In late 2016, as I was returning to work after the birth of my daughter Amelia, I had the best business idea I’d ever had.
Now I don’t say this lightly, I’ve certainly had a lot of business ideas during my life, and most of them would definitely have sent me bankrupt. Remember the Bulgarian ski chalet I wanted to buy Dad? But this idea seemed to get nods and “yeah that would work” responses rather than “don’t give up the day job”.
This article is a little bit of therapy for me plus some context for our loyal customers as well as my long suffering family and friends who were endlessly supportive — from driving around delivering parcels, rallying all their friends to give the service a go and just listening when I lost my sh*t (without reminding me that it was all my own choice).
My idea was to revolutionise the way people shop by using an online quiz to find out their measurements, lifestyle preferences and so on. Then use this information to curate a seasonal capsule of clothes and accessories to send to the customer on a “try before you buy” basis. Neat huh? No more soulless shopping centres, no more ill fitting clothes that look great online but not on real women and more time to enjoy life. Contrary to perceived wisdom there are actually a large number of women who “hate” shopping.
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On further investigation it turned out that I wasn’t the first with this idea, in fact there were already various iterations of these “online styling” companies in the US. A number of them had been trading for a while and already been pretty successful, some had even sold their businesses for millions. In Australia though, there was just one company doing something similar, and they were for men only. So now I had a great idea and no competitors. Surely I was on the verge of startup success?
Next I went to a startup conference and got all pumped up about finding my why, embracing failure, disruption — you know the sort of stuff . It was full of people in jeans, trainers and t-shirts with logos on. Very exciting to someone who has spent their whole career in an accounting firm.
After that I organised a focus group to prove up some level of market demand — my target customers were working mums. They loved it. Next, I sought out a co-founder with a complementary skill set — enter Lara, my friend who was on maternity leave after the birth of her first child. Lara is an amazing graphic designer whereas my skill set was around strategy, finance and operations. We’d never worked together before but I will always be immensley grateful for her willingness to join me in giving the idea a whirl.
We decided on a name — Outfither. We spent a long time making business cards — I’ve handed out exactly none (friends I love you but you don’t count). We drew up a founders agreement, created a company, developed a website, got suppliers, got customers, learned about social media marketing, we employed people, we made our first $, and then we made more, we moved from my dining room table to a shared workspace. People loved our service and what we were doing. I was nominated as a “Woman to Watch in Retail”.
So why the decision to close down?
Reason number 1: Less money mo’ problems
By the end of 2017 I was burnt out managing my corporate career (which was paying the bills), the business (which was now taking around two-to-three days a week) and a toddler. My husband also had a very demanding career and we have no family support nearby. I was working non-stop. I was still managing to get time with my daughter but my sanity was suffering. Outfither had been trading for over a year and I knew I had to give up something.
My corporate role involves analysing financial information and providing insights to support decision making. So I started with the numbers. It transpired that despite good growth and traction the business was going to take another few years to get profitable and it needed more investment. I’d already invested a significant amount of my savings and it looked like we’d need five times that.
What about outside investment? We did consider trying to find other forms of investment but Lara and I were both passionate about autonomy. Creating a family friendly/flexible working environment was number one on our list of objectives. We felt that getting outside investment would be the antithesis of that. Most investors require you to work full-time on the business and that was not something either of us wanted to do.
So there we have it: the business model we created simply didn’t meet our objectives. It wasn’t profitable quickly enough and it required more investment than we initially anticipated.
I’m so glad that Lara and I spent the time upfront to discuss why we embarked on the journey in the first place, as this gave as an anchor by which to judge our success. In turn this enabled us to make a fast decision and save ourselves time and money. As an accountant I’m pleased that we “failed fast” and (relatively) cheap and we made the decision to close down instead of going out of business or running out of cash.
Whilst the primary reason to close was obviously financial and lifestyle driven there were two other deciding factors …
Reason number 2: I want to make the world a better place, not fill it with more stuff
The Outfither service was all about empowering women in the workplace — giving them confidence to be their best and saving them time shopping and deciding what to wear. Sounds good right? Empowerment of women is really important to me, but I began to realise that the relationship between the service Outfither was providing and real empowerment of women was a bit too tenuous. I also had a couple of ethical issues with my business model.
The retail market in Australia is saturated with cheap clothes made in foreign countries with little to no respect for the employment conditions, which affect mainly women, in those countries. (If you want to learn more about ethical fashion and why it’s important then watch The True Cost documentary on Netflix). Now of course this isn’t a simple issue and I’m not going to get into it here. But suffice to say most Australian customers make purchasing decisions primarily based on price (and looks obviously) with little thought as to how the clothes are made. This means ethical retail is a very difficult proposition in this country. We simply would not of got the scale we needed with only ethical fashion, which in turn would mean that we would have to work with less ethical brands.
As time went on I also began to get increasingly uncomfortable with making people believe that more “things” will make them happy or have the perfect life. I’m really worried about waste. I actually really want people to buy less. Whilst we did focus on quality products and resisted fast fashion I still thought that Outfither might become part of the problem rather than the solution. The world doesn’t need more retailers — it needs more people who do tangible things to improve the world and its future.
I’ve realised I want to do something to make this world a better place. Most likely alongside my corporate job. I will keep pushing the gender equality agenda at work; I’m lucky to have a platform to do that in my leadership role at EY. Eventually I want to do more volunteering and I’d love to get a role on a not-for-profit board for a charity that provides real help to disadvantaged people. Once my daughter is in school perhaps, once I’ve recovered fully from the whirlwind that was 2017.
In the meantime I’ve actually reduced the size of my wardrobe and I use the “ethical fashion guide” to check the policies of the brands I buy.
Reason number 3: Social media sucks
It sucked me in. Before I knew it I was on Instagram and Facebook hundreds of times a day. I was thinking up marketing schemes in yoga. It was a real addiction. And I told myself (and my husband) it was for “business”. My level of happiness became dependent on Outfither likes.
Learning about social media marketing was next level. I learnt all these tips and tricks and I realised I’d been falling for them myself. It was like learning how the magician does his tricks. Which in a way was good because I’ve realised the whole of social media is just about selling you stuff you don’t want or need. That’s made it so much easier to switch off. Since making the decision to quit Outfither I no longer have the Facebook app on my phone and I feel like Nelly Furtado (free as a bird …).
If you stumble, make it part of the dance
So back to the same corporate job. But I’m different. I’m more confident. I’m more creative. I’m more commercial. I’m happier. I’ve tried something else and I’ve realised that I choose corporate life with the many perks such as sick leave, maternity leave and a stable income. I work for a great company that supports me working part-time and working from home.
Last year was like a practical MBA. As well as all the professional skills I’ve learnt, I’ve learnt a lot about what makes me happy. No to Facebook, yes to novels. No to working 24/7, yes to yoga. No to sweatshops, yes to having less stuff and more time. So I guess its true that you learn the most when you stumble (so to speak).
I pushed myself out of my comfort zone — I had to cold call suppliers and enter an industry I knew nothing about. I spent a whole weekend on a stall at the Baby and Toddler show personally promoting and marketing the business to potential customers. For an accountant who spends a lot of the day working with numbers and presenting factual information this was pretty scary.
Michaelangelo said: “The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark”.
I tried something new and its helped me shift my perspective on life. So if you have a lurking business idea or just want to try something new, why not give it a shot? What’s the worst that can happen?
Just don’t give up the day job.