An entrepreneur who could not afford a vacuum cleaner and spent her last £20 on flyers to launch her cleaning firm, shortly after failing her business studies A level, now boasts a £3.5m annual turnover – forecast to rise to £8m in the coming years.

Just 18 when she started Mrs Bucket after being told she had no aptitude for business, just four years later, aged 21, mum-of-two Rachael Flanagan of Swansea, South Wales, had won the Great British Entrepreneur Award’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Married to fellow entrepreneur Daniel Stanley, 36, who runs a performance coach business, Rachael, 32, recalled: “I didn’t even have my own Hoover or mop and bucket, I had to use my customers’, but I had a white t-shirt embroidered with ‘Mrs Bucket’ that I got at the market.

“I used my last £20 to print out 5,000 flyers and started leafleting the area. Over the summer holidays I had a car full of my friends. We’d go around all the estates leaving flyers, then put them under the windscreen wipers of cars at the school.

“I built up my business from there and by 21 I had 18 staff working for me.

When people she knew told Rachel she was “just a girl from Wales who could not run a business” it fuelled her ambition to prove them wrong.

Now Mrs Bucket has a turnover of £3.5m and employs 250 people across Wales and Bristol –  with plans to more than double this in the next five years.

Rachael, who has a three-year-old daughter Sophia and an 11-month-old baby boy, Spencer, used to help her dad Steve Flanagan out at his catering company when she was 15, working as a silver service waitress.

But she first put her entrepreneurial skills to the test when she was just 11.

She laughed: “When I was about 11-years-old my dad brought an old till home from one of his canteens and I transformed his office into a sweet shop, selling sweets to my friends.

“He would take me to the cash and carry and I’d borrow the cash for stock from him then, when I’d made some money, I’d pay him back.”

Going to college to study for A levels, when she was 17 she began cleaning the family home to ease the stress for her busy mum, teacher Avril Flanagan, earning some extra pocket money in the process.

“I loved cleaning, I found it really therapeutic and it would take my mind off other things,” she said. “I like seeing a visual result at the end.

“My mum would come home and the lounge would be sparkling clean. I researched how to make the beds like they did in the hotels, too, as I wanted to put my own stamp on everything.”

Studying for A levels in business studies, media, art and IT, Rachael started to wonder if she really wanted to go to university like her friends.

“I just kept thinking, ‘I want to do cleaning,’” she said.

“Then when I had my business studies exam, we had to come up with a business plan and I just spent two hours writing about the cleaning business.”

She continued: “On results day I remember tearing that piece of paper open and thinking, ‘I’ve really not done well.’ Then, when I saw a ‘U’ for ungraded, I thought, ‘Stuff it.’

“I think that’s where my drive came from. I had this fire in my belly and failing did not put me off. The adrenaline just kept me going.

“Every person I spoke to was like, ‘Are you really going to do that? Why do you want to do cleaning?’ They were quite down on me.”

Rachael explained: “I didn’t tell my mum for three years that I’d failed that A level. To this day, I’ve never even gone to pick up my A level certificates, because they didn’t mean anything to me.”

Speaking to her mum’s best friend, retired seamstress Jean Evans, also encouraged Rachael to keep pursuing her dream.

“She told me to make my service unique and to stand out. She came up with the name Mrs Bucket, pronounced Bouquet, like Hyacinth Bouquet in the TV show Keeping up Appearances.”

From the outset, Rachael’s business attracted praise and started to grow rapidly, so, after a few months, she had her first employee – a woman who had worked in one of her dad’s canteens.

Working 60 hours a week cleaning, Rachael then kept her own books, after taking some courses funded by the Welsh government.

“I also had a little workshop to do the books from, although I couldn’t afford to put money in the meter for electricity,” she said.

“And every time I took someone on, I shadowed them for a couple of weeks to make sure they were up to standard.

“I’m fussy and have high standards. I’d look for the little things like whether they cleaned in the corners, their attention to detail and whether or not they cared about what they were doing.”

Rachael then joined the Federation of Small Businesses network, where she got her first mentor, who helped her to devise business and marketing strategies.

He also put her forward for the UK Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, which was held in the ballroom at Claridge’s Hotel in London’s upmarket Mayfair district.

Rachael recalled: “When nominated, I had to be interviewed and I remember one of the judges coming in her black Mercedes to my tiny workshop with no heating in it. I was really nervous, but then I thought, ‘Stuff it, I just need to be myself.’

“For the event, my whole family came to London. I was on the table furthest away from the front, so thought I stood no chance of winning.”

“I’d actually gone to the bathroom and was chatting to the housekeeper when my mum came flying in and said, ‘You’ve won!’ I walked through these velvet curtains and 200 people stood up and applauded. It was like walking on water,” Rachael recalled.

“It was a real big moment for me because it boosted my self-belief. I knew I was doing the right thing. Before, I think I’d been holding back, thinking I wasn’t old enough or experienced enough.”

With her confidence boosted, Rachael knew she had to give up cleaning herself and learn more about strategy to help grow the business.

As she began to network, she met Nigel Botterill, one of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs, who set up the Entrepreneurs Circle, to support other business owners.

“He gave me a lot of encouragement and connected me with other business owners, who would ask me if I had thought of doing commercial cleaning,” she said.

“We won our first commercial cleaning contract in 2010, when I was 23.”

She added: “Turnover at this point was £500,000 a year, then I was at a business event and they asked people to stand up and say what their goals were. I stood up in front of 500 people and said, ‘This year I will double the turnover of my business.’

“After saying it out loud I had to make it happen. Lots of people had said to me before this point, ‘You’re just a Welsh girl, you’ll never do it.’ But I wanted to prove I could.

“There were some hiccups at the beginning. At one point I nearly went bankrupt because we had cash flow issues. I had to find £16,000 in a day to pay wages. I just cried on the end of the bed thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Rachael explained: “In the end, I borrowed it from my family.

“But I wasn’t chasing up payments and it was a lesson I had to learn for myself about managing cash flow.”

Winning more and more commercial contracts, the business grew and grew and, the following year, when she was 24, its turnover was a million pounds.

In 2018 Rachel sold the domestic side of her business for an undisclosed sum, turning the firm into an entirely commercial cleaning company.

“Because of the hiccups in the early days, I made sure we had proper systems in place to manage cash flow,” she said. “The Welsh government provided financial support for bespoke software development.

“Now, we keep growing as we make sure we are providing a professional service. We used that software to create systems to make sure everything runs smoothly and if there are any problems, we can swiftly act so the customer doesn’t notice.”

“We’re in a big growth stage now. Over the next three to five years we expect turnover to hit £8m,” Rachael said.

“We have 250 employees and will be expanding to five or six hundred. We’re across the whole of Wales and have just set up in Bristol. We’re looking to get into the education market, too, and see where that goes.”

Keen to also give something back, Rachael runs a network called Business and Bites to help young entrepreneurs and start-ups.

And since becoming a mum and having children to care for alongside running her business, she has become an expert in time management.

“I’m really organised. I’m a planner and schedule everything so I still manage to go to the gym three times a week and do a circuit class,” she said.

“My children are in the creche and with my mum and dad on a Monday, then my husband and I both take Friday off, which is my calming down day ready for the weekend.”

Rachael added: “With children you really have to be in the moment with them, so you can’t do work stuff at that time.

“When I was starting out with my flyers, I didn’t expect my business to get this big.

“I’ve had some amazing opportunities – attending the NATO summit in Newport, South Wales, in 2014 with world leaders like Barack Obama, which was a hell of an experience, and I’ve visited Downing Street twice, meeting former Prime Minister David Cameron at a St David’s Day reception to recognise Welsh businesses.

“I’m always so busy looking for more ways to grow, but I probably need to stop, look around and think, ‘Yes, I’ve done a good job’.”