The number one question that I get asked when I tell people that I own Stylehub is, “How did you start?”
I guess it’s a totally reasonable question- starting is the hardest part of any venture, right? ha- totally not right, but I’ll get to that later.
So where did it start?
I had just graduated from my journalism degree at UTS in Sydney after undertaking about 400 (actually 15) internships at various fashion magazines and websites. It was 2012, the print media was dying and no one had worked out how to make money from online media yet. So it was this weird limbo period in the world of publishing that made everyone nervous and therefore unwilling to open their wallets to pay us mere interns.
After the fifth magazine internship- I had worked at Grazia, Harper’s Bazaar, Yen, Madison and The Daily Telegraph weekend magazine, I kind of realised there wasn’t much of a future in this industry- not just for me, but for all aspiring mini Anna Wintour’s. Beneath the glossy exterior, the girls were hating life. They worked 12- hour days for $12 an hour- and they were the lucky ones. This was not a new and exciting industry, it was an industry that was struggling to keep its head above water.
On the third day of my Harper’s Bazaar internship, I had an epiphany, went to lunch and just never returned. I doubt they even realised I was missing. I just knew it wasn’t for me.
I worked at a restaurant PR company to build up some money so I could go away to Europe. (Could I be any more Gen Y?) This job was where Stylehub began. Literally.
The PR company was heavily print focused and the two dinosaurs running it refused to believe the internet was a thing. (This was 2011, not 1990, btw). I set myself up in the quietest corner of the office, did my work for the day from 9-10am and spent the rest of the day researching fast fashion and e-commerce.
There were a million things I needed
-Who would supply me with stock?
-Who would my customer be?
-How do I get people to actually buy my stuff?
-How do I make a website?
-How much do I need to start this thing?
I knew absolutely nothing, but by the time the dinosaurs told me that I wasn’t needed at the PR agency anymore, I had a web developer ready to go.
Of course, this isn’t the ideal way to start a business, but I was young, selfish and un- engaged- a dangerous combination for any employer.
I wanted to create a fun experience for girls my age who wanted fun fashion to wear for the weekend that wouldn’t cost them the earth.
Of course fast fashion wasn’t groundbreaking. It still isn’t, but I honestly thought I could do it better than anyone else at the time. I was working casually at Sportsgirl at the time and listened to customers cries that their prices were becoming way too expensive for this age bracket.
I truly believe the best entrepreneurs find a gap in the market and fix it. They don’t create something that has never been done before, they simply make existing ideas better. Zuckerberg didn’t invent social media, he just improved upon Myspace. Richard Branson didn’t invent aviation, he simply created a better experience.
I also wanted to use my hard earned degree and create a space where everyone could read and interact with an online publication.
Hence the name Stylehub.
I used my life savings of $10,000 to employ a designer to build the website ($5,000- can you BELIEVE I paid $5K to have a WordPress website built?) and the rest of the monety was spent on buying some stock from China and also making some cool short run exclusive designs.
I remember spending $500 at the local fabric store one Saturday- the owner hit the jackpot! I then drove around Sydney getting to know every dressmaker who works out of their garage. The dressmaker sent me to a cutter, the cutter sent me back to the dressmaker, they both sent me to fabric places- it’s amazing the things you learn just by asking questions.
I couldn’t afford intricate designs, so I created about 10 styles- simple body con skirts, shirts, pants, boob tubes- it was all ridiculous and I was totally out of my depth but I was actually selling my designs!
The website was made by this creepy dude who conducted Skype sessions topless. He created a website that was so ridden with bugs, I spent another 5 grand to get it fixed over the next few years. The creepy web designer has since fled the country- way to pick em.
I had a website, I had a few designs and I spent my last few hundred dollars on a photo shoot- I hired a professional photographer and models and everything!
I was off!
Now, to start actually making money…
Websites are notoriously hard to make consistent income from, unless you have funding to sink a few thousand into PR, SEO, Google marketing, social media advertising and every other type of exposure.
When you’re bootstrapped, this isn’t an option.
I was lucky enough to know some people in the media industry from my internships and friends who had actually made it as journos.
I had a few articles written about me in the early days and put any money I made from the dribs and drabs of sales into Facebook advertising to create some more buzz.
A few months in, I was doing ok, but not well enough to support myself.
I needed to kick start the cashflow. At this point, I had a serendipitous email from the owner of the Emerging Designer Markets in Westfield Sydney CBD.
I had one rack’s worth of stock and not enough money to pay a full month’s rent upfront, so I struck a revenue deal where we would split the revenue of the store 50/50. (I use the term store loosely, as it was really just one rack.)
I spaced out the clothes so far, so I could fill the rack and look like a “proper” business.
I sold a few pieces, reinvested the money into new stock and kept expanding from there.
One rack became two and two became three until I had my own little store space.
At this point, I stopped making my own products because I just didn’t have the time or funds to run around Sydney finding dressmakers. I also didn’t have the scale to think about manufacturing in China, so I sought out some affordable brands and negotiated purchase agreements.
From there, I started to focus full time on buying for the store and website and could afford to employ staff to run the store.
I remember going into the store one Saturday and being told we had made $500. To a broke 21 year old, this was mind boggling. It took me weeks to make $500 just a few months prior, and now I was making it in one day!
This was going to work.
From there, I expanded my little store and ended up with about five racks. (woo!)
My restlessness with being told what to do had reached boiling point when I was told I couldn’t expand my shop. I couldn’t build my empire with five racks!
So I by passed the landlord and went straight to the top- Westfield directly.
I asked if I could directly lease a permanent spot with them.
Ask and you shall receive! I had a one year lease and my own little space- no one could tell me what to do.
After a year in that space, I re signed for a permanent five year store, and this is where we are today.
With a team of five, the store runs itself right now, so we have decided to expand to another shopping centre in November.
Having a retail store takes up A LOT of time and unfortunately, the e commerce side of the business took a back seat while the money maker allowed us to grow.
I have now decided that the website needs to be the main focus of our future. We are truly an omnichannel brand and we have implemented systems that allows our stock to be updated across all channels.
We have recently started from scratch with our website as the old bug-ridden site finally crashed a few months ago.
In some ways, I feel like I’m right back where I started- learning how to market a website from scratch.
Except now, I have a tidy social media following, a few years of retail experience, a team behind me, a soon to be completed MBA and $$$ to invest in everything I couldn’t afford to do from the outset.
I have no idea if this is the way to do it- countless people have told me that shopping centres are dead, but I genuinely believe I wouldn’t be where I am today without that single rack at Westfield a few years ago.
So, I guess that’s how I started- not so much a story of crazy start up triumph, but one of consistent and slow growth, multiple setbacks and bad decision making and most of all, not waiting for opportunities to come knocking, but creating my own.
I never got around to creating the publication section of my website, partly due to the incompetence of my first web designer and partly because I didn’t actually know what to write. I probably didn’t know what to write because I hadn’t actually experienced anything past dirty uni parties and internship nightmares.
I am now three years deep into a business that I built from the ground up, and still have a lot of building to do.
How cool would it be to create the dialogue that I never did, but make it about empire building?
What went right, what went wrong (so much, dear Lord!) and what we need to do to achieve those lofty heights that we have set for ourselves.
Stay tuned, this is only the beginning.