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Q&A: Dom Portman, Fancy Dress Worldwide

Described by one of his angel investors as a nimble entrepreneur who is adept at gauging and moving with the times, Dom Portman, founder and CEO of Fancy Dress Worldwide, explains how his small business pivoted quickly enough to leverage the increasing demand for toys during lockdown.

Last updated: 21 Sep 2020 5 min read

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When and why did you start your own business?

“I was in my final year at university in 2012 when I had to make the decision whether to go for a graduate job or start my own business. Throughout university I’d learned students wear fancy dress a lot! I realised I could provide students with a fancy-dress package for fresher’s week. I started Fancy Fresher and ran it for a few years with 14 universities involved and 10 student unions.

“It was good but it was only ever part-time in August and September. I noticed some retailers were struggling with the transition to online because they had legacy systems. I thought if we built some unique software, maybe we could work on a just-in-time warehouse stocking solution. On 1 March 2016, we rebranded to Fancy Dress Worldwide and I started working full-time on the business.”

Was investment in software your key decision?

“Tech-enablement is a massive thing within the business and what leads us. Being able to build a platform from the foundations up so that you have full control has been crucial.

“Given that everything had changed so quickly from the high street to online and marketplaces, I wanted to build something that was agile. I reached out to some website developers and it became clear we needed to build our own platform. In 2018, we did a round of investment to support the software development.”

How many employees do you have now?

“I was only on my own for a couple of months. The orders started to take off on 1 March and I brought in my first employee in the September. My family, particularly my mum, was very helpful around that time. She’s now one of the warehouse managers! We have temporary staff in our warehouses based on seasonal peaks. We have between 20 – 30 staff members on a usual month, and then in a peak month we might have upwards of 40.”

What was your proudest achievement before coronavirus?

“I remember when I was running the business originally – and was probably taking a couple of hundred pounds a day – I thought: ‘If we take £3,000 a day, this will be a £1m business.’ The moment we hit £3,000 a day on average was a nice moment.

“I thought: ‘If we take £3,000 a day, this will be a £1m business.’ The moment we hit £3,000 a day on average was a nice moment” Dom Portman, CEO, Fancy Dress Worldwide

“Equally, I think employing people is a really big thing. I like that we’ve managed to create jobs, and also give an opportunity within those jobs to perhaps build something a little bit different.”

And the biggest challenge?

“Probably mindset – as a start-up you don’t have the greatest in terms of resource. Sometimes you have to stage things in terms of development, to get something partially done so that it does its job and move on to the next thing. For your mindset, that’s a challenge; it’s something I’ve had to develop.

“In terms of a moment, when we implemented our barcode scanners we had some difficulty connecting them in the way we wanted, so that project went over by six months. I had to spend every day in the warehouse, relaying between the development team, working all hours – that was very challenging.”

How has coronavirus affected what you do?

“There was a decision to make. When the coronavirus hit, there was a moment when I thought: ‘I can either batten down the hatches for a bit and play it out, or really go for it in more product categories and hope that it works.’ I decided to go for it and onboard identified suppliers quite rapidly.

“The thinking was that people have their children at home; they’re going to want to keep them entertained, so let’s give them access to these products – or people are furloughed and want to take up a hobby, let’s do that. We now have toys and games products, arts and crafts products – and recently launched pet products, which in five days has added 20% in revenue. Given the diversification of products, we are now in the process of rebranding Fancy Dress Worldwide as Boulevard.

“Especially this year, there’s a great need to watch week by week what is happening culturally and the impact on people’s buying decisions. We managed to not furlough anyone, and not reduce pay throughout the whole lockdown.”

What have you learned?

“How important our people are. Having people who are willing to come in to work or work from home, to adapt themselves. It’s so important to continue to have a good open culture. In terms of myself, when I set the business up I wanted something that was truly agile and able to pivot and I think we have managed to do that. It has been quite challenging, but it’s been good.”

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