Carol Smillie talks about starting a business from scratch, turning a social taboo into a bestseller and giving up her career in front of the camera
Carol Smillie burst on to Scottish television screens over 20 years ago as the presenter of Wheel of Fortune.
The show was her big break and led to her fronting several programmes including the highly popular DIY show Changing Rooms, which saw her become the queen of daytime TV. Nowadays, her days are spent in meetings, drawing up business plans or speaking at conferences. Stepping away from television, Carol, 53, has become one of Scotland’s most successful female entrepreneurs.
“Television is quite brutal, it always has been. It’s no surprise that there’s not a huge number of women over 50 years old on screen. I had a great run and I really loved what I did but it can’t go on forever.”
Carol and her “Smillie smile” took a step away from television and turned her attention to business. Sitting in the lobby of Entrepreneurial Spark’s Glasgow office – still smiling – it would be easy to assume she has been doing this forever. It has by no means been plain sailing since she and friend ex-international tennis player Annabel Croft, decided to create their own business. Believing their public profiles would generate publicity, the pair faced a reality check when they realised this was not the case. Not only were they stepping into a world they knew nothing about, they were trying to turn something that still remains a social taboo into a high street best-seller. As Carol bluntly puts it, “there’s nothing sexy about periods and incontinence and no one wants to talk about it”.
Carol and Annabel’s product, DiaryDoll, is underwear designed with a waterproof panel. After chatting with their teenage daughters (they have four between them) and reflecting on personal experience, Carol and Annabel could not believe nothing had been designed to remedy such an everyday problem.
“We buy knickers that make us thin for a night at 30 quid a pop, we put gel in our bras, and now they’ve got pants with gel in them to give us a bigger booty. In so many ways we’ve moved on and we’ve adapted to what women are looking for, but not what every women has to deal with, whether she likes it or not. There are three things that will happen in life – you’re born, you die and women will have periods.”
Initially, Carol sketched out her design and sent it off to China, along with some money. The stitching was a bit iffy and the waistbands were a bit thin but you get what you pay for, as they soon learned. “What we have now is a world away from those early days but I think it was the right thing to do at the time.”
The mother-of-three had no previous manufacturing experience but decided to give it a go anyway after becoming passionate about the venture.
“When I think back now I probably wouldn’t have been so gung ho but I’m also a great believer that if you have a good idea you can pontificate for weeks, months and years about how it should be just right before you launch but sometimes you’ve just got to roll your sleeves up and launch and learn on the job”, she says.
DiaryDolls quickly established themselves in the gap in the market and capitalised on it. Their product is about to launch in 123 Boots stores in January and since its creation in 2012, the pants have sold to customers in 14 countries and sold out in John Lewis four times. An appearance on shopping channel QVC saw them sell 350 pairs in just eight minutes.
Yet even today, Carol is still learning on the job. “I think the female network is incredibly strong with women willing to help each other,” she says.
“Women don’t judge you if you don’t know everything. This is very new to my husband who has just joined me in the business. He gets panicky thinking that you can’t go into a meeting if you don’t know all the answers and I have to tell him yeah, you can, because you’re dealing with women.”
Yesterday saw Women’s Entrepreneurship Day take place around the world. The day honours women who own businesses, but also aims to empower and support those who are involved. For DiaryDoll, the help offered by organisations like Entrepreneurial Spark and Scottish Enterprise has been invaluable.
What would Carol’s advice be for any budding entrepreneurs? “Do your market research first. Go somewhere where you don’t know a single soul and say, “would you buy this?” and if they say no, listen up big time because they might be saving you a fortune.”