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Strong, capable and reliable women doing what is perceived to be a man’s job

Van Girls with Boxes | Women’s Magazine Feature
Van Girls with Boxes in air | Women’s Magazine Feature
Van Girls altogether  | Women’s Magazine Feature

We shined the spotlight on Van Girls from North London back in 2013 when the first issue of Women in Trade was launched. We were captured by their concept and quickly came to the realisation that there was no other van service like this one.

“If you’ve got a really good idea, don’t be afraid that you don’t know how to make it happen, just do it bit by bit”

Emma Lanman was born 1983 in Essex and moved to London aged 8 months. She attended a girls’ grammar secondary school in North London called The Henrietta Barnett School. She studied History of Art at Birmingham University and worked at a number of galleries and theatres for a couple of years, including Tate Britain and Arts Depot. Emma joined the London Fire Brigade as a firefighter for five years and later became a crew manager at Hornsey Fire Station. From there she went on to run Van Girls full-time.

Our Editor caught up with the founder on our Pink Carpet.

What inspired you to start your own business?

I never really thought about starting my own business but programmes like The Apprentice brought it into my mind and made me think I could be good at it. I studied History of Art at Birmingham University and worked in art galleries, museums and theatres, before moving into the fire brigade for a total change. It was during my time there that I developed my practical skills and the idea of Van Girls began to formulate. I am a keen rugby player and have always enjoyed staying fit and strong. This, combined with my artier, more creative side, and my eternal optimism, seem to have got me this far. Having a business was not my dream growing up at all. I wanted to be an artist, an interior designer, an actress, a curator, but not a businesswoman. It is only in the last few years that an idea was born that I thought had legs, and then I got more and more into it. Having not paid much attention to the world of business before, it has been a steep learning curve.

What support did you have?

Coming from a background of the fire brigade, I learnt that, not only could I work in a job which is traditionally thought of as a job for men, but that if something doesn’t work one way, you try a different way. It’s a great mentality to have. As for the business side of things, my knowledge and experience were virtually non-existent. I went on some great courses on business finance, trademarks and market research at the British Library’s Business and IP Centre, as well as attending the Business Startup show a couple of times and visiting all sorts of free workshops on marketing. When I decided to include art handling and moving as one of the services we provide, I attended a great course in Art Handling and Installation at the University of the Arts London. My main source of support, however, has been from my incredible circle of friends, family and previous colleagues. They have offered their help, practical skills, knowledge and time in areas as diverse as branding, marketing, communications, risk management, tax, accounting, sourcing and assessing the viability of vehicles… the list goes on. I have also relied on a great pool of female friends from rugby, firefighting and other physical backgrounds to work for me, or just to help out when I could not find anyone to do a job. I have been overwhelmed by how supported I have felt, and the business wouldn’t be where it is today without them all.

What are your most important accomplishments so far?

The first month when we brought in more money than we spent felt like a huge achievement, although we still made a loss in the first year (which I had predicted we would).

“Our first European job, taking hats for a hat maker to two menswear trade shows in Florence and Berlin, felt like a massive step forwards. Making it into the Time Out blog felt like a big marketing achievement.”

Did you experience a lot of opposition starting up a female-only business?

The vast majority of people think it’s a great idea and love the concept. I have had a few comments from men who don’t like that they couldn’t work as a Van Girl, but I usually just remind them of the thousands of man and van operations there are out there for them to choose from and they see that it makes sense for there to be this option available to people. We have quite a lot of male customers, which I wasn’t really expecting. Generally, they get in touch because they’ve stumbled across us on Google. They like the website, the branding and the price and give us a go, sometimes for the novelty factor. But we get great feedback from our male customers and they usually come back to us whenever they need a van service.

Do your female customers feel safer when they see a Van Girl?

We have done some work with women’s refuges where moving for their clients can be extremely stressful and logistically difficult. The comfort of being moved by women is really important to them. But even with women who have no reason to fear their own safety, there does seem to be an element of feeling safer letting women into their homes, particularly if they live alone or have small children. I would say that more important than safety, to our customers, is service. They want a good, friendly service with no fuss and no damage caused, and with us that’s what they get, so they pass the knowledge on! Having a fun, engaging brand helps too.

“Male customers give us a go, sometimes for the novelty factor.”

What tools did you use to stay positive whilst growing your business?

I have on occasion been accused of blind optimism, which can mean that I need people to ground me with hard facts and question my assertions, rather than give me positive affirmations all the time. Having said that, my partner, my parents and my friends have all been very positive about the business. The Van Girls love the work and the company and we have a great time together. This, and the great feedback from our customers, means that I never question whether this is the right track. There will just always be things to figure out along the way.

Do you think we need more tradeswomen, and what differences do you think we make in a male-dominated world?

Any service or industry that is dominated by one kind of person can become complacent. I feel a responsibility to represent women well when I carry out any job in a male-dominated industry. I strive to be extra strong, extra careful and extra helpful when moving people’s possessions, and I want the lead-up to the job to be stress-free for my customers. If I do the best job possible then my customers will see women as worthy of this kind of work and I have done my bit. This raising of standards and striving for excellence can only be a good thing for the industry as a whole.

If you could turn back time would you do anything different?

Yes, almost everything! But then, as I said, it’s been a huge learning curve. There are two ways of doing things – long drawn out, meticulous research before doing anything, or just leaping in.  I am instinctively a leaper-in and as a result have paid too much for insurance, got my telephone number through a bad company and had to change it after six months, along with all my flyers, cards and signwriting on the van, lost money on jobs because I was so excited about getting the quote out I didn’t research it properly. But, as a result, I have learnt a huge amount, and we have got opportunities that have been great for us, which we might otherwise have missed.

What is the story behind the Van Girls Army poster?

The land girl-esque illustrations that we have on our website and flyers are supposed to remind people that during the war women were running our factories and putting out the fires, and there is no reason we can’t be doing that now!

What does it take to become a Van Girl?

To be a Van Girl you need to be fit and strong, be a good team player and get satisfaction out of doing a good job. If you don’t enjoy the work, the customer won’t be as pleased with the result.

Do you have any advice or tips for women thinking of going into business?

If you’ve got a really good idea, don’t be afraid that you don’t know how to make it happen, just do it bit by bit. The most important thing is using your network. You will be surprised how many people you know with different knowledge and skills who will be happy to help you at the start of your journey in exchange for tea, cake and beer.

“During the war women were running our factories and putting out the fires, and there is no reason we can’t be doing that now”!

(Taken from our first issue 2013)