startup advice from Adore Beauty’s Kate Morris
Kate Morris’s reflections on her start-up years at adorebeauty.com.au
Readers sit in awe of many success stories they read about in the press wondering how these businesses have become so successful overnight. Unbeknownst to them, these ‘overnight’ success stories have often taken around five or more years of hard work to achieve.
One of those successes is Kate Morris, CEO and founder of adorebeauty.com.au, a Melbourne based online cosmetics retailer. Kate agreed to look at a different angle of her business for us and explore the inside workings of her business, and provide some insights to a startup and what it takes to get a dream off the ground.
Kate grew up in Launceston in Tasmania. She always had a love for cosmetics. “The only place I could go shopping for cosmetics was the tiny Myer store we had in town, and the selection wasn’t great, “said Kate. In 1999 while studying at university in Melbourne she decided to start an online cosmetics business, seeing the potential of online retailing in those early days. She realised she could pursue her passion for cosmetics and have the ability to supply people like herself in remote locations the same items available in major cities.
The startup phase of Adorebeauty.com.au was tricky. She borrowed around twelve thousand dollars from family members. Web developers were hired to build a website from the ground up. “it was pretty ugly compared to the site we have now” says Kate.
Suppliers in the late nineties were extremely averse to supplying businesses that sold on line. It was impossible to get any of the large commercial cosmetics companies to consider supplying Adorebeauty.com.au with stock. Kate convinced two smaller Australian cosmetics companies (that no longer exist) to supply her.
So with boxes of stock under her bed, and her website up and running, she waited for her first order, which was incidentally made by a family member.
The traditional public relations route was used, trying to show the story of a young enthusiastic female entrepreneur bootstrapping her business Adorebeauty.com.au to success. Social media channels didn’t exist as we know them today but Usenet groups did exist and there were communities that discussed different topics. Kate joined some of these communities to share her expertise, building a reputation for her business in the process.
The early years were hard. Kate learned HTML and how to use file transfer protocol (FTP) to make changes to her website. Her partner was the first staff member to come on board in 2001 and the first employee joined Adorebeauty.com.au in 2005.
Due to the nature of the cosmetics industry drop shipping has never been a viability and all stock that is sold on the Adorebeauty.com.au website is kept in Kate’s warehouse in Brunswick.
Currently, the business has twelve mostly generation Y employees; all “cosmetics junkies” and all female (except one). Kate suggests the business still feels like a startup. Its open plan, everyone has a good time at work and everyone focuses on results. “We like to spend more money on improving the site than sitting in swanky offices,” says Kate.
Digital marketing and social media have been important tools in engaging with customers, using Search, email marketing, Facebook and Twitter to engage and interact with customers. Pinterest has recently been added to this list of tools to see what it can deliver.
Search engine optimisation and search engine marketing are very important drivers in attracting customers to Adorebeauty.com.au. Pay per click advertising used to work well for broad base category keywords but they are now often overpriced. Kate and her team have had to get much smarter in the choice of key phrases and long tail search terms to attract quality customers at a reasonable cost. Kate also points out that they do lots of A/B testing to ascertain what layouts, colours etc work better. On hiring consultants and outside help; Kate feels that no one knows the online cosmetics business like they do, and after some less-than-impressive results from “expert” consultants, she now places a higher value on her own experience.
The site is currently built on Magento and integrates into a warehouse management system. The accounting system runs independently, and Google analytics data is analysed frequently.
Kate laughs at one of her funniest blunders in her start-up years. She sent an email to her database and included everyone in the CC listing so all her subscribers could see each other’s email addresses, however she points out that everyone makes mistakes and its part of the learning process.
Kate’s advice to anyone starting out: Love what you do and be different in the way you do it. Kate stresses the need to be different. “Don’t try and do what asos.com does, you can’t compete” quips Kate.
“If I had my life over again, I would do it all again. Perhaps with more money, we could have grown faster; but going slowly allowed me to learn my lessons bit by bit. ”