Innovative Start-Up Business Illuminates the North East with its Creative Neon Designs

Emma Krause is the founder of Light Up North; a cool, creative and innovative company that designs and makes stylish neon lighting art using EL wire. Through the IOEE’s Mentoring Programme, Emma was paired up with Denise Kay, an Associate Director at Barclays Bank. We caught up with Emma and Denise to find out more about their journey and how Light Up North is illuminating the North East.

Emma’s Story

Before Emma set up Light Up North she had a very different career, working as a child protection social worker. It was rewarding but very demanding, and difficult to balance with three young children. It was a relocation and reassessment that led Emma to take the plunge and set up a business that worked with family life. Emma says:

“I’m in the second year of starting a new business, and the stresses that come with that are very real, but there are also so many positives that it’s important to be mindful of. I often say to my husband that we don’t feel the stresses that Light Up North relieves, such as picking up the children or having to make arrangements to make sure one of us can go to the nativity plays. Before working for myself I would often find I was stuck in court late and have to miss things, so I’m really happy to have found something where it works for me, rather than I work for it.”

It was when Emma relocated to the North East and needed her house rewiring that she met an electrician, Dave, who would become her business partner. Emma says:

“Dave’s background was more theatre and commercial lighting rather than domestic lighting, and we were on the same wavelength. Light Up North uses EL wire to make creative neon signs – it’s like an electrical embroidery thread that was originally used for high end dashboards, and we’re the first people to be using it creatively. Traditional neon is expensive and difficult to get and often uncomfortably bright for your home, and once we started working with EL wire, Light Up North was born.”

The IOEE matched up Emma with her mentor, Denise, in 2016, when Light Up North was in the early stages of development. Fast forward to today and the business is flourishing, with a strong social media presence and the orders flying in. Emma says:

“Having a mentor has been such an important part of the journey, and I’m really happy to be able to promote the experience and its benefits. I have a great relationship with Denise and am able to call her and talk through everything – it’s a bit like a professional counselling relationship! Really though, she feels like a critical friend – someone whose opinion I really trust. After all, she doesn’t have an invested interest in Light Up North and doesn’t get anything out of the success or failure of the business, so being able to hear things completely objectively is incredibly helpful.

“Having a mentor also makes me feel accountable – Denise is almost like a conscience; I don’t have to please her, but I’d be disappointed in myself if I said I was going to do something and then didn’t follow through. It keeps me focused and disciplined, and talking about your agenda puts you in that ‘business zone’, and just practising that persona makes you feel more confident in other professional areas of the business too.”

The mentoring experience has been so successful for Emma that Denise is also going to begin mentoring Emma’s business partner this year too:

“We’re a great team and Dave is amazing at the technical side and I’m confident in being creative, but we now need a whole new set of skills that we didn’t need before – things such as employing and managing staff and everything that comes with that – so Denise is going to help us with this moving forward. Mentoring is so effective in your business in making you work ‘smart’. You might think you’re really busy, but it’s a wise way to spend your time, and for taking an hour out of my business to work on my businesses, the benefits and rewards are huge.”

Denise’s Story

Denise has had a long career at Barclays Bank, working her way up through the ranks over the years, recently settling into a new role as an Associate Director after working as a Credit Manager; the job that actually inadvertently inspired Denise to get involved in mentoring. Denise says:

“It felt like the right time to broaden my personal skill set. Working in credit involves a lot of number crunching, which is very interesting to me, but you’re not interacting with clients, and I wanted to explore that personal element.”

Denise first began mentoring Emma in 2016, having regular conversations to discuss such things as how to grow different areas of the business or setting goals and looking at how to make processes more efficient in order to reach them. Denise says:

“Emma has come such a long way in the 18 months I’ve been with her. When we met she was right at the beginning of her business and not really making any money, she was just creating pieces with her business partner, Dave, from a workshop in her garage. We needed to concentrate on raising the profile of Light Up North in order to get more orders coming in. From day one I was talking about ‘lean processes’ and asking questions about efficiency and turnaround, such as, ‘how long does everything take to design and create?’, as you need to know how quickly you can deliver, especially once your orders are increasing.”

Today, Emma and Dave have a separate workshop, a strong social media presence, and employ another two members of staff and an apprentice, alongside dipping their toes into the world of festivals and exhibitions. Denise says:

“Last September Light Up North teamed up with an artist and held an exhibition in the basement of a shop in Saltburn – it was a moody atmospheric setting where their glowing neon words were put over paintings of music icons, such as David Bowie, George Michael and Debbie Harry, which looked fantastic. They’ve also been asked to take part in the Festival of Thrift, where anything and everything is recycled and reclaimed to give it a new lease of life, and Emma has just returned from a creative workshop in Paris too – Light Up North has evolved and grown so much in such a sort space of time.”

It was Denise’s manager who encouraged her to try mentoring, which she says she was hesitant about at first, but the whole experience and the expert matching of the IOEE’s Mentoring Manager, Paul Harper, ensured that she and Emma were a really good fit. Denise says:

“At first, I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, and my manager pushed me just to prove me wrong! You do ask yourself those questions at the beginning – ‘what am I going to bring to a small business?’ – but it’s amazing what skills and experience you have that you don’t necessarily value or even notice until you start to share them; listening skills, analytical skills, reflection, looking at the broader picture.

“Paul is also very good at matching up mentors with mentees, and Emma and I clicked. I also got a colleague involved, who saw what I was doing and how rewarding it was, and Paul found the perfect mentee for her too. He’s a very good judge of character and matches you with someone who he knows it will work with, and that is everything; in a mentoring relationship, it’s all about that trust and communication.”

Interested in finding out how mentoring could help your business?

For more information, contact IOEE Mentor Manager, Paul Harper, [email protected] or 07715 905638.