If you told most people that you were going to start a new business 5 timezones and 9000kms from where you are, most people would think you were crazy. Well I guess I am, because this is what I did when I started cornflowerblue.com – an online boutique that sells organic and ethically made children’s clothing, and little armourie an organic cotton clothing label for girls.
As an Australian expat living in Mumbai India, it was only natural for me to start a business focused on my home country, the place where I am most familiar and comfortable. I knew when I started that I would face a unique set of challenges. We often laugh that we are a ‘global small business’. All small businesses face challenges during their start up phase. We face these and more. Cornflowerblue has been a rollcoaster ride of challenge and yet it’s a ride we are not ready to get off ….not just yet.
To help you understand I will give some quick background first. Therese Hall, the other half of cornflowerblue manages the buying, order fulfillment and warehousing in Brookvale NSW while I sit in India and manage the website and sales and marketing, finance and everything else.
Challenge One: Trust your business partner
The first challenge is that you must trust your business partner implicitly. In the case of cornflowerblue I need to place a great deal of trust in Therese. I need to trust that she will buy the right products, manage inventory effectively and fulfill orders to my standard and expectations. You need to start with trust from day one. It is important when selecting a business partner to consider the relationship from a number of different angles. Some of these include:
1. Do we have the same attitude towards money?
2. Do we value our customers in the same way?
3. How do we both respond in stressful situations?
4. Are we both on the same page in terms of effort and funds needed to start a business from the ground up?
If you can both answer these questions honestly and there is common ground then you have the basis of trust to start a business relationship. Of course once the business starts things don’t always go smoothly. I can’t just step in when things go wrong and I need to be flexible and understanding when things do not go accordingly to plan. I also need to suppress the constant feeling “if I was there then it would be better/easier/smoother/less burden on Therese”. I have had to learn to relax and go with the flow because I have placed my business in my partners hands and she needs to be able to contribute in her own way and in doing so adds value that I can not.
Challenge Two: Communication
Our second challenge is communication. Even in 2011 telecommunications between India and Australia leave a lot to be desired. We have regular mobile phone conversations and after we hang up I think to myself “hmm…I only understood about half of what she was saying.” This alone means that decisions are not always clearly understood or implemented correctly. We have to back up each conversation with an email, which can be time consuming, but necessary.
We naturally use Skype a lot. We have regular meetings scheduled to brief each other on our various areas of the business. Even Skype can let us down at times as we are often disconnected mid sentence or we sound like creatures from a Sci Fi movie. The poor telephone lines also means that Therese needs to be the one to respond to customers over the phone and follow up telephone enquires because if I were to do this from India the time delay would be frustrating for customers and erodes our service standard.
Challenge Three: Customer Service
Therese and I both handle customer service. I manage email enquires and order follow up while Therese handles the enquiries received via the telephone. We love to hear from our customers and we have a strict service standard of replying with 12 -24 hours. However there are many queries I can’t handle on my own. Enquiries like “is this dress pale pink or dusty pink” or “are these jeans a true size 2 or are they a big size 2”. I can’t answer these questions because I can’t see the stock. It means these types of enquiries need to be double handled, often delaying our response time to our customers.
One benefit of the difference in timezone is that we can service our customers well into the evening Australia time. Mum’s are often on the Internet late at night. If they email cornflowerblue I am able to respond immediately, which they don’t expect and really love.
Challenge Four: Business Strategy
Working side by side has so many advantages. It promotes constant conversation and stream of ideas. Therese and I only get to work side by side for 1 month a year during the India monsoon season during which I am in Australia. We find that during this time we can rapidly advance the business strategy for cornflowerblue because we can talk about an issue constantly and make quick and effective decisions. Working in the same physical location means your business can be more dynamic and respond more quickly to changes in the business environment. For example last monsoon we decided to make a major change to our buying style. Once the decision was made, the labels contacted, we very quickly had summer orders placed and the new strategy implemented.
Therese and I have had to accept (and absorb the cost) that we need to sit together at least 4-5 times a year and work on the business. We alternate between Australia and India and to be honest it’s a great excuse to hang out, shop and eat while talking about cornflowerblue. These escapes are actually highly recommended for all business partners. Sometime you need to escape the daily routine to take a fresh look at your business. Before Therese and I hold these mini offsites we both prepare a standard pack of reports relating to our various business areas and these reports form the basis of our discussions. Then we return home to implement the changes and report back on the results at the next mini escape.
Challenge Five: Isolation
I love what I do. I love clothes and I would love to be surrounded with and working with our products on a daily basis. Instead I sit alone in my office in Mumbai staring out at the dreary skyline. While its impossible to draw inspiration from my workplace it does mean that I can be very efficient and effective as I have few interruptions. I do however miss the camaraderie of a normal workplace. I personally love what Motivating Mums is doing for WAHM’s in Australia. I would start one in Mumbai but very few of the expat Mums work!
If you were to ask would I start cornflowerblue all over again, knowing what I know. I would say yes and that’s only business I have a wonderful business partner in the country where the business operates.
cornflowerblue was founded by director Sarah Drysdale, who divides her time between Australia and India. Sarah began daydreaming of cornflowerblue after chatting with girlfriends in Mumbai about the lack of pretty, girlie clothes that are affordable and in the next breath... organic. This set Sarah off on an adventure, armed with the designs for her first collection, to find who made the most beautiful organic clothes in India. Sarah soon evolved the concept of cornflowerblue to include stocking other fabulous organic and fair labels from around the world.