Facing financial ruin with just £30 (~$40) left in the bank, a struggling mom has turned a simple doodle produced at her dining room table into a winning greeting card company, with a turnover of £1.5 million (~$2 million) a year and scores of celebrity fans.
Money was tight for Stacey Dennis, 33, and her husband Jay, 38, when her graphic design job was axed just before her scheduled maternity leave – but they were left penniless less than two years later, when a back injury stopped him from working too.
As February 14 was approaching, desperate to rescue her family from poverty and inspired by a past charity assignment, Stacey, whose daughter Layla is now five, designed a range of 11 Valentine's Day cards with saucy slogans – which instantly became the bullseye for Cupid's arrows.
Stacey and Jay (PA Real Life/Collect)
With her business, Love Layla Designs, now booming, Stacey, of Pontefract, West Yorkshire, England, who has also created a poignant range of cards aimed at people battling cancer and mental health issues, said: “My first cards had cheeky slogans like 'Happy Valentine's Day – Fancy a threesome?' and they clearly hit the spot, as they did brilliantly.
“I started out by selling on sites like eBay at Etsy. I designed the cards all myself on an ancient computer in our dining room, then would print them out and walk with Layla down to the Post Office.
“Jay is really good with numbers, so he offered to help out with that side of things. We also set about teaching ourselves all about social media, and Facebook advertising."
She added: “Things grew really quickly. We went from two orders a day, to 10, to 30, to 50.
“We eventually had to get my brother to help with all the orders. He came round and saw these boxes and cards everywhere, and wondered what on earth had happened.
“My mum had bailed us out with a £1,000 (~$1,300) loan when Jay couldn't work and I even managed to pay her back in just two weeks."
Stacey and Jay (PA Real Life/Collect)
After their Valentine's Day range hit the spot, next came a selection of about 30 Mother's Day card designs.
“We sold about 10,000 cards in total," said Stacey, proudly. “It was at that point that I realized we needed our own website.
“So, I sat myself down and got up a YouTube video on how to build a website. Looking back, it was the most basic website ever, but within a year of having it, we'd turned over £1 million (~$1.3 million)."
Running the family company has become a full-time venture for the couple, who now have their own office and have employed Stacey's best friend Vikki and a fourth person, Ross, so they can meet demand.
It is a far cry from the dark days of January 2015 when, reliant on Jay's wage as a self-employed renderer, installing a type of house cladding, his back injury suddenly meant he could not work, leaving them penniless.
Stacey had held a full-time position working in Leeds as a graphic designer, but was made redundant in 2013, shortly before she was due to take maternity leave and, at the time of Jay's injury, was only bringing in money from occasional freelance assignments.
Stacey and Jay (PA Real Life/Collect)
She explained: “When I was made redundant, the company dealt with it really well, and did everything legally, making sure I had enough support. But it was still really quite hard. I'd been settled in that job and was just about to become a mum for the first time.
“Once Layla was born, I looked at trying to find a job that could fit in with childcare, but I also didn't want to rush back to work given that I had a new baby."
By October 2014, she was ready to return to the drawing board and began taking freelance graphic design work that she could fit around caring for Layla.
This went well for a few months, meaning she could bring in some extra cash, but it was not reliable, so when Jay's wage went the family was in dire straits.
Stacey recalled: “We suddenly had literally no income. I'd been getting little bits of work here and there, but not enough to keep us going.
“Soon we had just £30 left in the bank, so I called my mum and she, thankfully, bailed us out with a £1,000 loan, but I knew I had to find a way of making money fast."
Stacey's pregnancy scan (PA Real Life/Collect)
Luckily, Stacey's brainwave to design an X-rated range of cards for Valentine's Day 2015 went down a storm and she has not looked back.
Reflecting on her success she said: “We never meant to build a business. It started out as a way of making some extra cash to put food in our bellies and put the heating on.
“But now, we are fortunate enough to be doing well, so we want to pass that on and help other people who may be struggling – hence the cards for people with cancer, saying things like 'Cancer is a big C, and for those having a tough time with their mental health, saying, 'You're not alone.'"
She added: “Whenever we get a sale, I do feel sad and think, 'That means someone out there is having a really bad time,' but then I hope that our card has been able to cheer them up and give them a laugh at a time where it may feel like there isn't a whole lot to laugh about."
As well as cards, Love Layla Designs now sells banners, balloons, badges, gift wrap, notebooks, diaries, and even hen party packs.
And the company has built up a following of celebrity fans, including Katie Price, Love Island's Alex Bowen and Olivia Buckland, reality star Vicky Pattison and Dragon's Den mogul Theo Paphitis.
Stacey whilst pregnant with Layla (PA Real Life/Collect)
“It can be really strange to see a product you've designed yourself all over a celebrity's Instagram," said Stacey. “It is lovely to have that impact though, and without being big-headed, knowing you've made your little stamp on the world.
“We've not had any external investment. We put a lot of money back into the business and into growing it. We aren't greedy people so don't see the need to pay ourselves huge wages – well, except when it comes to buying shoes and bags."
And with all ideas created in-house and the team holding regular brain-storming meetings, despite the huge success Love Layla now enjoys, Stacey said it still feels very friendly and intimate.
“It's like a little family – sometimes it doesn't feel like going to work," she said. “While I technically run Love Layla, everyone chips in. I'll be cleaning out the bins and making everyone tea one minute, then making huge business decisions the next."
But Stacey admits that, while plenty of people find her irreverent humor hilarious, not everybody is a fan of her crude cards – the latest Christmas range of which include slogans like, "Mary just needs to admit she slept with someone else" and "It's not Christmas unless you're getting fat and sh*tfaced."
She continued: “We do get some people who think they're too rude and don't like them. Everyone is entitled to their own voice and opinion, but sometimes people assume that because they're offended by something, everyone must be."
Stacey and Jay with some of their cheeky cards (PA Real Life/Collect)
She continued: “Actually people all have their own boundaries of what's offensive. Obviously there are some topics we'd never touch, as it would be wrong to poke fun at them, but something like swearing may really bother one person, and not remotely affect another.
“Sadly, there are a lot of keyboard warriors out there, but you can't take everything to heart. Still, sometimes I do think, 'With all the awful stuff going on in the world, is someone really that angry about a card?'"
And, forever grateful for their unexpected success, Stacey and Jay are also keen to include cards that might make a difference in their range, such as their cards for cancer patients, where messages include, 'May your chemo give you super powers,' and, inspired by Mental Health Awareness Day, cards for people battling emotional and mental health problems.
Stacey and the rest of the Love Layla team (PA Real Life/Collect)
“We all have issues going on. You could be sat on a bench in a park next to someone and have no idea of the things they are facing unless you talk to them," she said, adding that Love Layla also regularly donates to charity.
“That's why we decided to do some cards for the trickier issues, like mental health and illness. It's not to poke fun, but to use our platform to raise awareness. Humor can break the ice in difficult situations, and people shouldn't feel like they have to tread on eggshells with topics like these.
“If we can give someone going through a really awful time a little laugh, and take their mind of things for a few minutes, then why not? I am a big believer in karma and giving back, so will always try to help someone struggling if I can."
Stacey and Layla (PA Real Life/Collect)
As Love Layla Designs moves towards its firth birthday in 2020, Stacey continues to marvel at how much her life has changed.
She concluded: “If you'd have told me back when I had just £30 to my name that I would one day be turning over £1.5m, I wouldn't have believed it."