Clare Harris: Keeping the Table Talking for 25 Years – Talking Tables UK Trade

Clare Harris: Keeping the Table Talking for 25 Years

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“I love bringing people together. So, what I was doing socially, with a table at the heart, is what I tried to do commercially," says Talking Tables’ founder, Clare Harris.

She’s reflecting on the business celebrating its milestone 25th year.

“They’re both about bringing together a group of people who have some common values – and then creating those magic moments.”

Clare Harris, founder of Talking Tables sat at a table with a mug

It’s a recipe that’s stood the brand in good stead ever since it launched in 1999 with a handful of products transported in the back of Clare’s old VW Golf and hand-delivered to Harrods.

It was just ahead of the millennium when Clare spotted a gap in the market for products to bring an element of fun and excitement to a dinner party. In Clare’s words, “things to get the table talking”.

No doubt there were a few raised eyebrows amongst her family and friends after Clare decided to call it a day on her corporate career and pursue her dream to launch her own business: “Even when I was 10-years old, I knew I wanted to run my own business,” she recalls.

“Whilst I loved my time at IBM, retrospectively I realise I craved to run a team so you can set the values.”

And, along with her partner Mark, bringing people together under the umbrella of her own personal set of values is what Clare has been doing ever since.

So here are Clare’s top tips and insights on launching and running a business for a quarter of a century; what it’s like as a female founder; and what keeps her coming back for more…

Bootstrap It

Clare and Mark at the kitchen table in the early years...

When I started, I literally did everything in this company. From creating and hand-delivering products, I also took care of the invoicing, planning and every other aspect of the business.

Right at the beginning, we worked out of our house in London.

We slept in the front room and our very first designer sat and worked out of the bedroom.

Friends came and sat at the kitchen table and helped pack party poppers. For them it was a curious and fun thing to do - they were all so supportive.

Sam (Clare & Mark’s son) was a baby when Talking Tables was new, so we had to mold it around him but that’s part of the beauty of running your own business. You can set your own style, but the chances are you’ll be working Sundays and whenever the baby’s asleep.

Everyone in those early days watched Sam grow up, and saw him doing Lego models in the school holidays.

They saw him grow and they saw me change over time too. That’s what running a business means as a woman.

Life as a Female Founder

Last year Clare moderated a panel discussion at the Women In Gifts conference by the Giftware Association

A lot of the publicity now is around female founders getting investment, but actually if you look at the gift industry, a lot of women set up a business because it comes from within. 

They notice a problem and they grow their business over time. It starts from humble beginnings and it grows in an organic way.

Whereas men come from an MBA and think they want to make money.

My ambition wasn’t to come in and make a £100m business, sell it and come out with a yacht.

My ambition was probably not well-defined.  I just wanted to do it. It was a calling – therefore I was prepared to do it a step at a time, and be happy at each little milestone eg. the first £1m, the first £5m.”

Stay Curious and Ask for Help

I would still say there is absolutely no barrier to starting a business as a woman.

Whether you’re a woman or a man you have to be curious. You have to be hardworking, You have to give up your life - it is really hard.

Everyone I rang 25 years ago was helpful. They were all men, and they helped me.

Whether you’re male or female, if you reach out you might get lucky and someone will give you half an hour of their time.

It’s how you open up… you don’t go in thinking I merit your time, you say ‘Would you mind speaking to me?’

Everyone feels flattered, and most people say yes. So that’s one key skill.

Avoid Overwhelm

Clare in 2011 with some of the Talking Tables team

With some of the team in 2011. It's the people who make the journey worthwhile...

The other key skill is: don’t overwhelm yourself.

A friend of mine from years ago was an accountant and he worried about every next step.

I remember thinking he could never open a business because he’s seeing too many steps ahead and was worrying. 

Whereas, I never over-worried – and still don’t. It could all collapse tomorrow and I would just go and get a job in Waitrose on the till. It doesn’t overly bother me! I genuinely wouldn’t mind.

Don’t think too many steps ahead. And I’m very good at chunking: breaking tasks up and making them more manageable.

What Work-Life Balance?

Mark and I don’t have any boundaries when it comes to work and home life - no rules that after a certain point in the evening we no longer talk about the business, fore example.

We like working together, but you do live and breathe the business 24/7.

Your life and your work become enmeshed – but then it’s a joint success.  I think it would be very hard to do the business on your own. You need someone to talk to and chew the cud.

We have a lot of similar hobbies together eg. walking, nature, exhibitions and travelling. But while we’re travelling, we might pop into see an international distributor or a supplier. So, we’re lucky that we can entwine our business and interests.

We’re just entwined. Where does life start and work stop?

Take A Moment

Clare Harris at the King's Award for Enterprise

Clare meeting the King at a reception at Buckingham Palace in 2023

It’s a journey, and when you’re in it and doing it, it can be hard to stop and take a moment.

Winning the King’s Award for Enterprise last year was a great chance to stop and take things in.

Being awarded it gave me the opportunity to reflect on what we had achieved and the journey we’ve been on. It was a nice marker to take stock and celebrate.

What Keeps Her Coming Back..?

Party poppers and sparklers

Party poppers were among the first Talking Tables products 

I love learning. It’s still a challenge. We are way beyond a start-up, and now managing a growth business. A lot of what we did was through instinct, but now there’s a lot more competition, we’re a lot more of a structured team.

So how do you manage an ongoing business to get traction and rhythm?  

There are new things to get stuck into all the time. New products, new suppliers, new people… I’m always learning – that keeps it interesting.

Clare's 3 Tips for Running a Business

  1. I think you have to acknowledge it’s an ecosystem and it’s your ecosystem.  If someone else was running it, it would be different.

    So, you have to say at some point this is me, this is my ecosystem and I’ve got to protect it. I’ll take feedback, and learn and grow with it, but ultimately the privilege resides with me, on who gets the final say.

    I see my main role at the business as instilling the culture and bringing in a level of professionalism from my IBM background. My job is the brand guardian – and if something creates a ripple and upsets the ecosystem, it’s up to me to try to understand what happened and why.

  2. You need to know where you’re going, stay focused and take a group of people with you. And do that in a business environment where retail on the high street is tough, there’s a potential downturn in the UK, we’ve had Brexit…. So you need to do that when the world around you is changing.

  3. Stay with a skillset and keep learning – learning from your mistakes.  And learning together.

Staying Relevant after 25 Years

Clare Harris lighting a candle at a dinner table

Clare, where she is most at home, at a dinner setting

When I set the business up, there were no gold party poppers on the high street. There were no matching party crackers, napkins, and tablecloths.

That is now the norm.

But family time and those magic moments are as important now as they ever were.

Bringing people together, those friendships and family gatherings – you celebrate those moments and those are the things people remember.

Creating and sharing those magic moments around a table and trying to create them as a business team… that’s what keeps me going. It’s those moments that makes us human.  

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