Samantha Morgan-Bertish lives in Switzerland and operates her fashion and character brand remotely… her business was inspired by her dog’s life, a dog that has been by her side through the most challenging of times… f-ACT Magazine are pleased to be able to share Sam’s inspirational story in her own words…
When I came up with the original cartoon drawing of my pet dog Zuma a little over nine years ago, I had no idea the journey it would take me on. It’s certainly been a journey of learning, patience, with gratitude and humility. I have made mistakes and I’ve had times where I’ve had to make tough decisions, which has not always led to the right choices, but with the tools I’ve been given to work with I’ve had to look outside the box to get things done and try to continue to move forward. If hindsight could be a super power that is the one I would want.
Zuma came to live with me as a puppy in March 2007. He was just eight weeks old and I fell in love with him immediately. Part of me believes it was a hormonal decision to adopt him, because a week following his arrival I found out I was pregnant.
Unexpectedly, the mothering instinct was strong with me. I was always the career woman and motherhood was something I’d never really yearned for, Zuma soon became MY baby and we became close with an unbreakable bond. My pregnancy was easy to a point and I tried to take time to enjoy it, be there for Zuma to train him and almost all aspects of my life were wonderful, except for my extremely volatile and lonely marriage. I knew it wasn’t going to last, but for the sake of my unborn child and Zuma, I needed to create as stable and safe home life as possible and keep things together.
Once a fashion designer living in London, supplying young fashion to the high-street stores, my career was long gone due to marriage commitments and a controlling husband. Unemployed and downtrodden, my creative flair could not be taken and in a vivid dream the shape of Zuma’s cartoon alter ego came to me and in secret I drew it down, illustrated it on the computer and soon enough a very simple version of Zuma the Dog had come to life.
I kept this cartoon creation of Zuma hidden from my husband, who would call it ‘stupid’ and ‘a waste of time’, and instead I concentrated on home life, my pregnancy, Zuma’s training and trying to make my husband happy. I could see that nothing I could do would stop his drunken criticism and taunting, and over time his behaviour towards me deteriorated to a point where all respect was lost. He couldn’t take his frustration out on me (which he used to) so by this point it was focused towards my dog. A lot of the time was spent protecting Zuma. After a while all I could see was a change in my sweet innocent puppy. I could see fear in his eyes; untrusting towards humans, a fear for anyone wearing brown shoes and how he would stand between my husband and me, barking profusely at him when he tried to walk towards me.
Having been diagnosed with thyroid dysfunction the year before, my pregnancy was considered “high risk” and while resting during this time I would spend hours watching Zuma, watching him play, to fight and hide things and bury bones in the garden. His intelligence and behaviour fascinated me. I would watch and watch, and my mind would think about his cartoon alter ego I had created and soon enough I started to note down everything Zuma was getting up to. These notes became my first story, now award-winning “Zuma likes to Dig.”
This book, and those that followed were the birth of the idea of the Zuma the Dog as a character for pre-school children.
Fast forward two years… after a decision to protect my now 16-month old son, 2-year-old Zuma and myself, I found I was a single Mum, unemployed and recovering from the trauma of five years of domestic violence. It took all my strength to make the decision to report my husband for his abuse and violence and I knew by having him removed from the house for our personal safety was only going to be the beginning of a battle that would continue for another five years. He had broken my jaw six months previously, resulting in facial reconstruction surgery and three days stay in hospital and eight-week recovery time at home. For the sake of my family’s wellbeing and future happiness… it was a decision I needed to make.
With no job, a child to raise and zero financial help from the husband, I had to find a way to support my family, keep us safe, create some security for our future and keep the roof over our heads. All I know is fashion design. It was my career from the moment I left university until I was married and there wasn’t much call for fashion designers in sleepy Somerset where I had been living. How can I create a living for my family? How can I also be there for them to work through our trauma? I thought about Zuma’s cartoon character I had created and shelved. I thought about the books I had written, illustrated and abandoned, which were only intended for my son at the time. Then I thought about combining my Zuma character creation with my knowledge of the fashion world and created the clothing brand Zuma the Dog.
While my son would sleep at night I would work. I created the logo, and the brand philosophy. I worked on style concepts, registered my company, and trademarked my brand, sourced factories, put cost structures and plans together. Outsourced sample manufacturing and liaised with manufacturers in China and Thailand. I put the range together, found a small amount of funding and eight months later the first Zuma the Dog t-shirts and hoodies were delivered to my door. I was in business!
Now all I had to do was sell!
I must admit it’s not been easy. The lack of funding has meant I have had to do everything myself. I had a lot of experience in sales, design and manufacturing, but little idea about running a business and the commitment it took. I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight and I chose to bury myself in my new business venture to counsel myself through the trauma I had experienced with my marriage. There was drive in me to make things work, to better our circumstances and to prove to my ex that ‘we are definitely better off without him’. My plan was to make this work and give it everything I had. Raising my son and being there for my family was my priority and the personal trauma had its effect on my health. A year after the departure of my ex-husband I was diagnosed with PTSD. I didn’t want it to take over my life as I had a fantastic opportunity with my business that was keeping me focused. I did a great job in keeping it all together for the sake of my family, but there were times the business was left unattended while I took time for my recovery… and it did suffer.
In the beginning, I made sales to local children’s boutiques. I had stalls at local fairs, village fates and held meetings with old contacts from my fashion days. I even got to present the brand to some of the large high street retailers including Debenhams and Selfridges. The recession was in full swing and making any kind of sale was difficult and the large high-street retailers weren’t prepared to take a risk on an unknown kids’ wear brand. So, not letting that get me down I took to ecommerce and set up Zumathedog.com online. I set up our social marketing with Facebook and Twitter and the blog Shop Zuma the Dog. I set out to build my brand awareness and create an online reputation for consumers. I sent out samples to celebrities and started to get some notice and recognition. Sales were starting to grow and I thought I was getting somewhere.
Eighteen months of living as a single mum and running my business and I was really starting to enjoy the decisions I had made. Almost recovered from my physical trauma from the ex’s abuse I started to feel strong enough to consider a new relationship and with destiny calling everything changed for the better. I met and fell in love with the man of my dreams. I had been separated from my husband for eighteen months and divorced from him six months, (although the financial agreement had not been concluded) and from poor judgement on my behalf I missed my flight home from a short vacation to visit a friend in Portugal when I met my new husband-to-be who happened to join us for dinner with mutual friends.
My fledgling business was ticking along. I wasn’t making a profit, but it was still gaining sales and starting to get known. I opened my first pop- up shop at Clarks Village for the Christmas rush in November 2010. This was probably the hardest working time I’ve ever experienced. I would be up at 6am to get my son to the babysitter, drive thirty minutes to set up the shop, work all day outside in all-weather including -7 degrees and snow, pack up at the end of the day, get home for my son, feed and put him to bed and repeat every other day for six weeks. It was tough. Luckily for me, I had the help of my father to do all the heavy lifting work and bring me flasks of hot tea, but for the most part I was outside in the winter cold selling my products.
At this point I hadn’t heard a peep from my ex-husband in almost a year. That was, until he heard that I had moved on and met someone new, and he reared his ugly head and my personal life was to take over from business. My new partner lived and worked in Portugal. Our relationship was moving forward wonderfully. We talked every day and we would take turns to visit each other regularly and Zuma approved of him. My son, now three was very taken with him too, and I could see this relationship was worth investing in.
We talked at length about how we could bring our lives together and what would work best for us to be a family and as the biological father of my son had not taken any real interest in him for almost a year we decided our best move was to join my new partner in Portugal and start a new life together. My business was mostly done online at this point and I could easily run it remotely and organise deliveries with the warehouse via emails and Skype. Whatever I did in my home office in the UK I could do anywhere. I wrote a letter to the father of my son explaining how our lives had moved on and that I would like his blessing to allow me to take my son to live in Portugal where he would have more stability and greater opportunities in life. This of course was the excuse he needed to gain more control over my life and for the next year my personal life made it almost impossible to concentrate on business. Each week was a new set of problems with the ex-husband. I tried to work, but the worry of what he may do next took the focus away from anything I tried to do. There were court hearings to prepare for too.
My ability to be a good mother was questioned by him and in turn questioned by the authorities. I felt like I was being dragged through the mud with the fingers of blame and accusations being pointed at me. The emotional aspect, the rollercoaster was hard to cope with and this was just the thing my ex-husband needed to keep control. It was just far too much, not only for the custody battle over my son, but our future life was resting in the decision of one very misinformed person.
With travelling between England and Portugal, maintaining a long-distance relationship, being a mother to my son and Zuma, court hearings, solicitors and disgusting accusations, it was no wonder my business took yet another hit from neglect. The time spent in Portugal I saw as a way to get away from it all and those times were spent working. For me now, work was a relief to get away from ‘real life’. I found a sales rep in the UK, US and Australia, drew up contracts and samples and stock was sent to them. We started to work with online marketplaces like Amazon, Zulily US, Zulily UK, and many other mummy and baby websites. We were making some sales and gaining interest worldwide, but still not enough to make a profit or even take on full time paid staff to grow and ease the pressure on myself.
Towards the end of 2011, the stress from my personal life was taking a serious toll on me. My ex-husband had been charged with seriously assaulting a friend by cutting his throat with a broken bottle while on a drug and alcohol fuelled rampage, and deep down I was hoping him going to prison would stop our court proceedings, and that we would be allowed to start our new life in Portugal… But for some twist of luck on his behalf (even though he pleaded guilty) the man got away with a two-year suspended sentence and £1000 fine. He was free, untouchable. And I felt trapped again.
The day after finding out this news, fear and stress got the better of me and I collapsed and was rushed into hospital. I was diagnosed with E-coli brought on by long term stress. The recovery took longer than I thought and trying to work from my hospital bed was not the best way to run a business or recover quickly. I had order inquiries from a large online retailer in the USA and I had to do what I could to keep things moving forward.
A few weeks after leaving the hospital I finally heard from the courts. The good news that I was hoping for, a reprieve in the drama and the ex-husband had backed down. He could see that his stubbornness was not going to get him anywhere. I had been given full parental responsibility for my son and permission to relocate to Portugal and set up home with my new husband-to-be. This was an amazing relief to us all, but I knew that the move would mean more time away from the business.
Our new life started in March 2012, twenty months after Stephen and I first met. We all moved, including Zuma… and his life changed for the better too. Instead of short walks on the lead around the block, he had a new freedom with a paradise beach within walking distance from our new home; a place of freedom where he could romp and play and make new doggy friends. There was no way I would leave my inspiration behind. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what I’d be doing today.
My son had the opportunity to learn new languages and open his world to greater prospects. Through networking I made business contacts in Portugal, continuing to try and keep up with the online marketing and to get orders for new products as well and sell the stock. Brand awareness was growing through continuous social media marketing. Developing relationships with mummy bloggers and offsetting products with competitions to keep up media coverage and keep costs down. Business was moving forward, albeit slowly.
I was still battling with the ex-husband over the financial settlement of the divorce and though life was getting better and business was picking up I still had this hanging over me like a dark cloud and the trips back and forth to the UK for court hearing and solicitor meetings took my focus away from business.
Our life in Portugal was, and still is very wonderful. My husband-to-be has worked hard for his new family and has always been an avid supporter of Zuma the Dog. He wanted me to continue working on my fledgling brand and has always been supportive emotionally and financially. He took us on and immediately took on the role of father, husband, hunter, gatherer, for which I will always be grateful.
Later in 2013, due to a hideous twist of fate, disaster struck and Stephen had the most horrific wakeboarding accident. What was just a simple leg fracture turned into the worst act of medical neglect I have ever seen. It took twenty hours before he was operated on to repair the fracture in his leg. When he was coming around from the aesthetic he complained to the nurses of extreme pain in his leg. The nurse told him it was normal and that it would go away. Hours later the surgeon came to check on his progress and found his leg swollen and screaming with pain. The surgeon recognised he had Compartment Syndrome and was rushed to another hospital for surgery. With Compartment Syndrome, it is essential for it to be treated within six to eight hours before the leg starts to die, but Stephen was kept for twelve hours before they operated causing huge complications. They operated twice to save his leg and luckily, he still has it, but it was six months long stay in hospital, double fasciotomy (where they open up both side of the leg to relieve pressure and help blood flow), eight operations including skin grafts, months of infections followed by six months of rehabilitation to help him to walk again and get the wounds on his legs to close and heal.
Through all of this I stayed by his side. Business was again put to the side. I visited twice a day at the hospital and was home after school to take care of my son and be there for all the home needs. During my ‘less busy’ times I worked on Zuma the Dog, but was unable to follow things through or to be consistent, and I consequently lost contact with sales reps and people in the media who were helping. Everything concerning Zuma the Dog stopped. I still managed to keep the social media ticking along to maintain some presence, but it was minimal and sporadic and I was losing followers and likes. My future husband’s and family’s wellbeing came first.
A year went by with the recovery from this accident. I was caring for Stephen the best I could, while being at home for the family. The financial settlement was still being dragged out by the ex-husband, but miraculously I managed to keep things ticking over. I thought a lot about how I was going to move things forward with Zuma the Dog and thought about a new approach. I read about Licensing and thought long and hard about the pros and cons of handing over my brand for royalties. I had built the brand’s reputation and questions went through my head about how it would be handled by a third-party representative. I researched more into it and started to network to find the right agent to take on my little brand. During this time, I met Brian Smith, the author of The World of Popagami. We talked at length and he showed me his book and products which I loved. We soon came to an agreement on licensing and have collaborated on different projects ever since. It was Brian who introduced me to author Daisy White who in turn introduced me to her Booktique pop-up shops, of which I was gladly happy to get involved with.
For me and Zuma the Dog it was a fantastic opportunity to get back in the UK high-street. To meet and network with other small businesses and know that I am not alone in the struggles to get things off the ground and the pitfalls of having a start-up business. The difficulty this time round was working remotely from Portugal. Still trying to find focus and direction for Zuma the Dog and being so far away, working from home alone can be quite isolating. I’m an avid user of Skype and Facebook and use these tools to always stay in touch. With someone always at the end of the internet line you don’t feel quite so alone. It took some time, but Stephen eventually recovered from his accident and could go back to work fulltime. As soon as he was given the all clear to return to work fulltime, his company sent him to Brazil on a contract that lasted a year.
My financial settlement with the ex-husband was still going on and becoming a real strain on my family finances, a strain on my health, again, and now I was to find myself back to being a single Mum, while my future husband went to live and work on the other side of the world to try and make back some of the money he had lost while incapacitated for so long. I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease; an auto immune disease that attacks the thyroid gland, causing the thyroid dysfunction that I had been diagnosed with back in 2006. I was experiencing all the health issues that go along with this invisible disease. I was back on my own, this time in a foreign country, not knowing the language well, I had friends, but my family support network was gone. The upside to this was that taking care of one other person was out of the equation and with my son in school from nine to five thirty. I could plan my time better, refocus, create a new routine and make a new plan for Zuma the Dog. I could focus on my health, clear my mind, recover from the latest family drama and get myself strong again for business.
The main thing was to sell the stock that I had. Warehouse costs were mounting up and eating into any little profit I had made. There had been some interest from retailers in China and France and I quickly got to selling as much stock as possible, keeping a minimal amount for online sales and any boutique store enquiries that came in. The idea of finding a licensing agent was still in the back of my mind and I had managed to procure a couple of licensing deals for Zuma the Dog, which were very small and nothing had really come from them. Due to my lack of experience in the licensing world and inability to focus and chase people because of my insane personal life, things just fell through. The other problem I found was that I was unable to travel. Being on my own taking care of my family left me even more isolated from the business world and unable to go out and meet people and make those all-important face-to-face meetings. So, while carrying on planning for Zuma the Dog’s future, I worked more closely with Daisy White and her Booktique. I am grateful for all the support and hard work Daisy and Brian and the others have done to include Zuma the Dog in their endeavours and their passions for their businesses that have motivated me to carry on. Sometimes you just need to be around like-minded people.
With the financial settlement of my first marriage finally complete and Stephen home from Brazil, the stress in my life was starting to subside and life was calming down a bit. Daisy invited Zuma the Dog to be a part of her Pop-Up Horsham shop in 2015 and I jumped at the opportunity to be involved. The store gave Zuma the chance to have a more permanent fixture on the high street, while testing the market and taking the brand to more people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to find us… We developed a following, and through advice from business advisers I had decided to keep things simple, focus on two aspects of the business and start over, yet again!
This time to put the focus back on the country Zuma the Dog was born in. Bring everything back home. Regularly showcasing in the pop-up store and gaining popularity, I decided it was time to step things up. The brand had won an award for product quality given to us by BizzieBaby.com, a parenting network based in the UK and I had heard that my first book “Zuma Likes to Dig” had made it to the final stage in an Independent book awards. My latest book “Zuma the Dinosaur Guy” was in the process of being finished and I started to feel the passion and motivation for business coming back.
Things were on the up again… and yet still, finding a licensing agent was proving to be difficult. I’d had many email conversation with people, but nothing signed or solid, so I figured ‘now is the time for me to go out and find the right agent for Zuma the Dog’. Brand Licensing Europe 2015 was coming up in October and I planned with Stephen for him to not be travelling at this point because I was going out there to get what my little business needed. ‘It’s now or never and I want to make this work.’
My personal life had been taking over for the last five years and now it was my time. I registered for the show. Planned my trip, researched agents and contacted those I wanted to meet. People remember you when you make the effort. I was on a mission… I have a belief in my creation. It has the potential to be something greater than me and I wanted to meet the people who could make that happen.
I don’t know what got into me that day. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the whole event. I could feel my anxiety setting in and I was a little star struck by seeing the Minions, The Simpsons, Paw Patrol and many other entertainment characters wondering around, but I needed to make this work. My son would be so jealous of me when I got home and told him about all his favourite TV characters that I met. Armed with my list of agents to meet, my little stuffed Zuma the Dog key rings and business cards I set to meeting with these amazing people. The event was full of fun and energy and it wasn’t long before I was uplifted by the excitement of the whole day. I suddenly felt at home as I pitched my brand to perfect strangers and showed them the concept and stories behind the work that I had done and always left them with my card and stuffed Zuma the Dog toy.
This was it!
The appointment I was most looking forward to was with a lady who responded to one of my LinkedIn posts about wanting to meet with agents at the show. She knew of someone who was looking for new brands to take on and wanted to talk with me. I wasn’t sure what it would lead to, but I wanted to go with it and see.
You just never know!
Thinking it would be an informal coffee I soon found myself surrounded by six people and I was pitching to a marketing company, a media representative and a licensing agent. EEEeeeekkkkk!!!!
I completely winged it!
Nobody knows my brand better than me, so I pulled it together, the feedback was positive and they loved my brand! Zuma the Dog was just what they were looking for to add to their growing portfolio of brands and now Zuma the Dog would be represented by a wellknown agency with years of experience, and be sitting next to already established brands like Disney Juniors, Zou and Om Nom from Cut the Rope. I couldn’t believe my luck.
I achieved what I set out to do!
A pitch from the agency followed a few weeks later to develop Zuma the Dog into a children’s entertainment character with his own VOD TV series to be broadcast. Months of contractual negotiations followed and in December 2015, Zuma the Dog had finally signed its long-awaited licensing agent with the first agreement being the TV show, which is currently in development and due to be launched in summer 2017 on via the online children’s entertainment platform Kidscast TV.
It’s certainly been a long story with many ups and a lot of downs. I’ve tried to accomplish the impossible and almost killed myself doing it. I’ve had a lot of support and made many friends along the way. Being taken advantage of is certainly one thing to keep a close eye on in business. I’ve learnt to grow a thick skin and I believe part of that has come from the problems I encountered with my first marriage. For every ‘yes’ that I have had it’s always been preceded with many more ‘nos’, and I believe one must believe in oneself and continue to push and push no matter how long it takes.
A Start-up business is a learning curve. Adapting all the time to make things work, trial and error and never a nine-to-five. Zuma the Dog is moving into a new phase of its development and I am really excited about the next chapter of this brand’s story. I still have a long way to go, but for now I am happy with the achievements I’ve accomplished against all the odds I have faced. With our growing sales team, Spring/Summer 2018 will see Zuma the Dog hit the UK high-street retailers with our latest clothing collection and new stories and a children’s novel is in preparation for end of 2017 release.
By insisting on not taking on any loans, funding and partners to date I’ve managed to keep control of Zuma the Dog as it moves into this new venture as a children’s entertainment character. It’s my vision and my philosophy that the children will see… I still haven’t turned a profit, but I know that from now on, whatever happens, I’ve been able to stay true to my brand philosophy. I haven’t sold out to the big corporate company and I’m proud that Zuma the Dog is loved and enjoyed by children around the world.
I’m definitely a believer in “If you can dream it, you can have it”. I dreamt it and focused on it and for now the dream is coming true.
As for Zuma himself, He’s getting older now and starting to chill out much more. It took some time and careful training but he has recovered from the trauma of abuse he went through in the beginning of his life. He is my rock, my best friend, my protector and continues to inspire me every day. To write stories, to illustrate them and share them with the world. Without him I would never have gotten through the abuse from my first husband.
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