As far as career highlights go, receiving a thank you letter from Harry and Meghan, is something you don’t forget when you’re an entrepreneur. Or, in the case of murph&murph, two entrepreneurial sisters. Catherine and Anna saw a gap in the market for a classic, stylish and functional beach bag that both men and women would want to carry - and went for it. Their clients also include Elle Macpherson...
If you’re lucky enough to live near the beach in Australia and have young children, it becomes your playground and in the warmer months, as much of the day is spent here as possible. And it’s here, by the beach, that mothers Catherine and Anna came up with their idea. The perfect beach bag, because as you’ll know if you spend time at the beach, trying to navigate sandy sunglasses, snacks and more isn’t fun when you’ve got little humans demanding your attention. Nor is not being able to find your car key right on nap time.
To begin with, they wanted the bag to be self-standing (“so it didn’t fall over and fill with sand”), to have a large internal space that wasn’t crowded out by pockets, but still had enough pockets (as mothers, you’ve never appreciated a bag with good pockets more). They also wanted to design water-resistant pockets to separate wet from dry, again genius, especially for wet swimming costumes. The features of the bag they designed are seemingly endless: “comfortable handles that didn’t hurt your shoulders, all pockets accessible from the top so they didn’t get covered up by the things in the bag, an insulated drink holder that also kept your water/wine upright and stopped spillages in your bag.” And the best part: they wanted it to look good.
The Cove Carry-all Bag launched, and they haven’t looked back. It’s far more than a beach bag, it’s the kind of bag that as a mother, you want to be armed with no matter where you’re going with your children from activities to playdates, quite simply, because it’ll make your life easier. They’ve gone on to design a Cove Traveller bag and a Cove Mini bag, along with a neoprene picnic blanket, which like the Cove, is pure genius (read all about it below – it’s one of those products that you’ll take to the beach, to picnics, to kids sport, to concerts, to movies and wonder how you lived without). 90% of their sales come from word of mouth, which speaks volumes. So much passion has gone into their products and it shows – there’s not a detail spared.
Here, we speak to one half of murph&murph, Catherine Murphy, about their incredible business journey.
Go to murphandmurph.com.au
Above: murph&murph Cove carry-all bag. Shop at murphandmurph.com.au
Growing up, what were you both like? Were you always so close?
There’s three years between us, and we are quite different, but both a bit tomboyish and outdoorsy. Anna is more outgoing and I was a bit more reserved. When we were younger, we did fight quite a lot. Anna has always been very strong-willed and loved an audience so when I hit puberty she did delight in embarrassing me. I on the other hand, would pay her back by disowning her which she truly believed I could do and hence would do anything for me to “own” her again. In our early teens, we both decided this had to come to an end, so we made a pact to never use anything against each other again and since then our relationship has been very strong.
How would you describe the bond between sisters?
There is an amazing bond between us as sisters and I hope most sisters are lucky enough to share the kind of friendship and love that we do. We think when you have fought and made up, as children, too many times to count and get through all your milestones together, you develop together. You end up with such a strong bond, you can be totally honest about how you are both feeling without the worry of being judged. Obviously, bonds with brothers are also incredibly strong but there are some things that you may not discuss as freely with brothers.
What are some of your most vivid memories of growing up together?
We were so blessed to have a father and mother that loved the ocean and the outdoors. During our childhood, we went away pretty much every weekend. They were always lovely simple family trips, whether it was camping, or to our farm which had no electricity. When we arrived at the farm, we would have to chop wood for the fire, light the fire and light gas lamps (which Anna never mastered and would often end up lighting on fire). We also had to do quite a bit of thirsty farm work as well, looking after the property and some stock. It gave us a lot of pretty special family times while also instilling a good work ethic. We would often wonder why dad wouldn’t get electricity on the farm. I think he knew the next thing we would want was television which would take the magic of the place away. We have a generator there now but there is very little reception and no television. So, when we take our kids there now they sit around the fire, swim in the river and are off their devices. Although, they definitely don’t work like we used to!
Tell us about your careers before murph&murph?
I was a stockbroker for 12 and a half years and prior to that a research officer for a Senator. Anna worked in Singapore as a copywriter for an advertising agency, then in New York on documentaries and then in news in Nevada and Perth. So murph&murph is a complete change for both of us.
Where did the idea to create a bag come from – what was missing in the market?
Anna has four children and I have three so when her youngest went to preschool we decided we wanted to do something together. We would meet to discuss business ideas and whilst good, we thought that the demands of most of them on our time was probably something we were not ready for as the kids were still young and our first priority. We both spend a lot of time at the beach and we kept coming back to the idea that we really needed a great beach bag. One that would fulfil all our needs, while still remaining classic and stylish. It also had to be something our husbands would be happy to carry.
After many months of design, you came up with the Cove Carry-all Bag – tell us about this bag?
When we first decided to make the beach bag we had no design experience, so we decided to use project cardboard to see how it would work, which did the job. We knew what we needed in the bag and what shape and look we wanted – we just had to nut it out and put it together. Our mother made the first prototype out of old curtain fabric (it sounds like “The Sound of Music”). We then made about 30 more prototypes to refine everything we wanted in the bag. Firstly, it had to be self-standing so didn’t fall over and fill with sand, have a large internal space that wasn’t crowded out by pockets but still had enough pockets. Water-resistant pockets to separate wet from dry. Somewhere safe for your phone sunglasses, keys and iPad that would keep the water and sand out. Stainless steel fittings so they didn’t corrode, comfortable handles that didn’t hurt your shoulders, all pockets accessible from the top so they didn’t get covered up by the things in the bag. An insulated drink holder that also kept your water/wine upright and stopped spillages in your bag. Plus, we wanted it to look good! We had some advice from a friend of ours who has a surf label. He said, you either need to make a beach bag that will retail for around $100 or you need to make what you want and charge what it costs. So, we made exactly what we wanted and I think that’s why our bag works so well.
Launching your own business can be daunting – what were those early days like?
It didn’t really feel daunting as it really was one step at a time. I also think we just didn’t know what we were in for. Blissfully ignorant! The first time it became overwhelming was when we went all the way to India to visit the manufacturer’s premises to check how its staff were treated and finalise the last touches of the first bag. We got to the meeting after we thought we had agreed on everything, only to be told that they could not fulfil certain important requirements, which was very deflating. We went back to our hotel and at dinner met a lovely American man who passed on a wonderful story about an American Footballer who, when asked about his career, misquoted the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” by saying that, “He reached a fork in the road, and he took it.” It ended up having its own meaning of just keeping going, even if it’s hard to work out which direction, just keep going! It was a philosophy we both really needed at that time and is something we still follow.
While establishing the Cove Carry-all, you had another idea brewing - making picnic blankets out of Neoprene. Tell us about this idea and how it evolved. What was the appeal of neoprene?
Anna had previously wanted to do a picnic blanket and once we had sorted out the Cove carry-all bag (aka beach bag) it came up again. I felt that there was a lot of picnic blankets on the market and it would need a big point of difference. Anna has a big surfing family who were always standing on their wet suits to get changed or keep their feet from freezing (or burning) on the beach. She suggested using neoprene as a picnic blanket instead of the usual canvas and plastic for the above reasons, which I thought was ingenious! Again, this was an interesting path as it had never been done before. We needed to work out if it would be too heavy, or the cost would be prohibitive. Again, there were some forks in the road, from picnic blankets that weighed a ton, to getting the artwork right. In the end, Anna had come up with, I think, one of the most innovative ideas for a picnic blanket and they are the most comfortable and versatile blankets ever! Plus, fully waterproof, easy clean, sand doesn’t sick, super comfortable, super hardy, they stay in situ and don’t kill the grass. They do cost a little bit more, but they are such a great, long-lasting product, it’s well worth it.
You are now collaborating with different artists – tell me about some of your collaborations?
We have used Australian images on our blankets. The first range we did ourselves then we started collaborating with some photo artists. We were lucky enough to do a collaboration with Saltywings (@saltywings), we then collaborated with Matt Harvey (@matty7619) who takes stunning photographs of Cottesloe beach every day. We are currently working to produce a new range of rugs with the floral artist Natural Art Flowers (@naturalartflowers), and the talented drone photographers @sixtysummers and @edronenolimits.
You also have some smaller bags in the range – tell me about these?
Our mother, who is one of our greatest fans, kept asking us if we could do a smaller bag that would suit her and others who didn’t need a massive bag but still needed to carry a lot and stay organised. We felt that there was a lot of brands in that space so were hesitant. But as people kept asking us for a smaller option we thought, ‘we already have the audience and the website, maybe we should design the smaller option they want.’ We also thought we could do with something that better suited us for travel and every day. So, whenever we were in airports, we were analysing what people liked to use. We worked out what we believed to be the pros and cons to all the different styles and designed the Cove Traveller and Cove Mini. They are designed along the lines of the Cove Carry-all only in a smaller package. The big central space with a larger zip pocket to zip away your valuables, two insulated drink holders, again all pockets accessible from the top and again self-standing. We did add a shoulder strap so you could carry across your shoulder whilst walking to distribute the weight. We also designed it so that when you are on the plane it sits self-standing under the seat in front of you, so you have access to your drinks etc without trying to fit them in those tiny pockets on the seat in front of you.
90% of your sales are through positive word of mouth – what advice would you give to other small business owners on the importance of peer to peer sales?
We are really proud that our biggest seller is ‘word of mouth’ as it means people are loving our products. It also works so well as it gives people the confidence to spend their hard-earned money when endorsements come from others that are happy to talk and recommend a product with no vested interest. This has happened more by accident than planning on our part. It’s been extremely important for our brand as it can get expensive trying to push your products on digital platforms when you’re up against the big brands. We also try to use it in our marketing so that potential buyers can get the validation of current users.
Harry and Meghan received one of your neoprene picnic bags – tell me about this…
Georgie Gardner from “The Today Show”, who we are lucky our call our friend, was looking for an iconic Australian gift for Harry and Meghan as she was going to the UK to cover the wedding. Because she already owned our products and loved them, she asked us if we would be happy for her to gift them our neoprene picnic blanket featuring the iconic Cape Leveque on it. We were both away at a family wedding when she mentioned it live on television that she had received a thank you note from the Royal couple. It was a big deal as the couple had said they were returning all their gifts – but they didn’t return our blanket. She did tell us she had the letter, but we didn’t know what to expect. Anyway, our website started going seriously mad and we thought there must be a fault. We then worked out what was happening, it was a bit of a crazy time!
What is your vision for Murph & Murph?
Our vision for murph&murph has been to design and manufacture high-end and stylish yet functional products that stand the test of time. We owe it to the environment to make products that last, in a classic style, that don’t date.