From our Founder, Kasia: What I’ve learned from 10 years of running a small business – Part 2

Kasia Gospos

Hi! LH Agenda Founder, Kasia here. As we celebrate our 10th birthday in small business, I’m looking back on what I’ve learned along the way. Everything from day-to-day operations hacks to how to balance business with motherhood. This article is Part 2 of our birthday Q&A (you can read Part 1 here), with questions sent in by our community members. I hope my answers encourage you to take a chance on your ideas, give yourself a well-deserved break, and invest in loyal, reliable team members to share your business success with.

Q&A with Kasia

Q: How do you manage your business? Any tips?

A: As an accountant, I know that most startups fail not because the ideas weren’t good, but because of cash flow problems. Strong financial management is at the core of our business and we always try to keep our fixed costs low, allowing us to be nimble and flexible (think about how the pandemic killed many businesses). I also value family time and freedom, so I wanted the business to utilise modern technology and be designed around my very own version of success.

For that reason:

  • We don’t have a desire to have a brick and mortar store or create a 9-5 open hours type of business. Not in the immediate future at least. For now, we are purely an online business. We would also like to travel before our kids start school so the current model supports this vision.
  • We moved to Newcastle where we were able to purchase a larger property with a separate home office and storage area, allowing us to manage logistics and operations from our own space. This significantly cut down our previous rental costs in Sydney.
  • We work with freelancers a lot. Typically the day to day operations are managed by 4 people: my husband and Customer Happiness Manager, Nino, our Queensland-based Online Coordinator and Growth and Partnerships Leader, Mikaela Bella, a Social Media Coordinator/Community Coach (spot currently vacant!), and myself – coordinating everything and designing! I also work closely with other freelancers providing additional services as needed: Kris Deminick doing copywriting, and Bec Ransom helping with sales and video marketing. I also outsource IT support, Google Ads, bank reconciliation, professional photography, etc.

This team is meeting the demand of our customer base and is flexible. With every person we hire at LH Agenda, we aim to empower them to become the best leader of their own life that they can be. We are a clear example of how passionate, determined entrepreneurs can build a successful brand and loyal following with limited resources at hand.

Q: How do you know if your business has potential to grow after you’ve had it for a while?

A: I know how you feel! I have had many thoughts that if it wasn’t easier, I’d just go back to a 9-5 job. Having a business is so much risk, sweat and long nights. Your brain never turns off. Never clocks out. I have dealt with a website crashing a few days before an event when we were trying to sell tickets to just break even, cease and desist letter threats, a palette of stock falling off a truck in front of my eyes (like seriously! Lucky no one got hurt)… I wanted to give up many times!

A palette of stock fell off a truck in front of my eyes! But we didn’t give up.

The reality is, there is no straight answer to your question. You need to look at a combination of whether there is a market need, and your existing business model (the 4Ps of marketing – product, price, place, promotion and your revenue and costs). Are they already at optimum? Or could simple improvements in some areas change the business direction forever (like for me, hiring our first person or learning InDesign)? Do you really want growth? Rethink your definition of success. Maybe what you have got is all you need.

On the left is our first Make Your Mark notebook. On the right is the mockup of our first notebook (looks very different now). It cost $50 to print!

Don’t be fooled by a “successful” competitor, thinking it must be all roses and easy for them. Many companies that experience high growth are not necessarily profitable, or they go through other business or personal dramas. Think Shoes of Prey. Samantha Wills Jewellery. Sunny Life. These brands have been my inspiration at some point and now they are gone. Uber (I think) is still making losses. Victoria’s Secret was on the brink of bankruptcy before it was sold to a new investor. They then turned it into a billion-dollar business. So… you never know. The potential is always there.

Q: Have you ever had to take a big risk in your business?

A: Yes! It was February and me and my husband finally took a week off after a busy Christmas and went to Port Douglas with our two little ones. First day of our trip, settled in the white sand near the pool, we received an email from someone from Costa Rica who wanted to talk to us about a bulk order of our Make Your Mark journals. My husband took a phone call from the hotel room pretending business as usual, and the person turned out to be Operations Manager ordering on behalf of the head of HR from Amazon. They were organizing a large global event in California for their female leaders from around the world and needed our journals… next week.

This presented a bit of a challenge. The order had to be shipped the same day to reach it for their event the following week. We were away on holidays, our business ran from our home in Sydney, and no one had keys to our house (let alone had been trained in using our ecommerce or shipping system). But fear not when you have a great team!

Phone call to Leanne, our Managing Editor. She borrowed a car from her friend. Drove one hour to our landlord’s daughter to pick up house keys, drove to our home, packed the entire order, followed on the phone directions on how to print labels, drove to the post office, dropped the parcels, drove back to the landlord’s daughter to drop the keys! We successfully managed to ship the order on the same day without the customer knowing about the hustle we had to have to get her order out the door.

The risky thing was that the order wasn’t paid yet, as the person placing the order had had her credit card rejected and, as she said, her finance team was out of office for the day. So we trusted someone from Costa Rica to ship an order worth a few thousand dollars ASAP without payment! …NB we had never had a single order from Costa Rica…. But waiting would mean a lost opportunity. So we took a chance, relying on the reasoning of “who would want to steal Make Your Mark journals anyway?”. The delivery address was Amazon in California and her signature and email matched her LinkedIn profile. Overall it seemed genuine. The great news – they paid the next day and the parcel arrived on time for their event.

Q: I’ve printed my planner through Alibaba and 50% of the planners didn’t pass QC and were unsellable. What would be your advice for production?

I am really sorry to hear that. First of all, you are not alone. I have had lots of bad experiences with finding suppliers in China myself. Still on the search for the right one!

There are a few things you can or could have done:

  • Alibaba has Trade Assurance. Possibly claiming it could result in partial refund.
  • Alibaba allows you to check their credentials before the purchase (if they are a factory  or a trading company, how many years in business, are they verified, certifications, etc.).
  • I have learned they never want to give you a refund when the quality is bad, but they can redo the order or give you credit for the next order. They want your business back, so make sure to negotiate.
  • When we have marked stock (every company does!), we still sell these products but at 50% off. Our marked stock sale is always very popular.
  • In our first production in China we had black paper cover notebooks in matte lamination. The design was beautiful but this type of cover was very prone to scratches. We had LOTS of stock that was gently scratched while the books inside were perfect. To combat it, we ordered leatherette cover sleeves with internal business card pockets just for these notebooks. And we managed to sell them at a higher price point as a “special limited edition”. Think outside the box.

The biggest tip I can share here, and a lesson for us in 2021, is to never rely on one supplier. Finding a supplier is time-consuming and expensive (it is crazy how expensive samples are!), but don’t settle on one supplier either.

Once the borders open, the best way is to attend a tradeshow and meet potential suppliers face to face and see their products in hand.

Me and my husband attending a stationery trade show in Hong Kong.

Q: What is your favourite marketing tool?

A: We use Recurpost to manage LH social media. It is great for organising your social content into libraries and giving each library a timeslot. We are currently testing Sked Social, as it allows for scheduling carousels and even reels – it looks promising. We currently use Mailchimp for email marketing, Canva and old school PowerPoint for designs, Asana for task management and Google workspace (Docs, Forms, Sheets, etc.) for collaboration. I suggest always testing tools to find the one that works for your business and don’t go overboard. Start simple.

Q: How do you balance business and motherhood?

A: I don’t really. What I’ve learned is to accept that trying to balance business and motherhood is really hard and remind myself that I do my best. I also know it is empowering for my sons to see their mum having a career and following her dreams.

One of the main reasons our family moved from Sydney to Newcastle was so we could be closer to family and get back some of that work-life balance. And it helped a lot! They say it takes a village to raise a child, and now we have grandparents helping us raise our two sons, which has been great. Also, my husband is an equal partner – we support each other, and there is nothing he can’t (or won’t) do when it comes to parenting. And sometimes our children sleep in the clothes they are going to wear the next day – this makes getting out of the house much quicker (whatever works! I won’t judge).

Me trying to do it all – being my own stylist and photographer.

 

Me and Leanne Yong, my longest-serving, can-do-it-all employee. Can’t remember why we are showing empty LH boxes!

 

Nino and I being the delivery guys – picking up LH pens from Port Botany, NSW.

 

Samples arrived from China! This is one of my most thrilling moments each year.

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Thanks again LH Agenda setters for sending in your questions for this Q&A! We covered what I’ve learned about knowing when to take calculated business risks, my favourite marketing tools, my tips for entrepreneurship and more. But….we’re still not done! We’ve still Part 3 of this Q&A to come, where I answer all the questions you’ve had about rebranding. Stay tuned.

Be inspired,

Kasia