Not many businesses can claim to have been instigated by a triple cake stacking canister, but this happens to be the case when it comes to Retro Respection, a quirky homeware, giftware and vintage lovers’ shop in Collie, Western Australia. Its two equally quirky business partners are an inspiration to all those young mums who may feel trapped at home.
With the newly opened Retro Respection store creating a buzz in Collie, I popped in to catch up with its two enterprising business partners, Storm Todhunter and Joleen Brown. As young mums, it was rare for them to both be present in the store at the same time. Straight away it became evident that both are passionate about their products, in the way they dress and what they stock in the store, sometimes purely for conversational purposes.
It also proved to be my most challenging and fun interview of 2018. Challenging because they tend to bounce off each other like rubber balls when it comes to conversation, and fun because they just are so determined to enjoy life to its fullest.
Yes, it is true that a triple cake stacking cannister caught Storm’s attention at playgroup way back in 2012. ‘A mother asked if anyone wanted one and I said “I’ll have that!”,’ recalls Storm. At the very start of her business journey she started selling vintage items on eBay as a hobby.
Joleen, another local young mother also interested in vintage goods and writing a blog – they laugh as they recall a particularly hideous tea set she had collected - soon caught Storm’s attention.
‘We had kids the same age and just hit it off,’ says Joleen, ‘and I had the blog,’ she adds knowingly.
‘Joleen kept buying stuff at garage sales putting us in direct competition, so it made perfect sense for us to team up,’ explains Storm pointedly ignoring the blog reference. ‘I love the history and do the research.’
‘Whereas I just jump in with random ideas,’ smiles Joleen.
‘Yes, Joleen likes to try new things,’ confirms Storm, ‘whereas I think things through. She relies on me to pull her back in. We make a great team.’
‘We never expected it to be an overnight success,’ admits Joleen.
‘We’re brought up to think that we can do anything but once you have kids the reality is that you don’t leave the house,’ adds Storm. ‘This business has been built all around family. We have set it up so we are always available for our kids.’
In 2012 Storm started selling online from her family home in Collie and took up lots of space for stock. When she joined forces with Joleen in 2014 they came up with the quirky name of Retro Respection. ‘It’s a wicked name,’ Joleen grins.
‘An important learning starting off the business was to leverage our circumstances,’ recalls Storm. ‘As a mum without a paid job, I couldn’t even get a credit card!’ Fortunately, a supportive aunt lent her money to get started and has been one of her biggest fans.
In a conscious choice, Storm and Joleen have worked without wages and poured their earnings directly back into the business which originally focussed on sales through eBay and ultimately their own website.
In September 2018 they took the unusual step of expanding their online business to a physical shop front in their home town of Collie. With a tight budget they asked around and got a six-month trial of a vacant shop at a reduced rent. In a brave step they also decided to open 7 days a week, one of very few businesses to do so in this working town but perhaps a forerunner to positive change.
Their calculated gamble paid off. With increased visibility and their range of stock expanded, sales immediately increased. ‘It’s been good for the locals,’ confirms Storm. ‘Sometimes people just come in for a chat and now there is something for visitors passing through town to browse on weekends.’
‘Our reputation is everything and we’ve been professional right from the beginning,’ says Storm, or maybe it was Joleen? (my head is spinning with these two dynamos!) ‘No shortcuts,’ it was agreed unanimously.
Without a budget for marketing they have relied on organic growth through Facebook and Instagram and paid careful attention to the statistics. ‘Every time we post “SALE” it goes crazy,’ Joleen happily shares.
Getting a point of sale system was a priority with the opening of their shop front. After much trial and error, they settled on neto which provides a basic do-it-yourself website template and, most importantly, synchronises their inventory and sales in the shop, and across the website and eBay platforms. ‘Once you learn a new system you get better each time and more adaptable,’ says Storm.
On the few occasions they are physically together in the same space, this dynamic duo spend time thinking strategically about what new lines to introduce. With a strong following of online collectors, brooches were quite successful when introduced. ‘Consumables such as lollies and dog treats also invite repeat buyers,’ says Storm. ‘And we’d love to get more sustainable products in.’
‘While we haven’t made any serious money yet, at least we enjoy what we’re doing,’ admits Storm. ‘Joleen and I are best buddies and each other’s biggest supporter.’
‘We’re taking it day by day and enjoying ourselves’ Joleen confirms.
At the end of a whirl wind interview, Storm announces that this is only the start of their grand plan. ‘We’re going to bed down this shop and make it a destination; refine the website, expand the shop space, expand the product lines, and maybe open a whole bunch of shops.’
Somehow, I think they just might!
Storm and Joleen’s top tips:
Be passionate about your products.
Don’t be afraid to take that leap.
Be a nimble bull.
KERRY ANDERSON: Founder of the Operation Next Gen program and author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. In 2018 she was named as one of Australia’s Top 50 Change-Makers. READ MORE