Cathy Cousins of Sweet Little Things
My guest today is Cathy Cousins. She runs a business called ‘Sweet Little Things’. Sweet Little Things sells some really cool looking, yummy cup cakes – Read and be Inspired by her business success story !!!
Tell us a bit about your business – what you do, when you started and how you got the idea ?
|Sweet Little Things specialises in sending something beautiful – an online emporium whose virtual shelves are bursting with all things ‘little’ and ‘sweet’.|
We launched the shop with our signature item – gourmet cupcake hampers. The range has since expanded to include handmade designer baby clothes, jewellery, organic beauty products, men’s skincare, soft toys and more. All products are natural, Australian made and high quality.
Some are designed and made by me, others by people whose work I admire. There is a designers’ page on the website with a small, tongue in cheek biography on each designer. Another tool I like to use to keep it personal.
We cut through the online space with our highly personalised website and customer service. We communicate with customers via our blog which is like a window into the everyday life of Sweet little Things – pictures of hampers that get sent out, customer feedback, sewing projects I have been working on and more. We encourage interaction with our customers and like providing free information such as recipes and patterns. In return they know they are dealing with real people and not just some automated website.
Sweet Little Things is a brand synonymous with quality, beauty, ethics, fashion, design & community. I have always been fairly creative and would make gifts for friends who had babies. I would put together little packs of colourful boxes filled with cupcakes, soft toys and anything else I found interesting.
I noticed there was literally nothing like it on the market. Sure, you could buy cupcakes in a plain white box from a shop, but no one was offering them beautifully wrapped, made with all natural ingredients, or (and this is where we still dominate the space) the ability to complete your order online for next day delivery.
In my last job I was working for Pacific Brands and our category was going through a re-shuffle. I was offered a promotion which involved a lot of travel to Melbourne and just thought it was the time to branch out on my own. I had been talking about having my own fashion label since I studied fashion design 10 years ago. That dream hasn’t ended either. Women’s clothing is still on the cards for Sweet Little Things. That’s why I created a brand with a business model that allowed the addition of products as long as they fit the description ‘sweet little things’, rather than focusing on one product.
The entire concept is to be a reflection of my personality which is constantly interested in new ideas, anything fashionable and a real sense of community….oh, and cupcakes! I have a tendency to do all of my major life decisions at once, so I combined starting my business with buying a house, a dog, marrying my husband, quitting my job all while he opened an advertising agency at the same time!
Sounds a bit mad, I know, but I actually find comfort in action !
Can you tell us how your first few months were – were you doing the entire baking, wrapping, promoting etc yourself – and from there how did you transition to the next level ?
First few months were spent doing research. In fact I was so determined to make sure I was proud of my product that I spent about 9 months setting it up. I never intended on baking the cupcakes as it was more about getting the best product I could out to people in the most efficient way possible. They are my strengths. I was never a baker who decided to take it commercial. I am a marketer who saw a gap in the market for a premium product with matching customer service.
I imported 3 tonne of packaging from China, because trying to do it here became downright impossible. I found it very difficult to find any companies who would develop the product with me to the standard I needed it to be. So I went back to my fashion roots and contacted some suppliers in China I had previously worked with. The process was so much easier than trying to do it here, which is a shame, because I really wanted everything to do with my business to support Australian industry. At the end of the day though if people aren’t willing to work with you, you need to find those that will, and for me that was overseas.
I am still very hand on in terms of marketing, product development, sourcing and customer service. I use contractors to package up our hampers and an external courier company to deliver. This was and is an easy transition. In the first few months we did try to do all of that ourselves and let me tell you – there is a reason why being a courier is a specialised service – it’s a nightmare!
How do you promote your business?
I look after all marketing activities myself. I source PR and promotional opportunities and put a lot of time and effort into making sure our brand and its message is consistent. I would never send anything out (brochures and other DM) that I wouldn’t be proud to give someone myself. These things are really important. Consistency is certainly key. So is building relationships. I am a very big believer in what goes around comes around, so I always treat everyone I meet with respect. My girls in the office are the same and in this way every day our business is being promoted in the exact way we want it to. I build relationships with key media and customers I come into contact with.
Always look at media and consider if your brand would align well with it, or not. You know your business better than anyone. You essentially write the press release, so often it is just a matter of contacting the right person in the right media.
Personally I know many PAs and they control purchasing and have the ability to influence many. Friends will want to promote your business. Let them. Use any contacts you can think of – old school friends, sports buddies, ex-work colleagues
Social networking platforms Use any mediums available to you to increase your own network – My Space, Facebook, Blogging, Flickr, Craft sites, cupcakes take the cake – people have become ‘fans’ and even if they don’t purchase they are still spreading the word in a positive light
You need to do something different to set yourself apart. If the service and product is as expected, no one will talk about you. Exceed Expectations.
If you had your time all over again, is there anything you would do differently in your business?
Do you know what – I actually don’t think so. I was talking about this with another friend who has her own business and I think I needed to do everything I did because I have learnt so much. I am now in such a great place and have learnt from my mistakes. To be honest, you have to learn constantly, otherwise you can’t grow. My friend was saying that even if her current business isn’t the one that makes her achieve her goals – then maybe the next one will be. I can so identify with this.
I definitely think Sweet little Things will always be a successful brand, but perhaps its main offering will change. We are already considering delving into the wholesale market, which is where all my corporate experience lies, and I wouldn’t have even considered that when I first started! I needed to go through the process to learn what I know now!
One thing I have learnt that I would have been stricter with starting out is to stay on top of suppliers. I have been surprised by the lack of attention to detail from many Australian suppliers. They don’t phone you back and many are complacent and rude. Don’t settle for second best, especially if they don’t seem to care about servicing your business. Keep searching for that great supplier they ARE out there! In the early days – it’s hard to get respect because you are usually a small fry in their eyes, but hat many don’t seem to realise is that you will grow, and with that, so will their business. Find someone who understands this!
What is the best advice you have ever received about running a business?
If you truly believe in yourself and your product or service, then go for it. The most important lesson is to be selective about what you take on board.
EVERYONE has advice and EVERYONE feels free to give it to you (even when you haven’t asked for it). I certainly believe in asking for advice and acting on what you believe to be advice, but many people can be negative this can get you down. Smile, thank them for their opinion, and then promptly forget it and move forward enjoying what you do and living every moment to its fullest. Remember – you got into your own business for a reason. To live YOUR life, the way YOU want it.
Certainly ask the opinions of others about everything that you do (free market research – and you should do this OFTEN!), but only act on what you believe to be valid from someone whose opinion you respect.
Where do you see yourself in the next 2 to 3 years ?
Stepping away from the day to day running of the business and taking on a more strategic role. I think I will always be involved in product development, marketing and brand positioning as these are my strengths, but I certainly think it is imperative to hire people better than you for the roles you are not so good at.
Happiness to me would be hiring a financial controller to take care of the numbers side, so I can be free to create, negotiate and market the business with every now and then receiving a tap on the shoulder from my very competent financial advisor to keep me on track financially! Having said that – starting out having to do every single process is so great because it means you completely understand your business and all its complexities.
We are also branching out into the wholesale market next year selling our (previously unavailable to consumers) gorgeous cupcake decorations into gift stores.
Finally, your five keys to success?
- Keep it simple – keep your message clear, it’s easy to over-complicate sometimes when you are so involved, so take a step back and simplify
- Stay on track – spend time planning your vision and stay true to it. Too many people get swayed be opinion. Everyone has an opinion. If you change your mind according to everyone else’s opinion you will lose focus and it becomes evident to an outsider looking at your brand.
- Triple check all of your copy – get other people to read everything you have written
- Be nice to everyone you come into contact with – you never know where they (or you!) will end up one day
- Hire people better than you at the things you are not so good at/ don’t like doing
Sites Of Interest
This interview was published on 8th January 2010
Visit Cathy’s website to get more information about her business
To read more stories about women in the gifts’ business click Gifts Business Ideas