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How Flora & Fauna’s Julie Mathers made her business bloom

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

The Smarter Team is made up of business and technology journalists who write to offer insights to small and medium businesses about technology, business know-how and emerging trends.

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

The Smarter Team is made up of business and technology journalists who write to offer insights to small and medium businesses about technology, business know-how and emerging trends.

Julie Mathers is the founder of Flora & Fauna, an online store specialising in vegan and eco-friendly products, and 2018 Telstra New South Wales Small and Succeeding Business Award winner. In the past few years, Julie’s business has flourished. Flora & Fauna now sells to markets across the world and has managed to succeed at growing quickly while maintaining its eco ethos. The Flora & Fauna story is proof that you can stay true to your beliefs and be successful in business by taking a passion, starting small, and scaling when you can.

After 25 years working in retail, Julie Mathers wanted a new challenge. So she decided to take her work experience, fold it in with her passion, and start a business. Julie had worked internationally – across Europe, the UK, and Asia – in an array of roles, including retail consulting for some of the biggest retailers in the world.

“I basically loved what I was doing, but I got to the point where I was getting frustrated in two ways,” she says. “One, I was a frustrated entrepreneur trying to find the next big thing. But mostly I was getting increasingly frustrated with working for retailers who weren’t responsible for their actions.

“Things like plastic bags, where products are sourced from, how people are treated, how people are paid, the supply chain – all really important elements of a responsible business.”

“And I just thought, you know what, let's go and create a business that does all of that and turns it on its head”

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The answer was Flora & Fauna. One hundred percent vegan. Ethical. Cruelty free.

It was July 2014 when Julie came up with the idea for her ideal business. It was a commercial concept that aligned with her way of thinking.

“I’m very passionate. I’m passionate personally about the environment and animal welfare.”

Her concept was an online one-stop shop. “A place where you can go and shop and everything is ethical and cruelty-free, and sourced well, and one that gives back to the community,” Julie says.

“I wanted to create a business that believed in people being treated fairly, and a place that can be really trusted.” 

And in November of the same year, only three or so months after the idea for the business was bouncing around in her mind, Julie launched the first Flora & Fauna website to the world. 

While the digital shopfront looked “like a website from the ‘80s”, it was a start. Julie kicked off with a respectable 30 brands and 500 products to choose from.

Today Flora & Fauna boasts 240 brands and 5500 products. The brand has grown significantly in terms of the amount of products available to customers across the world, as well as the breadth of range, and the volume of stock they shift.

“You see the supplier orders coming in the door now and you go, ‘Crikey! Do we sell that many of that?’”

From small beginnings to the world

As the saying goes: from little things, big things grow. Julie’s operation got started in a tiny little warehouse, where she worked on the business with her husband. They’ve since moved to a much larger space, a move made necessary by the company’s growing size. 

“We've now got around 40 people working for us. Whereas when we started it was just myself and my husband for the first two years, packing orders in the evenings with a bottle of wine and then taking the orders to the post office the next day.”

But all along they’ve done their best to stay true to the belief in supporting people. For as long as they could, they relied on the local post office to handle shipping for their orders. It was more work for them, but being a positive part of the local community was important, Julie says.

How the internet has brought her business, and a community

In today’s world, a sense of community can be found farther afield than just the local neighbourhood. Increased connectivity enables us to reach people in meaningful ways all over the world. Julie doesn’t just see social media as a platform to coldly market her store – far from it. She loves how it develops relationships and fosters loyalty.

“I think it's really important that you're close to the customers and listen to what they're saying and what they're asking for. As one customer said recently, 'I've supported you for years.’ I wrote back to her and I said, 'I know Belinda, I know, I remember you from the start.' She said, 'Oh, wow! I can't believe you remember me.'” 

Being online also allows Flora & Fauna to enhance its standing as an ethical retailer, with social media enabling them to foster awareness, education and empowerment for consumers. Julie believes in the power of an online community, and the fact that being an online business really helps the customer. It also keeps her accountable.

“The biggest thing for me about being an online ethical retailer is the transparency; and that's what you get online.”

Cultivating customers through community

Listening to and engaging with customers is integral to how Julie does business.

Julie and the team go about this in a few different ways.

“I think it's really important that you're close to the customers and what they're saying and what they're asking for,” says Julie.

Good customer service is often rewarded with loyalty, and Julie remembers those who supported her from the beginning.

“One customer said, 'I've supported you for years,' and I wrote back to her and said, 'Yeah I know, Belinda, I remember you from the start.'”

“The customers who came in quite early [in the business]… you remember them vividly.”

Flora & Fauna is especially focused on education and empowerment of the customer, and learning from the community.

“On social media, Facebook and Instagram, what we've managed to do is really engage our community to talk amongst themselves.”

“We listen and listen and listen on social and we hear what customers are saying. If you've got 20 people saying the same thing then you kinda go, ‘there's something in this.’ So social media's really important for us to listen to our customers,” says Julie.

“We also send a really short survey out to our customer – like really short because we actually want them to answer it – asking them what they think,” Julie adds.

Being online and running such a digital business has helped Julie help the customer, and this has been fostered through an ethos of openness.

’S’ for start-up and ‘S’ for sacrifice

Despite creating a start-up that experienced success quickly, Julie still made sacrifices beyond simply working hard. Only after four or so years running the store did she and her husband start paying themselves salaries.

“I think this is really important. I was saying this to someone who I was mentoring. When you start a business, you can’t expect to have the same salary that you have in your corporate job. You have to make sacrifices, and one of those things is what you pay yourself.”

This sacrifice wasn’t through lack of revenue. Wisely, Julie was investing everything back into the business.

“I wanted every single penny going back into the business for growth.”

And the approach continues. They realise that, in the long run, investing in the business today will mean a brighter future tomorrow.

A store with a social conscience

While between 2014 and 2016 there was a 92 percent increase in the number of food products launched in Australia with the vegan claim. Only recently, mainstream ice-cream brand Magnum started producing vegan versions of their products. Julie has, anecdotally, noticed the growing trend in veganism, but more than that she points to broader changes in society.

“People are becoming more conscious in general, like with plastic bags. But they’re also becoming more aware of other things that they use every day.”

According to Julie, packaging is number one when it comes to looking at changes your business can make to be more socially responsible. They’ve found it to be impactful. Not only does it reduce waste and help the environment, but it’s also more efficient because her team aren’t spending as much time, and materials, packaging products up. Reduced packaging is also visible to the consumer, sending a subtle but effective eco message on behalf of the brand.

And it all comes back to people

Flora & Fauna’s people-focussed approach to digital marketing – a social media presence combined with an online store – has clearly reaped benefits in developing a sustainable business.

And Julie keeps on coming back to her belief in people. She continues to get new business by referrals, and maintains return custom by offering nurture programs for VIPs and special offers. One thing she’s learnt is the importance of giving the consumer something more than just a good price.

And her belief in people (and ethics) extends to staffing as well.

“We recruit for ethics and values first and foremost,” Julie says. Getting the right people with the right mindsets really helps her business make decisions, she explains, because those team members always have the customer in their thoughts. The people who work for Julie know the customer, she says, because they come from the same place the customer does, and believe in the same ethics and values.

Between her team, the local post office, and her loyal online customers, for Julie Mathers, business is personal.

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Originally published April 18 2019. Updated August 1st 2019.

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