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Julie Mathers: How I made my ‘ideal’ business

Julie Mathers
Smarter Writer

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. With over 25 years’ experience in retail, Julie took her expertise and passion into her own business. As an entrepreneur looking for the next big thing, and with a passion for the environment, Julie saw how things could be done differently. The result is Flora & Fauna.

Julie Mathers
Smarter Writer

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. With over 25 years’ experience in retail, Julie took her expertise and passion into her own business. As an entrepreneur looking for the next big thing, and with a passion for the environment, Julie saw how things could be done differently. The result is Flora & Fauna.

Julie Mathers and Flora & Fauna are proof that ethics and business can go hand in hand. With Flora & Fauna, Julie has combined her extensive experience in, and love of, retail with her personal ethos to tread lightly on the planet. In doing so, she’s created a successful, sustainable, and profitable business that is planet positive. In this column, Julie tells us how she took her ideals and turned them into a successful business.

Going into business with your beliefs

Working in retail for 25 years is a very long time, but I’ve loved every moment. On top of the trading side of things, working with customers every day is a pleasure.

Over the last 10-plus years, I’ve worked globally, from the UK to Asia and across Europe and Australia. And in that time, I've had roles in consulting and retail for some of the biggest retailers.

But in careers, like life, things change. It can be sudden, but often those changes take time: as years and years of experience offer the perfect opportunity to turn what you’ve learned into a new direction.

It’s essential to love what y ou do, and I truly loved what I was doing, but quite simply… I got to the point where I was getting frustrated.

Firstly, I was a frustrated entrepreneur trying to run my own race. And secondly, I was becoming disheartened with working for retailers who weren't responsible for their actions.

“I just thought, ‘You know what? Let's go and create a business that turns retail on its head.’”

In retail there needed to be more focus on things like plastic bags, where products are sourced from, how people are treated, how people are paid, the supply chain – all the areas that aren’t focused on enough.

And so, in July 2014, the idea of Flora & Fauna was born.

I'm really passionate, I'm passionate personally about the environment and animal welfare.

So the dream was to create a place where people can go and shop and everything is ethical and cruelty-free, sourced right, and it gave back to the community. Flora & Fauna was created to be a place that can be truly trusted.

Our story shows that business and belief can go together and succeed.  But along the way, one of the most important lessons learned has been how important it is to listen and talk to people.

Community and customer service combine

Flora & Fauna is really, really focused on education and empowerment of the customer.

A direct connection to my customers has been the consistent thread running through my entire working career.

We want to educate and empower people to make the best decisions for them, whatever that may be. But to do this, our message needs to reach them.

On Facebook and Instagram, we've managed to engage our community. They talk to us, and they even talk amongst themselves about our products – it’s a real collective spirit.

More than engagement with fans of your brand, though, building a community quickly becomes customer service. And if you nail your customer service, you’ll market yourself positively.

This is because being active online makes you incredibly transparent – there's nowhere to run or hide, and why should you?

“My advice to anyone who runs an online business is to embrace customer reviews online. Instead of shutting off from them, do something with the information – it’s priceless feedback.”

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We listen on social, and we hear what customers are saying. It’s sometimes anecdotal, sure, but if you've got 20 people saying the same thing, then you realise there's something in it.

Social media is really important for us because it helps us listen to our customers. While we find a lot of people via digital marketing, we also find a lot of people through referrals.

Fostering community online creates marketing opportunities through word of mouth. And that's the way that we've been able to get a lot of people talking about us. Word of mouth is so powerful, and retailers don't think about it enough.

Success and ethics: leveraging a peoples’ movement

Nothing we’ve done with Flora & Fauna would be possible without people. And I don’t mean just customers, but broader changes in society. The beliefs I’ve carried through my life meet so neatly with a growing culture worldwide. 

“Our mission is to be the most ethical retailer.”

Through 2014 and 2016 there was a 92 per cent increase in the number of food products launched in Australia with the ‘vegan’ claim. 

People turning to veganism or plant-based diets continues to become more and more common. In business, we've certainly seen the trend increase, even with people just dipping their toes in and trying it for the first time.

And we’ve seen plastics become a hot topic. Packaging is at the top of my list for a socially responsible initiative that all retail businesses can get behind. It’s also tangible and visible to the consumer, so it sends a clear message. None of our packaging contains plastic. And when we included a minimal packaging option on the website for online orders, we had a 40 per cent uptake straight away. It was clear that this is what people wanted.

Beyond the waste and environmental concerns, there's nothing more annoying for people than having excess plastic packaging to get rid of. It’s really unnecessary in many ways. Making this change is easy for people to do. And this had a secondary benefit – less packaging is simply cheaper.

We’ve found people take up these initiatives with vigour.  They become passionate about using these products and talking amongst themselves in their community.

How keeping up with tech has played such a big part

Without today’s tech, we wouldn't be here – it’s simple. The progress of the internet has made businesses like ours possible.

Since the beginning, we’ve evolved continuously. We started off on one platform, one website, that kept us going for about the first year and a half or so. And then we re-platformed because we needed better technology, and we needed to integrate things like Afterpay, which we couldn't do with the previous website. 

“Suddenly, we had customers demanding it. It was like, ‘Okay, well, we've gotta move.’”

Technology is integral in enabling the customer to shop with us. But it’s revolutionised our back-of-house systems as well. Things like order picking and packing, fulfillment, and shipping, have
been improved so much by today’s technology.

When we started out, we'd write the tracking number into a book because we were doing like five orders per day and it was manageable. Now with a thousand orders per day, we couldn’t do it without the right systems and software in place.

The right set-up helps so much. Less obvious is how it gives you time.

“The classic saying goes, ‘Work on your business. Not for your business.’ The right technology helps make that happen.”

It frees you up from all that day-to-day stuff, so you can step outside the business and look at the bigger picture. For Flora & Fauna, that’s looking at the customer, recognising what they need
and want, and then putting more thought behind how to deliver that using tech.

We're big fans of digital marketing, so we invest a lot of money into Facebook and Instagram, and Google as well.

It’s good to remind yourself that anyone online, anywhere in the world, is a potential customer.

Being online and being such a digital business has been a success for us. More than that, being online helps the customer find the things they want, and make better, ethical decisions. With awareness and education, it really lifts people up.

From the original business idea through to referrals through fostering community and the right approach to online marketing, we’ve really found our feet.


Julie Mathers’ tips on taking your beliefs into business
  • Are the stars aligning? If your personal beliefs line up with a social movement, and you’ve got the expertise and drive, it’s the right time to start looking at ways to turn your passion into a business.
  • People are essential: Customer service can’t be overlooked in online business. Make customers and community the heart of what you do, and you’ll give yourself every chance of success.
  • Choosing the right tech: The right tech can help any business, online or offline. While the benefit might seem singular and obvious, finding new efficiencies give you the secondary benefit of more time to work on your business.
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