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So, not that long ago my little business turned 5 years old. 5 years! They grow up so fast, don’t they? It must be this milestone, (or perhaps the fact that as I’m writing this I have a pretty heavy head cold and am surrounded by tissues and empty cups of Lemsip) but I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, so I thought I’d take a walk down Squeak’s memory lane, if you care to join me.
I started Squeak initially because I wasn’t enjoying designing products that I didn’t believe in. In other words, I started Squeak for completely selfish reasons. I wanted to design products that I liked, that I would use and that I would wear. So I left my job and started with a range of silk scarves. I’ve always loved scarves and considering their shape, they’re practically a blank canvas.
One of my first and most popular scarf designs
Leaving the safety of full time work was pretty terrifying, but I knew it was going to be now or never. I was lucky, I had a family and a boyfriend who were supportive of me and my quest. I had no kids and no mortgage, so I figured I needed to do this before things got more complicated. I didn’t start Squeak with grand plans and stars in my eyes. I really just wanted to design and sell my own products. I wanted to be able to create a business that could support me, sure, but I had no goals beyond that, no business plan and no real idea of what I was doing and getting myself into.
Working part time in retail and running the business out of a one bedroom apartment, the first year was a steep learning curve. I knew how to design and how to prepare my artwork for manufacturers. I knew how to inspect samples and make alterations. They are key things, sure, but my list of things I didn’t know (and worse, things I didn’t know that I needed to know) was a lot longer. I didn’t know how to communicate with my manufacturer, how best to pay in a foreign currency, about freight, import taxes and the legal side of selling products in Australia. I didn’t know how to build a website, how to do coding, what SEO was and what I was supposed to do with 'keywords'. I didn’t know how to become a product photographer and a packaging designer. I didn’t know what marketing really meant and how I was going to get people to my website, not to mention what I would do if I actually managed to get a sale. And I certainly didn’t know what bookkeeping was. I had to google the meanings of asset and liability so many times it’s embarrassing.
Looking at samples on the floor in our tiny one bedroom apartment
So in my first year my head practically exploded with new things to learn… and I loved it! Prior to that I had been designing non-stop for work and only using the one side of my brain. Now I had all these challenges put before me and I was so enjoying figuring it all out. Looking back now, I cringe at the way I did some of those things. Oh my gosh, my first website was soooo shoddy and some of that product photography was definitely amateur. But I got it done and I was actually pretty proud at what I had achieved.
The first order I got was from my brother, so while that was great, (Sorry Adrian), it doesn’t really count. But I remember when I got my first order from someone I had no idea who they were. Here name was Fiona and I squealed when I saw the notification come through on my phone. I totally facebook stalked her, just to make sure that she wasn’t a friend of a friend or something. But no, I did not know Fiona and as far as my fine detective skills told me, she did not know me! (Don’t worry, I now no longer Facebook stalk my customers). So, I had practiced this. I wrapped her scarf up in tissue paper, popped it in the paper bags I used to package them in, wrote her a little note and headed on down to the post office. Success!… I then didn’t get another sale for 5 weeks. Not to worry, I was still learning.
Original packaging for my scarves
It was suggested to me to do a trade show and try and get my products into shops. I was terrified, it was a lot of money to do, but I did it anyway. You should have seen all of us newbies at the trade show. All giddy and scared stiff. None of us really knew what to do if we got an order, but all of us were so excited whenever we saw someone get one. There was no rivalry or petty jealousy, we were all new at this and we all wanted each other to succeed. Some of the best friends I have ever made in business were made from those 4 days straight, standing in the one spot with sore feet and a desperate need to pee. Anyway, it worked. I made some good sales and a boost in confidence. People might actually like my product! So I decided for the next trade show I would expand my range. Six months later I also had cushion covers on my stand. Six months after that I had bags, tea towels, dressing gowns and pouches added to my collection.
Opening up my first box of cushion covers
I learnt how to write up invoices, what terms and conditions to start implementing, what mark ups I needed to have and how to create business relationships. As sales grew I realised the need for better bookkeeping and threw myself into learning to use proper software. My sister gave me a crash course in which I must have looked like a deer in headlights, but slowly I started to get the hang of it. I did a small business management course at RMIT, met even more cool people, and all the while kept expanding my range. Testing to see what people liked and what they didn’t.
By this point it seems that all my experiences had been pretty positive. But maybe I’m just glossing over the harder times a bit in my Lemsip fuelled nostalgia. Thinking back more critically there were some truly terrible times. I didn’t know what stress was until I started Squeak. Two particularly bad memories come to mind. The first was made all the harder by the fact that I had decided to leave a three year relationship and moved back in with my parent’s, whose house was particularly crowded at the time due to the fact that my brother, his wife and two kids were also living there while their house was being renovated. I spent about 4 months sleeping on the floor with boxes of my stock piled up above me. I would lie awake, crying over my ex, wondering if Squeak was literally going to kill me. Death by stock avalanche.
My warehouse/bedroom/office/wardrobe for many months.
But anyway, during this particular low point in my life, I also managed to get a delivery of what I have since dubbed ‘the quilts from hell’. They were so late from my manufacturers and I had pre-sold so many at the trade show. I was always answering emails from my retailers asking me when they would show up and when they finally did, they were an absolute mess. I’m not going to go into what was actually wrong with them, because it still fills me with rage. But I quickly went into crisis mode, hired a local seamstress and spent all of my would-be profits on getting her to fix them. I then individually inspected hundreds of quilts and fixed anything that had been missed with my sewing machine or by hand stitching. I had to make apologetic emails and worked throughout many nights to make sure my customers got a good quality quilt as quickly as possible. All while nursing a broken heart.
This was a big learning experience for me about running a small business. Your business does not care where you are personally or emotionally. You are the business and the business is you. So even though I was going through a rough time with my personal life, Squeak didn’t let up, didn’t say, oh let’s just give her a bit of a break, she needs it. Nope, Squeak threw me to the wolves… thanks a lot Squeak! Even now, I’m leaking non-stop from my nose and my head feels like it’s filled with bricks, but Squeak doesn’t care. I still have a mountain of emails to answer and my to-do list is growing. I didn’t really take a holiday for four and a half years. Or if I did, it had to be between Christmas and New Years. That’s the only time you can travel when you have a small business (the most expensive time of the year FYI) as that’s the only time customers can understand why you may not be open to get orders out. Online retail is 24/7, 365 days of the year, how was I going to go on holiday when Margaret from Orange, New South Wales, just placed an order for a silk dressing gown. They don’t post themselves!
Squeak, all grown up at a trade show in Melbourne
Oh, and what was the second particularly bad time in Squeak’s history, you ask? Well, I’m not going to go into details about that. But basically I made an error of trusting the wrong people and pretty much losing my house deposit I had been saving for. Let’s move on, what’s done is done.
So as I said, I am Pip and I am Squeak, and together we continue on in this strange interlinked life. Throughout the next three years I personally met the love of my life, we got a house together, bought a dog and recently got married. In my business life things also continue to move on. I’ve started outsourcing certain parts of the business to free up some of my time, learning about API’s and automation, trialing new products to see what my customers like and taken on a business partner. I’ve learnt that I can’t be involved in every process. One, because I’m not an expert in every process, and two, because I just don’t have the time. I’m good at designing, and it’s the reason I started the business in the first place. But it’s also what I started to find I don’t have the time to do anymore. So the last year has all been about getting back my time.
Chris and myself with our little Millie at our wedding in March
Squeak’s 5 years old, but it’s also 5 years young. I still run the business out of my parent’s house. Sorry if you were all visualizing me in a stylish, converted warehouse in Abbotsford. It’s still me answering all your emails and me writing back to you on Facebook. If you’ve made it to the end of this blog post (and I’m impressed if you have, I do waffle on a bit) then you’ll know I’ve learnt a hell of a lot over the last 5 years. But I’m still learning, still trying to make things better, more efficient and the best possible experience for my customers. So I hope you’ll be patient with me if I make a few more mistakes, I hope you’ll celebrate with me during my little wins, and most importantly, I hope you continue to follow me on this journey.
Now… someone get me another Lemsip!
Where I am all the time... in my office/my brother's old bedroom.