When everyday inmates brand Bella Bodies launched in 2006, it found its feet through “a bit of luck”.
Founder Michel Schuhmacher tells SmartCompany the brand found success earlier than she had anticipated, or was ready for, when an Australian television presenter became an early customer.
At the time, Schuhmacher was the only employee, with two toddlers at home and no formal business education.
“I just thought I was going to sell some to a few shops around Sydney,” she admits.
This year, however — 13 years later — Bella Bodies’ sister brand Bella Eco launched with a comprehensive strategy, global contacts, a local team and consistent branding.
“A ‘no plan’ plan”
Schuhmacher’s business started almost accidentally.
“I just had an idea because me and my friends had all popped out a couple of children,” she says.
The idea was to make comfortable, shaping undergarments for women to wear. While it’s wasn’t a new idea, Schuhmacher found it harder to find something comfortable enough under normal clothing than it was to find imports from China that didn’t fit well.
“I went looking and found something manufactured in Columbia. I jumped on a plane and went there,” she says.
“It was a ‘no plan’ plan.”
Despite finding a factory without English speakers, Schuhmacher had a finished product tailored to Australian bodies in her hands within eight months.
“But then there was a lot of luck involved,” she said.
Only a few months later, a mutual connection mentioned it to Angela Bishop, who at the time needed something to wear to Nicole Kidman’s wedding. Bishop asked to promote it on air. A Current Affair called her soon after and then Shopping TV followed suit.
This snowballed into 40,000 orders and 100 shops across Australia asking to stock Bella Bodies products — a tall order for a debut business, even without two toddlers at home.
“It was a rollercoaster.
“It wasn’t until 2012 that I started to get my act together,” Schuhmacher admits.
Bella Eco, which launched in April of this year, shares similarities with its predecessor: Schuhmacher considers it a risk, production spans continents — this time in Italy and Portugal — and the product itself is ahead of the Australian fashion landscape.
However, rather than solely focusing on shaping bodies comfortably, Bella Eco is all about sustainability.
Bella Bodies dabbles in it — with a bamboo collection and recycled packing — but Bella Eco’s underwear takes it further.
It boasts the ability to break down completely in a landfill within five years, but stay durable in your wardrobe.
Although she sees the brands as operating in predominantly different markets, Schuhmacher says her experience with Bella Bodies undoubtedly and significantly informed Bella Eco’s launch.
“All about getting eyes”
The first lesson that came to Schuhmacher’s mind was the business’ greatest need and current focus.
“We’ve done PR, but we’re only now embarking on digital and social marketing,” she says.
“Because everyone’s online so much, it’s all about getting as many people as possible to the website.”
While her team still doesn’t have all the answers, this is where their time is spent researching.
After promoting within her existing base of followers at Bella Bodies, Bella Eco started strong with 200 newsletter subscribers.“Don’t be afraid. When you get to a point where you have no idea, you outsource or you employ someone.”
From there, the team has spent most of their time experimenting with and learning about analytics, AdWords and SEO.
“We have to analyse how they are coming and why aren’t they buying.
“We’re a little bit behind,” she admits.
Get the help you need
While Schuhmacher clearly has a passion for materials and design, she was also open about her own learning curves.
“I’m a bit of a yarn nerd,” she says, before explaining the benefits and failings of using only natural fibres in underwear.
When we discussed business and marketing, however, she used a different disclaimer: “I’ve never opened a business book.”
Back in 2006, she worked alone. Now, she has a team of four local, permanent part-timers, stressing her care to employ people of all ages, experiences and skillsets.
“It’s really important to identify the skills you don’t have and employ the people that you need,” she said.
Schuhmacher isn’t afraid to hire younger and even inexperienced staff, but she says she expects them to learn.
“At the moment, the girls are in talks with Google and other digital marketers to find out about how to best do things.”
Outsourcing has also been a valuable resource for her.
“Don’t be afraid. When you get to a point where you have no idea, you outsource or you employ someone.”
Meet the people you’ll work with
Being a former travel agent, Schuhmacher began her Bella Bodies journey by hopping on a flight to Columbia to visit a factory that manufactured a product she found online from the US.
Bella Eco started with a conversation with a contact in Hong Kong. The material is produced in Italy, the machines are made in China, and the products are crafted in Portugal.
Throughout the process, she believes face-to-face meetings are best practice.
“If you’re starting a business and you’re going to be spending a bit of money … you’re probably best to see them and connect,” Schuhmacher advises.
“It doesn’t cost a lot of money to actually know who you’re talking to and know where things are made because it ingratiates you to them and you can see what’s going on.
“When you’re dealing with people from different cultures … you can sometimes misunderstand things over the phone,” she adds.
Since her first meeting with her Columbian partners, she’s picked up enough Spanish to have basic conversations. Luckily, her newest partners speak English, allowing her to move freely without translators.