Kate Robinson of Sweet Fern
I remember the excitement in the Ballarat Regional Tourism office, where I was working as the Digital Marketer at the time, when we spotted this gorgeous new Instagram feed pop up.
Having watched teasers roll out on social media for several weeks, when the doors opened, straight in we went on a 'familiarisation' trip. There was so much to love about Sweet Fern - tens of different niche perfumes, skin care products, candles, and the most gorgeous interior full of flowers and local artists' pieces on rotation.
But it wasn't until I had started up Good Media that I really got to know the woman behind Sweet Fern, Kate Robinson. She kindly agreed (with her new store and a baby who was only a few weeks old!) to have me host a social media workshop inside the gorgeous Sweet Fern.
Fast forward to now, and I've run five workshop at Sweet Fern, but most importantly, grown close to Kate as a fellow business owner and friend - she's always there when I need a vent or a second opinion, or simply to forget about business and just have a laugh!
What Kate has created in Ballarat is something really special. Her husband Simon Robinson, a carpenter and landscaper, created the contemporary retail space with a focus on reclaimed materials (including THAT concrete sink that makes it into many a shopper's Instagram feed!).
The building was previously a Gay & Co hardware store, so it needed some serious beautifying. However, wanting to pay tribute to its history, Simon and Kate have incorporated the original boxes they found on site into the displays.
So, keeping in mind that Sweet Fern has only been open just on two years, let me highlight a few of the incredible achievements Kate has had so far:
- One of only seven Aesop stockists to be given the entire collection globally!
- Featured on Channel 9's Postcards
- Built an engaged Instagram community of 5,500+ people
- Won the 2016 Ballarat Business Awards in the Retail category
- Hosted the most beautiful photo shoot with The Ivory Tribe (who incidentally were my first #theladyleaders feature!)
- Launched Sweet Fern's own range of bath and fragrance products, Sweet Fern Botanics
- Launched an online store
- Launched Bridal Showers and Perfume Masterclasses
- All while being a wife and a mum to two kids... phew!!!!
Without further ado, let me hand over to Kate to share her rollercoaster first two years in business, marketing wins and 'not-so-wins', plus find out about what's in store for Sweet Fern 2017!
You are two years into running Sweet Fern. Can you describe what these past two years have been like for you, particularly emotionally?
It's been hectic! A wild ride. We found out we were pregnant three days before opening the store so throw a new business, a completely new career in a new industry and a new baby all in the ring and it's emotional for sure.
It's emotional in terms of being invested financially and going from a very secure job to working really hard on something virtually around the clock with no income, you have to look at the bigger picture constantly.
Tell us who is involved in your business - what does your support team look like?
My husband Simon has been my partner in everything we do, I really could not do any of this without him. He knows how to work with me and he's got a great eye for design (time spent at RMIT doing Fine Art) and he's super handy too being a carpenter.
There's also my incredible employee Sara. We are beyond lucky to have found someone who clicks so well with us, understands the brand and is really passionate about niche perfume and customer service - the girl graduated as Dux of her Business Marketing degree too! My family is also a huge support. We have a great network who has been able to step in with the children during busy times.
You have a strong presence on social media, particularly Instagram (check out Sweet Fern's Instagram page here!). Can you tell us what your processes and structures look like for managing this?
I do all of this for a number of reasons, it's my first connection to my clients but also my business relationships - it's me and therefore important that it has my voice.
Building relationships is the most important part of our business with our clients, customers and our employee. Giving our social media to someone else just doesn't work for my business.
The processes are basically I go flower shopping on Sundays (best part of the job!) and I decide which products or events I will be promoting for the week and I create all the content in one go - usually when the baby is sleeping. It's flexible and organic though, so things crop up which I might want to share so I do. Social media for Sweet Fern is about creating our brand. Showing our shop, our products and Sara and myself is important. The aesthetic has evolved and I feel like it's much more personal now than it was earlier on, it's all created by us rather than reposting brands' imagery.
What type of content do you find works well for social media and email newsletters, and what not so much?
Definitely more personal or behind the scenes things get a lot of engagement. I try to drip feed product posts within those things - people don't want to be smashed in the face with the hard sell every time they see your feed, it feels pushy rather than personal.
What is your advice for keeping a consistent tone of voice and aesthetic across all of your marketing?
Work out what your aesthetic is, choose your colours and be consistent - it should feel smooth and aligned, all our marketing should look like it comes from us.
So we use lots of flowers and black and white. I never post macarons or donuts even if I really want to, because I decided early on that's it's just not what we're about.
What about other types of marketing/PR/events - what have you found works well?
We have been involved in a range of collaborations - such as hosting your Instagram workshops in the store. This has been great for cross promotion and was our first collaboration. I'm really passionate about finding other brands to work with so always open to suggestions.
Sometimes things are the right fit and sometimes they're not but it's all trial and error. We will be having a perfume bar out at Gorgi Coghlan's Top Birds event in November and that's a great way to have a physical presence with a new crowd. I also find promoting our own events works really well.
Do what you do well and then promote the hell out of it. Make sure every guest leaves and tells someone about their experience.
And what things have you tried but haven’t got the returns you expected or hoped for?
The first couple of years is about finding out what works, so next year we will be more laser focussed on deciding where our time and advertising dollars go.
Being able to say no to things because although it sounds great, you might already be doing lots of other things. Sometimes collaborations etc can be a distraction from focussing on your own business so picking and choosing the right partnerships is really important. I find Facebook advertising really hit and miss and I guess I haven't gotten the returns I'd hoped for there.
What are some of the challenges you've experienced, or continue to, in running your own business?
It's a juggling act, there's no blueprint and especially starting out, it's been overcoming each challenge as it arises. Planning six months ahead is a must for me - what events, collaborations, product launches in the coming six months and then how do we roll it out. Strategy is really important. I used to be an Assistant Principal and in education you can't run a school without intensive planning, so I guess I have adopted this strategy. The better planned you are the better you are set up to handle challenges.
And what are your greatest rewards?
Becoming one of only 7 Aesop stockists to given the entire collection globally was huge. It was a real honour to be told that and has been a truly incredible partnership, which I really value. We also won the Ballarat Business Excellence Award this year for Retail which was amazing given we were only 18 months old. It was a terrific process and it felt really good to be recognised as small independent business.
What is in the works for Sweet Fern in the near future?
Lots! We never stand still. This year the focus was on getting our Bridal Showers happening and we have booked our until the end of 2016 which is great. Next year I want to keep doing that but focussing on exposing what we do to the Melbourne market. Ballarat makes a great girls' weekend away and the train and our regional city make everything accessible.
I'd like to start working with accommodation and restaurant providers to package our Bridal Showers up. Also our Corporate Gifting Program has just been launched and I really would like to focus on one client at a time in this area. Providing beautiful gifts to treasured clients and revered associates is definitely a growth point for us.
We also launched Sweet Fern Botanics and I'd like to concentrate a bit more on the soap side of this, our soaps go really well and we are being used by some gift box companies too which is great. Eventually I'd love to launch our own perfume but that's a long way off - still, Sweet Fern definitely started as daydreaming!