Q&A: A business built on ethics and experience
Linda Coles, ‘chief of everything pretty’ at Amy & Ella, shares the story behind her startup online business and the ethical thinking that backs it. NZB: Amy & Ella is a new direction for you. What is the story behind the business? Linda: Long before I worked in digital marketing, my career was all about retail, […]
Linda Coles, ‘chief of everything pretty’ at Amy & Ella, shares the story behind her startup online business and the ethical thinking that backs it.
NZB: Amy & Ella is a new direction for you. What is the story behind the business?
Linda: Long before I worked in digital marketing, my career was all about retail, fashion, working in Oxford Street and around the London area. It was my passion, a thoroughly enjoyable part of my life and a fulfilling career.
Fashion retailing taught me a lot about business – about customer service and having a commercial offering in particular. When I found the skirts we now sell through Amy & Ella, it was quite by accident. I had bought a skirt online and when it arrived I couldn’t wait to wear it.
On its first outing, I got a compliment from a stranger and it got me thinking. During my retail days I’d noticed how many women lacked confidence and how much my random compliment had lifted me that day. Could there be something in the skirt? Perhaps I was onto something?
The skirt was feminine and pretty, so that became what Amy & Ella would provide – pretty and ultimately, attracting compliments. Being environmentally sound and ethical was also important so the recycled fabric aspect is a major plus for us. Less for landfill. And we can create one-of-a-kind garments.
NZB: How did your connection with the Jaipur skirt suppliers come about? And what’s been most challenging and interesting about that relationship?
Linda: When my own order first arrived, there was a small note inside. It said if I was looking for a manufacturer, they could provide. I kept hold of that note for some reason.
I believe in serendipity; I’d previously written a book on chance meetings and conversations so my mind was open. When I decided there might be something in the idea, I emailed them and was introduced to the owner, his wife and their tiny business. He was our first supplier and it grew from there.
Now the world can see our products, we get approached by suppliers regularly and so we start a conversation – you just never know what will come from it. Some work, many don’t.
We are very picky on quality and on suppliers and their working conditions.
Cultural differences have been a challenge at times. For example, during some two- or three-day holidays, workers walk back to their villages which can take several days, celebrate the holiday then walk back. It can mean that during a two-week period, the manufacturing of our garments simply stops. Now we are aware of this, we can plan around it.
NZB: Having launched your own online business, what lessons can you now share with others?
Linda: The language barrier hasn’t been an issue. Many Indians speak very good English, but sometimes things can get lost in translation. So, getting samples made is a must.
India’s customs authorities have at times delayed deliveries, with changes to paperwork needed that go through fine one day, but not another. There appears to be a lack of consistency but we work with it.
Freight costs have increased dramatically too with excess charges and emergency situation charges due to the war in Ukraine. Again, we have to adjust and raise our prices when we have to. There is little point being a busy fool, we have to make some money otherwise there’s no point to growing a business.
I’ve also learnt that just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come.
In the early days, we invested in paid advertising, but things have changed since Apple’s IOS restrictions came into force. But maybe that’s a good thing. Just relying on one platform that isn’t yours to develop a customer base doesn’t make commercial sense. It could close at any moment and the restrictions certainly changed things. By all means start off and gain customers that way, but for many businesses it’s not sustainable.
Some old school thinking is now being seen again. Having an offline retail presence gives a brand credibility and it doesn’t need to be a full-on retail store. Roadshows, fashion shows and pop-up shops all help the brand’s exposure.
We will spend more of our attention on offline events over the coming months.
NZB: What are your plans for growing and marketing the business further?
Linda: We need new and innovative fashion products to add and are currently looking at how we can use recycled wool for a range next winter. We don’t want everything made from recycled saris. We also want to sell further afield – Australia and the US to start with.
Our challenge with the US market is shipping costs. I don’t believe a customer should have to wait 14-plus days for their order and speedy delivery costs much more. $60 to the US can be a real turnoff.
We also need to get more creative in our marketing. Richard Branson had some great ideas on generating awareness of a new product launch. Some of his more risky stunts wouldn’t fly today, and he’s certainly toned things down a bit. The point is, he finds a way to get cut through and his face in the papers. We should follow suit – although driving a Sherman tank down 5th Avenue might be a bit of a stretch for us!
NZB: How have you applied your previous marketing experience and knowledge to the business?
Linda: Since I wrote my four books on marketing, a lot has changed, particularly around digital marketing. We no longer rely solely on Facebook and are always actively looking for sustainable businesses with the same ethics as us whom we can partner with marketing wise. We love adding a small gift sample to our packages when they leave, and as long as it’s not from a competing business, cross pollination can be rewarding for both businesses involved. It’s another way of getting brand exposure without spending on more digital ads.
Retail in-store or retail online isn’t much different. Your store front needs sprucing up and re-merchandising regularly either way. Prices need to be right, and customer service and communication top notch. It’s not rocket science at all, the basics of good retail are transferable to an online only store. Retail is detail, no matter the platform.
NZB: What do you put the success of the business down to so far? And what other advice can you share with anyone else who’s considering starting an online business?
Linda: Take a look at our reviews – they generally mention the same recurring elements: speedy delivery; nicely made product; excellent communication of order and tracking; their purchase arrives quickly, often next day; and the compliments they receive.
Don’t make customers wait to either pay or receive their purchase. There should never be an obstruction. Don’t let their excitement evaporate either – if there is a problem, get it dealt with immediately. If a garment with a small hole slips through the net, we refund the customer and they get to keep and mend the garment, simple. It doesn’t happen very often, but holes are a no-no. Done, dealt with, move on.
Business is largely common sense. With an online business and initial online advertising, there’s data to make sense of very quickly – use it.
There’s no secret sauce, no magical product. As Jack Welch would say, “choose a general direction and implement like hell.” If your idea is another coffee brand, run with it. If it’s a quirky gadget, run with it too. Just stay focused, and implement the hell out of it.
The market will tell you if it’s going to work or not.
Visit www.amyandella.com Pictured below: Linda Coles