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Love Actually Love Naturally 25.06.07

James and Barbara Bradshaw
The people behind Natural Friends

Natural Friends was the first online introduction agency for green and ethically motivated people. Its founders James and Barbara Bradshaw talk to naturalchoices. Starting off 25 years ago little could they image how the internet could transform their business.

Natural Friends operates as a niche online friendship and dating service for the ethically and green minded. It has a strong ethical policy and caters for non-smokers with interests ranging from aromatherapy to Zen. There is a strong core of eco-friendly, health-aware, country-loving singles. Their members range from 21 to 85 plus.

It was founded in 1985 by James and Barbara Bradshaw. Both had an educational and career background in biology and actually met when Barbara’s all girls school amalgamated with James’ all boys school. When their two children arrived, Barbara gave up biology teaching, leaving James to hold the fort in the biology department. By 1985 they had acquired a BBC Microcomputer.

“Barbara was reluctant to return to teaching, but wished to be a home-based worker. The computer was ‘earning its keep’ and the absence of any introduction agencies catering for non-materialistic, sincere, eco-sensitive folk looked like a runner.”

The conjunction of Barbara wanting to earn again, the idea that the computer might help in this respect and a chance Holiday ’85 report on home exchange holidays, led to them starting two businesses. Home-Swop was a simple home exchange service which worked using a similar format to Natural Friends. Instead of advertising singles, Home-Swop advertised homes.

“We thought of a dating business through a mixture of creativity, spotting a niche in the dating agency market and having a mutual enthusiasm for countryside, complementary therapies and non-smoking. Both businesses were viable at the start, but Home-Swop eventually stalled when the Californian link became incommunicado. On the other hand, through ‘seat of the pants’ navigation, Natural Friends prospered at a time when ‘green issues’ and New Age were just in vogue. “ says James.

“The foundation work is vital. We knew nothing about starting or running a business, so we had to spend time in the local library, talking to friends, getting a free consultation from our Mid-Anglian Enterprise Agency, discovering suppliers of eco-friendly stationery and essential bits and pieces. We had to open a small trader bank account, locate an accountant and organise advertising. Everyone who embarks on a business-founding process inevitably makes mistakes. We were no different. Our first accountant; inappropriate application materials. But, we had a brilliant model which, once on track, survived for 21 years before being superseded by the online service.” says Barbara.

“As the business grew since 1985, we have consistently purchased recycled stationery and office furniture, Partly this is the result of our wish to practise what we preach and, frankly, as home-based business owners we are happy to use good, second hand furniture and also committed to doing things that are minimally destructive to the environment.”

In the past Natural friends has grown organically however with the conversion to a web based platform James and Barbara find they have a new challenge. The site itself has proved to be very popular with a large traffic browsing the listings, the challenge is now to convert those browsers into registered members.

The site has a basic ergonomic design which makes it simple to view members and e-mail them, however there is a huge opportunity to develop a more Web2.0 social networking element to the site which would allow members to chat, skype each other and build up both friendship, share experiences and stories. For James and Barbara this development is the next challenge as well as to promote the site to a wider audience.

“Our biggest challenge came in 2003 when James was diagnosed with a brain tumour that was affecting his vision. A successful removal, however, resulted in near total blindness which is permanent. In 2006 fate dealt us another poor hand when James had a quad bypass operation. Then, later in the same year, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The thing that we are proud of is that, through teamwork and hard work the business has survived. “say Barbara.

“I use screen reading software, and a talking business partner software pack that is far superior to Microsoft!” laughs James.

To get a flavour of the Natural Friends members and their interests you can browse the site for free. But should you see someone that interests you to contact them you have to be a member. Natural Friend’s fee structure is very reasonable, 30 days Full Membership for just £15, 90 days Full Membership for just £35.00 and 180 days membership for a discounted rate of £60.00.

Peter Shield

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