Economy

In the bag

SmartCompany /

A casual observation led one entrepreneur into a business that just won’t stop. By LIBBY-JANE CHARLESTON

By Libby-Jane Charleston

When Jeanette Darbyshire noticed a group of smartly dressed female city workers clutching expensive-looking brief cases in one hand and green supermarket bags in the other (presumably holding their gym clothes) she wondered why people would spend a fortune on designer clothes, only to spoil the look with a cheap shopping bag.

“When the green re-usable shopping bags came out I thought they were fantastic and practical, but they didn’t look so hot. So I thought I’d design my own range of nice looking, environmentally friendly bags, and call my company Inspiro.”

She started with the intention of reselling her own designs with a sideline project of doing bags for businesses branded with their name and logo. “But that’s not how the business has developed,” she says.

Darbyshire’s plan to create a more stylish “green bag” for female shoppers flopped. Where she expected women to snap up her cute and funky bags, that made more of a statement than the green bags, she was disappointed.

“Instead I was inundated with companies wanting a custom-made version of the Inspiro bag with their logo and brand name printed on it. It was a huge hit with businesses for two reasons: firstly, to advertise the name of the business and also to let clients know that they are doing something environmentally friendly.”

It’s estimated 45% of Australians now carry a reusable shopping bag. But if people are going to carry a reusable bag, it may as well advertise your business, school or event.

But in the early days, the biggest obstacle to Darbyshire’s success was her lack of confidence; she didn’t believe she could be a success in business.

“I always believed in the product, but it wasn’t very easy to convince myself I could run the business on my own.

“It was also a huge realisation discovering how huge the market is; finding out ways to target my energy proved very challenging. There are so many businesses to target – where do you begin?”

At first, Darbyshire (right) targeted wineries, real estate agents and councils. She had great success with a direct mail out; posting a sample bag and an introduction letter to hundreds of small to medium-sized businesses. “Years later, I am still getting business from that first mail out – either from repeat business or referral business.”

She got a lot of business from councils working with community groups or promoting festivals and events. Her corporate clients include pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, book publisher HarperCollins and real estate agent Ray White.

Darbyshire discovered Google marketing made a huge impact on her sales, pushing inquiries up from five to 50 a week. It took her a while to choose the right words to advertise alongside, and she now spends more on Google and relies on it for marketing. “The only disadvantage is that you’re up there with all your competitors. I find people will get several quotes before coming back to me.”

She is very focused on customer service. “I very rarely meet my customers, so it’s very important to me that I am as friendly with them over the phone or internet as I would be in a face-to-face-situation.”

Inspiro Bags has a large clientele in Britain and New Zealand as well as across Australia. “I’ve got orders for Singapore and the US, which are predominantly Australian orders but the bags will be used for various events overseas.”

Darbyshire runs the business from her home office because all communication is through email and phone. She started her business in October 2004, and has grown her turnover from $100,000 to about $400,000 in 2005-06. She juggles running the business with looking after her four sons.

She says she does not know how big she wants to grow, but sees big potential. “Right now the business can be as big or small as I want it to be. There is an enormous overseas market, particularly in the US where this kind of bag is virtually unknown. In my research I have only discovered one similar bag that was in a pharmacy in San Francisco. The bag was really ugly and badly printed and cost $US4.”

She plans to sell the business in the next 18 months, while it still has plenty of growth opportunities.

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