For Melbourne-based accessories label Elk, running a business is a case of combining family, passion and a social conscience. Founder Marnie Goding works alongside husband Adam to create a quintessentially Australian brand that is inspired by Scandinavian design, creating everything from jewellery to clothing and handbags, including the recent addition of swimwear to their hefty stable of products...
The busy mother of two credits her marketing background and childhood as the driving factors to creating a business that has grown steadily since its inception in 2004, most recently winning the Telstra Medium Business of the Year award, which celebrates the brand’s commitment to Australian design, independent fashion and ethically sourced materials. So how does the business creative make marriage, children and business all co-exist? “It’s about playing to each other’s strengths and supporting each other when it’s most needed. Good communication and time away from the business to talk is also important. Having an external and impartial advisor to help us navigate some of the tougher times has also been great. I have great respect for Adam and each of us have learnt when to let the other person take the lead.”
Read on to hear more from Marnie on her business highs and lows, how she uses enthusiasm to tackle motherhood challenges and why building a brand is all about being slow, steady and well-prepared.
What is the best advice you’ve been given about motherhood?
That our kids are only small for such a short time, so enjoy them while they are little. Oh and that whatever phase they are going through it will not last – that’s a good one to remember.
What does every mother need to get through some of the more trying stages of motherhood?
Enthusiasm! There are more obvious words like patience, but if you can remain positive and enthusiastic even at the most trying times this helps overcome whatever it is that is troubling you a lot faster.
Can you tell us about your childhood?
I am the oldest of three children. We grew up on a farm with amazing parents who taught us the value of hard work and the importance of family. We spent most of our childhood outside or in the kitchen where we have all learnt to be great bakers.
Do you think you were born to be an entrepreneur? Where does your determination come from?
Both Adam and I were brought up in families that ran small businesses. I learnt as a child that you have to apply yourself and understood very clearly that to earn a living you have to work. I can clearly remember sitting around the dinner table with my parents and listening to discussions about their business, the good and the bad. Our family was in agriculture and it involved long and often unusual hours and was at the mercy of nature – it was a tough industry to be involved in. Those early life lessons of rolling your sleeves up and never shirking your responsibilities gave me the determination then that I still have now. None of us are afraid of hard work.
“ Both Adam and I were brought up in families that ran small businesses. I learnt as a child that you have to apply yourself and understood very clearly that to earn a living you have to work. I can clearly remember sitting around the dinner table with my parents and listening to discussions about their business, the good and the bad ”
What is the secret to a strong working relationship between husband and wife?
There isn’t one secret – there’s a whole lot of parameters needed to make it work but mostly it’s a balancing act of knowing when to talk and when not to! It’s about playing to each other’s strengths and supporting each other when it’s most needed. Good communication and time away from the business to talk is also important. Having an external and impartial advisor to help us navigate some of the tougher times has also been great. I have great respect for Adam and each of us have learnt when to let the other person take the lead.
Talk us through your career path from managing events at Melbourne Zoo to launching Elk…
I have had an unusual path to get to where I am today. I have always had a marketing “head” though and after studying business subjects at university I commenced a career in an events role at the National Gallery of Victoria and was then headhunted to join a team at Melbourne Zoo. It was a mixed role and some of the hardest and fun work I have ever done. Throughout my time there I always craved for more creativity and so found ways to incorporate this into daily work life. The decision to leave the job was easy in the end, I had been there for five years and Adam’s jewellery business was growing and doing really well but he needed some backup. So I joined him and the rest is history. I had gained some solid experience in running a business, in key disciplines like budgeting etc and had made my mistakes on someone else’s time! Many of those early lessons still influence how we work today and I am so thankful for the time I had before Elk.
How would you describe your unique approach to jewellery design?
We have a balancing act to achieve between creativity and commerciality with everything we make. Jewellery especially is a challenge as we need to constantly push the materials we use and find new ways to present them. Our unique approach is in looking for a twist… looking for elements that reinterpret a material or process.
How has social media helped your brand to grow?
Elk started well before Facebook and Instagram and so we have lived through the reinvention of marketing theory. Social media has given us a voice. It is tailored to people who want to know more about Elk and it’s humbling to know that people are willing to give some of their time to connect with us. It helps us tell stories, to gain feedback and let people into our world more than we could before. Our audience is incredibly engaged and feel like a part of the family – social media is the most incredible tool and we wouldn’t be where we are today without it.
What are your top tips for building a brand and connecting you with your consumers?
Building brand is a journey. You cannot expect to have an audience overnight (unless you are a Kardashian offspring) and you need to give it time. You also need to have a plan, a message and a unique offering. The world is inundated with messages so you have to work out a consistent message. What is it the intention? What are you trying to convey? Are you trying to get them excited or inspired, promoting an aesthetic or an ideal? Having a clear goal is imperative otherwise with the flick of a finger your work will be swiped aside. The other key is to work out who your customers are. You need to work out what they like and don’t like otherwise no one will take notice.
How did you fund the brand initially? What are your tips for managing cash flow?
Growing up in the family business taught me early on that good cash flow is critical not to success but to survival. From the beginning, we were self-funded and still are today. We operate with a very sensible and somewhat cautious approach to managing finances. It has definitely been tough at times and there were many times when we were down to our last $20, but we have always known our position. We watch our numbers and if there’s more going out than coming in then we pull back – it’s an in and out game. Of course, there are times when you have to take risks but everything we do is planned as well as possible and of course well considered. So our tip is planning – look back and learn and look ahead with a prediction.
13 years later – what do you remember about those early days when you first launched Elk?
The early days were more erratic. We had less people that needed to be multi-skilled. It was fun in a sense as it was less “involved” and less serious but certainly more chaotic! Thirteen years in and we feel quite settled with more defined roles, a more senior team supporting us, better planning and as a result a more consistent and stable operation. We are far more grown up but do sometimes say we miss the more carefree, old days.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
No. Our journey has led us to where we are today and has helped define who we are and how we run our business. We have of course made mistakes along the way and have the benefit of hindsight but tough lessons are the best ones – you never make the same mistake twice.
Talk us through your experience with some of Australia’s bigger retailers – what are the challenges small businesses can face here?
We have focused on working mostly with independent businesses. We dealt for a short time with one of the major players but our experience was a great reminder of why their model doesn’t fit with ours. Whoever it is that we work with, large or small, our success is built on relationships, service and communication.
The challenge with a big box player is relying on them to translate your story or philosophy behind your product. It is important to us that the end consumer can know what they are buying and where and how it was made if they want to. Our independent stores are far more able to communicate this and that’s our commercial and social advantage. The other situation dealing with larger players can be the contractual arrangements especially around product terms and sometimes even with IP. Our advice is always to read the fine print and if you feel at all hesitant then don’t deal!
On the other hand, a larger retailer or chain can really do wonders for small labels that struggle to find a voice. Today’s start-up can be next years star player and that’s what larger retailers look for and champion if they see the potential.
What are some of the biggest business lessons you’ve learnt over the last decade?
There are many and we continue to learn. At the core though Adam and I know innately what is right for Elk. On the occasions that we have stepped outside our comfort zone or tested our ideals it hasn’t gone well. So to trust our instinct and make decisions that have the best outcome for the most is our mantra. The other thing we live by is to employ well. Great people have helped us build our business. We surround ourselves with like-minded, hard-working individuals and they are key to helping us remain consistent and to pushing us into the future. Elk would be nothing without the team we have around us.
How has Elk grown and what have been some highlights?
We have always made sure that we grow steadily and consistently. Whilst we look ahead we are careful not to get too ahead of ourselves as we don’t want to trip ourselves up.
The highlights have been many including successfully launching new lines like our swimwear and most recently winning the Telstra Medium Business of the Year. However more than these examples what really makes us proud is hearing constantly from our independent retailers how important Elk is to their business and how what we do supports their livelihood… this really is the best.
More recently is the employment of a permanent ethics and sustainability coordinator on the Elk team. From the onset, Elk has run on an ethical foundation and there is so much going on behind the scenes. What has changed though is the need for us to tell this story, to drive change in our operation and to influence our suppliers to better what they do too. Our customers want to know more and we are working on better communicating what we are doing. We feel whilst there is a lot of talk in the industry about these topics there are (surprisingly) very few companies especially of our size that have made the commitment to have someone on their team on a permanent basis. This is something we are very proud of.
Being honest is the other tip. We have learnt that our customers feel connected if you let them in behind the scenes, make it more about just product on the shelves. Everyone loves a story so try and tell yours.
What are your time management tips – how do you juggle it all?
We have an amazing team of people who work with us and that’s really the key to managing things. We have evolved our roles to become more editors so we work on rather than in the business. We bring people in who not only keep Elk running but that keep us pushing forward. I don’t think we will ever really win the juggle but we focus on getting the most out of the hours we have by doing it all together – running a business is a team effort.
What makes you feel stressed?
We have the most incredible, involved clients who feel like a part of our family. On rare occasions though we come across someone who doesn’t share our philosophies and that makes me stressed. Dealing with someone who is angry or aggressive is something I don’t like and not in my nature. It’s hard not to take these things personally. Luckily it’s not frequent!
What keeps you sane?
Laughing! The Elk team is great fun and we laugh a lot. There isn’t a day really where there isn’t some moment of hysterical laughing.
What are your tips for home organisation with children? How do you keep your home organised?
I will not lay claim to being the most organized person! We realised early on that we function better by outsourcing a few things… we have a cleaner and we order in our groceries. These two little things help a lot and give us more time for focus on other kid-related things. Otherwise, it’s a lot of hard work especially if one of us is travelling for the business. I guess we cope like every other family… it’s just a lot of hard work and managing as strategically as you can!
What is your approach to health and wellbeing?
We are better at this than we used to be. We eat well, try to cook as much as possible rather than buying food in and I practice yoga. The best thing in our family life though is being able to get away from Melbourne. We have had a small place on the coast for seven years and it’s our really happy place. We both love the ocean and surfing is Adam’s meditation. It’s a challenge to find the time to get there but when we do it does more for our wellbeing than anything else.
How does jewellery make you feel?
I love that a piece of jewellery can transform any outfit and so transformative would be the word.
Talk us through the launch of swimwear… what can we expect and what inspired the launch of this category?
As designers we are constantly challenging ourselves to learn more about materials, products and processes. We have a unique offering unlike any other wholesaler where we offer a head to toe approach to our ranges.
Swimwear was a category that we felt ready for. Our audience in warmer climates were asking for it and it has helped us diversify our B2B market. It has also been great in the US with stores in Florida and California really loving the range as they are more drawn to resort style brands. The other driver was having found a great manufacturer in Queensland and a high performance fabric made from recycled materials – we had the tools and the resources to bring it to market and it has been so well received and has almost already sold out.
What’s your approach to fashion/getting dressed in the morning?
Layering is the key! Not only because of Melbourne’s unpredictable weather but I never know what I will be doing through the day and that our office is un predictably cold/hot!
Fun fact about you?
I have a stupid sense of humour and love bad jokes (dad jokes are the best).
Marnie's little list of loves
I’m cooking my way through the Kinfolk Table book.
Listening to artist Daggy Man “A Lazy Kind of Pain” and rediscovering a love for Elton John.
Having just come back from a work trip to Copenhagen, I’m desperate to get back to Scandinavia. Sweden is next on the list.
With Christmas around the corner, we are planning our Summer cocktail list (it’s very important!).
The Australian Ballet. Willow and I try to go a few times each season and it’s one of our greatest pleasures having a girls day out.
Drawing. I love the meditative process of sitting each evening and idly sketching.
Daggy dancing. Willow and I are compiling a list of old school songs. I love knowing she is learning about Prince, Salt and Pepper etc – all very important, educational songs?! I think some of them she just doesn’t know she loves yet!
Elk is offering a special 15% discount for The Grace Tales’ readers. Enter the code GraceTalesElk on checkout. Terms: Does not apply to sale items, freight, packaging or Guide Dogs products. Dates: 11.10.17 to 30.11.17