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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, we speak to Julie Mathers, Founder of Flora and Fauna and CEO of Snuggle Hunny, on being adventurous, bootstrapping a business, and first mover advantage.
Julie and her husband Tom co-founded Flora & Fauna in 2014, an online store specialising in vegan and eco-friendly products, with a clear vision to be the most responsible retailer possible with the best customer service.
She sold the business in 2021 to an ASX-listed company and exited the business in February 2022. She is now the CEO and Owner of Snuggle Hunny, a fast-growing Australian baby brand.
Julie has over 30 years’ experience in retail and has worked across medium and large retailers before starting her entrepreneurial journey.
In 2018 she won the Telstra New South Wales Small and Succeeding Business Award, and was named Number 1 in the 2019 and 2021 “Top 50 People in Australian eCommerce” – she also took out the Industry Person of the Year at the 2021 Online Retail Industry Awards and 2022 Retail Fest.
In this episode we talk about:
- Being adventurous and treading a different path to your peers
- The genesis of Flora & Fauna and her “A-ha” moment
- The harsh realities of working for yourself
- Scaling a business without taking on investment and moving first in a crowded industry.
Connecting with Julie Mathers
You can connect with Julie via LinkedIn.
Books and resources
“Do you want to work in a company where your values align or are you okay with the fact that they don't?”
On early lessons
- I learnt a lot about myself when I went to University, and just figured out who I was really quickly. My friends would go off to Ibiza or Spain during the holidays and I took myself off to build solar cookers. And it really helped me understand what drove me as a human and what interested me as a human, which was basically being really happy, not doing the norm.
- I'm very much someone who doesn't follow the usual path, and then I will happily tread a different path if that's the right path for me and if it's interesting and adds a bit of value.
On finding her purpose
- As I built the business, I really found my personal purpose, because my personal purpose became completely intertwined with the business's purpose. We were growing and developing together.
- When I was doing my own thing, I didn't have the boundaries or rules of working for an organisation and that really helped me because I felt I could just open up more as a human and figure out myself as a human not being through the lens of another business.
On career crossroads
- I think the first thing someone needs to do is try and understand what's important to them and what their values are. What gets you up in the morning? What do you hang your hat on?
- Then think about what are the values of the company. And are you okay that they don't match? Is there enough of what you do outside of work that means you are happy with your values?
- If there isn't enough outside of work to make you happy, then maybe you are working in the wrong company.
On being bootstrapped throughout
- We did not tread the same path as everyone else. So I launched a cruelty-free beauty store and Tom and I did not pay ourselves for four years. We invested every single cent that we made back in the business for growth. Now that was a very calculated move as for two of those four years we were still working in jobs.
- But so you can't underestimate the power of just that rigour around cash and investing it back in, we never took a cent of investment as we didn’t need to. We were completely bootstrapped throughout. And actually, I think that was another big win for us because it meant we could completely tread our own path without having to take direction from shareholders, who might have a different desire to us.
On being a first mover
- One of the other things which I think was very important was, again, being willing to tread your own path. So we started off as a cruelty-free store. In January 2016, I decided we were going to go 100% vegan. And our customers have been asking us about this and I talked to a few suppliers and they said, “What are you doing? What are you possibly thinking of? This is a really stupid move people don't… This is such a tiny niche market. And I said, “No, it's the right thing to do.”
- It was one of the best moves we made because we are suddenly talking to an audience that was growing as Australia was the third-fastest growing market in the world for veganism.
- One of my values is be bold; you’ve got to be prepared to make some decisions which make you uncomfortable, but you need to be okay with being uncomfortable. So when we went vegan, we had to take a whole bunch of products off the site that were our best sellers. And if you look at that on the surface, you go, that's a stupid decision. But it's the absolute right, long-term decision.
- And we were really early to the market, we were a first-mover in everything we did. So we were first-mover with veganism, and we were first-mover with the eco piece, and the recycling programme. We just went, “We are just going to go first.” And that was very, very key to us. If you continually follow – and we have lots of people come after us who created stores who've tried to mimic what we've done – you're just following someone else's strategy. So chase down what you think is right for you and your business and follow your own destiny there.
On the harsh realities of starting a business
- First of all, are you prepared to do the hard yards? So this is not something that you can do five days a week, nine to five. This will all encompass your every waking being. It's the first thing you think of in the morning, and it's the last thing you think of at night. Are you prepared for that? Are you prepared to work weekends? Are you prepared to sacrifice holidays and commitments? Because that's the reality of it.
- You've got to love it – at no point ever through F&F did I ever see it as work. However, the one time I did see it as work was when I sold it and worked for my new owner. I had said to them that if there is a culture that I love, I'm not going to go anywhere. And unfortunately, there wasn't and that was when I left.
On dealing with difficult employees or partners
- My approach with it all is to be super transparent. So if I feel that someone is going off the boil now, I have a very frank conversation with them. It’s not a performance review, it's just, “Where's your head at? Are you okay?” Because you don't know what's happening outside of work either as there's a lot going on for everyone.
- I don't let things fester. I think that's the worst thing you can do. You've got to deal with things very, very quickly. And if a decision needs to be made about letting someone go, you have to make that decision quickly, because I think too many people want to be liked and in your bid to want to be liked, you don't make the right decisions. And the outcomes are largely the same, but it just takes longer and things fester and then it starts impacting your culture.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- You've got to be bold. You must put yourself out there. There is so much opportunity going forward, but put yourself out there. Be bold, don't tread the norm and be okay with that.
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