Tap to Shop: How the Internet is Revolutionising Small Fashion Businesses
By Josephine Clark-Liebke
Illustration: Eliza Jones
The rise of online brands and retailers is opening up new opportunities for young creatives wanting to make their mark on the fashion industry.
Best friends Suz Binnie and Andrea Patten have always wanted to own a gift and homewares store. Yet, everywhere they looked, shops were shutting down and commercial real estate was sitting vacant. “Retail is dead,” the pair realised. Joining a growing number of Australian digital entrepreneurs, their online store Grace and Olive was established.
Barbara Spooner, the entrepreneur behind activewear label Birds on Bikes, asserts that it is easier than ever to start a fashion business, as the internet streamlines everything from manufacturing to marketing. Of course, just because it is easier now does not mean it will be a walk in the park. “A fashion business is one of the hardest businesses you can start,” Mrs. Spooner confides, “but it’s very rewarding”.
No matter how different their vision, all internet fashion businesses need three things to get off the ground: something to sell, someone to sell it to, and enough money to get started. For Chris Morris, the artisan milliner behind hat brand Mr. Legbas, selling online allows him to reach an international audience. “The internet is fantastic,” he says, “most of my customers are in the States and Europe”.
Digital media is also helpful to those who are not making their own goods; finding manufacturers can be one of the biggest challenges. Thuy Nguyen, Fashion Development Manager at CEA, is a big advocate of using the internet to outsource work. “It’s better to have a small but efficient number of people and outsource work,” she says, allowing small fashion businesses to access expert knowledge and minimising the risk of hiring employees.
The fashion industry is notoriously difficult to break into. But a new generation of fashion entrepreneurs are finding success with small internet businesses.
Mrs. Binnie and Mrs. Patton found a different solution to the problem. They “tap into local artists, artisans and makers” to find unique and special products that could be sold to their customers. With social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, reaching these customers is easier than ever. The ability to direct-message their audience is great for brands wanting to build a personal connection and create a community of loyal customers.
This is important for Grace and Olive’s customers. “People like to know who we are and connect with the personal side”. Mr. Morris agrees, saying “social media allows me to interact with all my customers. You are not just buying a hat, you are buying me as well”.
Even with a product and a customer base, it used to be expensive to get a fashion business off the ground. Now, there is a range of tools available on the internet that breaks down such barriers. Website building tools such as Squarespace make it quick, easy, and cheap to create a custom website. Mr. Morris uses online platform Etsy, connecting him with potential customers who simply search the marketplace to find his store.
These tools have created an accessible way to start an online business, however, Ms. Nguyen warns that many new entrepreneurs “underestimate the costs involved in getting a commercially viable, professional product out there. They take shortcuts”. Mrs. Spooner, Mrs. Binnie, and Mrs. Patton all warned that these costs are much higher than they expected.
This is not an insurmountable challenge though – there are government and private grants available, such as the Small Business Entrepreneur Grants program designed to provide funding and mentorship to individuals starting small businesses.
All in all, Ms. Nguyen stresses it is important not to go in blind. “Don’t ignore expenses, research thoroughly, ask questions, get advice, be sensible. Be realistic, but be passionate.” Mrs. Spooner’s advice is “be prepared to do 80 percent business work and 20 percent creative work, don’t ignore the business side of things, they can be just as interesting and fulfilling as the creative side”.
The internet has made entrepreneurship more accessible than ever for those who reach out and seize the opportunity. But what is the key to success? Ms. Nguyen says passion. “Make sure it is something that you absolutely love.” Starting a small business is difficult, but if you love it, you can weather the ups and downs. One piece of advice unanimously agreed on is, “just give it a go”.