“It’s the stairway to success, not the elevator”
“It’s been such a grind to get here, so it’s just really exciting to see these opportunities coming to fruition.”
I first talked to Christie 4 years ago, one month after she had set up her dream millinery business christiemillinery.com.
Christie’s story is the opening chapter in our book Start Your Dream Business and unlike the other well established entrepreneurs in the book, Christie was just starting out. Her biggest challenge back then was letting go of all that was secure and fear of the unknown.
It’s such a great, inspirational story, but she has done it and 4 years on she is ‘in the thick of it’, having created a hat for Zara Phillips, is currently collaborating with a major Australian label and she is featured in a forthcoming edition of Vogue.
But it certainly hasn’t been plain sailing or remotely easy. “I’m exhausted” admits Christie. Lots of things Christie felt would launch her brand, didn’t. But she feels the business is very much on the brink and at a moment when a lot of things are starting to join up. ‘I did my first ready to wear Bridal collection this year and Vogue have used it in an editorial that comes out in June.’
For the first two years Christie operated as a soul trader then she started her own company after advice from her business mentors.
“I knew that in the future I didn’t want to be working by myself I wanted to employ staff. So that’s why I set up my company. I started with the end in mind and that’s where I wanted to go. One of my mentors is a financial planner so he said he’d wished that I’d set my structures up from the start . It saves you a lot of problems further down the track. So that’s why I set my company up.
You go in not knowing anything about fashion or business.. and you think it’ll be one little thing that will translate but it’s not that at all, it’s such a journey. It’s tiny steps, upwards every single little opportunity I’ve had over the last 4 years has led to another. It’s all been building. They say it’s the stairway to success not the elevator. As a milliner you think surely having worked with the royal family would be a real career boost and translate to more sales. It has to an extent but really more than anything these opportunities that I’ve taken over the past few years have been a brand building venture. The culmination of all of those collaborations, aligning myself with the right people, it’s all coming together right now. Vogue have looked at my brand and thought that’s someone that we’re happy to align ourselves with. Which is a huge honour.’
Previously, Christie had been working as a physiotherapist part-time in order to put all her money back into the business and not draw a salary. Partly because the business is so seasonal. But now she has made the transition and is working as a milliner full-time, with a salary.
What is it like running your own business?
“It’s not for everyone. You have to be so resilient and so brave. No one can prepare you for how hard it is. If you don’t absolutely love what you do I can see why so many people don’t get through this phase. I had my first week off in 4 or 5 years at Christmas.
I had my first pop up space last year. And everything seems to get thrown at me last minute, but it was an amazing experience and I learnt so much about my client. But I worked 34 days in a row. It’s full on doing what you have to do at the start. But the rewards, especially now, I just pinch myself. When I go to my studio everyday. I’m no longer working at home and I’ve got this beautiful space and I’m also part of a creative start up community. I’ve had an incredible branding and marketing coach and I’m now part of this fashion incubator which helps labels get off the ground. I know my weaknesses and I’ve got help for that and I just couldn’t do it without the support that I have from my creative community.
I’m so delighted to not be working at home any more. It gets really lonely working by yourself and I’m such a people person. I’ve been so much happier since I’ve had my own studio and to be there full time is amazing. I’ve been there a month.
I say to people you’re not going to have a life for quite a while. Being an entrepreneur is ‘living a few years like others won’t, to live a life others can only dream of.’ I think that resonates with me. But I’ve been in that phase for over 5 years now and I’m so over it. I’m like ‘get me out of here!’ The only thing that gets you through is that passion.
50% of businesses have failed. What advice do you have for anyone starting out?
“Before you invest in anything spend time getting to know your brand. Branding is THE most important thing to do. It’s not always easy to do straight away but I wish someone had pulled me aside 4 years ago and just said what’s your brand about and actually gone through that process. It would have saved me so much money and time. Your brand is everything. It’s why anyone buys anything. I think when you’re early stage you just think I’ll try this, I’ll try marketing but you have no idea really who you are targeting. It’s not until you hone in on who you are as a brand, who you are targeting, what does your client looks like? Where do they shop? What do they do? It just makes every single business decision easier. It’s so imperative. I had no idea how complex it was. I would highly recommend doing that to anyone. Invest in your brand.
I think people think they’ve got to have everything right at the start and they’re afraid of not having it right. But you’ve just got to be so brave. You’ve got to try things and see what works. That’s what I’ve done.
What else has helped you survive these early years?
I’ve put a lot more time into understanding social media.
Traffic wise Instagram is now really big particularly around the spring carnival. I get so much interest through Instagram. I think people are so much more visually connected than they were 3 years ago.
But also, as it turned out, bricks and mortar worked for me more than anything else in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I got a pop up shop in Brisbane on the high street. The right street at the right time and it was very successful.
I learnt a lot about my brand through having this space. I learnt that people really wanted to connect with me and that was a big part of my point of difference actually – that extra level of customer service. Making people feel really special. It reinforced that luxury goods are experiential things so it was a really lovely surprise that our space was so successful. It was for a month and I only had a week’s notice.
I probably won’t have a full time physical space for a while I think that’s probably the smartest move given the seasonality of my industry. Luxury goods are only 4% of online sales but people look up your luxury goods which will then go on to translate as 20% of your sales. 70% of people will research your brand on line before going to buy in store.
What highlights have there been in the last 4 years?
Working with Zara Phillips was amazing. Magic Millions (a thoroughbred sales business that runs flagship sales and race events) approached me and I literally didn’t find out until close to the event that Zara Phillips had even chosen my head wear. She found me online. So much has happened and none of it I could have planned. You’ve just got to go forward in such a positive way.
Last year I got to meet Stephen Jones OBE (British based milliner) who is the reason I became a milliner. He was in Australia for the Melbourne Cup. Fate intervened and he walked into a restaurant that I was having dinner at and I nearly passed out! We were still wearing our hats. I just thought I’m never going to be in the same room as him. So I approached and said ‘Mr Jones – I thought to myself this morning if I was lucky enough to meet you today what would be the one question I’d ask..’ He said ‘Of course. What would you like to know?’ He actually came over and talked to us. I told him about the collaboration and I asked him if he had any words of advice.
Stephen Jones does the hats for Chanel and John Paul Gautier every year. He’s the most incredible milliner in the world. I just couldn’t believe it. He was very humble.
My collaboration with a very successful Australian label is also a highlight. It means my hats will go into their shops. It’s a huge break and they are very established. I’m doing crazy stuff but it’s super creative to align myself with a label of that calibre is amazing.
What are your biggest outgoings?
High material costs for millinery, photo shoots, which are really expensive, and marketing. Anything around investing in your brand is expensive – but it’s the best money you can spend.
But anything I’ve ever earned has gone into my company. I haven’t had a social life. It’s the basic things like food. I haven’t been on holiday, I haven’t done anything.
Time. Initally I spent all my life working but after two and a half years I realised it’s not sustainable.
What’s coming up?
My first high end bridal collection. I am re-branding, getting a new website and trade marking.
I’m just saying ‘yes’ and working it out as I go along. Every thing I’m doing is leading me towards where I want to go. And when you know where you want to go it’s a lot easier to say yes or no to opportunities that come your way.
What do you enjoy most about your business?
I love everything. I’m so creative, but I’m partly analytical from being a physiotherapist. I love the challenge of it – I’ve never been more challenged in my life. I love the business side of it – I love how multi dimensional it is. I really enjoy working with people and making them feel good about themselves. It’s honestly my ‘dream business.’ I don’t want to be working as hard as I am at the moment for ever – I can’t wait to bring a team on board to help me do a better job.
What do you wish you’d known?
There’s so much – but the power of your brand. It’s everything. It’s why people pay $30 for Calvin Klein underwear instead of $5 somewhere else for the same pair.
What are your top tips for anyone else starting out?
Be brave, you don’t need to know everything. Most of the time you’re the one who holds you back from opportunities. You can only ask, and they can only say ‘no’. And that’s going to open more doorways. You’ve just got to be your No.1 fan. You’ve got to put yourself out there. Ultimately you’re the one who’s going to make yourself successful.
Take risks, it’s hard, when you have to put yourself out there but opportunities really do pay off and people can see that authenticity.
For business start up courses I recommend: thefashiondarling .com It’s incredible. I’ve actually done 1 on 1 with the lady who runs it because I was so impressed.
For trade specific try Mastered
What personal traits have kept you in business?
I’m driven and I’m really resilient. I’ve trusted my gut instinct all the way through. In spite of all the things happening around me there was a self belief that it will come good in the end.
Start Your Dream Business: Secrets to Successful and Happy Entrepreneurs by Sarah Wade and Carole Ann Rice
Find Your Dream Job: True Stories and proven strategies for getting a job you love by Sarah Wade and Carole Ann Rice