With ‘Shop Local’ campaigns becoming popular, it is important to be reminded that many online businesses also successfully operate from rural towns. Whether a shop front or online business, Elise Brown of Fair Dinkum Dog Coats in Central Victoria is just one great example of why we need to articulate the story of our business, so customers can understand who they are supporting.
Labelled a ‘social butterfly’ by her parents and teachers, Elise Brown cruised through her school years without any accolades. However, when her family looks back on her childhood, the signs of an entrepreneur in the making were clearly evident. Always curious, Elise asked lots of questions, and was quick to recognise an opportunity. As a teenager with a strong self-belief she proved herself more than capable of creating her own income. She trained young and difficult horses and sold them on to good homes for a healthy profit.
Every day is an opportunity to learn according to Elise, and significantly her best learning has been outside the education system. While her friends went on to university, she started working in the equine industry, learning on the job, and continuing to ask lots of questions of everyone she met along the way.
Aged nineteen she was supported by her family to purchase a small part time business, Fair Dinkum Dog Coats, to complement her part time work. Within six months Elise was so busy she had to leave her paid job. A year later, she was once again supported by her family to purchase a second business, Midland Stock & Poultry Store in Castlemaine, as a local retail outlet for her dog coats.
Over a five-year period as a retailer, Elise learnt many valuable skills including employing staff and balancing stock with cash flow. She also learnt to handle the occasional difficult customer who tried to bully a young person for their own benefit.
Life got a bit more complex when a husband entered the scene and their first child was on the way.
‘Fair Dinkum Dog Coats started off as a nice part time business supplying wholesale customers, primarily pet shops, right across Australia,’ Elise explains. ‘But no matter how hard I worked in advance I couldn’t avoid the winter rush and found myself working long hours. It wasn’t fun any more,’ she admits. Selling the retail store helped alleviated the problem but she still had to find a way to manage the workload for manufacturing the coats.
It was at that point that Elise had a light-bulb moment demonstrating a confidence in her own problem-solving abilities.
‘Despite everyone telling me I was crazy, I wrote to my wholesale customers and told them I was no longer supplying them. I decided to take my business totally online and sell direct to customers.’
Cutting off a stable source of income, investing in website development, and learning to manage new technology was a brave move that has fortunately paid off for Elise. By constantly sharing the story of her business and products via social media she has also effectively engaged with customers and avoided costly advertising.
‘Selling direct to the public online has been the best decision I’ve made, for me and my customers,’ Elise says. ‘Instead of having to produce large orders all at once, I now have a much steadier flow of individual orders that I can make to each dog’s unique measurements instead of off-the-rack generic sizes.’
Recognising a growing number of greyhounds and whippets becoming domestic pets, she has also designed a new range to suit their unique shape and this has become a significant proportion of her sales.
Remarkably, despite working less hours and selling less coats, Elise has tripled her income with the profits coming direct to her instead of being shared with wholesalers. And, most importantly as a young mother, Elise has also been able to dedicate herself to her two daughters aged three and five.
With the business ticking along nicely in the background, Elise is now preparing for when both girls are at school. This year she is excited to be building a new work space ready to ramp up the business to a new level by tapping more into the international market and year-round sales.
Balancing work with family is important to Elise, as is maintaining Fair Dinkum’s brand and reputation. At the urging of industry advisers, she has explored outsourcing production and exporting options, but keeps coming back to what is important to her; supplying a quality product to her customers.
With many customers happy to share testimonials Elise says it is also important for the wider community to be educated.
‘When people talk about how bad shopping on the internet is, I’d like to remind them that many rural businesses like mine are benefiting from being online,’ Elise says. ‘Because of the internet I am able to live and work where I love.’
Elise understands the value of explaining who she is and what she stands for. Being nominated for and winning a Rural Community & Achievement Award in 2010 also gave her a platform to talk about the importance of young people being encouraged to become business owners.
Much to Elise’s amazement, she was invited to meet with Queen Elizabeth at Government House in Melbourne during her 2011 visit. A girlfriend provided a quick makeover, but the ever practical Elise drew the line at changing her rubber soled work boots which were perfect for walking from Southern Cross Station to Government House.
By sharing Fair Dinkum stories, Elise’s customers know exactly who is making their dog coat when they place an order, and chances are that it will be posted by two small and very willing helpers who have the privilege of a rural lifestyle thanks to their enterprising mother.
Elise’s top business tips:
Create a business that supports your family and lifestyle but understand that it’s only worth keeping if its profitable.
Invest in yourself to keep improving your business.
Utilise the power of social media to avoid costly advertising.
DISCLOSURE: As many of you may already know, Elise is my daughter. I’m rather amazed that it has taken me this long to feature her in my 85th blog!
KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE