When Phoebe Bell reflects on the challenges she encountered when establishing her homewares and accessories brand Sage and Clare seven years ago, she uses the words “crazy” and “ludicrous”.
It seemed like a “crazy idea” when her partner Chris Monahan suggested she start her own homewares business during a Christmas holiday in India, she tells SmartCompany. In fact, it still does.
Taking a leap of faith and quitting her job as a stylist at Country Road to do exactly that at the age of 24 now seems “ludicrous”, says the Melbourne business owner.
But at the time, Bell says she thought heading off to India to visit city after city, looking for suppliers who could bring her ideas to life, was “normal”.
Bell admits she took an “unconventional” path to building her business, and she had only a “very basic business plan” and “very small, very conservative targets” to begin with.
But thanks to organic growth, following “a lot of intuition and gut instincts about where to go with the business”, and surrounding herself with the right people, Bell is now leading a multimillion-dollar business that employs 11 people and has products stocked in about 150 retailers across the country.
That business, Sage and Clare, designs and produces handmade, bohemian linens, soft furnishings, cushions and its ever-popular ‘Nudie Rudie’ bath mats, among its range of 160 products.
Bell and her team release a number of colourful and eclectic collections each year — the latest, ‘Tigre’, opened for pre-sale this week — and have even collaborated on a range of hand washes with social enterprise Thankyou Group, and on a collection with shoe brand Rollie.
They are now venturing into apparel for the first time, launching a range of sweaters and leggings this week too.
How to be a business owner
Bell’s background is in law and media and communications, but it was during an unhappy experience working as a stylist that she decided to throw caution to the wind and create something of her own.
“[That job] threw up some challenges and I just happened to go to India with my now-husband one Christmas,” Bell says.
“I was always very interested in textiles and homewares and he suggested to me while we were there that I start my own business. It sounded pretty crazy at the time, and it still does.”
Bell tried to “stick it out” at her job for a few more weeks after coming back to Australia but the seed had been planted in her mind: she took the small amount of savings they had and flew back to India with the plan to find suppliers who could help her produce beautiful, handmade homewares.
“I started walking around the streets,” says Bell, when asked about what she did when she arrived in India.
“I just met people along the way, found little shopfronts, and the people would end up having factories.”
Admittedly, there was plenty of trial and error, and encounters with “terrible” suppliers. Going to trade fairs may have proven to be a more strategic way to find the suppliers she needed, she notes.
But Bell’s personal approach worked, and her business took off.
Seven years later, Sage and Clare has a production team based in India, and while Bell says it was a challenge to find the right people who understood the business and its designs, the business would not function without this team.
In the early days, she was the one on the ground in India, sometimes spending months at a time away from home.
“I thought it was important to be across production and quality control, but as the business grew, it was no longer possible,” she says.
The lead times involved in designing homewares are no doubt a factor too.
Bell and her team, including sister Jemma Bell, who works as a graphic and textile designer in the business, start the conceptual work on their collections eight to nine months ahead of launch time.
One to two months is spent in the design phase, followed by a three-month process of turning the designs into samples, and then another three to four months for the products themselves to be made.
And as for what inspires the collections themselves, Bell says there is always a “starting point” — something, somewhere that she has seen. For Tigre, the latest collection, that starting point was a boutique hotel on the quiet side of Ibiza that Bell had seen images of.
“I loved the interiors and that became the starting point,” she says.
The design process is one Phoebe and Jemma work closely on; while Phoebe takes the lead on the creative, conceptual side of things, Jemma mocks up the products and completes the technical tasks.
In fact, the business name Sage and Clare is a combination of Phoebe’s and Jemma’s middle names, and the company has become somewhat of a family affair, with their father working in the warehouse.
“It’s become a lovely aspect of the business, that I get to see them every day,” says Bell.
Sage and Clare’s first foray into the apparel market is being warmly embraced by the brand’s fans and Bell says the business will continue to look for more ways to evolve into new product categories.
But this year she’s firmly focused on “staying really true to the core values of the business”.
“As you experience growth, there are more opportunities that can pull you in a direction that is not right, or that doesn’t align with your values,” she says.
“It’s about keeping the boutique, lovely, handmade, bohemian aspect of the business … keeping it at the size of a small business with a lovely community, with a team who are very passionate about what they do.
“Finessing what we do is really important.”
Bell and business partner Monahan have never taken on external investment, and that was a clear strategy to maintain control of the business.
“It’s been challenging just trying to navigate our way through pretty amazing growth while trying to support ourselves without investment, or injections of lots of money,” she says.
“Cashflow is another big challenge, and trying to grow in a way that is responsible, not too quickly too soon, in a way we can manage.”
The unconventional nature of Bell’s business journey so far is also why she is passionate about sharing what she has learnt while growing her business, and why she’s always tried to be open about the challenges of running a small business.
“I think community is really important, particularly in small business,” she says.
“Running a business can be lonely at times. It can be a pretty solitary experience, regardless of whether you have a team or not.”
This openness led Bell to tell-all when she fell prey to an email phishing scheme in 2018, when cyber criminals pretended to be suppliers she had a longstanding relationship with. The incident cost her $10,000.
It’s also why she regularly answers questions via the Sage and Clare Instagram account, on anything and everything about the business. Regardless of the industry you are in, chances are there are plenty of other small businesses out there facing the same issues, she says.
Bell says there would be times as a new business owner that she would be searching for answers as to why something in the business wasn’t working, but talking to other small business owners “normalised” many of these challenges.
“I’ve always had the attitude that by me sharing something, it doesn’t mean I don’t have that thing anymore,” she says.
“I didn’t have a lot of guidance across my business … someone to sit down with and tell me where to start. It’s all been very self-taught, so if I can offer any value to others in a similar position, I’m very happy to do so.”