The Brains Behind a Brand series; this week we speak to Sharon Wolter-Ferguson, founder of Hardly Ever Worn It...

‘Inspirational’ is a term often overused in the English language; attributed to everyone from the local fireman to Mandela or the Dalai Lama. So what does the word actually mean? Well, one definition amongst many is ‘giving you the enthusiasm to do or create something’; this is the one that first springs to mind when I meet Sharon Wolter-Ferguson, the entrepreneur behind e-commerce site Hardly Ever Worn it; an upmarket EBay for designer clothes and accessories. But why is it Wolter-Ferguson strikes me as inspirational? Because this is not an entrepreneur with years of experience I’m meeting; prior to launching her business just two short years ago she was, in her own words, ‘a very well looked after housewife,’ a self proclaimed shopaholic; one who had dedicated over twenty years of her life to looking after her children. Well the housewife is no more; in her place is Sharon Wolter-Ferguson, founder of a burgeoning business empire.



So how did such a radical transformation take place? How did the entrepreneur quite literally turn her life around? It seems her environment had a lot to do with it; Monaco, where Wolter-Ferguson bolted after the end of her marriage. 'The thing is there, it’s this pressure, you can’t keep wearing last years clothes, because you know the pressure is to get on and buy the new stuff.’ She was constantly trying to keep up with the Joneses - some seriously wealthy women as it turns out. The entrepreneur found herself regularly donating clothes to the one second-hand shop in the eponymous millionaire's playground. ‘I was coming out with stuff - people were complimenting me on what I’d bought. Everybody understood you making a bit of money from second hand stuff but it wasn’t that cool.' Cool enough to notice a massive hole in the market and capitalize on it however.

It started small, with a few friends donating items, but quickly black rubbish bins full of clothes were appearing on a regular basis at the front door of the west London Mews house where Wolter-Ferguson currently oversees the operation. The site has now grown exponentially; users upload from all over the world, with the site taking a fifteen percent stake, thirty percent for the listings managed by the Hardly Ever Worn It team.

I attended the launch party a few weeks ago; an incredibly well organised event at swanky private members club Mortons, the entire operation overseen by the PR team at Quintessentially. Wolter-Ferguson laughs as she tells me my picture is on the site - that I may well have been in Tatler. I have to say she's extremely fun to be around, coercing me into having a glass of wine at lunchtime – against my better judgment. She's the seriously cool aunt I wish I had had, the mother who dedicated her life to her children, till it wasn’t enough anymore. Fear of course must have been a huge factor I suggest; after all that time out of the job market, 'The biggest problem is self belief because when you’ve been a housewife, mother or both all your life, if you suddenly say to people ‘I’m going to do this, or I’m going to do that’ - you really doubt yourself.'

So now that Wolter-Ferguson has faced the fear and done it anyway, where is there left to go? Now that the entrepreneurial spirit has been awakened like a primordial lioness from its cage? Well for starters she wants more, boy does she want more... First up she's going to turn her attention to Hardly Ever High Street, the companion site to Hardly Ever Worn It. 'Everyone who has a Balenciaga or Prada, has also got a bit of Reiss or French Connection,’ she explains. ‘We were turning away too many nice things. Kurt Geiger stuff like that,' another niche in the market the entrepreneur pounced on; the site is already up and running - almost running itself it seems. 'The plan is to do Hardly Ever Used It, Hardly Ever Driven It. ‘Used It’ will be Ipads, BlackBerrys, golf clubs, polo sticks, all the upmarket stuff... Driven It, which all the guys will go nuts about; they buy these bloody cars and leave them in the garage and gaze at them and squirt them and polish them and drive around one block.' 



This multi brand mentality reminds me of the Easyjet ethos; I wonder how much Wolter-Ferguson credits her friend Stelios with in the Cinderella like story of her life - was he her guardian angel? The helping hand that guided her down the path to prospective millions? ‘He came out every second weekend, and he would say pick me up at nine... He’s one of those people, same table, same dish, same restaurant; a creature of habit. We’d sit there and in would walk this person or that person - and the tales they told, ‘my business this week, this has happened, that deal...’ I heard things that could rock the world. Secretly I was a bit jealous...’

So there was the motivation; but practically what advice did the Easyjet founder give her? ‘He said ‘don’t be one of those people who says they’ll do something - just do it. Don’t let somebody else do it and then go ‘oh if only I did that!’ Wolter-Ferguson heeded his advice; after two years of development the site was ready for public consumption. She is quick to admit it could have happened faster; 'because I wasn’t fully applied to it, but that was them (the developers) messing me around and me not really knowing I was being messed around. Naivety.' Naively set her back many a time, a steep learning curve for a woman with no previous business experience. With advice from friends including Richard Farleigh of Dragons Den fame, the entrepreneur taught herself, a lesson in the school of life and hard knocks, but perhaps this was her strength I venture? Perhaps this is why the site has been so successful? ‘An entrepreneurial brain goes round things,’ Wolter-Ferguson muses, ‘it doesn’t see blocks. You just can’t let these things get you down. You just have to keep telling yourself you can do it.’ And do it she did, sitting before me nursing her glass of Sauvignon Blanc and waxing lyrical about SEO, bloggers, brand awareness like a seasoned pro. ‘I’ve got about 860 hats I have to wear... I have had to learn, and I do, I soak it all up, you’ve got to know enough about everything.’

She is nothing if not philosophical when considering her new status however, ‘The first little bit of success, and people start to give you congratulations and I find that really embarrassing because I’m sort of quite humble; people start to tell you how well you’re doing... You sort of bat it all away but there’s a little piece of you that goes ‘Oh I can do this!’ Your self belief grows...’

So a steep learning curve aided by a bit of fortuitous luck it seems when, Sharon’s daughter Natalia went off to film a segment for Made in Chelsea with Chloe Green, ‘It was great for the website but I hated it,’ Sharon laughs. ‘Nevertheless; off they went and the next thing was we had an article, I think a cameraman sold a story, that Natalia had this website, her mum da, da, da... Chloe, Kate Moss, all these people were selling their clothes on it. Then I had Grazia and Liz Jones’ (the esteemed Daily Mail columnist) ‘on the phone, and it was so busy I lived in my Pyjamas for three weeks day and night. I didn’t go to bed. We had China, Japan - the blogs, all around the world. I wasn’t used to any of it.'

We're sitting in an empty bar, in a west London private members club when Wolter-Ferguson recounts the anecdote; again I'm struck by he amiable she is, clever funny, entertaining. She's about to move into her first set of offices, the morning has been spent with an investor. It's a very different lifestyle I observe, she laughs merrily in agreement, ‘Monaco is not very conducive to working; everyone doesn’t tend to go back to the office, they tend to - you know, have other ways to spend their hours,’ she laughs. The newly single entrepreneur nevertheless bucked the trend, 'I was determined... It was credit crunch time and I didn’t want to have to worry about finances - you have to start before you need to, if you know what I mean.’

So it's clear Wolter-Ferguson hails from a privileged background; a world where celebrities live in close proximity, I wonder was it more a help or a hindrance? In a nutshell would she have done it sooner? 'My mother actually said to me ‘I’ve never worked a day in my life, I don’t see why you should.’ I remember her clearly saying it to me.' This is an ethos Wolter-Ferguson will not be handing down to her daughters, she is proud to hand them a business that may well prove a legacy in years to come. ‘I‘ve been the most indulgent mother,’ she readily admits, 'I couldn’t afford it but just did it because I loved their little faces lighting up - but we’ve sold all that stuff now it’s all gone, all been sold on the site.' In fact her daughters (Nathalia, 21 and Tatiana, 19) are poised to take on the mantle, but how does Wolter-Ferguson cope with being the boss I wonder - do they answer her back? 'Yes they do,’ she laughs, ‘left, right and centre. I’m up against that all day long.’

I've been with the entrepreneur for well over an hour by this point, I don't want to leave; she has that knack, of making you feel special, making you feel heard, turning the tables and asking you questions; an inquisitive nature that has served her well. She tells me a story about being shoehorned into a private dinner by the owner of Gulfstream, finding herself sandwiched between George Clooney and Brad Pitt. ‘There were only thirty of us and the guy turned up and I said to him ‘If I don’t kiss George Clooney I’ll have to jump out of the building’ and he said ‘I can’t have that!’ and turned round and shouted ‘George!’ He was super smooth - my God that voice. Brad Pitt was taller than I thought; funnily enough that’s when he as getting it together with Angelina Jolie - he was sitting on his own; texting and texting and smoking and texting.’

She laughs as she recounts it, still dazed with childlike awe at being in the presence of such über celebrities, I on the other hand can't help but think it won't be long before someone else is sitting at a table much like this one, telling the story of being at a dinner with Sharon Wolter-Ferguson, founder of the Hardly Ever Empire.


Interview by Alice Kahrmann June 2012.