Proudly sponsored by: Victoria’s Small Business Festival: Women In Business Week
In this podcast episode of In The Company, we chat with Anna Ross, founder of Kester Black, an ethical and sustainable nail polish and skincare company launched in 2012 and which has quickly become one of Australia’s fastest-growing and most innovative beauty brands.
Anna’s products are vegan, sustainable, cruelty-free and B Corp certified. Made in Australia, Kester Black now sells to Asia, America, Europe and also the Middle East, where its water-permeable products appeal to Muslim women, and in 2016 Anna was awarded the Telstra Young Business Woman of the Year.
Anna is on a mission to initiate global change in the beauty industry by setting new standards for cosmetics with a positive social and environmental impact.
Today we talk with Anna about going beyond the leap, and how to take a small business to the next level.
This episode is bought to you by Victoria’s Small Business Festival, happening across the state from in August and early September 2017. Check out festival.business.vic.gov.au to access over 500 free and affordable events to elevate, support and inspire you and your business.
Kylie: You’re listening to In The Company, a podcast about humanising work and designing better working lives. Each episode is curated to provoke you to think more deeply about things that matter in your career and life and how to build your toolkit for how to thrive as a human in business today. We explore how we work from the inside out. I’m Kylie Lewis and it’s great to be in your company. Welcome.
Today we’re in the company of Anna Ross, founder of Kester Black, and ethical and sustainable nail polish and skin care company launched in 2012, which has quickly become one of Australia’s fastest growing and most innovative beauty brands. Anna’s products are vegan, sustainable, cruelty-free and B Corp certified. Made in Australia, Kester Black now sells to Asia, America, Europe and also the Middle East, where its water permeable products appeal to Muslim women, and in 2016 Anna was awarded the Telstra Young Businesswoman of the Year. Anna is on a mission to initiate global change in the beauty industry by setting new standards for cosmetics with a positive social and environmental impact, and today we’re going to talk with Anna about going beyond the leap and how to take a small business to the next level. Welcome, Anna.
Anna: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Kylie: Terrific. I’m so looking forward to talking about your leap and the development of Kester Black and what’s happened in the last few years, but before we do take a jump into that, I really would love to get a sense of what you liked to do as a child, as small Anna, and how that might have had some impact on what you do for a living today.
Anna: I grew up in New Zealand, and my parents had a very small thatch or holiday house in Central Otago, so we used to spend a lot of our weekend staying up there, and we were surrounded by farmers actually, so most of my friends came from farms, and in order for us to be allowed to play together, they had to have finished their duties. We used to hang around the farm and we would play with the puppies, hang out in the shearing shed, ride horses, go swimming in the river. I think we all knew how to drive by the time we were about 10, so my life was based around pretty much like being outdoors in the environment and playing with animals pretty much.
Kylie: Fantastic. Do you find yourself doing that today?
Anna: I try to as much as possible, so I’ve been signing up like a madwoman to all of the adoption programmes around Melbourne. Because I still travel [inaudible 00:02:51], I don’t want to commit to having a pet full time. I do have a cat, but I share him with my ex-boyfriend, so I do, and one of my favourite pastimes is to get out and go on a big nature walk. So for Christmas we’re going back to New Zealand and doing some of the big hiking treks.
Kylie: Beautiful, so that real connection with the environment and the impact that you can have on it, obviously is a really strong theme in your business today.
Anna: Yes, it is. I guess that that’s what my, I’ve grown up with those values, and being in clean, green New Zealand has always sort of stuck with me, and I do think that Australian people feel the same way as Kiwis about the environment, so I sort of knew that the Australian-made thing would really appeal.
Kylie: So, what are perhaps three of your beliefs that you have today that inform your work?
Anna: Well, they’re outrageous, but one that people should be nice to each other.
Kylie: How radical.
Anna: Right? I had this idea that people in business were mean and cutthroat and obviously some people can be like that, but you don’t have to actually run your business like that, and the more that I have worked with a lot of different people, being nice always gets you so much further than it would to send a mean email with a demand on the end, so one, be nice. Two, tell the truth. Whoa, that’s my second radical one, right? So, in my experience, we’re a small business. If we are running short on money that month and haven’t got as much cash flow as we thought we would, I will call the people that I owe the money to and say “I’m so sorry, your invoice is going to be paid two weeks later,” and it’s never an issue, and three, collaborate. As much as I like to think I can do it on my own, I just don’t think my business would be where it is today if we hadn’t of reached out and collaborated with a whole of other experts that have all had input into my business.
Kylie: So, really radical ideas there. Being nice, telling the truth and playing well with others.
Anna: Yeah. Isn’t that strange? It’s been funny, I think that a lot of [inaudible 00:05:22] business is going straight back to basics, though, right? And people don’t seem to think about those three core elements as business.
Kylie: So, tell us then about your journey to start Kester Black.
Anna: Yeah, so I was, I guess, a bit of a rebel at school and was always being sent out of the classroom for talking too much. It wasn’t that I was disobedient. It was just that I was really excitable and probably had some learning issues happening there. So I was never following the rules and actually I was thinking back, my auntie said to me “You can’t work for other people, Anna. You’re going to have to go and start your own business.” And so I could never be told what to do by my mother, and so I went through university at Otago and I studied fashion design because I’m a very tactile learner. I like to learn with my hands and see things being done and then practise it myself, cannot study out of a book and just understand theory, and then after I finished university I asked my mum for 40,000 dollars to start my own fashion label, and I don’t know why but she said no. She said “You need to go overseas and get some experience, Anna,” so I slept on it and the next morning I decided she was probably right. So, I just finished fashion design, moved to Melbourne in 2009, and then ended up getting a job in retail.
Worked in retail for a year, and it was about a year and a half then that I finally got a job as a design assistant at a fashion label. In the meantime, though, when I was working in retail, I started a jewellery line just to keep my portfolio ticking over, and then from that, we ended up launching our first six nail polish colours in August 2012, and that was only because a year earlier I got bored of working with sterling silver and decided that possibly making some nail polish to match my then coloured rings would be a very fabulous idea. It took me a year to look into the concepts and then realise that there was a huge gap in the market for ethical cosmetics, and I just thought why hasn’t somebody tackled that issue, like surely somebody’s done that, but there was only one brand that had ethical nail polish at the time, and I thought oh, well if nobody else is going to do it, I’ll do it. So that’s sort of how it all started for me.
Kylie: So it was a side gig for a little while?
Anna: A side gig for a long while. I would say I only went full time at the end of December 2014. And before that, I had been making jewellery since 2009, so I started making jewellery in 2009, started making nail polish in 2012, quit my job and went full time in December 2014.
Kylie: And haven’t looked back.
Anna: Haven’t looked back. It took my a long time to make the jump, but once I got there, I think there’s risks that you have when you take a jump. You’ve just got to make it work, and if you’re really passionate about what you do, I don’t believe that it’s so much of a difficult option. I think it just works out for you.
Kylie: So you mentioned there are risks to taking the leap. What kind of risks did you see and how did you handle them?
Anna: Well, some of my risks were a bit different from other people’s, like I had hundreds of [inaudible 00:09:05] of flammable, dangerous liquids in my bedroom, for example. So, there was that, but of course, coming from overseas and not having any friends or family in Melbourne, money was always a big thing for me, so if I couldn’t stand on my own two feet and make ends meet, then my only option would be to leave everything that I’d worked really hard to achieve behind and move back in with my parents in Dunedin in New Zealand. So there was always going to be a big risk on not having a stable income, but I just felt like I knew I could do it. Other risks on being isolated. When I did start working on my products, I was working alone for a lot of the time, so especially having not grown up in Melbourne that was also really difficult for me and a bit of a risk, but I had a really good partner at the time and great housemate, so it all just sort of worked out.
Kylie: So you were able to leverage what you did know and who you did know to be able to take one step after another after another?
Anna: Yeah. It was a long time coming. I had a little bit of income from the business and the great thing about launching the nail polish was because the jewellery line was quite successful. My current stockers just decided that it would be a great idea to stock that product, too, but I don’t know. I think taking the leap is always just a huge risk no matter how many ways you can weigh it up. It’s either going to work or it’s not, and it’s only going to not work if you don’t put the energy into it or if you really don’t want it, but I believe a lot in creating the mindset that you need to do those sorts of things and if your mindset is right, then everything else will just fall into place for you. Sounds mystic, but I don’t know. Makes more sense when I think about it rather than when I say it.
Kylie: Well, it’s not a leap if there’s no risk.
Anna: No, of course not. And I think that if you’re passionate, you just need to do it. I’m always like … People are always coming to me and going “I’d love to start my own business, but I don’t really want to,” and I’m like “Well, there’s your issue. It’s just that you don’t really want to.” Doesn’t matter what they finish that sentence with, but if there’s a but then it’s maybe not the right time for them.
Kylie: Do you think you had that mindset from the get go?
Anna: Look, it’s been a really interesting development over the last few years. I had that mindset in business because I always had my life sorted out in business. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and every time I had a goal or a dream, that would just happen for me, but I certainly didn’t have it with the rest of my life, and I’ve been building on that in the last five years I’d say. So for example, I was at fashion school and I wanted to get into New Zealand’s fashion week, but I didn’t really know how I was going to get there. But I just started telling everybody that I’d gotten in because I just had a feeling that I would because if I’d looked back on my life, everything that I’d ever sort of set my mind to had always sort of worked out for me, so I told everybody I was in, and then it must have been about two months later I got accepted into that programme and was able to show at New Zealand’s fashion week.
I feel like taking the leap out if you speak to a lot of people about it and that they have your back because imagine if you’d told a hundred people about the idea that you’re going to go and start your own business, then A, you have to be held accountable and B, a whole lot of people are sending you their positive energy and thoughts about how great your business is going to be, and surely that helps, right?
Kylie: So it’s bringing the, it’s putting the energy where you want it to be.
Anna: Totally, and it’s always that saying where [inaudible 00:13:17] out with it, where your thought goes, energy flows. Where your mind goes, energy flows.
Kylie: Something like that. Where your attention goes, energy flows, that kind of thing?
Anna: Yeah. That’s it.
Kylie: Where your focus goes …
Anna: And because one of my passions on the side, I guess, is reading about psychology, and I read somewhere recently that anxiety is just heightening the worst possible outcome, and if you’re focusing on all of the worst possible outcomes, then you’re not focusing on any of the positive possibilities, so I really feel like society as a whole kind of needs to learn how to redirect from focusing on all the negative stuff that can happen because sure, you can’t control that, but if you’re really pushing and focusing on your goals and all the positives, then surely everybody would be in a much better place from that.
Kylie: So, how did you scale your business from working out of your bedroom part time, surrounded sleeping with flammable liquids into what it is today, and where is the business today?
Anna: So, we have a three storied, beautiful office space in Collingwood on Keele street, and I have one employee who had started with me. He was also working in my bedroom, which was weird, so I knew that we were going to grow and I knew that we needed to get an office space, but finding that office space was hard because we needed to have trucks pulling up and delivering pallets of nail polish in the street. So the kind of specifications that I needed for an office were really quite specific, so I couldn’t just go and share with somebody else, so I had to find the office first. I found an incredible office, and then I had to sign a lease that was worth about 100,000 dollars because it was a commercial lease, and I thought oh, my God, if I can’t fill the office space, like we were going to sublet the space that we didn’t need so that we still had room to grow, then I’d probably bankrupt the business, but that was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my entire life. I called my mum everyday for two weeks and cried because I wanted the office so badly but felt like I couldn’t take the financial risk to do it.
So, I just decided I’d do it anyway and it’s always worked out, even if we have a tenant move on, somebody always pops up at the last minute and then ends up staying for a year, so it’s been one of the best things to move. It’s also given me the room to be able to hire more staff and then with more space and more staff, I guess, and more jobs being done, we have to [inaudible 00:16:02] to scale to where we are today.
Kylie: How have you matched that on the marketing and promotion, the distribution, number of wholesalers and stockers that you have, how have you been able to grow your client base?
Anna: Our marketing, I didn’t know anything about marketing because I had a degree in pattern making really, but I’ve had to learn that, and I think it’s been quite slow over the years. So, didn’t believe in paid advertising because we had a great product, so surely it would sell itself, right? And I feel a little bit silly saying this, but we just did basic stuff like Facebook, Instagram and the occasional EDM, so essentially we weren’t even doing any marketing because I didn’t know what we were supposed to be doing, and we didn’t have a salesgirl, so we only hired our first salesgirl at the start of this year and I feel very silly in saying that because I feel like she probably was one of the first people that we should have hired. And then with marketing, it’s always been a little bit hard because we’ve always had a very tight budget, so we’ve always had to rely on socials and as we’ve grown a little bit, we have done some Facebook advertising and seen that it can really work for us, but we just need a little bit more help with finding out exactly how to structure those ads.
So, actually Kester Black is a little bit behind the eight ball to a lot of the other startups that are out there in that space at the moment, and if we’ve made it to where we are, anybody with any understanding of marketing is surely about to blow us out of the water. But with distributors, I think because we had a lot of PR, we have a huge amount of PR actually. We always have features in Vogue Germany, Harper’s Bazaar, Grazie, so we have really great PR, and over the years I think, it’s just been word of mouth because our product is incredible, so somebody will try it, tell somebody else about it, editors will write about it and then a lot of our collaboration partners have come in through our Instagram.
So our one little social feed that’s been free that we have worked on for the last little while has certainly been huge for us. We don’t have that many followers. We’re sitting at about 45,000, but we have landed collaborations with Audi, Sabah, Virgin Australia, Bellabox, some sort of just … Pantone was another one that came of Instagram, and then of course, all of the collaborations that we do with those people puts us on an international stage. So that’s where our distributors started to find out about us.
Kylie: Did any trade fairs or exhibiting anywhere in those kind of realms, did any of those kind of platforms help you at all?
Anna: No. We did do Life Instyle about three years ago, but people didn’t get it. We had a nail bar. I think it was confused. People don’t really want to stock nail polish in their shop, so we never got much out of trade fairs. I think the best thing for us at the moment is interesting marketing. How can we differentiate our nail polish product apart from the rest? And we have managed to that from the start with out ethical stocks, and then I would be very interested to do a few more international trade fairs going forward, but we needed a broader product range to be able to do them, and then we need to go to Europe and the UK and America. The trade fair scene in Australia is a little bit strange, and we’ve definitely spent a hell of a lot of money for one of the years that we were trying out our strategy, and that was not a channel that worked for us, but that’s not to say it’s not going to work for everybody else. It’s just a matter of trying things and then learning quickly from those mistakes and not spending heaps and heaps of money on them.
So one of the things that does work really well for us is the big design market. So not a trade fair, but a design fair, which we sell straight to retail not wholesalers. That’s been incredible, and all of our wholesaler customers have either heard about us and applied online or we’ve approached them with an email look book. So that’s pretty much how we’ve grown to date, and then of course, once you pick up one international distributor and you start getting stocked into some awesome stores then that’s when all of the other international distributors come and find you. And actually, we had about six international distributors approach us after one article that BBC Business wrote about Kester Black two years ago, so the press and the right press can really do wonders for your brand.
Kylie: And was that something that you consciously went after? After PR and media mentions or is that something that happened organically?
Anna: No, we always spent a lot of time on writing press releases, so we focused a lot on press releases and sending samples to media, but of course, you can do that more effectively now with bloggers and influences, so there’s the concept of micro-influences where they’ve got between one and 5,000 or one and 10,000 followers as opposed to paying a whole lot of money to somebody who might do one post on you. So you can get a lot of traction, and they’re a lot of the things that we’re focusing on now, so actually, now in the last six months since I’m going down through and the hanging out with a lot of incredible people and learning a lot off them, we’re just trying a whole lot of different digital strategies. I feel like we’re very late to market with it, but we’ve found a whole lot of success on Facebook for us, Instagram, and we’re working on a massive influence account [inaudible 00:22:16] which we’re going to launch towards the end of this year where we really engage our community because it’s also something that we haven’t done particularly well in the past. So fingers crosses that that works as well.
Kylie: And then you’re managing all of that internally or are you using an agency or an app or anything like that to help with that campaign?
Anna: It’ll be the first time that we will outsource. So I feel like, again, we probably should have tried this one a bit earlier. So we have a creative agency who’s going to do all the social side of things. Again, we’ll go out and do a photo shoot for that, and then we will probably engage a PR agency for a small portion of the work as well. It’s just so hard as a small business when you don’t have the spend to be able to outsource all the time for that, but I have been surrounding myself with people who are definitely working in the digital space a lot more and just learning so much. Every time I read a document that somebody flicks me over or an article, it is really easy to get all of that information, like SEO for example. We’ve been tweaking our website with all of the SEO and WordPress, our website is on WordPress. WordPress essentially tells you how to do it. All you need to do is sit down and spend a few hours tweaking your pages, so it’s just a matter of how many staff you have, if you’re able to like … If really you need to outsource it or really we have time to learn and read and do it all yourself, which often people don’t, and of course, you’re moving at a much slower pace if you’re not outsourcing.
Kylie: And am I right in saying that that campaign sounds like it’s happening towards the end of the year more around the time when people are buying presents and Christmas is happening?
Anna: No, it’s only happening around the end of the year because we only thought of it recently. The reason why it’s happening around the end of the year, so what the campaign is, is that Kester Black is not going to develop any of their own products for 2018. We’re going to let our community do it, so we want to finalise all of the briefs so people will be able to, anybody will be able to enter the competition, essentially pitch a 50 word idea on what nail polish they think is missing from the market and how they would like to create it. And then we’ll pick 12 winners and those winners will come on a journey with us to design the nail polish, go through the sampling process, choose the name, and then we’ll start to feature them as one of our brand ambassadors when we release their nail polish to our global distribution network in 2018. So it’s really an entire community engagement where I have heard of brands that have sort of done something along the lines before, but they only ever do one. I’ve never heard of a brand that’s had the community design every single product for an entire year, so I think it’s reasonably exciting. We just need to get going on it though for manufacturing purposes.
Kylie: That’s taking the whole co-creation idea that’s now popping up in marketing vernacular to a whole another level.
Anna: Yeah, and I think that what Kester Black’s stance on beauty has always been is it’s been very tongue-in-cheek for us. I don’t really believe that beauty is only for certain people or like it’s specific which is why we ended up making a nail polish that was able to be worn by Muslim women because they are a group of women who are always excluded from beauty, so I hate that part of the industry. So we are opening it up, whereas I thought about doing it before with influences and I was like well, no. That’s selective. We want to open it up to everybody, and actually one of our best customers who comes and sees us every year at the big design market in Melbourne is like a ten-year-old boy who has every single colour. So it’s just been open source design process from anybody who wants to participate.
Kylie: So it sounds like it’s incredibly inclusive, but really deeply rooted in environmental and social values.
Anna: Totally, so the winners will be chosen on the design, not on what they look like. [inaudible 00:26:45] not have to submit any photos of you, you know? So we’re not choosing influences because of their appearance, we’re choosing purely people because of the concept of design, like the level of detail that somebody’s bothered to put into our little application. So if somebody wants to come out and says they want colour changing nail polish that’s heat sensitive like a mood ring, that’s something that Kester Black is pretty into. Anything that we innovate with in nail is pretty exciting for us.
Kylie: This episode of In The Company is brought to you by the 2017 Small Business Festival which is run by the Victorian Government in Australia and is designed to help startups and small to medium businesses grow from strength to strength. Check our the festival website to find free and affordable events all across Melbourne and regional Victoria throughout the months of August and early September. There’s over 500 events including workshops, webinars [inaudible 00:27:44] and podcasts just like this one. Visit festival.business.vic.gov.au to learn, grow and connect.
So, I’m really curious as to how you really started to maximise your international audience because it sound like you’ve got a really great grip on the local market in Australia, but for a lot of businesses it’s the idea of having a broader audience outside of Australia that is attractive and also the case for making a business sustainable, so are there things that when you started thinking about outside of Australia, like I guess, from when you were talking about Muslim women, for example, are there things about international trade that you’d wish you’d known earlier?
Anna: Yeah, for sure. So one of the big hurdles that is about creating anything in cosmetics is A, most of it is probably flammable. If anything has solvent like either perfume, nail polish, mail polish remover, anything like that is a nightmare for international dangerous goods freight, so essentially for a long time we couldn’t even move it across the border. So that would have been a big one, and the second thing is international cosmetics and labelling laws. Huge, huge implications are met when you export and go into export markets, so we have spent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars on legal work to be able to make sure that we are ready for export. Also, very difficult to even get an appropriate shipping rate when you’re trying to export things out of the country, so if you were at design stage, I would always urge you to think about how you’re going to freight your item. Frank Body is a really great example of somebody who’s managed to keep it in a flat pack so they can send it in an envelope and keep all of their freight costs down, whereas we could never get it through as a letter. So maybe we should have come up with a flat designed bottle that could have been sent as a letter and that would have been much better for us.
But, yeah. I think that international markets are terrifying and you just need to dip your toe and see if you can get a distributor and then your distributors will usually help you, but you need to be able to be at a point where you can act quickly and have enough money to go and do all the things that is required, so legal fees is a huge one. Freight is a huge one. Storage and distribution in other countries is a huge one, and then really, you want to be equipped enough to be able to go and have enough marketing spend in a new market. So I went to London recently and went and did a big assessment on all of the nail polishes at the big department stores and was surprised that OPI wasn’t really even featured at any of them. I saw two tiny OPI stands, not like when you walk into Myer or David Jones here and the whole beauty department is OPI. So researching your market is really important, and I think that going there and understanding it and seeing it firsthand is one of the most important things you can do. I don’t think that you can pitch and launch into a new market without going and understanding the customer.
Kylie: And obviously having that overseas interest come to you is a good first sign and a first step but it’s not a sure thing.
Anna: No, there is one thing that you can do which I’ve been learning about recently is if you want to get onto Net-A-Porter or Sephora or any of those major stores, a lot of what they do is through digital strategies, so of course, they are analysing all of their keyword searches, so you can get all of your friends and family to essentially gorilla market your product. They look for, the buyers sit on Instagram and look for small brands that have the potential to launch big into a market that are open and accessible and have community drive. So if you’re spending a lot of time and energy focusing on your community, that’s a huge tip for an international buyer, and then you need to be getting everybody to go on and searching your products on their site so that your keyword rank’s really high when they run their report.
Kylie: Ah, the Google, working the Google algorithm.
Anna: Yeah. And of course, we’ve had some kind of amazing opportunities, but because our website has been up and running and Google’s sort of been watching us, but for example, Google just came to us recently and has a whole team develop to launch smaller businesses into the AdWords space and triple their turnover in three months. So, there are opportunities around like that. You just need to distinguish whether it’s a good opportunity for you right now. For example, that opportunity for us might not be perfect because we’re having manufacturing issues where we can’t get stock fast enough, so I don’t know if we tripled our turnover in three months, we not be able to scale properly. I have heard of another brand that got launched onto Kim Kardashian or Kylie Kardashian’s blog and she sold like four and half thousand products overnight, and then spent six months trying to manufacture to fill the orders, and then all those people dropped off and have slandered her brand now because she just wasn’t able to scale at the rate that she exploded overnight.
Kylie: The other side I’ve heard of that kind of tactic using Google ads like that is that it’s one thing to get traffic to your website. It’s another thing for your website to actually then convert to sales. So I have a friend who’s in a business, and yes, they got traffic but the traffic when it landed on the website didn’t really know where to go or what to do, and so it’s sinking through the whole process, the whole path to conversion, and what you want them to do when they actually land on that page and making it release and pull them straight forward in order to do that, that’s the digital strategist in me.
Anna: It’s a giant can of worms, right?
Anna: Because that’s exactly what happened to us. Four years ago we were like, yeah, we’re going to spend a hundred dollars a month on Google AdWords, so we had somebody had our AdWords. We had some traffic, but our AdWords were all OPI and when people landed on our website and couldn’t find any OPI they bounced, so I felt like although sometimes it’s really great to include all of your competitors’ keywords in your searches, it wasn’t beneficial for us or we weren’t big enough or there’s lots of things we need to think through, and we have spent pretty much the last four years trying to work through how to get more conversions through out site, and I’ve had to really take away that design aspect from my personality because I wanted a pretty website, and I didn’t want one that looked like Sephora, and now I’ve gone back and thought, no, that’s why it’s supposed to look like Sephora because it converts really well.
Kylie: I feel your pain, and I was always the business analyst sitting in between design and developers trying to negotiate that divide about how the form over function, and it still exists today, and yes, you do find yourself making decisions, design decisions that you wouldn’t normally, but you know that because of how we as humans interface with screens and buttons and processes that it’s a better way to go. I feel your pain. I have been there, but you’ve got to keep your eye on the prize, right?
Anna: Yeah, totally. Even like today, I was looking on somebody’s website and they had a big fluorescent green button, and I’ve always wanted a big fluorescent green button on my website, but now I’ve just got to talk my web designer into doing some work, but there’s always a catch-22, right?
Kylie: Yeah. Yeah. Have you ever accessed any research or development grants to assist you in some of the costs that you’ve mentioned?
Anna: So, we’re not eligible for the R&D grant because we’re not a company. We’re trading as a trust, so yeah, have definitely looked into it and it’s definitely something that’s on our radar for when we change company structure in the not too distant future. But we do currently run with the EMDG grant so that’s 50 percent on all export development marketing activities that you take out within your business for the first two years. So every single marketing trip … It’s almost like we’ve been pushing international over the last two years because we have been taking advantage of that grant, so the EMDG grant.
Kylie: What does that stand for?
Anna: The Export Marketing Development … E-M-D-G, Grant.
Kylie: Is that …
Anna: I’m sorry.
Kylie: … state-based or federal?
Anna: I think it’s federal, so if you just search EMDG, it will come up and there’s some really, really clear advice on how to apply for it, and the one thing that I would recommend is read the documents very seriously because you need to be keeping a paper trail of everything that you do, and then I would find somebody who can lodge there on your behalf because they have almost 100 percent success rate in getting you all of those things that you’re applying for back. So you can run the risk and try and do it yourself, but it might take you four weeks to upload all the paperwork.
Kylie: So is there almost like an [inaudible 00:37:29] advocate that you can hire that would help you with applying for that grant?
Anna: Yeah, there are EMDG agents and so what they do is they take a percentage of the money that you get back, and it might be 10 percent but that 10 percent is going to save you some serious time, so I certainly think it’s worth looking into.
Kylie: Yeah. Anna, what would you say some of your biggest challenges have been since 2012 in the business?
Anna: Learning how to communicate properly. Right, that’s fundamental to every relationship and running a business. And it’s taken me a really long time to be able to watch my communication style and be able to tell that my voice is heightened when I’m stressed, so if I do get stressed maybe I just need to take some time out before I go into work, so just being able to communicate effectively and manage staff has been huge for me, but extremely, extremely rewarding, and one of the most enjoyable parts of my job is A, getting to do all these fun, awesome leadership courses and develop interesting communication techniques, and I love working with my staff, and my team at the moment is just incredible, so I’m trying to think of ways to stop, to trick them from not being able to leave me, and then of course, all of the legal, compliance, trademark issues have been huge as well. And also all of the tax and all of the sorts of things that you need to know about tax accounting and legals around running a business has been incredible, but I kind of like it at the same time.
Kylie: And so you’ve developed a really unique workplace culture which you sort of just touched on then. Could you tell us a little bit more about that and how it came to be?
Anna: Yeah, sure. So, again, it all came from that communication strategy. So it was about three years ago, I broke up with my boyfriend at the time and I went to work and sat at my desk and cried everyday, and my other staff member had recently broken up with her boyfriend, too, so we were kind of just a wreck together at work, and whilst we were spending all that time crying, we weren’t actually building the business or trying to expand ourselves, so that was a really interesting year for both of us, but in that, because we were going through so much personal issues outside of work, we found it quite difficult to communicate. And towards the end of that breakup, I went to a leadership, a woman in leadership course called Compass, and I just learnt about all of the most incredible ways that you can engage with other people, so I decided that I would implement that at my workplace, and I knew that my staff member at the time was really interested in working for not-for-profits, so I said “Why don’t you start a project where you can get a sense of satisfaction out of A, not being able to work for a not-for-profit, but can you bring an aspect of that to our company?”
So she created the one dollar from every order got donated to a charity programme that we have on our website, so you can choose which charity partner you would like to support. You don’t have to if you don’t want to but the money that we give to them comes out of our profit, not an extra dollar added on to your sale. So that was real exciting and was really the start of opening Kester Black up to be an incredible company that people wanted to work for. Then she moved on and we’ve got new staff, and then it was about a year ago that I said “I feel like our business and values could align more with our personal values,” so I got my team to sit down and come up with every possible thing that they would want from a workplace, and that included an office dog, yoga, afternoon meditation, that they would accrue an education allowance, so for every hour they work, they accrue two dollars fifty, which they’re allowed to spend on any educational development programme of their choice, and we do paid health insurance and equal maternity and paternity leave. [inaudible 00:42:08] is that the right term?
Anna: So it’s like, it’s eight weeks full pay, and then plus whatever the government has, so they just wrote down all of these ideas and I was like “This is brilliant. Who wouldn’t want to work for a company like that,” so I said yes to everything, and then around the same time we also decided that we would apply for B Corps because I thought Kester Black was pretty good, so that we should probably go for this awesome accreditation that I’d been hearing about called B Corps. And then we sat down and started going through that accreditation process, and although Kester Black was awesome at the time, there was just so much more that we could have been doing, so we upped our one dollar from every sale to two percent of our total revenue that we donate to charity, changed all of our energy over to green energy, ten days off for paid volunteer work, so a lot of the awesome things that come with working for Kester Black also came out of the B Corps accreditation application process. So that was huge and it took us a year, but we got there.
Kylie: Am I right in thinking that you guys don’t work a full time work week?
Anna: We’ve [inaudible 00:43:22] so many hours to get one, yet and so staff choose their own hours, and I was pretty pushy in that we could all work four days a week, so that nobody worked on Fridays because who wouldn’t want five, sorry a four day working week, but I have one staff member who insists on working on the Friday so half of the company only works four days a week and one of our staff members works five, but again, it’s all about supporting my awesome employees so that’s their choice, and if they want to do five days then I’m not going to stop them.
Kylie: So this podcast was really born out of the desire to talk about how we humanise work, and I think what you’ve just done is outlined some exceptional examples of how a business could really honour the needs and cares and desires of the people that work with them. What impact do you think it’s had on your business?
Anna: It’s imperative to small businesses to make sure that the staff that they have are happy, so at Kester Black, it’s not a huge company and we’re not offering hundreds of thousands of dollars for our roles, so staff need to be satisfied in other ways. If you don’t look after your staff, they will leave and it will cost your company a lot of money, so I think that just being able to relate, I would certainly not want to go to work everyday if anybody was unhappy there. I would hate to have that energy in my space, so I think that everybody reasonably enjoys their job, and although it can be busy, we don’t do overtime and I don’t expect them to stay until ten o’clock at night which is what has been expected of me in other roles that I’ve had. So, I think that we all relate to each other really well. We have great communication.
Everybody gets on board with the design process, so even though we have a salesgirl and a marketing girl and a girl that packs and dispatches, we still have entire team meetings where we all come up with the branding together which is really exciting and I think a lot of people really want to be engaged like that, and not just in their own little sections, so overall, it’s a nice place to work and my staff are going to stay with me twice as long as they would have if I didn’t offer those conditions for them to work in.
Kylie: So was that a hard won lesson?
Anna: Yeah. I guess, when my first staff member, Claudia, she was just so incredible that it was just a huge loss for us. I mean, it was incredible that she’d stayed for so long and brought so much to my business, and then once she left, she didn’t leave because of anything. She just felt like she’d stayed in the job for two years and it was time for her to move on. I just thought I wonder if there was anything that I could have done differently to keep her, so I’ve always been [inaudible 00:46:21] thinking those sorts of things, but it wasn’t like a hard lesson or anything, but just one that I’m glad that I’ve been aware of over the last years because the staff that I have managed to retain are incredible and we certainly wouldn’t be where we are without them.
Kylie: And how many staff do you have at the moment?
Anna: We have six, I think. Yeah, there’s six of us, so we have Tori in the UK who does product development and then Aja who’s in the Blue Mountains who does copywriting, and then the rest of us are all based at our office in Melbourne.
Kylie: So, Anna, we’re coming towards the end of our conversation, and I just wonder what the vision is that you have for Kester Black and maybe the beauty industry going forward?
Anna: Yes. So, I believe that more brands like Kester Black can definitely make major changes within any industry that they’re in, so it’s for me the beauty industry. So it takes big companies about three of four years to even launch one single product because they can’t move quickly, but us, we can launch a new product in four weeks or two weeks if we were lucky, so I want to be able to lead a change in the beauty industry and to educate everybody [inaudible 00:47:49] label, that they should think about the ethical manufacturing of their cosmetics and inclusivity of other people. I think it’s time for a big change, and I think that small brands are going to make those changes.
So Kester Black in five year’s time will have a full product range. I don’t want to give away too many details but you can think lips, gels, treatments, et cetera. And then global distribution, and a very, very, very influential brand with a whole lot of …
Kylie: Cold hard cash.
Anna: … people. Cold hard cash. That would nice. I’m not sure … I think, with a whole community of people that are value driven, I think is what I’d want to see. Money would be nice, but it’s not the driving force for me. It’s really about the inclusivity and being able to make a change.
Kylie: Amazing. So what is three things that you’d like our listeners to take away from our chat today?
Anna: Always think about the ethics of your business. So, I don’t know. Nail polish really, if you think about it, is a crap product. It’s exactly the same with [inaudible 00:49:13] water. Bottled water is a crap product, but they do the best they possibly can with their crappy product and so do we, so women are not going to stop wearing makeup. Nail polish is not like an incredible necessity that everybody in the world has the luxury of being able to own, but we will do everything in our power to make that product ethical and give back to our society, so I think that that’s the way forward for small businesses at the moment as well, is like really think about your values and your ethics.
Two, take the chance because if you don’t somebody else will, and you might have missed your opportunity. So I think that the earlier you can take a leap, do it. I wish I’d taken mine a little bit earlier than I did. I feel like I was very conservative and waited a long time, and see it time and time again in my business where we wait too long and somebody else comes out an launches the products that we were trying to get to market. So, move quickly. If you have an idea, move quickly. Think about your values and be nice in business and it will get you very far.
Kylie: Fantastic. Now, we have the very last section of our chat today which is our ten by ten, which is ten questions with ten seconds to answer each question. Are you up for it?
Kylie: Let’s see where it takes us. Don’t overthink it.
Anna: Okay. Fingers crossed.
Kylie: That’s right. Let’s jump in. All right. Number one. What I like about myself is …
Anna: Unwavering confidence.
Kylie: I beat procrastination by …
Anna: I meditate. That sound counterproductive but it’s awesome.
Kylie: A song on my life’s soundtrack is …
Anna: Girls Just Want to Have Fun.
Kylie: The world needs more …
Anna: Nice guys.
Kylie: I hope they’re listening. A phrase I …
Anna: No, it’s been like, nice guys in general. People. Nice people. Yeah.
Kylie: We all could be nice guys. A phrase I live by is …
Anna: Oh, God. I always say “Just do it.” I’m sure that’s trademarked but God, move quickly. Just do it.
Kylie: I think a little company somewhere has that trademarked but we can run with that. Something everyone must do is …
Anna: Learn to meditate. My gosh, hands down. Yep.
Kylie: A book that changed me is …
Anna: Ooh. Oh, my God. I have a whole playlist. A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle.
Kylie: Fear and I …
Anna: … don’t co-exist.
Kylie: Something that always makes me feel good is …
Anna: Chocolate and cats.
Kylie: And number ten, our last one is my legacy will be …
Anna: Ethical beauty at your fingertips.
Kylie: Anna, so people who are interested in finding out more about what you have to offer, where can they go?
Anna: So, visit us at kesterblack.com or just follow us on Instagram at @kesterblack.
Kylie: It’s been great to be in your company today, Anna. Thanks so much for talking with us.
Anna: Thanks so much for your time.