Life & Business

Life & Business: Bethan and Joe of Decorator’s Notebook

by Sabrina Smelko


Bethan and Joe are a brother and sister team from England on a mission is to prove that design, quality and ethics can go hand in hand. Together, they run , an online shop offering home accessories sourced from fair-trade groups, artisan co-operatives and social enterprises from around the world. is a win-win: It gives their customers access to unique global accessories and provides income to talented artisans in developing countries.

Before their launch, Bethan worked as a design journalist for various magazines in the UK and started a as a way to collect her interior design inspiration and share independent makers. Joe was working in e-commerce, and as the blog grew, they decided to pursue it further and join forces. Though they’ve weathered some bumps along the way, including the hurdle of how to work together successfully as siblings, they’ve learned a ton about how to create a successful start-up. Today, Bethan is opening up about their business and sharing some important and poignant nuggets of wisdom gathered along the way.

Why did you decide to start your own business?

It all began with my blog – the original Decorator’s Notebook. I started blogging as a hobby four years ago while I was working as an interiors journalist in London. I’d just bought my first flat and wanted somewhere to gather decorating ideas I loved… it didn’t really occur to me anyone might read it!

But, gradually, people started to follow and seemed to enjoy my focus on small-scale makers. A few readers asked where they could buy the products I featured and that led me to the idea of opening a shop to make it easy to find unique, handmade and ethical homeware online. My brother Joe was working in e-commerce at the time, so we joined forces and launched the Decorator’s Notebook Shop together. We sell a curated collection of design-led homeware sourced from social enterprises, fair-trade groups and artisan co-operatives all around the world.

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

Decorator’s Notebook has always been a showcase for beautiful handmade products that celebrate traditional crafts. However, during the 18 months we’ve been open, we’ve become increasingly clear about what Decorator’s Notebook represents. For example, we noticed that our customers particularly loved our ethically-produced products, so our latest collection focuses more squarely on fair-trade home accessories from all around the world. Being a small start-up is hard, but one of your biggest advantages is that you are close to your customers and can be agile and responsive. Bigger, more established companies can’t do that.

Brightly coloured African baskets Decorator's Notebook

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” It’s a Mark Twain quote that is so true for new businesses. It’s tempting to hold back until you feel 100% ready, but there’s only so much you can plan. For us, the real learning happened in the first months of running our business, from real experiences, real successes and real failures. Nobody launches with a perfect business from day one – you need to get yourself out there and be willing to perfect things over time.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Actually taking the advice above! I’m a self-confessed control freak and felt really nervous about launching in case something wasn’t quite right. Thankfully, Joe – my brother and business partner – is very calm and good at seeing the bigger picture. We balance each other out. Working with Joe has helped me appreciate that mistakes are nothing to be scared of – they’re how you’re going to learn and improve.

Decorator's Notebook indigo drop serving bowl

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

To do good, you must do well. However passionate you are about helping others and making a difference, you can’t escape the importance of staying afloat financially. As a social business, you need to give equal attention to both sides. It still touches us every time we receive an order, because it’s that investment that enables us to buy more from our suppliers and help more talented artisans build a brighter future for their families. It’s trade, not aid, which will really make a difference for the next generation.

Decorator's Notebook Welsh blanket

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

When we launched we had a strong audience on our blog and social media, so we thought we had a ready-made customer base. We shouldn’t have assumed that. Although fans are crucial for spreading your message, don’t assume they’ll be the ones actually taking out their credit cards. We’ve had to work much harder to identify and reach our customers than we first thought.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

Joe and I both left comfortable, full-time jobs to start Decorator’s Notebook and gave up our own places to rent a house together, where we both live and work from home. It’s very daunting to give up your personal security and dive into the unknown, but we’re confident in our idea and our abilities. The sacrifices we’ve made have all been worth it to bring our dream to life.

Natural African basket Decorator's Notebook

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

When you run your own business, you get so involved in the day-to-day that it’s hard to step back and appreciate how far you’ve really come. Last month we received an invitation to 10 Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister as part of a showcase of young businesses. It was completely out of the blue and served as a welcome reminder that Decorator’s Notebook is something really special and that we should celebrate our successes more often!

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

Anyone who’s interested in building a social business should read Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes. It’s easy to read and gives some really great advice on how to create a business with giving at its heart.

Double sided hanging picture frames zinc Decorator's Notebook

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Entrepreneurs are made, not born: There’s a bit of a misconception that entrepreneurs have some kind of innate ability. That’s not true. If you have a good idea, drive, ambition and a willingness to learn, you definitely have what it takes to become an entrepreneur.

2. Who will support you: Starting a business is always a very personal journey, but that doesn’t mean you should do it alone. You’ll need financial support, business advice and sometimes just an extra pair of hands. Your family, friends, network, peers, partners, teachers and mentors will be key to your success.

3. Choose your partners wisely: The reason Joe and I work so well together is that we have a shared vision, but different skills to bring to the table. I think a lot of people make the mistake of choosing a business partner who’s “just like me” when really you should be looking for someone with different expertise who can challenge you a little.

And just to make your Tuesday even sweeter, Bethan and Joe are offering D*S readers 15% off until June 30th 2015 when you use the code DESIGNSPONGE at checkout! Follow along on , Instagram and Pinterest.

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    • Thank you Randi – we love the Vietnamese dishes too. They’re made by a very special fair trade pottery that teaches young potters traditional skills in order to keep the industry alive for future generations.

  • That’s incredible that you are able to work so well together as siblings – it must be such a blessing to you.

    I love your name/the concept of ‘The Decorator’s Notebook’ – it sounds like going into your shop would be like getting into the studio of a great decorator and spying through their journals, design plans, etc.

    So delightful!

    • I’m so pleased you like the name Jessica! Being a sibling team isn’t always easy but I wouldn’t work with anyone else. We are a great partnership and it’s fun to be in this together!

  • This article was really inspiring as someone who is looking to set-up their own business – it’s nice to see that Bethan has struggled with the same things that I find I am having difficulty with; wanting everything to be perfect before I can begin! Wishing Bethan and Joe all the best in their future endeavours!

    • Go for it Helen! There’s nothing like the thrill of starting your own business and even though it may be scary, it is fun, exhilirating and most of all rewarding at the same time. Good luck!

  • Thank you so much for featuring Decorator’s Notebook on Design Droits-Humains… it is literally a life ambition realised for me! It’s a privilege to share the story of our business with the D*S community – if anyone has any questions post them in the comments and I’ll be happy to reply.

  • It’s always such an interesting read to hear about another design business’s journey! I especially found your comment about finding your true customer base very interesting (and very identifiable!) – i.e. separating your fans/followers from actual potential customers, something we grapple with as a young design brand. Having a healthy following on Instagram/Facebook, lots of likes for images etc – it can be frustrating/baffling when this doesn’t necessarily translate to an active customer base. If you don’t mind sharing, it would be great to hear more about how you went about narrowing in on who your real customers were – and do you find they are also on social media, or do you have to reach them in other ways? Congrats and best of luck with the rest of your journey!

    • I’m so pleased you found this interesting Ally. We’re very active on social media too and it can be a great way to spread the word about your brand, but we’ve found that word of mouth and repeat customers have been our best ways to grow our sales. It’s the nicest way too really, as it means that those people really love what we do! Also, even if you’re an online brand connecting in person with people can be useful too. We attend a high-end craft market once a month and it has been a great market research tool as you get instant feedback from people who visit your stand, can listen in to their conversations about your products and get a clear idea of your customer demographic. I hope that helps… do drop me a note on social media @decoratorsnotes and I’ll give you a follow back and give you a little boost!

    • That’s really nice to hear, thank you. When I set up Decorator’s Notebook it was out of my own frustration with faceless, nameless big brands so it’s great that you like the alternative we provide. Buying pieces with meaning and stories is just so much more pleasurable too, don’t you think?

  • I’ve just stumbled upon this, so sorry if I’m a bit late to the party. My friend and I are just starting to talk about setting up our own interiors shop, and I am really keen to support social enterprises and charities. Your article was really useful and inspiring, as taking that first leap before you think you are ready is very scary. Thank you for being so honest and open in the article and comments….wish us luck!

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