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Wednesday, December 13, 2023

I’m a mum-of-one and couldn’t afford Christmas last year – my business now makes £200k after Dragons’ Den appearance

JUST one year ago, a single mum was only able to afford Christmas dinner and a present for her son thanks to a donation from the school.

Yet 12 months on, she is running a business ↗, now with a turnover of £200,000.

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Zoë Chapman, 39, has gone from struggling with Christmas costs to appearing on Dragons’ Den

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Single mum attended the GBE awards

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The business went from zero to hero after Zoë won investments on Dragons’ Den

Zoë Chapman is the founder of Kiddiwhizz ↗, and inventor of the Whizzer, a small eco-friendly portable toilet.

She’s been working on the start-up for several years, but had a huge pivotal moment earlier this year, after appearing on Dragon’s Den ↗ with her invention.

She ended up getting a £50,000 investment, with both Steven Bartlett ↗ and Sara Davies ↗ each putting in £25,000 for a combined 25% share in the business.

After filming with the popular BBC TV ↗ show, annual turnover went from around £20,000 to more than £200,000 – almost overnight.

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Zoë told The Sun: “Until recently, I was living off food vouchers ↗. I wouldn’t have been able to afford last Christmas without help from my son’s school.

“But this has been a big year of change.”

The 39-year-old who lives in north-west London ↗, has a history of homelessness ↗.

“One of the big reasons for this was the fact I have a number of health conditions,” she said.

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“I’ve had to overcome a lot of issues in my journey, including bipolar, complex PTSD and ADHD ↗.

“These are conditions that keep me so isolated, and yet high-functioning.”

Zoë grew up in Camden Town, London, with her mum, dad and sister.

“Dad had been a musician, but gave up touring to settle down with mum,” she said.

“He set up a recording studio, but it was tough going and we lived on the breadline. We were ultimately poorer than people on benefits ↗.”

Zoë recalls her father working very long hours.

“He was determined to follow his passion, but that meant having to work seven days a week,” she said.

“We lived in a one-bed flat, and my sister and I had beds built into the wardrobe. It was hard – really hard.”

For the entrepreneur ↗, living in this way taught her to be resilient.

“Mum was creative, so we got by,” she said. “But we were living off very little money.”

By the age of 14, Zoë had two jobs.

“I spent the weekend cleaning toilets and picking up cigarette butts,” she said.

“I also had an after-school job working in a stationery store.

“I had to work this much to be able to earn money to buy school shoes and other basics.”

Zoë moved out of home aged 16, and lived in a hostel.

“At the time, I had no choice but to bunk on the train to get to school,” she said.

“But against the odds, I did my GCSEs and got all grades B and C. I also got three A-levels.”

She then went on to do a degree in Computer Science at Westminster University ↗, specialising in “information product design”.

In the midst of her studies, Zoë’s father had a stroke, so she took time out to run his business.

Once she eventually graduated, she got her first job working as a “security co-ordinator” at the London Stock Exchange.

“This was a massive leap for me,” she said.

“By day I was in the City wearing a suit, and outside of work I had a very troubled home life – no-one knew.

“It was as though I was living parallel lives.”

Zoë had a son when she was 27.

“I’d always been in abusive relationships, and then my son’s dad walked out when I was just six weeks’ pregnant,” she said.

“So I became a single mum before my son had even come into the world. I’ve had no childcare support since.”

By the time Zoë’s son was born, her dad’s condition had declined.

She said: “I then found myself looking after both my baby and my dad. I was caring for two humans in nappies.”

Zoë’s invention was borne out of her experiences.

“Around the time I was trying to potty-train my son, I was constantly going to and from hospital pushing both a buggy and a wheelchair,” she said.

“I got fed up with carrying around a huge plastic toilet, but as my son had developed a hormone deficiency, I needed to find a toilet for him at a moment’s notice.

After ditching the potty, I’d struggle to try and manage the toileting with a takeaway cup from Café Nero.”

As Zoë’s dad had a urinal medical ↗ condition, matters were made harder still.

“I spent my time wishing there was something I could use which wouldn’t leak,” she said. “All this got me thinking.”

By the start of the pandemic ↗, Zoë’s invention was beginning to take shape.

She used her passion for design to invent the Whizzer.

“Dad had sadly passed away in 2015, and I was juggling the demands of trying to home-school ↗ an eight-year-old,” she said.

“But by that point, I’d designed my invention, the packaging, marketing and website, and given it a name – and was ready to take things further.”

At this stage, Zoë did a business course with Rebel Business School.

“Initially I did this course online,” she said. “But I ended up being so committed that I went on to do it in person.

“I needed the energy of being around the people teaching the course.

“Following that, I took part in various government-funded programmes with mentors ↗ guiding me with their knowledge.”

Since then, Zoë has grown the business single-handedly.

“I’ve essentially turned an invention that I once needed myself while caring for both my son and my paralysed dad into a business –  all from my one-bed flat,” she said.

“I’ve utilised free courses and self-taught myself everything I needed to know.”

Zoë is no stranger to hard work.

“I work day and night, often up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.

“I live and breathe the business.”

After her appearance on Dragon’s Den in February, things ramped up a huge amount for Zoë.

“It was all very ‘zero to hero,’” she said.

“Prior to appearing on the show, I knew I was capable of big things, and that my product was good.

“But nothing had quite prepared me for how things would change – almost overnight.”

Sales skyrocketed, and Zoë found herself inundated with thousands of orders.

“What surprised me was the demand for the ‘adult Whizzer,’” she said.

“This ended up out-selling the kids’ version.

“It turns out I’d come up with a product that a lot of consumers ↗ really needed and wanted.

“It’s as though I’d broken some taboo of adults having toilet issues that people were usually too embarrassed to talk about.”

Zoë’s hours increased even further as she worked to meet the demand.

“It was chaos,” she said. “I was getting thousands of products manufactured and sent to my flat so that I could package them myself – and then send them, with love.”

Last month (November 2023), Zoë won “Great British Entrepreneur of the Year”, which was a huge accolade.

She said: “I really hope this will be the start of the support I’ve been so desperate for but not yet had.”

Right now, as she’s the only staff member, she has no option but to do every job in the business.

“I work around the clock,” she said.

“People assume you’ve ‘made it’ after going on Dragons’ Den, but the reality is, investment is a lengthy and complex journey.

“I’ve not yet been able to take on any staff to support me. This means I’m still undertaking all the roles, from IP protection to PR manager.”

Zoë’s also yet to fully reap the financial rewards of running a successful venture.

“I’ve invested so much into the start-up, plus there’s so much cost to running a product-based business,” she said.

“As a result, I haven’t paid myself more than £500 a month yet. I’m currently just doing all I can to try and make ends meet.”

The hope is now that more support will come her way.

“It’s hard to say how long I can continue without support, even though the business is valued close to £1million – with an estimated growth of £10million, based on forecasts,” she said.

“I’m now hoping that three years of unpaid work will pay off.

“I’ve got an enthusiastic team of incredible mums who are ready to go, wanting to take up roles in the business.”

As things stand, Zoë is still living in a run-down flat.

“It’s a housing association property, and it’s riddled with mould and damp,” she said. “I’d love to be able to move on from here.”

Zoë also has big hopes for her life with her son, now 11.

“I’m proud to be a single mum,” she said. “I’m determined to give him a very different upbringing from the one I had.

“My goal has always been to ensure my son doesn’t grow up in the poverty and turbulence that I did, and instead give him somewhere safe to live – and to never have to go without.”

Zoë is a big supporter of the single mother ↗ community.

“I want to ensure these mums see the value in themselves and what to offer,” she said.

“At the same time, it’s my hope to be able to support parents more widely, as well as the disabled ↗ community.

“This is a product that can be used by anyone who needs it, including autistic ↗ children, the physically disabled – and many more.”

Zoë’s top tips

We asked Zoë to share her top tips for anyone looking to set up their own business.

“First and foremost, you need to follow your passion,” she said.

“To turn it into something that people want to support you with, you need a ‘why.’”

“Having a strong ‘why’ will drive you forward in those hard moments when you might think you can’t carry on.”

Zoë says it’s also vital to ensure you’ve come up with a service or product that people will want to pay for.

She said: “My portable toilet is now not only helping families, but also adults.

“It’s become a medical aid without the usual price tag attached.

“It is a disruptive product that has shown a clear need and traction.”

One of the key character traits required, she adds, is resilience.

“This is essential,” she said.

“You need to be willing to work day and night. That might mean little or no social life – for me it also means no Whatsapp ↗.

“You have to be prepared to work relentlessly.”

At the same time, Zoë says a “can-do” attitude is key.

She said: “I’ve grabbed every opportunity that has come along.”

Finally, she urges any aspiring entrepreneur to believe in themselves.

“Don’t let anything hold you back,” she said.

“I’ve overcome a lot of issues in my journey, including bipolar, complex PTSD ↗ and ADHD.

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“I’ve used the laser focus – and obsessional devotion to a passion – that I get from these conditions to my advantage.

“I’ve not let anything stop me.”

James Mackreides
James Mackreides
'Mac' is a short tempered former helicopter pilot , now a writer based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Loves dogs, the outdoors and staying far away from the ocean.

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