The HOLOS boutique, located in Sydney’s Paddington
As a busy entrepreneur with so many balls in the air, how do you make time for you?
For many years I did not manage to make “me-time” and my stress levels grew exponentially. I now understand it to be super important, and I have learnt to take the small pleasures in daily life in order to better manage my stamina. I have always been a list writer to clear the brain but I have recently learnt to focus completely on the one task at hand without letting my mind wander to all those other things that I think I should be doing. I suppose that is called mindfulness, and in this way I get more enjoyment from everything that I do.
I now consciously under-schedule my days where possible (my diary used to be so full it looked like a Missoni towel!) so that there is room for creativity and for family spontaneity, or to walk the dogs together. I also create little patches during the day, often just 10 minutes or so, where I can do something that revives me – either a blast of a favourite song or a quick read of something interesting and inspiring. I read a lot of autobiographies, articles from journals, science writings, whatever can set me off on a new thought path and keep me motivated. Dame Vivienne Westwood recently said “Make time to read. It is the single most concentrated form of experience you can have” and that about sums it up for me. It’s like a little energy shot that I can take at any time.
I also love to play tennis and I schedule games and gym sessions like firm appointments – a few mornings per week at 7am, and I can now also play at 7pm which I adore – such a treat and there is no better way to finish the day and to leave the stress of too many tasks behind. I then come home with a clear head instead of an exhausted one, and can do something interesting in the evening rather than just collapsing! So doing something I enjoy has been a time creator…
On a larger scale, my husband and I like to hike in remote places around the world, sometimes with others, and with the girls when we can talk them into joining us – the latest was with ancient sheep herding families in the high mountains of Albania. The purity of that experience, plus the beauty of the natural world, will recharge my batteries for a good few months.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in running your own business?
Undoubtedly the multi-tasking has been the hardest aspect for me – it’s not good for anyone, and it certainly doesn’t suit me. I like to live with background order and that is just not possible, particularly in the early days. When you start a business you have to build everything at once, the products, the market, the accounting systems, the packaging, the retail outlets, you have to find your fabulous employees and keep it all rolling at the same time. It is inevitable that there will be some chaos in there!
Accepting, and learning to live within, that chaos has been a huge personal challenge. The most useful advice came from a friend who was putting together a global business. I asked him how he managed it all and he replied with his guideline of “moving forward slowly on a broad front”. If you can do a bit towards each project each day / each week, and you simply don’t stop, then the day will come when things come to fruition and you make significant leaps. And that has turned out to be true. So now I just keep going, day by day…
It’s still not perfect – my house is rarely as I would like it in terms of tidiness but, for me, that is the price of an interesting life and I have come to accept it… Sort of!
The concept of slow progress has also helped me to calm down and focus on one thing at a time. I used to worry about everything, all at once, which was sometimes paralysing and then I discovered my new mantra of “slow down to get more done”. By focusing fully on the task in front of me I get through the endless to-do lists much more easily and quickly – how ironic! I might drop the odd ball but the upside of turning off all that background noise has been huge.
We have now systematised a lot of processes in the business and that frees up time…to hang with my family and our dogs, and to read or play tennis!
What tips do you have for women who are looking to start their own venture?
This might sound hokey but my best advice is to be yourself, and listen to your own instinct. If you are at the point of considering a start-up then you have probably been thinking about it for some time and you already know more than you realise! Instinct is not nothing, I call it “distilled experience” and it reflects all the things you have learnt to date, which you know better than most. You need to trust that bottom voice.
I somehow just “knew” that we could grow a business authentically and as we put it, by selling “one wrap at a time” and to become one of those successful small companies that is not necessarily in the headlines. But to get there I had to block out the white noise of all the business experts telling us to do artificial marketing, to set pre-determined growth rates, to expand our product range et al.
The investment banking boys that I used to hang out with would hound me … “What’s your POD?, how many units will you sell by June?, when will you start shifting volume? when will you open in London..? I’d be pacing the house at 2am worrying about all these frantic growth targets until one night I thought “who makes up these rules anyway?” and decided to press on gently, treating our products as special items not as “units” and to treat each customer as you would a friend. And guess what? People love our approach because it’s real and it’s human… And we are making products that are both useful and desirable.
A couple of practical tips – keep your costs as low as you can and that will give you leeway and independence. Be right across your numbers – either learn about finance yourself or find a very trusted advisor – you will be vulnerable if you don’t understand the numbers behind your business and how you are tracking. Many good business ideas have closed down due to the numbers not adding up.
Here’s another one – prioritise time on your key success factors and don’t waste time trying to meet other people’s expectations of you (except for customers and your family of course). It’s something we as women tend to do. Once again I was observing those banking boys and I thought “how come they get so much more value out of their day than I do?” So I studied them and I saw this ruthless prioritisation. They don’t do all that peripheral stuff that we get drawn into. I haven’t managed to be quite as relentless as them but I certainly tightened up my time usage and am much happier for it – learn to say “no thank you”, of course in the nicest possible way…
The other helpful tip is to identify that one thing that is just pushing you over the edge in your multiple roles, and see if you can delegate it. For me, it was the weekly food function. I like to provide really healthy food for my family, but I don’t enjoy being stuck in the kitchen at the end of the day (or anytime!). So I found a lovely Uni student who would do a weekly shop for me, prepare a few meals, a soup, a curry, fill the salad box and some of those dreaded school lunches and that lightened my load immeasurably!
As you go along the start-up process things will start to jell and become clearer, and more fascinating. You will become more confident in what you know and you will generate lots of new ideas. Enjoy that. A significant American philanthropist gave some advice that I really like, she said, “You had better just be yourself, speak up, and have a good time.”
What has the experience been like opening a retail space in such a competitive market?
To tell the truth we have not suffered from the retail cycle as we are offering beautiful garments that did not previously exist in the market, that are extremely wearable, and that give a little daily taste of affordable luxury. There seems to have been plenty of latent desire for such products.
When we started HOLOS, the marketing gurus told me to analyse the consumer market, to identify our target customer niches and then advertise to them. We decided instead to just start selling to our natural networks and to find our customers one by one. It turns out that our ideal customer is someone who appreciates quality and they run across all market niches!
Because we really like our customers (they love the things we love!), it comes naturally to offer exceptional customer service and this is important in a competitive marketplace. Many of our customers interact with us via our website, rather than in person, so accessibility and friendliness is meaningful.
We have many repeat customers and we are frequently the Go-To place for those who need a special gift – for a big birthday, for a mother-in-law or for a colleague who has just had a baby. We have customers who write us love letters and who say “please just keep doing what you are doing.”
It’s back to my point that to start a business you should be creating a product or service that the world actually needs or wants, and then to trust your instinct…
What legacy are you hoping to create in your work?
With the bush school in Arnhem Land, we are looking to benefit children all across the Arnhem Plateau, the parents who will be able to keep their meaningful jobs, and to support career paths for young people living remotely. We also hope to provide inspiration for other remote Indigenous communities looking for a model to follow.
We would like to shift the dial nationally on what “success” means in indigenous education. That these kids shouldn’t have to leave their family, language, land and culture behind in order to access education.
Concerning HOLOS, I believe in the integration of businesses with communal goals and business as a force for change. We can respond to the populace more quickly than politicians seem able to, and we can lead with thoughtful behavior. If you look at the current state of the world, and of the natural environment, it is the culmination of seemingly insignificant actions taken collectively that have led us to this moment. Therefore, we can all contribute daily to a global move towards a happier planet. Paulo Coelho famously said, “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”
Our tag line of “fewer, better things” suggests more thoughtful and slower consumption, and choosing pieces that you can wear for a long time. It also makes life easier and more fun – who does not prefer to have less stuff?!
Dame Vivienne Westwood’s directive to “buy less, choose well and, above all, make it last” is aligned with HOLOS’ principles. We provide a care and repair service that should keep your HOLOS pieces looking chic and elegant for many, many years, and in this way we believe in the vitality of things that are well made.
The HOLOS product is grown by nature, as it has been for at least 12,000 years (the name HOLOS derives from the Holocene anthropological era), it comes from a renewable source and is totally biodegradable. I am studying microbiology on the side and would like us to get involved in regenerative agriculture which has enormous potential to address climate imbalance. Well-managed grazing animals (sheep!) have a part to play in that system.
We have done much work on our packaging – we now send parcels in recycled cardboard sleeves, and we will soon introduce a bio-plastic version of our ziplock bag for each garment. We encourage customers to keep the ziplock bags for off-season storage, and we have reduced our packaging and printed collateral as much as possible – while still keeping the package stylish and attractive of course!
I probably drive my team crazy by insisting that we print all internal documents on reused paper (or don’t print!), that no-one uses take-away food containers, and that we go without the air con or heating whenever possible – put on a wrap! I tell the team to take an extra 15 minutes out and sit down at your café to drink that coffee, get some sun on your back, and avoid another disposable cup and lid going into landfill for the next 1,000 years.
We would like the concept of “luxury” to become associated with well-made, sustainable products that last, rather than with masses of showy packaging that quickly ends up in the bin. And at the end of the day, the true luxury will be for us all to live comfortably in a sustainable world and to get on together. We feel that is a worthwhile communal goal for us to contribute to… While being safely swathed in a HOLOS wrap!
What’s next for HOLOS?
Ironically I would say more of the same – to keep doing what we do and to do it well. We don’t follow the growth-for-growth’s sake economic model, which in many cases just leads to overconsumption and waste.
The styles that you come to love and lean into from HOLOS will be here year after year, with slight improvements each season, some new colours, and a few additional shapes whenever we finally perfect one. At the moment we are prototyping what I call “felted capey things” for next winter, we will soon release an expanded colour range in the Luxo knit T and after that perhaps a more highly designed evening top…
I find there is very often a better way to do things once you get into it, so we will continue to make additive improvements. There are so many fabulous garments we can make with these amazing wools, that we will never run out of ideas! Starting my dream business at 52 was unusual but now we have built something good and are growing it out to a bigger audience. I am still fairly restless, so watch this space…