It’s not all sunshine in the world of Australian online retail at the moment, with near-constant news flashes about weak consumer spending and the impending arrival of big competitors. For those that arrived in Australia’s online retail sphere early on, however, the challenge presents a different story.
Entrepreneur Talita Estelle started her first fashion boutique in Tasmania in 2004, and jumped across to an online-only, fast fashion model in 2011. Esther now turns over $5 million a year, and Estelle says she’s fostered the community and spirit of the brand through partnerships with the likes of cause marketing platform i=change, which lets online shoppers nominate a cause that a business will donate to on their behalf when a sale is processed.
Estelle spoke with SmartCompany about building an audience as a young business owner, and what weapons her company has to fight Amazon.
I was quite young when I started Esther — I was just 18.
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I worked for a little gift store and I was managing there for about a year and a half. At this time I was down in Tasmania, and saw there wasn’t [anyone] in the market that did dressier kinds of bridesmaids dresses and things like that.
I thought “Why not create it myself?” I opened my store, and it was so busy right off the bat. The space itself was tiny, but it was so busy, and at the same time it was affordable. I opened a second store, and then sold the Launceston store and focused on just the one in Hobart.
Over time, so many customers were asking to buy online, and at that time I started to advertising on Pinterest. People were absolutely loving it, it was resonating with people, so then I went online.
When I started Esther, to be honest I was pretty private about what I was doing. Luckily my parents had run their own businesses in the past and I’d gleaned a lot, but I learned everything [about setting up a business] myself. Because I was passionate about it, that was really exciting to me.
I was kind of self-taught, which allowed me to be very confident in what I was doing because I wasn’t just relying on people to sell me things. It’s interesting, because my parents had a lot of their own businesses and worked from home, and it was always something in the family unit, that you have to work hard.
I had a very strict upbringing and I think that gave me the tools, and the responsibility, to launch Esther.
I think the blessing for me starting so early, starting so young myself, was that it was almost like I knew the customer — because I was the customer.
Everyone talks about creating unity in your social media and creating a space. You’re creating a space for customers to almost be inspired, but all of that happened for me organically. I also had the blessing of not being crowded by competitors.
I think if I could do anything differently … well, back when I started, there was a big push for new technology and I didn’t learn enough myself, even about just website building. I think I wasted a lot of money trusting people that I [wouldn’t have] if I’d done all the research.
You don’t have to rely on just building things from scratch anymore. Now, if there’s something I want to do, maybe I go and look at a third party app, instead of building things from scratch.
Now we have an established company and customer base that are loyal and want to shop with us. I think it’s really hard for companies to break through the space, but when we started online, we started pinning things on Pinterest.
Someone mentioned Pinterest to me, and I thought, “oh, ok”, and then that’s when you get hooked. I started to make my own boards, and then I was thinking, “why am I doing something like this that isn’t benefiting my business?”
I combined the two, and that’s when it started to get traction. We were one of the first in the fashion scene to post fashion onto Pinterest, and some of our posts were getting 80,000 pins. Some [users] in the US were creating colour-coding mood boards [including our posts], and they were creating traffic as well.
Twenty percent of our sales are now international, and we ship all over — from New York to little towns in Mexico. Our focus is launching our US site in a couple of months. Being in Australia, you’re very season focused, but you need a whole other set of eDMs [overseas] and your social media has to reflect seasons.
You need a tailored plan to promote to every market.
There’s always the monetary side of success, but I think for me, success is also around the [idea] of the “Esther heart” — that true beauty comes from within.
It’s a holistic view of who you are as a person, and what can you do with what’s in your hands. The thing that was most important for me, when I started it, was that it wasn’t just about making money, it was about creating a community for women.
I’d just started online when Jeremy [Meltzer] contacted me and said he was designing an app, i=change. I said, that’s just brilliant — it allows us to give back [through contributing to causes when customers shop].
It’s us donating, but it’s giving the customer the choice about where it goes, and we’ve been on board for about two years now. We’ve been able to give $135,000 so far.
People are not shocked by it, but I think they are pleasantly surprised by it. There’s an element of giving back within that and they’re part of the movement I think, but they’re not asked to go out of their way. They are part of it regardless.
With my staff, the girls I hire have a similar kind of vision for the company. They’re very good at what they do but I also pick them based on where their hearts are as well.
With Amazon coming to Australia, I think it’s how you’re positioned. If you’re not just focused on price and hitting those margins all the time, and doing everything you can to make that dollar, if you have that loyalty built, you’ll be safe. Well, nobody’s ever safe lately, but you will have set yourself apart.
I think those big online models are very price driven, and in all of retail, the bigger retailers are always going to be there. But if you’ve built something that has a community … I’m not worried. We have a beautiful customer base.