Business management

Q&A: James Wilthew, The Afghan Rug Shop

NatWest 10k pitching challenge finalist and Soldiering On Awards winner James Wilthew tells us how a clear purpose and a unique product have helped him find business success.

Wilthew was a finalist in NatWest’s 2020 10k pitching challenge, and was highly commended for the Community Impact Award at the Soldiering On Awards due to his work in supporting Afghan families to combat poverty.

RAF veteran James Wilthew at Andkhoy Weavers Market in 2004.

What led you to launch The Afghan Rug Shop?

“I am a veteran of Afghanistan, where I served in 2003, and I bought a lot of rugs when I was there – thinking it would be my only chance, as there was no stable internet or social media to stay in touch with the sellers. In 2015, after I had left the military and moved to West Yorkshire, a friend asked me if I could get him a rug, having heard about my time in Afghanistan – and that’s when I began looking for my old Afghan friend that I bought from in 2003. It took three months of random cold calls and online searches but I eventually found him; we reunited online and within a few months The Afghan Rug Shop opened its doors.”

What has been your greatest business achievement to date?

“Being ‘Highly Commended’ for ‘Business Impact in the Community’ at the Soldiering On Awards in 2019. My wife nominated me and this was the first time we had been put under the spotlight as a business and acknowledged for our ethics, and the positive impact on the communities we support and source from. Being praised by so many people independent of our growing customer base confirmed for us that we were doing the right thing.”

You are now an ambassador for X-Forces Enterprise, which runs the Soldiering On Awards

What does this involve?

“I was invited to become a regional ambassador for X-Forces Enterprise for Yorkshire and the Humber off the back of my exposure at the Soldiering On Awards. Ambassadors act as the focal point for any military, veterans, spouses and emergency services personnel in their region who are thinking of starting their own business or are already in business and looking for guidance. We host regular networking events and provide training courses and mentoring programmes, that are all online at the minute. It’s a fantastic network of mutual support, with incredible backing from business and industry, driven by some very organised and talented people.”

Having Fairtrade as a central element of our business model is vital. Not because it looks good, but because it’s the right thing to do. We give back to the communities that support us

James Wilthew
The Afghan Rug Shop

The 2021 Soldiering On Awards are now open for nominations until 19 March

Why would you encourage people to nominate?

“There’s a typical military trait of keeping your head down and maintaining a low profile. It took me years to realise if I didn’t learn to shout about my achievements and be proud of what I’d done, then nobody else would know. So, by nominating someone for the Soldiering On Awards, who is worthy of the recognition for whatever they are doing as individuals, teams or a business, it will perhaps bring them out of the shadows and give them an incredible boost from the media attention, and rightly award them for their efforts. It’s also a massive ‘thank you’ from a huge community of well-wishers. It’s really helped my business and led to all sorts of new ventures I would otherwise have never known about.”

You were also a finalist in NatWest’s 10k pitching challenge, and now have a place on its Entrepreneur Accelerator

What was this experience like for you?

“The NatWest 10k pitching challenge was great fun to be part of and there were some brilliant entrepreneurs that took part. Being on the Accelerator Programme will hopefully give us the confidence in decision-making and planning our growth. Running a small business can be lonely and you are never sure if what you are doing is right, so having independent guidance as we take the next big step is something I am excited about and very grateful for.”

How has Covid-19 impacted your business? Have you adapted in any way?

“Covid made us take a critical look at some of the things that we hadn’t gotten around to whilst we had been open. By the time lockdown started we’d introduced an interest-free monthly payment scheme to help customers buy, and focused on our online presence. This paid off quickly by generating sales revenue through several new online channels we simply hadn’t had time to investigate previously. It’s taught us that our future lies in greater online growth and less reliance on sales in our retail space.”

What advice would you have for anyone looking to launch a business at this time?

“I would recommend a few things: firstly, a good product that is not easily available anywhere else. The businesses I have seen suffer have either not had anything to sell that was unique, or similar products to theirs were being sold more cheaply by large online retailers. Next, you need a smart website or online platforms where customers can buy easily, and investment in the infrastructure you need to grow, both physical and back-office software. Finally, a personal touch – people love to see the face behind the business and understand who they are buying from, so sell yourself.”

As a Fairtrade-accredited business, would you say that having a greater societal purpose is important for businesses?

“Having Fairtrade as a central element of our business model is vital. Not because it looks good, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the same reason we are accredited Living Wage employers and the same reason we donate thousands of pounds a year to the vital work of Afghanaid – we give back to the communities that support us. Funnily enough, if you look after your staff and people, they look after you. If doing the right thing costs us profit, then so be it. Yes, it’s a careful balance, but I wouldn’t do business without these core principals. Fortunately, these days people won’t buy products that they do not know the origin of – having ethically sourced products is essential.”

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