles, watching James follow his passion was “really infectious” and was what gave her the initial push to start thinking about what kind of business she could run for herself.
“One day James sent a bunch of flowers to my boss at the time to thank her for helping him arrange a birthday surprise for me. The flowers that arrived were really just not that nice and I felt so bad for him that they didn’t convey how thankful he really was, so I decided to go to the flower market and see how much you could actually make a nice bouquet for. The same day, James had a shipment of bicycle frames and it was just so obvious to me that we would deliver them by bike, and the idea really grew from there.”
“My setup costs were minimal compared to James’ – he had to re-mortgage his flat whereas I saved up enough to live on for about three months to test it out. All I really needed was to build a trailer as I already had a bike. I bought a laptop and then it was the flowers themselves, packaging, website, stuff like that. Looking back, I should have definitely saved more to live off, but hindsight is a beautiful thing.”
“The fact that Petalon had relatively low start-up costs lulls you into a false sense of security” agrees James “to say that something doesn’t need much money isn’t to say it needs none. When you step out on your own, a lot of the time the main concern is your financial security and we probably didn’t give ourselves enough of that. So one of the pieces of advice I would give to other people is to allow yourself enough time to see if something really works or not. I don’t mean five years, but as much as you can to alleviate the pressure of money in the short term so you can give it a good go. So you can make good decisions, and not get forced into quick decisions.”
When it comes to advice on setting up a business, they both agree that giving up a monthly salary is one of the biggest barriers, but Florence explains that for her, the fear of failure was also a really big hurdle.
“I probably wouldn’t have done it if James hadn’t of pushed me. I remember him saying; ‘what’s the worst that can happen? You’re not that happy in your day job, so you can always just get another one, and if it fails, so what?’”
On Working Together
When it comes to the day-to-day running of their businesses, James explains that far from agreeing all the time, they both think and work, very differently. “It’s cliché to say but that’s because there’s plenty of truth in it; our strengths and weaknesses are complementary. I feel like our different working styles, as well as those of the people that we work with, makes the businesses what they are. We help each other out so much, to a point that calling it Florence’s business or my business, doesn’t make sense. They’re our businesses really.”
Until very recently. when Florence moved to a bigger unit, the couple had shared workspaces on and off for a number of years, one of which was also their home at the time. They talk of dodging bike frames hanging from the ceiling and buckets of flowers on the floor, but as James explains, the businesses are a part of their lives.
“Work isn’t just something that runs alongside our personal life; the two are totally combined. We don’t carve up the working week like you might do with a normal job in terms of weekends and spare time, and a lot of things we do day-to-day don’t in any way feel like a chore. Doing your accounts feels like a chore for everyone, but the day to day stuff, doesn’t really feel like work.”
The pair have recently had a baby, Clover, and as Florence explains she is a huge part of their working days now. “It took us a while to work it all out, but we are really lucky that we could just bring a bouncer in and Clover could sit in the corner of the workshop. If one of us needs some quiet, the other could just take her out around the block, whilst the other gets on with emails.”
“Being able to strike that balance between family and maintaining our lifestyle – which for most of us means having to go to work – is really important.” Agrees James “Making sure we do a good job of running our businesses, alongside doing a good job of looking after Clover.”
As with any startup business, things aren’t always plain sailing. “We’ve made loads of mistakes.” says James “and still do, all of the time”. When Florence first launched Petalon, she says that she got so obsessed with wanting to make the most beautiful bunches possible, she almost drove the business into the ground by simply spending too much on flowers. However, just making money wasn’t the motivation for either of them; it was about the freedom and independence running their own businesses afforded them.
As James explains; “Success for me looks like doing what you want to do for as much of your time as physically possible. There are things about what we would call a ‘conventionally’ successful business that allow for that; if it runs well and makes good money, it can free up more of your time eventually, but the most important thing for both of us has always been our quality of life. So if that means we earn less money, but we get to do something we enjoy all day, then that sounds great.”
“Obviously you need money to do things in life” agrees Florence “but the idea of having excess, doesn’t really appeal to me. Even the way that set out the margins in our businesses was not get as much money as possible, it was to be able to pay our rent and to pay other people. The only time we need to increase our prices is if our rent goes up. So it’s much more about the quality of life for us.”
“One of the things working for ourselves gives us, is flexibility. For example with Clover, we can choose which days we’re with her and which days we’re not, and that element of flexibility is something most people simply don’t get. When I talk to my friends who are more conventionally employed, I think that’s the thing I get the greatest sense of envy about, the fact that if we don’t like something we can just change it, or if we wanted to just pack up and go to the seaside tomorrow, we could probably work out a way of making that happen.”
James explains that for the both of them, the fact their businesses are still relatively small scale helps to add to the sense of pride and fulfilment they get from their businesses.
“Because we send an email to people letting them know their flowers have been delivered, we’ll often get an email back saying ‘thank you so much!’ or ‘they’re so pretty, Jane loved them!’ and it’s that kind of feedback that I don’t think some of big powerhouse get” Florence explains “gives us a massive sense of fulfilment.”
And when it comes to retirement, James explains that it isn’t really something the two of them have ever discussed, and in his words;
“We’re both lucky enough to have jobs we love, so why would we want to give that up?”