It is here where I have been able to learn more about retail, wholesale – and, of course, menswear. Our CEO at Cambridge Clothing, David Willett, held a leadership meeting with us at the start of the pandemic and explained that with all of the uncertainty that is going on, now was the time to upskill yourself and learn as much as you can. That one sentence resonated with me and changed my mindset.
IR: How would you describe the process of launching your own business during the peak of the pandemic?
JC: Looking back to the start of the year, this has all been a learning process. The pandemic helped launch my business as there was just so much helpful content out there. I literally binged every ‘Catching up with CUB podcast along with Nathan Bush’s Add To Cart and all the content from Foundr.
Now that I am on the other side of the launch, I must admit that the process has been rewarding. I am not talking financially rewarding, it’s been more personally rewarding, as I have just learned so much and that is priceless. If there is one thing that [internet personality] Gary Vee has taught us all, it is that you must enjoy the process – and I truly am.
IR: What have been some of the interesting insights that you’ve gathered about retail now that you run your own show?
JC: Retail, just like most things, is constantly changing and evolving. I cannot stop looking back five years and thinking about how much has evolved since then. The digital future has arrived early, which is quite exciting. I am ready to move with the times and am looking forward to the next five years.
IR: What do you think customers are looking for from online retailers now and how has your business adapted to the current climate?
JC: I believe customers are looking for honesty and a connection from the brand. Customers are more mindful about where and who they are purchasing from. There has been a noticeable increase in supporting Australian brands this year, which is nice to see. Charmer is only stocked with Australian and New Zealand brands, which has enabled us to contribute to the local market.
Less emotionally speaking, customers want to have different payment options. Initially, Charmer did not offer Afterpay, however it does now due to requests. We will be offering Laybuy very shortly too. PayPal is also a popular payment option, which is used regularly on Charmer.
Inside Retail: Launching Cherrichella has been a lifelong dream of yours, hasn’t it?
Ross Phelan, founder: I’ve been in the footwear industry for about 15 years and I’ve really loved learning about that industry: it’s a small industry in Australia – everyone knows everyone.
I started my career with an importer in Melbourne but then I was approached by The Iconic when they launched, so I moved up to Sydney to be a part of their business. I was approached by the Munro Footwear group, but in the background, I always wanted to start something on my own. I just didn’t know when the right time would be and what I wanted to focus on.
When the pandemic began, like many Australians, I found myself without a job and I thought that there was no better time than now. I put a lot of effort into launching Cherrichella, which only just launched in September.
IR: Congratulations! What was the process of launching your own business like?
RP: Well, it’s bloody scary! Just because we’ve launched it doesn’t mean it
The key for me was landing on the concept. I wanted to focus on a non-leather footwear option and really raise the bar on what was currently being delivered into the Australian market. I’ve worked with non-leather footwear for over 10 years, so I know there’s an opportunity to provide customers with a better product, focusing on the finer details with really great branding, plus really exciting packaging made of recycled materials.
What I’ve learned over the years is that it’s all about customer experience, especially in retail. Customers want to feel excited and they want personal touches. The concept took a while to get to where it is now, and I’m sure I’m going to have to pivot and change over the next couple of years, but even in just the first two weeks, I was overwhelmed with the sales we were getting and we even started to get repeat sales.
IR: It’s an interesting time to be selling to new customers, especially with the changing consumer behaviour.
RP: Yeah, if I’d have known Melbourne would still be in lockdown, I probably would have come up with a slippers collection rather than a bright, colourful heels collection! But I know we aren’t going to be in lockdown forever and so I started with wearable heel heights.
I think a lot of fashion companies are chasing really high heels but I wanted our collection to capture a customer that wants comfortable heels – our block heels are only about six centimeters high. I was anticipating most of our sales to come from New South Wales and Queensland, where they’ve been out of lockdown and able to enjoy going out at the weekend, but we were still getting sales from Victoria in October.
IR: What’s the difference between working in your own business and working for someone else?
RP: When you’re working for a company, you are employed in a particular role. When you start your own business, you have to do lots of tasks that you wouldn’t normally do.
For me, my role has always been in product, sales and a little bit of marketing. Now, I am learning about accounting, e-commerce, tech, logistics, shipping and clearing customs. There are just so many different tasks. It’s daunting to begin with but I’m a big believer that nothing good comes easily, so I’m proud of what I’ve learned on this journey.
I am a perfectionist, so there are certainly some things that I’m not happy with on the site, but no site stays the same from launch. There are things we can improve.
IR: Have you learned anything surprising about yourself since launching your own business?
RP: I was always the one who loved to do the task I was really good at, but now I have shifted that mentality and I start the day focused on the harder tasks, like accounting and logistics. It’s not the exciting part of the business but it’s got to be done. That’s the difference with owning your own business.
IR: Do you think you could go back to working in a company full-time again?
RP: It’s a bit early to tell. I wouldn’t say never. When I was faced with having no job for the first time in 23 years, I looked for work to fill the gap, but there weren’t many retailers that excited me. That’s another reason that probably pushed me to start out on my own. But never say never.
IR: What are some of the great lessons you learned in some of your previous roles that you’ve been able to bring to Cherrichella?
RP: The Iconic was the highlight of my career. I was there during the start-up phase and it was all about getting traffic to their website. My role there was creating their private-label footwear collection. I created their number one brand at the time, a footwear label called Spurr. It was good quality synthetic fashion footwear.
The lessons I learned at The Iconic were around customer experience, having great product and great delivery to get people to the site. We wanted to consider how we could amaze our customers every day.
At Munro, it was all about working with a fantastic product. They were a great company to work for and they really knew their customers and developed products for them.
Inside Retail: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in your previous roles that you’ve been able to implement in your own start-up?
Sophie Thwaites, founder: Psychologically, the biggest lesson learned from previous roles is to just do the task at hand and try not to worry about being a perfectionist. I am content living with the value and understanding that if I can continuously learn and improve, then the overall customer journey will improve too.
IR: Why did you decide to leave your full-time job and launch Honua Bars?
ST: For about three years, I had been thinking about starting a business with social purpose. However, I was pretty comfy in my secure city finance job and I was waiting for the right idea to come along. I started thinking about and researching shampoo bars at the tail end of 2019.
When Covid hit and my hours got reduced, I decided that procrastination time was over! It seemed like a great time to hole up and really get things moving on an e-commerce business plan I’d been cooking up in my head for years. I’d saved up a bit of cash for some surf travel, which also got stymied by Covid, so I really had no excuse left not to take the leap and start a business.
IR: Tell me about Honua Bars and how you came up with the concept.
ST: Honua Bars makes soap-free shampoo bars, conditioner bars, and a range of travel and storage solutions. The purpose of the brand is to alleviate the plastic crisis. I formulate using sustainably sourced ingredients of the highest quality that are gentle on both skin and hair, so no harsh sulfates like sodium lauryl sulfates are used. There are no parabens, phthalates or silicones and they are vegan and cruelty-free.
All box and shipping packaging is either biodegradable or compostable. The bars contain a raft of beneficial active ingredients like coconut oil, argan oil and hydrolysed oats. Each bar will replace around three plastic bottles, or about six with each pair. Bottled shampoo is mostly water; with bars, you are simply adding water yourself.
I’ve watched a lot of documentaries about the plastic crisis and its effect on wildlife, as well as the ineffectual plastic recycling process in Australia, and was shocked about the scale of the problems. I surf frequently and found myself frustrated by the amount of plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles I was churning through, knowing how little of it would be effectively recycled and the ultimate impact on marine life.
So I hopped on Google to see if there was some alternative, and I found out about shampoo bars. I did some research, gave one a go and it was love at first wash. I was instantly converted and couldn’t believe no-one else I knew was using these.
The shampoo bars available on the market at the time seemed predominantly aimed at an older audience, and weren’t very attractively shaped, packaged or scented. Or worse, they weren’t shampoo at all but just soap, and thus detrimental to your hair. I sensed a gap in the market and an opportunity to allow a younger, more eco-minded audience a way to reduce their plastic consumption while still having a fun, awesome-smelling product that gives them radiantly healthy hair. I started reading hair care chemistry books, had a few consultations with cosmetic chemists and got formulating!
IR: It’s a crazy time to be launching your own business. How would you describe that journey?
ST: I went on a sort of self-imposed ‘work bootcamp’ by moving to Queensland where I knew very few people, and couldn’t go out and about due to Covid, so I had an immensely productive five months where I perfected my formula and figured out how to start an e-commerce business.
Everything that I could do myself, I did. I built the website myself; I did the SEO; I did the accounting; I did the copyediting (in hindsight I should have outsourced that!); I did the branding and logo myself and I did some photography myself. I also quickly learned a lot about cosmetic formulations and how surfactants work, printing, marketing, photoshoots with models, how to use Alibaba, how to use influencers and how to create social media advertising. I attended as many webinars online that I could lay my hands on and watched a lot of Shopify tutorials. The only things I had to outsource were the product box designs, box printing and some professional photography. It was intense and full of teething problems, but it’s no more straining that what I used to do in the city and this time it’s for a purpose I care about.
I really enjoyed learning all these new skills and I think this is a great time to be getting into e-commerce. People now also have a renewed appreciation for locally handmade things. And most of all I am happy I am doing something that will better the planet and hopefully mean less plastic ending up in the oceans.
IR: What are some of the interesting insights that you’ve learned about business since launching Honua Bars?
ST: Budgets are hard to stick to. Estimate what you think it’s going to cost all up then double it. Or maybe triple it. Instagram ads are extremely expensive, as are models, graphic design, printing and barcodes.
Getting the right accounting software from day one has really helped me; I use Xero. It helps me see just how much I am going over budget; which is generally a lot.
I’ve learned that everything is ‘figure-out-able’. Always give it a crack yourself first before outsourcing! I’m really glad I decided to try to build a Shopify site myself before hiring a web builder, as it’s not actually that difficult. Plus, now I will know exactly how to maintain and optimise my site going forward.
I’ve learned that people are generally very supportive of an eco-focused business aimed at reducing plastic use.
I’ve learned that formulating shampoo when you’re not a trained chemist is much, much tricker than one would imagine. ‘How hard could it be?’, I thought. Turns out, pretty hard. My wasted ingredients bill is sky high.
But still… it’s figure-out-able with enough effort!
I’ve found there is a goldmine of female entrepreneur podcasts out there to inspire you – there is one featuring the Spanx founder which is particularly good.
IR: How have you created a business that responds to customers living in the current Covid climate?
ST: I think people now are much more amenable to shopping online, and I’ve made my website as simple and clear as possible to enhance the customer journey on the site. I’ve also created a sampler box that will allow people to try the shampoos and smell all the scents at a low price, to reduce the worry about ordering something relatively expensive that you haven’t physically seen or smelled yet.
I think some people really want to know what their cosmetics are made of and where the ingredients are derived from, and to be assured that they are buying ethically. And people now have more time on their hands to start investigating this sort of thing. My website has a huge amount of information on it delving into all the relevant topics such as plastic pollution, sulfates, palm oil, the different types of shampoo bars, etc. It also has a full rundown of every ingredient used in the bars, including their derivations, functions and benefits.