Man, I am really loving writing this monthly Small Business column, each mini-interview we do really is full of such juicy nuggets of generous advice and wisdom from local entrepreneurs…. and gives me the best excuse to be even nosier than usual with my line of questioning!
Today we introduce the rather amazing Annie Abbott, whose Melbourne based shoe brand Habbot has grown in leaps and bounds since she first launched her business.
Habbot officially started back in 2011, when Annie quit her ‘real job’, and released her first shoe collection. That’s THREE YEARS people. Already, Annie’s business has grown to three beautifully decorated high street stores in Melbourne, and a busy online store which perfectly showcases the tenets which underpin her brand.
Though her business has only been operating for three years, the seed for Habbot was sewn way back in 2004, when Annie was inspired by a hugely successful young clothing company she was working for at the time in Sydney – Sass and Bide.
I saw what could grow from big passion and hard work!’
Since opening her third store last month at The Strand in Melbourne’s CBD, Annie’s staff has instantly doubled in size, to 13 employees, which she admits it something she’s still getting her head around! ‘It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was working every day for three months at a time in my pop-up shops, with just my sisters and husband on hand for back up!’ Annie recalls.
It’s been so inspiring to see Annie’s little local business grow into something with significant presence and a growing client base of loyal customers, in such a short time. Habbot’s commitment to contemporary design and Italian craftsmanship is a winning combination that has ensured the brand has always stood out in a crowded market. I’ve also always been impressed by Annie’s commitment to working with really top quality local collaborators to ensure her brand is always beautifully presented – from her exquisite recent store fit out by Fiona Lynch, to her striking campaign imagery, most recently shot by Brooke Holm and styled by Marsha Golemac.
We asked Annie a few burning questions about building her brand and her business over the past 3 years, here’s what she had to say! –
Hi Annie! You’re a very impressive local businessperson… Tell us a little bit about your pride and joy, Habbot.
Habbot is a Melbourne based brand of women’s shoes, handbags and accessories that are designed locally and made by hand in Italy. We sell our collections through our three Melbourne stores, and our online store, and employ a total of thirteen people. Nine of my employees work across the three stores, and an additional four part-time team members help me in the office with marketing, sales, graphic design and administration. I also employ a book keeper and use an emergency IT specialist as required.
Although our stores sit alongside some really great fashion names, I don’t really consider Habbot to be a ‘fashion brand’, in the sense that my design decisions are not really driven by seasonal trends where high rotation is encouraged. Instead, I choose to design shoes that celebrate my love of bold colour, appreciation of classic design and fine workmanship, and my sense of humour.
Habbot’s specialty in the beginning was focused in mostly flat shoes of the lace-up or loafer variety. This was the Melbourne girl coming out in me! It was also a response to the years I spent working in London (at Net-a-porter) and then travelling as a shoe buyer in France and England, where quality flat shoes for women are really celebrated. I’ve branched out since then, and now bring that same vibrant Habbot aesthetic to other shoe categories, bags and accessories.
To achieve the quality of materials and manufacturing I sought for Habbot I decided from the outset to partner with craftsmen in Italy to make my shoes. I have been working with a family operated factory in Italy and travel to see them usually three times each year. Much of my design work is done on these work trips, with the distance serving as a good separation between my ‘business’ head and my ‘creative’ one.
What does a typical work day at Habbot involve?
6am – Wake and check my first round of emails on my phone in bed (much to my husband’s frustration!).
6.30am – Breakfast of porridge where I re-read detailed emails that have come in from Italy overnight, speed-read my favourite blogs and check out what other retail brands are doing via their newsletters and emails.
7.30am – City store visits. I often drive into the city to deliver special customer orders to the stores or install new window displays (it’s not uncommon to find me up a ladder in the royal arcade store window at 7.30am!)
9.00am – Arrive at the office, behind our Armadale store, and scribble an unrealistically long to-do list for the day over a cup of tea.
9.30am – Consult task management software trello to see where everyone is at on the tasks we’re working on this week.
10.00am – A quick chat working in the Armadale store that day as they open up.
1030am – On most days I am joined in the office with either my marketing guru or retail sales manager so we spend the next few hours going over plans or current activities relating to those areas.
2.00pm – Late lunch at my desk. I’ve never been good at taking a proper break.
2.15pm – A random assortment of tasks usually relating to product adjustments on the website or point of sale system, responding to emails, paying bills, following up customer inquiries and information requests, and putting out the regular little fires that occur in small business.
6.00pm – A great quiet time to review financial reports, see how we’re tracking against goals, and highlight areas that need attention or opportunities that have come up.
7.00pm – Leave for home with my production folder in hand for some after dinner design spec adjustments and Skype calls to Italy.
What are the daily office rituals or systems you use to enhance your team’s productivity?
The staff in each store keep a daily log to measure foot traffic into the stores, happenings in the local area and customer feedback. This is summarised in an ‘end of day’ email to me each day which helps me keep in touch with the single most important thing we do, serving our customers.
Our point of sale system is called Retail Express, and is cloud based so I can access live sales results from my phone and iPad at any time. This is fantastic and allows me to keep up with sales progress, but sometimes I have to ban myself from logging in whilst I’m designing as the left and right sides of my brain start to fight with each other!
My retail sales manager works most of the week in the stores, so in addition to our constant phone conversations we spend one day a week going over what’s selling and any stock management requirements that come from that. She then updates a live notice board within our point of sale system with a summary of these results to celebrate special achievements and keep everyone in the loop.
I have recently introduced collaborative task management software Trello, which helps keep me and staff members up to date with both our long and short term tasks and deadlines. We use this in conjunction with a detailed six month company planner set up in excel. At our monthly sales and marketing meeting we measure the business against our goals and modify the planner for any unexpected results.
We use Google Drive to keep combined lists of special customer requests between the stores, and use Dropbox between the office team in place of a server.
With the benefit of hindsight, what do you know now about running a small business that you wish you had known when you started?
Some industry rules just don’t apply to Habbot. For example, black is not always the best-selling shoe colour! (I had to clear a lot of black shoes in the first two seasons because I carried this industry standard from my old job into my new business).
Don’t be afraid to tell your own story. To begin with I thought I needed to appear bigger and more established than I was for people to accept my premium brand, with its premium price point. Later on I realised that people were actually interested in the genuine story behind Habbot, and so I refreshed my logo, website and image completely which was a very liberating experience, but one that came at significant cost.
Set up some ‘brand guidelines’ early on so that everything you communicate is consistent and gives a strong message about your brand. As a solo operator I found that my mood and energy levels often affected the look and tone of my marketing and communication. Sometimes my message was super casual and friendly, and other times I was quite formal and direct. I’m sure this sometimes confused people. It’s only now that I’m able to keep things consistent by sticking to set of rules that clearly convey what Habbot is about.
What top three tips would you share with other small business owners?
1. Do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t. I followed this advice that was given to me when I decided to move away from wholesale sales and focus on the success I was having with my retail pop-up stores, and now apply it to almost all situations. It really helps me use my time and resources efficiently.
2. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small, and don’t dwell on your mistakes. One will spur you on and remind you of the passion that started you off, and the other will just hold you back.
3. Set your expectations high with suppliers and employees from the beginning (even if you’re only tiny) so that everyone is on the same page and you don’t have to re-set them at a later date.
Bonus tip: Only spend money where you have to. For the first two years I ran Habbot out of a shed in my backyard, and stored my shoes in a secure storage facility. This allowed me to conserve funds on the ‘back end’ and buy stock and rent pop-up shops to grow my business at the front.
Who is a local small business owner you admire and why?
Any small business owner who is combining business with parenting! I’m yet to attempt this, but the idea of it makes my mind boggle! The list of parenting business owners I know is long and distinguished, but a particularly special one would be Interior Designer, Fiona Lynch who designed my new Strand Melbourne store. I admire Fiona’s commitment to the colour mauve (she worked hard and won me over!), and also her ability to get the exact result she wants from tradesmen without ever having to raise her voice!
Habbot’s newly opened store is at Shop 10 in The Strand, 250 Bourke st, Melbourne. It is SO beautiful – well worth a look! Annie’s other two stores are in The Royal Arcade and High Street Armadale.