The leap of faith
Nine to five was really nine to eight, and her kids were just cute faces she saw for a few minutes a day.
“I had four children and I was starting to feel really unwell,” Irene recalls from her home in Sydney’s Belrose. “It was a combination of the inability to spend any time with my children or have any work/life balance due to the corporate environment. I was also becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of women’s skincare products that were not harmful to their bodies or the environment. One day I actually went through all my products and realised I was putting over 300 different chemicals on my skin every day!
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“The research shows there are chemicals in products on our supermarket shelves that are banned in other countries because of their toxicity and these are products we use on ourselves and our kids. These are products that disrupt our hormones,” Irene explains. “But when I started Nourished Life, none of these things were mainstream knowledge. All this stuff was reserved for hippies, but I felt like there had to be other woman who didn’t want to put this crap on themselves. That was my mindset when I decided, ‘That’s it. I’m done. I’m going to quit this job and change my life’.”
The next part of the story would normally be a tribute to Irene’s supportive family and friends who said things like ‘Follow your heart’ and ‘You go, girlfriend’. But everyone thought she was mad. Especially her husband. “It was really hard,” she says, secure now her gamble has paid off. “I sold it to him by saying, ‘We’ll sell the house so we don’t have a mortgage; I can quit my job, be a stay-home mum and we won’t have to pay for childcare’. I didn’t sell it to him as, ‘I’m going to quit my glamorous, high-paying corporate job and start a blog to sell organic products’.”
Small steps – Huge change
Using that legendary $100, Irene bought 100 lip balms from the US for $1 each. “At the time, the Australian dollar was on par with the US, so I was very lucky,” she recalls. Then she took advantage of the wonderful world of free technology available to budding entrepreneurs. “I built the website using a free WordPress template, set up a Facebook page, then got a free plug-in for the WordPress site that enabled me to sell products straight off the blog through PayPal, which again was free. Funnily enough, I had exactly 100 followers on Facebook at the time and they all bought one. I sold them for $6 each, so I made a good margin, bought more lip balms and then more products from there. The next thing you know, my kids had to go back into day care because I was so busy. But I was actually able to replace the income I would have made working in corporate in the first year.” And in August 2017, Irene sold her business to BWX, the ASX-listed company that also owns the Sukin skincare brand, for a package worth $20 million.
Test and learn
During the first year, Irene learned things as most newcomers to small business do – the hard way.
Lesson 1: The basics
“I’m a real jump in headfirst kind of person,” she says. “I don’t like to plan and that’s been a discipline I’ve had to learn. I just jumped in with a scattergun approach. There were little things no-one tells you – such as you need an ABN, and BAS and public liability insurance. If I had just stopped and thought about what was involved, I would have had a checklist and been more organised rather than having to go back and fix mistakes. When you set up a business, the basics are the insurance, accounting, bookkeeping – then there’s compliance – like knowing you need a fire escape plan in an office.”
Lesson 2: Process
“In corporate, I didn’t have to think about processes because they had been in place for 100 years. When you run your own business you don’t have that heritage. I had to spend a lot of time making sure it all linked together ‑ that there was a common thread through everything from logistics to promotion.”
Tech is key to this, she says. “I use a combination of cloud-based software such as Xero, eParcel, and an enabled HR platform that’s backed by Australia’s largest law firm. The website itself is a custom build. I don’t use an off-the-shelf platform anymore, which means I can adapt and add things I would normally be restricted in doing.”
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Lesson 3: Logistics
“At first I outsourced logistics to a third party fulfilment centre and it was a disaster,” Irene says of her next Big Mistake. “They’d lose packages or wouldn’t send them at all. They didn’t care and I was losing customers. So I got my own warehouse, hired my own people and set up my own Australia Post contract so I had control over what was going out and my business skyrocketed. When you’re relying on someone else, they just don’t have that sense of ownership.”
Paying it forward
Now, Irene has a staff of 30 mums who all work school hours. “You have to think about why I started the business,” she says. “It was because I didn’t have any work/life balance and wanted to see my children. It’s very hard for a lot of women who have been out of the workforce for five years to find a job when their children start school,\ unless you work at a café or something, but that’s not a career. I wanted to give these women an opportunity to drop their kids off at school and work in an environment where they’re learning, collaborating and supported and then leave at 2.30. And I tell you what, if you want something done, give it to a busy mother!”
You don't have to be a marketer
It would be easy to think Irene’s background in marketing means she’s had an unfair advantage, but she says it’s the opposite. “My background, I hate to say, has given me no help at all. I was used to having a $40 million annual budget, so it’s been incredibly frustrating to want to market the business but not have the funds. My advice to anyone starting their own business with no experience in accounting or marketing would be to capitalise on the fact we’re in a unique age, where small companies can use social media to gain more traction than large brands can on TV. If you’re authentic, you don’t have to be a marketer.”
* Originally publish April 12th 2017. Updated August 9th 2018.