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What Mary Portas taught me about running a small business

I can't remember the first time I saw Mary Portas on TV. I do remember vividly how she burst onto the screen, though. And I do mean burst.

How could I miss her? She'd done the very thing Russell Brand did to become famous: be obvious in silhouette (albeit with red hair).

Her Secret Shopper programmes are hugely enjoyable. Whether she's retraining an illiterate shop worker to write his own coffee signs or persuading a bunch of blokes to have facials (all in the name of sales), she is eminently watchable.

So I was very excited when I saw this tweet on Saturday morning:

Mary Portas? In Clifton at noon? It was a must!

I just had one problem: I was setting up a wedding cake at 12 o'clock. Would there be time to get everything done and get to Clifton before Mary left?

And time wasn't my only problem - parking was also a nightmare. That, and I was supposed to be collecting my children. There was nothing for it but to race to the shop, only (to my delight) to see Mary striding along in full fashion glory with a gorgeous little dog by her side.

There was no time for dithering. I strode up to Mary (who was a little taken aback) and gushed about how glad I was to have found her. I skipped the part about how impressive she is (more on this later). Instead, I took a shameless selfie and was able to gather up my little 'uns and drive home.

Mary Portas & me in Clifton, Bristol

(One incredibly fashionable person and someone else hiding a battered handbag.)

So what is it that makes Mary so impressive? Let's see: an orphan and guardian by 18, a strong campaigner for gender equality, a grafter beyond belief and someone who's prevailed where others would have slumped, Mary is an example of someone who never makes excuses. She's overcome issues only the strongest of people could manage, and it becomes quite obvious if you watch any of her programmes.

But let's not forget her mission. It may have occurred to you Mary wanted to get people to her new Clifton shop and support her charitable work, not fawn over her and excitedly bounce away with a photo.

With that in mind, I went back the next day and was pleased to see it open as I drove past. Fifteen minutes and some frantic parking later, I walked up to the shop, only to see this rather sad little sign:

Shop closed on 2nd day of opening

All I could think was: really? On your second day of opening did you absolutely have to close? (This was made all the worse by the other people crowding around me, sad to see it shut and cooing over the window designs.) I'm convinced Mary would not have approved. Even if there'd been an earthquake, she'd have manned the station.

Thankfully, Shelter was just a few doors down and with its doors wide open, I went inside and bought a pair of jeans.

I then went across the road to a café that boasted its coffee's origins as sustainable, fair, eco-friendly etc...

Ethical coffee & a plastic plant

But when I sat down, I noticed all the plants were plastic. Mary wouldn't have allowed that, I thought. She'd have been quite scornful of the mixed ethical messages.

Also, there was practically no branding - nothing in the shop to remind me where I was. Not even a logo. Mary would have had their branding sorted in a flash, I can tell you.

That said, it was the most delicious coffee I've had in ages, and a very friendly chap served it. I'd love to go back...if I could remember the name of the place, that is.

You can support Mary by going to her Save The Children page here.

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