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Starting a business: finding your place within a community

Having been inspired by the cafe culture she found herself immersed in while living in Melbourne, Rachael Dalton-Loveland made it her mission upon returning home to south London to set up Isla Ray - an independent cafe and bar on Deptford High Street. Here, Rachael shares some of her experiences and advice from setting up a small business amidst a community as embedded and established as Deptford.
Isla Ray coffee shop

As a retail business it took me time not only to understand how to run a business, but more specifically to get to grips with how my cafe, Isla Ray, would fit in on Deptford High Street. It’s an area of London that has a distinct existing community, and it’s crucial as a new business to the area to consider other businesses, footfall and transport links – as well as get to grips with local events, schemes, networks, charities and so on.

Nothing quite prepares you for the number of responsibilities you’ll face, and in many ways I was completely out of my depth. You have to learn a lot – and fast! I feel like I have done another university degree with the amount of new things I have learned, both about business and about Deptford itself.

The importance of community

The truth is, it can be very daunting setting up a business of this sort in a new area. Although I had done a lot of research beforehand, I had never lived here in Deptford, and soon realised how important it was going to be to make a good impression on the locals. They are the people who know the area like no one else does, and have been fundamental to our success.

When used to describe retail businesses like Isla Ray, gentrification is sometimes used as a negative term, and there’s an understandable concern around new businesses pushing out the older, established communities. So it’s been really important for us to have a community oriented aspect of the business with local art exhibitions, DJs and space for workshops and charity events.


Be targeted

Another thing I have learned is that you really need to know who your business is targeting, so you can be specific with your offering. What do they want? What does the area need? What are other people not doing? And how do you get the word out to them?

We offer a workspace, arts space, a range of food and drinks – but it’s who you’re offering them to and how you get that message to them that really matters. We attract a lot of freelance creatives during the day. Therefore we have been in communication with all the art hubs and studios in the local area, making them aware of what we do and providing incentives such as free exhibition space. It’s about identifying your ideal customer, and then letting them know that you have what they want.

Money, money, money!

There’s no denying it – it requires funds! The space I rent used to be a Subway and needed to be completely gutted. I took a number of money saving measures, including doing the painting myself – countless nights spent frantically painting, completely sleep deprived!

Forming relationships with neighbouring business owners has been incredibly helpful. We are always lending and borrowing things from each other, sharing contacts and recommending local tradesmen. Once again, it’s all about community.

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Spreading the word

Social media has been key when trying to promote our brand and gain an audience.

But that said, something I’ve had to be careful of is not doing all your marketing through the internet, as it is the opposite of local. It’s easy to get wrapped up in online communities and forget about what’s on your doorstep. Yes, having an Instagram presence is helpful, but it’s not the same as having a strong presence in a community. We have put up posters, handed out flyers and shared our business through word of mouth, which has really helped.

The future...

We’ve just had our one year anniversary – and I am finally feeling like everything will be okay..! For the first time in a year I can sit back and begin to enjoy the success of Isla Ray. We are beginning to break records and the (distant!) future looks as though it could possibly be quite prosperous. And that feeling of being part of the high street, forming friendships with locals and local businesses – it’s just great.