When you receive a hugely romantic present, you would be forgiven for not foreseeing it would become a successful business. But A Year of Dates did just that.
John and Kate Greenhalgh never dreamt that they would become entrepreneurs, yet today A Year of Dates is thriving, both in the UK and the US.
Kate and John both grew up in the North West, Kate in Manchester, and John in Bolton. However, Kate moved to the South West to study Creative Advertising at Falmouth University and stayed on to work down there while John studied Multimedia and Internet technology at the University of Salford.
Kate worked as a graphic designer, but after a few years, moved back to her roots in Manchester. John worked in tech support, joining Capita, working in various divisions over several years, and becoming IT Director of Capita Document and Information Services.
The Romantic idea
The couple met online and set up a home together. In 2014, John made Kate a date jar for Christmas, filling fifty-two envelopes with different date ideas. Every Monday, Kate would take a lucky dip, and they would make an effort to find the time to have that particular date that week. Many were personal to them at that time, and Kate laughs and says she was less keen on the ones that said “Kate makes a candlelit dinner” or “Kate makes breakfast in bed.”
Nevertheless, the jar of a Year of Dates focused them on spending time and having fun together. Their daughter was born almost exactly nine months afterward, which meant some of the date ideas took on unexpected turns. Reading a book together turned into reading up on maternity pay for example. However, doing a jigsaw, which Kate initially felt uninspired by, proved a brilliant thing to do during a long and difficult pregnancy. Another of the cards was to buy each other an “under £10 gift”; John bought Kate the domain name https://www.ayearofdates.co.uk/ so that she could blog about the whole experience.
When she was on maternity leave in 2016, Kate was looking for an alternative to going back to work full time, with an hour’s commute and a less-than-supportive employer. John was working, traveling a great deal meaning long days away.
Kate would talk about John’s gift, and when she found how much people loved the idea, she realized it was a possible business, something she could sell via craft fairs. So, Kate took a part-time job and created their first product by September that year.
The Launch of A Year of Dates
They pitched A Year of Dates at a Not on the High Street event in Manchester the same month and were taken on as a partner. First orders came in by October, and by December, they were re-stocking. Kate quickly realized how effective online marketing is, compared to the craft fairs, where she could only sell to one person at a time and yet had to pay £60 for a stall for a day.
Not on the High Street asked how many orders A Year of Dates could cope with for Valentine’s Day. Kate said six or seven, which she was already struggling with, working part-time and with a young daughter. But the orders flooded in – seventy in one day alone. One night, sitting up late with her daughter, who was ill, Kate emailed Not on the High Street in tears, saying she couldn’t cope. It was a “sliding doors” moment. Not on the High Street were hugely supportive and told customers they would need to wait.
Kate says that she knew nothing about customer service or finances at that point. They had started with £1,000 of their savings and paid that back out of Valentine’s Day profits. They have remained self-financing throughout their growth. The business had turned the corner and Kate left her job 12 months later, and the following year John, too, had joined the business full time.
A Year of Dates Boxes
A Year of Dates now also offers boxes for birthdays, self-care, new parents and families, and ones for Christmas or Valentine’s Day. All are about spending quality time either to oneself if needed or creating memories with others.
Their best seller remains their date box, offering a choice of fifty-two different colored envelopes containing fifty-two different dates. They have a surprise one, where everything is a lucky dip, and the Categorized “A Year of Dates” Edition, where people know from the envelope color if they choose to stay in or go out for an evening or a day trip. The boxes can be personalized too.
As Kate found with the “reading a book card” morphing into reading up on maternity pay, many users report uncanny matches to what comes out of the jars; for example, making a playlist coinciding with a couple meaning to do precisely that for a wedding or a road trip.
They have won several awards for the date boxes, and the business, including Gift of the Year and Ecommerce Business of the Year for the North West at the Chamber of Commerce Awards in 2019. Quick delivery times, the ability to personalize the boxes and free shipping add to the appeal.
The Entrepreneurial Journey to date
At the start, Not on the High Street accounted for 95% of their sales. Grateful though John and Kate were, they could see the risks involved and set out to change the dynamic.
Winning Theo Paphitis Small Business Sunday, and a further competition to win a free stand at Autumn fair, created favorable publicity, including photographs of them with him, which was a colossal boost. They have also found Facebook ads effective. Social media generally is perfect for marketing. People take pictures of themselves on a particular date, with the card itself, and when they share it, friends comment and reshare.
They now have the market dilution they wanted. Only 23% is now through Not on the High Street. Their own website continues to grow, and 54% now through Etsy and much of that to the US markets.
The US markets have brought new challenges. Logistics is obviously one, but language has been another. Substituting “Buy a gift for £10.00” with dollars was easy. Going to a boot sale confused the US customers as they don’t have boot sales, so this had to be changed to garage sales. Going to a spa means using a hot tub in the States, and afternoon teas don’t exist. The hardest to take was someone giving them a poor review for spelling words differently when they were correct for the country the box was sold in.
Their accountant opened their eyes to possible acquisitions. John had been keen on offering affiliate marketing products such as mugs and water bottles. So when another Not on the High Street supplier called Bride to Became available, it was the perfect addition as they already offered these things. With weddings fully back in 2022, this summer looks good for Bride to Become sales, and they are also incorporating some products into A Year of Dates.
John and Kate also bought another business called Seventeen Minutes, which is the amount of time – on average – that mums get to themselves a day. People can buy one of the Seventeen Minute boxes and choose from a range of different goodies to put in it, from facemasks, chocolates, tea bags, and bath bombs. Again, they are now adding some of the Seventeen Minutes products into the A Year of Dates ranges.
They belong to a Facebook group of other Not on the High Street suppliers, and every so often, one will express an interest in selling. John and Kate continue to explore other possibilities when they arise, but they have to be relevant to the A Year of Dates brand for future acquisition to make sense.
Much of the work is still done by John and Kate themselves, though they have a team of seven. They have a printer that does the personalization, which means they can quickly mock up new products. Kate then photographs them in a small studio she has set up, allowing them to try new products without investing much money to see if the demand warrants them being fully included.
Their accountant also acts as an advisor. They had never done forecasting, and he set up a system that made it easy, which has helped them enormously. The business had got to a size where it needed an independent ear to bounce ideas off, and he knew it well already.
Kate and John have plans to grow A Year of Dates but have no plans to sell it. They see the business as their pension and an option for their daughter in the future if she wants it. However, they do want to step back as the business grows and be able to concentrate on developing new markets and strategies.
There is scope to expand the US side of A Year of Dates. Organizing personalization in the US will help speed up delivery times. They also hope to expand the retail side in the UK.
A move to offices three times as big this year has made a massive difference as they can order more boxes, something that had held sales back. Also, where they were was on the second floor, with a lift too small for pallets, making life extremely challenging.
John has another IT-based pet project. He has developed a bespoke dashboard specifically for small creative businesses selling on online marketplaces, such as Not on the High Street and Etsy types of users with similar challenges to A Year of Dates. It pulls together sales from multiple platforms as well as detailing personalization and helping identify express orders. He has some very grateful customers benefitting from the system and has plans to develop this further.
As Kate says, they “never say never,” and who knows just how far the future will take A Year of Dates.
If you are interested in the gift market, you might also like to read of Hannah Spilva; originally from the UK, Hannah is rolling out a flowers and gifts business across Australia.