Ever dreamed of starting a business? Suzanne Carroll of Gisborne in central Victoria woke up on the morning of 30 October 2015 and told her husband that she was going to start a business called Cool Clutch selling ‘cool by nature and cool by name’ handbags for women. And she did. True story!
One of the fastest growing sectors of entrepreneurs is that of middle-aged women and you can’t go past Suzanne of Cool Clutch for inspiration. Having stepped away from her previous marketing work in the corporate sector for health reasons, Suzanne had been searching for an idea.
‘I was too young to retire and too old to be employable. I wanted to sell something online so I could stay home in my PJ’s’ she laughs.
Nothing could be further from that vision. Instead of languishing at home in her PJ’s she has found herself totally out of her comfort zone, drawing down on her house mortgage to fund the start-up, travelling overseas to negotiate with manufacturers, diving into the alien and expensive world of patents, entering and winning a Pitchfest, and becoming the very visible public face of her unique product.
It has been a steep learning curve since waking up with her Cool Clutch dream and Suzanne understands the benefit of sharing her journey to help others. She attends as many business conferences and networking events as possible. ‘I’m always learning by listening to others,’ she explains, ‘everybody I listen to generates an idea.’
Not one to sit around, Suzanne registered the domain name ‘Cool Clutch’ that very first day. While it may seem impulsive, having previously seen a cooler bag that stored wine on its side instead of in the usual upright position, Suzanne had noted that there wasn’t one available in Australia and this idea had been bubbling away subconsciously for some time. Her idea was to create stylish handbags that could also discretely store and keep cool wine, lunches and even medications that deteriorate in hot temperatures. The patented distinction is a removable pocket that sits within the handbag.
‘I knew what I wanted to do but not how to do it.’
She contacted thirty-two manufacturers via China’s Alibaba website. Those that spoke good English were followed up. Three were short listed before Suzanne met with them in Hong Kong. After selecting one they worked together on the design. Suzanne paid thirty percent upon placing the order, and a further seventy percent when the first 2,500 handbags were ready to be shipped.
It should have been an exciting day when the container arrived in Melbourne, but it turns out that some manufacturers like to cut corners and a great proportion of the initial order were faulty.
With the benefit of hindsight, Suzanne would advise others to do it differently.
‘Yes, good English and being contactable by skype is crucial, but I would personally tour the factory before committing to a contract and would not allow the products to be shipped out of China without first being checked by a quality agent.’
With a sample of what she wanted to achieve and a list of questions to ask, Suzanne returned to China in August 2016 to negotiate with a new manufacturer and personally tour their factory plus engage a quality agent. Thankfully it was a much better outcome this time round.
Another valuable lesson has been to scale back the designs and colour choices.
‘At one point I had 83 different handbag designs and colours,’ Suzanne admits, ‘but I’m scaling back to just three styles with a total of about 25 handbags in total. I’ve learned not to listen to everybody because some ideas just don’t sell.’
Obviously a website is crucial for an online business. It took Suzanne three attempts and over a year to get a site that she is happy with using Wordpress and WooCommerce.
‘Your biggest investment is your shop front. Don’t go with the first “special offer” on a website design you see advertised on social media’ she advises. Once again she learned a valuable lesson and researched who had the skills to do the work to her satisfaction. Once established she was able to look after the website herself.
A Facebook community of 4,500 people has become a useful marketing tool for Cool Clutch’s direct sales. ‘I’m self-taught in social media,’ Suzanne admits but loves the fact that she can drill down into demographics when boosting posts for as little as $20.
She has also learnt the distinctions between different platforms. ‘When I’m on Facebook I talk like I do to my girlfriends, but when on Linked In, it is more business.’ But at the end of the day it is word of mouth that generates the most sales.
‘My biggest marketing is customers talking to their friends.’
Finding wholesalers for Cool Clutch has been another trial and error process. She began by attending the major gift and homeware expos but, having such a unique product, has realised that it is more effective to research the demographics and go into the stores personally.
While Suzanne looks after the sales in Victoria, she also has an agent in New South Wales, and is currently seeking agents for Queensland and South Australia. A recent visit to the Barossa Valley revealed that wineries are a great fit for her products.
Patenting the Cool Clutch concept world-wide is another significant investment that started within weeks of the new business being created. ‘Looking at my initial decisions, they were more about convenience,’ Suzanne reflects. ‘I googled Patent Attorneys and found one in a location that I was familiar with. I liked him but he turned out to be very expensive.’
More recently Suzanne has benefited from working with a business mentor who has helped her to understand her weaknesses and improve her business decision making. ‘Useful tips like learning to allocate a codeword to specific marketing campaigns allows you to monitor the return on investment,’ says Suzanne. Like every seasonal business she is also looking to overseas markets to ‘follow the sun.’
Entering and winning a Bendigo Pitchfest in November 2016 gave Suzanne a great confidence boost, as did being named in the Australian Top 50 People in eCommerce in early 2019. ‘It’s nice to be recognised,’ she admits.
Working from home has probably turned out a little differently than Suzanne initially imagined. Fortunately, with grown-up children who have left home, it has been easier to reallocate rooms to the business. The dining room is now the Board Room, the study is an office for Suzanne and a part time employee, and the garage is now used for picking and packing
‘We don’t have anyone come to dinner anymore,’ she smiles, ‘we go out.’
If Suzanne has one more dream, it is to grow the business up to a level where she can build a new office and warehouse with a child care centre so more women are empowered to work.
Now that’s a cool dream!
Suzanne’s top tips:
Engage a quality agent if you are manufacturing overseas
Get a business mentor to get you started
Network with other business people
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 Regional Agents of Change. READ MORE