Jess Williamson was so sure a career as a senior executive was in her future that she enrolled in business management at the age of 17.
“I was always determined to be a CEO, I just wasn’t sure what I was going to be in charge of,” she says today. “It didn’t matter to me, I just wanted to learn how to handle the ropes from the top.”
The prospective entrepreneur was working in digital marketing before her love of lifestyle and fashion led her to start her own business two years ago.
Williamson designs her Ete Swimwear range (pronounced et-teh) from her home office in Perth and heroes luxurious, unique designs with hand-painted watercolour prints that are exclusive to the brand.
“I was drawn to the idea that I could design things that I love myself, and the business just grew from there,” she says. “The inspiration for our designs comes from celebrating and inspiring women to be confident and happy.”
After releasing her first product in 2016, she was invited to feature at New York Fashion Week, and has recently signed distribution deals with major US retailers. Ete Swimwear also retails on Australia’s largest online retailer, The Iconic.
“I’ve seen a lot of traction for the brand in the US,” she says. “Australian consumers seem to want what everyone else is wearing, whereas US consumers seem to prefer the idea of being original, and our products are unlike many on the market.”
The decision to seek out a US distribution channel was wise because it helps to even out the sales peaks and troughs that come with retailing a product that is seasonal in nature. Swimwear sales take a natural nosedive in the cooler months, she explains.
The strategy has bolstered sales significantly. The business turnover grew 1195 per cent from the 2015/16 and 2016/17 financial year, admittedly from a low base. Forecast growth for this year is a further 180 per cent and she has enjoyed online sales from 46 countries.
A big part of her success has been in harnessing digital marketing, enabling her to get products in front of a global audience by reaching out and forging collaborations with Instagram influencers worldwide. Unique artwork has been printed on her swimwear, adding to the distinct look her brand has become known for.
Williamson travelled to China late last year to ensure the factory she wanted to work with was ethical, had all its required permits and was paying workers properly.
“It’s difficult, but you’ve got to look for ways to overcome the barriers to drive the business ahead,” she says.
Dealing with manufacturers in China when things go wrong is at the top of her list, as well as language and cultural barriers.
“Manufacturing in China keeps costs manageable as a small business, but you’ve got to stay completely on top of everything happening,” she says.
Williamson now calls the factory in China once a day for an update, and has also hired a company on the ground to check stock before it is shipped to Australia.
“Having someone on the ground check the quality of the stock and check all the measurements has been a great investment in the business, but it does add cost. I had to do this after being sent poor quality stock, which delays things a whole month.”
The business is entirely self-funded and Williamson has learnt to keep a close eye on cash flow. She stopped placing bulk orders and started launching a pre-order online to gauge interest from her followers, which has helped her manage better.
Head of small business at Bankwest, Kate Wills, says owners need to keep in mind
that business structures evolve during periods of growth and it is important to speak to your accountant to ensure you are meeting responsibilities and accountabilities.
Cash flow forecasting is paramount, Wills says, which could highlight where an overdraft is required, for example.
“Some people might be a bit conscious about paying for this service, but it’s such a worthwhile investment in business. Forewarned is forearmed and enables you to look for areas to bridge gaps in your business,” she says.
From writing a business plan to managing cash flow, staying on top of tax to marketing, running a small business can be a lot of hard work. That's why Bankwest has pulled together some tools, insights and banking solutions to help you get the most out of your business. To find out more, visit bankwest.com.au/connect.
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