Emma, 28, came up with the idea of designing a coat for her pet ferret Bruce when she saw him shivering while taking him for a walk.
When she posted her creation – a punchy tartan number emblazoned with the letter B - on Facebook, the image went viral – and Emma quickly discovered a surprising number of customers all over the world who were equally keen to indulge their pampered pets.
Emma has now launched a business to sell hand-made accessories for animals, with support from the Work Programme enterprise team at PeoplePlus in Stockport, and in just three months has sold 50 ferret coats – posting as far as Australia and Canada. She has also expanded the business, called Emmy Sews, to make ferret harnesses and even hammocks for those – like her – mad about their ferrets.
“People are amazed when I tell them what I do,” said Emma, of Stockport, “The funny thing is that I started out making things for baby showers, but nothing was really moving until I started making coats for ferrets. Now I’ve found a niche in the market, I’ve grabbed onto it.”
“Over the past few months, I’ve made a walking harness for an iguana and one customer from Surrey even ordered a coat for her pet skunk.”
Emma says she isn’t surprised at how popular her coats have become. Her own home houses a small menagerie including her six ferrets – who all live indoors – two cats, six bearded dragons and a seven foot savannah monitor.
“I’m crazy about animals and often take the ferrets out for a walk,” she said, “Because I don’t drive, it’s easier to put them in a pram and people have got to know me for that. I’ve also developed a foothold in animal care on Twitter, with people asking me for advice, so I knew there were potential customers out there.”
The business has proved to be a lifesaver for Emma who was struggling to find work in a traditional environment because of her disabilities. She has mild hip dysplasia, where the hip's ball and joint socket does not form properly, and spinal problems that, on bad days, can leave her bed-bound.
She struggled to get back into work after her job in a residential care home came to an end when she found her responsibilities were making her condition worse. “Going from working 50 hours a week to nothing, really sent me up the wall,” said Emma, who was claiming Employment and Support Allowance, “It made me feel depressed and isolated because I loved my job and really wanted to work. “
“If it wasn’t for my sister telling me about PeoplePlus, and the help they offer people to start their own business, I don’t think I’d be where I am now.”
Enterprise support to jobseekers who are interested in becoming self-employed is offered as part of the Work Programme, a government scheme aimed at helping people who are long-term unemployed, or at risk of becoming so. Referrals are made by Jobcentre Plus.
“They were so helpful and saved me a hell of a lot of money,” said Emma, who is now off benefits, “I’m quite a determined person, but I know if I’d tried to set up the business on my own, I’d probably have needed a solicitor and to pay for someone to help me with a business plan. Because the scheme is run by the government, all that was done for me.”
Working from home and selling her ferret coats through Facebook, Emma’s made-to-measure items start at just £7. Customers choose the fabric and then Emma promises to make the coats and harnesses to measure and deliver within seven days.
As well as helping Emma write her business plan, PeoplePlus paid for her stock to be professionally photographed so she could upload the pictures to her Facebook site and Etsy.com. Her PeoplePlus advisor Gaynor Leigh also keeps in touch to ensure Emma has continued access to workshops, such as social media courses, and to see how she’s getting on.
Emma said: “Fingers crossed, I’m getting the business in and as its winter, I’m still selling ferret coats. As we go into Summer, people will be taking their ferrets out for walks and they’ll buy harnesses – so I know that I’ll have a year-round market there. Things are going pretty well.”
To find out more or to buy products, join the Emmy Sews group on Facebook.