Anyone could be an entrepreneur. You don’t need a degree from a posh university or be an eccentric genius. It’s utter gibberish that your old school report must state that you are someone destined for greatness. Sometimes, all you need is a great idea that’s mixed with a generous streak of self-discipline, an appetite for hard work and a belly full of patience. But remember, instant success never really happens. It takes some entrepreneurs a very long time to finally get their venture off the ground. If you’re lucky enough, it might take a few weeks.
Annette Francis from Baylough, Athlone, only launched her business, Posh Pebbles in mid-April of this year. Despite having no formal business experience, and with the country still not fully out of lockdown, she’s amazed and humbled by how popular her handcrafted pebble art frames have become.
“I’m not very good with technology, so a friend of mine had to set up a Facebook page for me. The frames were an instant hit because, on our first day, we got three orders. Lots of people have been very kind and supportive and helped our little family business get off to a flying start. I feel blessed that we have a constant stream of orders and can’t believe our frames are now travelling from Athlone to San Francisco and Australia!”
Annette’s oldest daughter Nicole helps her to make personalised 3D pictures using natural pebbles. The pebbles are hand-picked for size and quality, arranged and then affixed to a piece of card that is then mounted and framed. Customers buy the pebble frames for lots of different occasions e.g., a wedding, anniversary, bereavement, communion, house-warming gift, etc. Annette explained how she came up with the idea.
“During the first lockdown in March 2020, Nicole was unable to travel from Mullingar, and so we didn’t see each other for almost six months. It was a very scary time, and we missed each other terribly. So, when she finally got back home, Nicole and I decided that we would find a project to do together. We started by refurbishing old furniture, and turned one piece into a dog bed. Then one day a lightbulb went off in my head when I took some pebbles from an ornament and started arranging them into pictures and scenes. I thought that they would make nice gifts for my daughters, and perfect presents for my family and friends. But when everyone started seeing them, I got requests to make more and more of them. At that point, Nicole and I knew we had found our calling!”
Portsmouth and Culture Shock
Annette was born in the English town of Portsmouth in Hampshire. Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city and is about 110 km from London. For many centuries, it has been home to the Royal Navy; for being the birthplace of the famous writer Charles Dickens and Portsmouth Football Club, founded in 1898.
In 1979, when Annette was 10 years old, her whole family uprooted from Portsmouth and moved to Athlone to look after her grandfather. “We didn’t have a car and had to walk everywhere, not to say that was a bad thing.”
Annette is the youngest of three children and remembers the culture shock of moving to Athlone in the late 1970s.
“At my primary school in the UK, there was free education and everything I needed was handed to me. We had central heating, carpets on the floor and even the toilets were inside. There was nothing like that when I went to Our Lady’s Bower National school which was an all-girls school at the time!”
However, Annette was a resilient 10-year-old child and just got on with adjusting to her environment.
“The move away from Portsmouth made me more outgoing because I wanted to make new friends in Athlone. I’m still friends with some of the children that I met on my first day at school.”
No Going Back
After attending secondary school at Our Lady’s Bower, Annette did a secretarial course so that she could move back to the UK and re-join her sister “My sister and I are close and so when she had moved back to England, I wanted to move back too.” At the time, Annette had a small part-time job in Dunnes Stores while studying, and was trying to do as many job interviews as she could. She wanted to get as much interview experience under her belt as possible before she headed off to the UK in search of secretarial work. However, her plans were cut short when she decided to take the job at Mallinckrodt Laboratories [now Covidien] and tells me why:
“It was very hard to turn down money when you have no money, and so I decided to take the opportunity. I ended up staying with that company for 10 years, and can honestly say that I really enjoyed my time there. I got my house out of it, paid for holidays, and had my two daughters as well. Life was good, it was simple. I was happy and loved spending time with my children.”
Patience and Art
Annette believes she is a very patient person and therefore perfectly suited to making intricate pictures using pebbles – something a lot of people would not be able to do. “For the past 20 years, I’ve been working in the childcare provision sector. Having lots of patience is a basic job requirement when you are working with young children!”
Making a pebble frame can take anything from 15 minutes to a few days. There is a lot of work involved in trying to interpret the picture using stones. Also, Annette is determined that every product is perfect before its sent to a customer. “I would not let anyone buy a piece that I wouldn’t be happy to display in my own house. So, if it’s not perfect – then I start again until it is.”
She believes she got her love for all things creative from her father who used to experiment with food and was very gifted in culinary arts. “My father was so gifted at cooking and I guess some of his creative talents rubbed off on me. Although I did Art as a subject in secondary school, I haven’t needed to use it at all. But now, it seems that with Posh Pebbles I have just tapped into my whole creative side again. I’m happy that my frames can put a smile on someone’s face.”
Thankfully for Annette, there is no shortage of natural pebbles and stones in Ireland, and she can buy most of the other materials locally. Her overheads are low, and she is trying to leverage social media marketing too. The only thing that she would love to have now, is a prefabricated shed to use as a workshop because she is running out of free space in the main house. Annette is very happy making — what I describe as — little handmade works of art.
“I don’t want to put that cart before the horse and think too deeply about the future. Having my own business is very exciting, and sometimes it feels as if I’m shooting blind. I’m enjoying what I’m doing at the moment while trying to learn as much as I can. I have always said that if my frames didn’t sell, I’m sorted for Christmas!”
You can visit Posh Pebbles at: https://www.facebook.com/Posh-Pebbles-102178408683371
This article was published in the Westmeath Independent 19/05/21.