A MUM-OF-THREE who launched a bespoke travel bedding business with just £300 at her kitchen table has revealed that the company now turns over a whopping £10million.
Elizabeth Rose Colleran, 61, from West Yorkshire, who has been married to husband Alan for almost 40 years, is the co-founder of Duvalay – a bedding and mattress company that makes sleep more comfortable away from home.
To date, the company – which specialises in memory foam mattress toppers, pillows, travel toppers and the Duvalay sleeping bag for the home, in boats and motorcaravans – has featured on Dragons' Den and received an £80k investment from Hilary Devey CBE.
It employs 80 members of staff, has launched products in eight different countries and has a projected turnover of £10million.
So it's hard to believe it all started after Elizabeth experienced bad back pain when she slept on a hard caravan bed…
Speaking exclusively to Fabulous, the businesswoman, who has three children – Thomas, 35, William, 32, and Declan, 26 – says: “I never imagined we would be where we are today.
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"I don’t just mean the size and success of the business but the amazing life opportunities it has presented us with along the journey.”
Elizabeth's journey to success began in 2002, when she decided to invest in a caravan after inheriting £2,000 from Alan's auntie.
"My husband is a mechanical engineer and had his own business," Elizabeth explains.
"His customer base was going more abroad, so I thought to myself we'll buy a caravan because then if the business isn't doing as well, we can still go on holidays."
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But during a family caravan holiday to the Yorkshire Dales, Elizabeth struggled to sleep on the hard seats.
Elizabeth’s five top business tips
- Before you start a business think realistically about it, ask your friends if they would buy your product or use the service you are offering.
- Keep any eye on your accounts, knowing where you are financially helps decide where you are going.
- Stay focused, don’t let competitors actions influence you hold your nerve and your business plan.
- Work hard and set a good examples to your staff
- Live, breath and enjoy it, there is actually nothing like creating your own success and destiny!
Luckily, Alan knew of a specific type of foam available that he thought might help make it more comfortable.
"He was an engineer that installed the machines that made the foam," says Elizabeth, who was a stay-at-home mum at the time.
"So he had a good knowledge of the qualities that were needed in the specific memory foam that I bought to make it comfortable.
"So on a rainy day, I went and bought this piece of foam. I thought to myself, 'are you bonkers?' because it cost me £60!"
But to Elizabeth's surprise, it really worked.
In fact, the mum-of-three was so impressed with her good night's sleep, she thought there could be a profitable business idea in it.
With her busy life as a mum carrying on as normal, she left the foam on her bedroom floor for the next year, all while pondering on what she could do with it to make some money.
Eventually, Elizabeth and Alan together came up with the idea that soon became Duvalay’s first product – a £49.95 memory-foam portable travel topper.
"We spent £300 buying all the components to make a polished, finished, desirable product," Elizabeth explains.
"We needed labels, thread and straps.
"We couldn’t just buy a few of each, we had to buy in bigger volumes than we really needed at the time to get better prices."
Knowing very little about how to run a business, Elizabeth spent some time researching the quickest route to market.
Then, in 2003, she put an advert for the product in a caravan magazine, which had a subscription of around 250k.
It cost Elizabeth a hefty £1,000, which she was reluctant to spend at first, but the brave move soon paid off.
"My phone didn't stop ringing," the 61-year-old says.
"All of a sudden I had to become an expert on how you sleep on memory foam overnight…with a house full of kids."
With the product in high demand, her children offered a helping hand and spent the evenings rolling up the memory foam toppers at the kitchen table, ready for Elizabeth to take to the post office.
"The company's growth was very organic," she explains. "Because we were selling mail order and online, the cash from the sales we made hit our bank account pretty quickly.
"So the more we sold, the more components we bought to make more products – it was like a merry go round."
In 2004 – two years after launching – Alan decided to sell his business and started working with Elizabeth.
Before they knew it, their house was filled with so much foam,they couldn't get from the front of the house to the garage, so they moved into the company's first premises.
I never imagined we would be where we are today. I don’t just mean the size and success of the business but the amazing life opportunities it has presented us with along the journey.
"It was very basic, cold, miserable," Elizabeth recalls. "I used to go down there, take the calls and pack on my own.
"But then I met a woman named Christine [who is Duvalay's sewing room manager to this day] at the school gates and she came to help me.
"It turned out she was an excellent sewing machinist, too."
The following year, the couple went to their first motorhome exhibition – and that's when they realised they had a product that could fill an important gap in the market.
"It was a light bulb moment," Elizabeth says. "We were by far one of the most popular stands there – that's when I knew we'd be able to make a living from this.
"There were people queuing because the people who buy caravans -and particularly motor homes – are people who are a similar age to me now.
"They've got disposable income and they need to have a comfortable sleep."
Knowing there was a short window before other companies tried to copy her idea, in 2006, Alan developed and patented the Duvalay Sleeping Bag.
The product, which costs £99.95, is a memory-foam sleep solution featuring memory-foam base and duvet encapsulated in connected bedding pockets – meaning that unlike a traditional sleeping bag, you're not zipped in.
"It was our first product [memory foam topper] that really changed how I slept and eased my back pain quite dramatically," Elizabeth explains.
"Then we went onto develop the unique Duvalay sleeping bag that we patented.
"This is definitely our unique hero product that enabled growth quite quickly."
Elizabeth recalls: "When we took it to the solicitors we'd told nobody and we were advised by the lawyer to bring it in a plain black bag so nobody could see it.
"We walked nervously into his office and rolled it out and he was like, 'WOW!!!! Can I buy one?'
"We smiled all the way home as it reinforced our thoughts that this product was going to change our life…and it has!"
By this point, Elizabeth was trying to drive up as much attention and interest in her bespoke bedding product as possible.
"I was everywhere to the point it was embarrassing," she says.
"Any competition, journalist, exhibition, awards – anybody I could bother, I bothered.
"I had a real passion, saw the potential and I wanted to grow it.
"I had a hunger for it. I had three little boys at the time and there was no plan B really."
But being a mum and launching a business wasn't plain sailing.
"There were times when I had horrendous guilt at leaving the kids," Elizabeth admits.
"I even forgot to pick up Declan from school twice – imagine that!"
Over the next few years, Duvalay continued to go from strength to strength and took on more employees to help with the ever-demanding workload.
Then in 2011, the husband and wife team were approached to appear on Dragons' Den.
"We were doing well but we could see there were still lots of opportunities," Elizabeth explains.
"We didn't really need the investment because we already had a successful-selling product but we knew we could always sell more – and 5million people saw us on there."
The couple presented their unique and universally appealing flagship product, the Duvalay sleeping bag, to the Dragons.
"I had a bit of a ding dong with Deborah Meaden who said I didn't know this or didn't know that," Elizabeth recalls. "But I said it's nothing I wouldn't know within five minutes of getting back into the office."
In the end, it was Hilary Devey CBE who pledged £80k of investment into the luxury sleeping bag firm in return for a 26 per cent share in the venture.
The entrepreneur's input and investment helped the Yorkshire-based bedding and mattress company on their way to further innovation and international expansion as well as diversification into wider trade and domestic markets.
"Hilary liked our projects and she was a strong woman who liked strong women," Elizabeth says.
"We hit it off straight away and became good friends.
"After the show, she sent her whole team up and their full focus was to drive our business forward and diversify – and that's what we've done.
"The hits on the website following the show were phenomenal and it really opened us up to better suppliers and allowed us to gain more contacts abroad to sell our products to."
But Elizabeth warns: "You've got to be brave to run a business and you've got to develop a thick skin."
"Someone from Hiliary's team said to be 'shy girls get nowt' – and many times I've put that in my head."
In 2012, with its rapid success, the company moved to a larger factory to upscale production capacity and just one year later, the first lightweight leisure vehicle mattress was launched.
With no signs of slowing down, that same year Elizabeth signed an agreement with the UK's biggest leisure vehicle manufacturer, The Swift Group.
We haven't got anything special. What we did was we saw an opportunity and we followed it.
In the years that followed, the company entered a partnership in France, patented the Duvalay Sleeping Bag in America, and launched the Home Collection mattresses.
Hilary Devey's deal proved fruitful too, with the Dragon designing and launching her own collection of luxury bedding in collaboration with the company in 2015.
In 2019, Elizabeth and Alan purchased a £1.2 million four acre site in Heckmondwike West Yorkshire.
Now, the company is projected to hit a whopping £10m turnover next year and employs 80 members of staff – with Elizabeth's son Thomas working as the company's commercial director and William, as a chartered accountant.
It's also seen global success, launching in eight countries – including the US, Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Iceland and China.
"Sometimes me and my husband will look at each other and we'll see our van driving down the motorway and I'll think to myself 'wow,' Elizabeth says.
"Not long ago I walked past a motorhome that was parked up in a service station and it had our products rolled up in its window."
She adds: "I'm proud of how we've managed it as a family – we work together and it's not always easy.
"Mostly it's good but it can be very difficult.
"If we can do it, anybody can.
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It annoys me when entrepreneurs say that because you've got to have some degree of intelligence and drive, but we haven't got anything special.
"What we did was we saw an opportunity and we followed it."
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