Strategy

How this mum-of-four turned $20,000 into $5 million with no outside investment

Nikki Clarke /

Cadenshae

Cadenshae founder and director Nikki Clarke with husband Adam Clarke. Source: Supplied.

There’s a lot of stories out there on how a new mum had an ‘ah-ha!’ moment and started up a successful little business. Maybe it’s something to do with all those hormones surging through their bodies, or the sleep deprivation allowing for more creative thinking patterns, or maybe it’s as simple as realising they now need to provide for a little bundle of joy and want to give them the best life possible, so they back themselves and go for it.

Starting a business with a newborn or small children is more common than you’d think, but it’s way more difficult than you’d think too! 

Once you have another human who takes up approximately 99.5% of your time, you can say goodbye to those days where you’d ‘google’ for hours on end. When you’re a mum, time is money, time is scarce, and time with your family trumps all else, so you need to be smart with it. Working smarter not harder is something I live by.

I started Cadenshae with a $20k order of bras. I financed it myself, as it was important to me not to rely on investors so I could keep full control. If you can, save your pennies and go it alone. At the time, we had an 11-month-old and one on the way, so it was certainly a risk, but one I knew would pay off as I’d stumbled across a niche market that was not being catered to properly at all.

In less than five years, Cadenshae grew into a multimillion-dollar global empire. Oh, and we added another two humans to the mix. Yes, we’re well aware we’re mad!

Like many ‘stumbled upon small businesses’, all I wanted to do was make a bit of extra money to feel comfortable financially. I didn’t start out to revolutionise the way mums looked and felt about themselves. Helping people was always at the essence of what I did, but to be doing it at this scale has taken a whole lot of ‘on-the-job learning,’ many mistakes and a lot of coin. It’s also taken a lot of courage, determination, optimism and action. 

After much thinking — well, 10 minutes, as that’s all the time I had between changing nappies and being nagged for food — I compiled a list of the top four things I have learnt in turning $20,000 into $5,000,000, on our own, without any outside financial support.

1. Hire earlier than you think you need to

In 2018, I had one staff member and we were turning over $3.5 million.

I was literally doing everything. My husband was so busy at home with all the kids, and I was going crazy at the office trying to do it all.

It wasn’t until we migrated websites (which went terribly wrong, by the way) that we realised we needed to hire people. We couldn’t grow if we didn’t, and if we didn’t hire soon, I’d go mad. Within seven months we had seven new staff and the team was cranking. 

Cadenshae felt like a real business. Everyone doing their part to make it the best it could be so we could help as many mums as possible.

Once we had staff, we soon found that all those ‘ideas’ we had could now be put into action. I had two-year-old ideas that were now being executed, and that was such a good feeling.

It also kept us ahead of competitors, which is so important when operating in a niche market on a global scale.

2. Establish systems early that allow for future growth

From your website, accounting and inventory systems to everything you use — ensure all your systems have room for growth so it doesn’t cost you later.

When we first started, we got set up with Xero and Unleashed Inventory Management, and our first website was with Magento.

Some of the costs associated were quite hefty, but I knew as we grew the last thing I wanted was to be migrating systems and setting up new processes. Getting set up properly with powerful software and robust systems was one of our best moves!

3. Heart over profit

We all hear ‘profit is king,’ but I believe having a heart comes first.

Treating your customers and staff how you want to be treated goes a long way.

Get in the head of your customers and ask yourself what they would expect or really appreciate. For me, the question was: ‘Do I want to go to the post office with a toddler and newborn to post a parcel back, only to be told it was going to cost me $20?’ No way!

So, as soon we could, we implemented free returns.

Yes, it helps a bit with sales, but the main thing it did was give customers trust in us, knowing that we understand them, we get it, we are mums too. We created a connection. This helped form our ‘brand’, which is essential in business.

Consumers expect more from companies than just product these days. They want to know they’re buying quality items from a company who has morals and ethics. People expect more. We knew this. It may not have been profitable, but it felt right — always trust your gut — and has led to some excellent reviews from customers, and in turn, way more sales.

We found a lot of potential customers really do read those reviews before purchasing, so it’s important to connect on a deeper level.

We’re in a world where information on almost anything is easily accessible. There’s nowhere to hide, and nothing trumps peer reviews. Especially from on-the-ball mamas!

4. Keep your finger on the pulse

Once you’ve hired amazing people — and make sure they’re amazing by doing your research so you don’t pay later — you almost think you’ll be able to take holidays whenever you want, stay at home some days and binge on Netflix.

Maybe in the future, but certainly not yet. Well, not if you want your team and your business to break more barriers and continue smashing it.

I thought I was busy when I was doing everything, but having a team of people doing everything you used to do, just means you’re now free to do a whole lot of other things. Plus, you now have to manage your team and make sure everyone is doing their job how they should, all while ensuring they’re happy too. Remember thatt happy employees equal higher levels of productivity. Pretty simple that one!

One of my mistakes early on was thinking that after I had shown someone how the ordering process and stock forecasting worked, for example, I could just forget it and let them take over.

Wrong!

Taking time to work through new processes and ensuring people understand it completely is imperative.

Employees nodding at you and saying they ‘understand’ is one thing, but being 100% confident and doing the job to the same standard as you once did is another thing entirely.

Taking responsibility and ensuring you give your staff everything they need to succeed is so important. I definitely underestimated this point and paid for it — so don’t make the same mistake I did. Train, train, then train again — all while being patient and smiling.

NOW READ: Ten lessons from a 28-year-old founder who started three businesses and sold two, all while maintaining a full-time job

NOW READ: The ‘anti-startup’ story: How to turn $1,000 into $15 million with no investment

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Nikki Clarke

Nikki is the founder and director of nursing activewear label Cadenshae.