"The Enterprise Development Hub was my impulse," explains Class of 2014 Middlesex University alumna Huyen Dao Thanh from behind her new stall in the atmospheric surrounds of the Old Spitalfields Market in London.
For the 23-year-old Advertising, PR and Media graduate, the chance to secure some much-needed start-up capital by taking part in a competition the Enterprise Development Hub was running was too good an opportunity to turn down.
"I was planning to do Blow Ties after I graduated, but because of the EDH I did it a bit earlier. I would have still gone ahead without the EDH's help, but I'm not sure I would have taken the same steps."
After receiving an email in early 2014 asking for submissions, Huyen drew up a business plan outlining her ambitions to run an online shop selling handmade bow ties, which was one of four proposals later chosen by the EDH to receive funding and assistance.
That help came from Miss Sunshine Boutique founder Steve Stott, who uses his experience of running an online global retail business to assist ambitious Middlesex students in getting their ideas off the ground.
He gave Huyen an insight into selling on the web – from both her website Blowties.com and via third-party platforms such as eBay and Amazon. Steve also passed on his top tips and tricks to the four chosen business owners in monthly workshops.
However, Huyen was quick to realise that she would also need an offline presence in order to grow her online business, and began trading at Brick Lane Market in the spring.
After enjoying success there, Huyen started devoting five days a week to working on her stall – splitting her time between Brick Lane and Spitalfields.
The skills she learnt studying Advertising at Middlesex have been crucial to her success, with Huyen employing clever marketing tactics to drive traffic to her website even when shoppers browse rather than buy.
"The main thing about a start-up business is advertising," she advises. "Your product can be amazing, but if no one knows about you, it's pointless. My course helped me a lot with campaigns – I do a lot of social media to promote Blow Ties – and also with selling."
Pocket-sized cards outlining how to tie a bow tie are picked up by potential customers, who keep them for reference. Then when they come to wanting to purchase a bow tie for a special occasion, the Blowties.com web address, which is printed at the bottom, becomes their first point of call.
Demonstrating to customers how to tie their purchases keeps Huyen busy on market days, and she also always has her sewing machine to hand to work on some of her 100 designs during quieter moments.
Tapping into the trend for artisanal products, Huyen hand makes all her bow ties using exotic materials sourced from her parents' homeland, Vietnam. Due to the scarcity of some of these, customers could end up purchasing a unique product, although Huyen tries her best to reproduce the designs that sell well. That's good business sense after all – something this Middlesex alumna has plenty of.