Interview: Betty Browne
Today's post is about a business owner who saw a problem and decided to do something about it. It started with Linda Smyth's fruitless hunt for the perfect tee. Tired of hearing her talk about it, her husband told her to go and design her own. So she did. Just like that. And, after other people could see how great her designs were, Linda turned her back on her career in advertising and communication and started her own fashion label. She now designs and produces a range of tees, tops and dresses that really are the perfect selection of wardrobe essentials.
The thing I admire about Betty Browne is that design is first and foremost. All of the clothes are designed to make you look and feel great, and that's a huge part of her business vision. The fact her company acts ethically, and all of her products are made with organic cotton, are just by-products of doing really good business. I love this way of thinking – that we all have a responsibility to do the right thing and act ethically and consider the world and its resources. But, I like that it's not the only selling point.
Linda's enthusiasm for her change in career is inspiring and infectious – you can tell that what she has chosen to do, and the challenges, obstacles as well as the wins set her alight. Here's her story...
What is Betty Browne and what do you do?
Betty Browne makes luxe-organic-cotton, Australian-made basics, which are designed to make your everyday self feel a little sexier. We do full seasonal collections, but tees are at the heart of the label. They’re an awesome garment because they can be comfortable and sexy at the same time. We wanted to take that idea of something that is worn almost every day and build it into a seasonal set of wardrobe essentials – created with an ethical, sustainable ethos.
What's happening today?
This morning I did all of our invoices for SS15/16 wholesale orders. Not an exciting task but awesome because it reminded me of how big next season is going to be – a big motivation to get through them all. The rest of the day has been a mix of packing online orders, a bit of social media, liaising with my production manager in our Sydney factory (we’re in the middle of SS15/16 production, so there’s always lots of things that need addressing) and then designing for AW16. My studio is in Brookvale and I try to get out for a late afternoon run along Curl Curl beach, so I went for a run while the sun set and it was beautiful. Tonight, I’m finishing these questions and working on our new website with my husband.
What path led you to what you do?
Hahaha, a very long, windy one! My degree is Bachelor of Leisure Studies (ridiculous name – but it’s essentially Sport Science with a bit of Social mixed in) and after a few years in that industry I switched to advertising. Communication Strategy was my career until my husband got sick of me talking about not being able to find the perfect tee and told me to design my own. I did and I really loved it. At the time, I didn’t think I wanted my own label, but, there was a lot of interest in my tees and it grew from there. Now, I can’t imagine myself back in advertising and every day I’m so stoked I get to do something I genuinely love – it’s pretty awesome – and all thanks to my amazing husband.
All Betty Browne products are made with organic cotton. Why is that important to you?
I think any business owner needs to take responsibility for what they produce and its impact on the world. We can’t keep making stuff that’s bad for the environment and bad for people, so, I chose to keep our production local and ethical, and use only organic fabric and eco-dyes. When I first started I researched cotton and was horrified to find out how bad traditional cotton growing is, not only for the environment but also for the people who handle it. It was a pretty easy decision to make once I learnt about the negative impact of cotton growing.
In what way are your products better for the consumer because they’re made with organic cotton?
The chemicals used to grow standard cotton remain in the fibre right through until you buy and wear the garments – so your non-organic tees are a little bit toxic. Organic cotton garments have none of this chemical residue so they’re naturally softer, and much better for your health. The cotton is also ring spun which gives the thread a lovely smooth finish – so when it’s knitted into jersey it keeps it shape and wont pill like some other cottons.
What kind of engagement have you noticed from your customers as a result of your ethical policy?
Our customer base runs the gamut from women who are buying into the ethical ethos first and foremost to women who just like our style. For the most part it’s a blend of the two, but, primarily, our customers buy into Betty Browne because they love the clothes, and then the sustainable, ethical bit is an added bonus.
We’re all about making the wearer feel really good so we like that we can do that on multiple levels – through our fabric and design, as well as through our manufacturing choices. Like anything that makes you feel good, you want more of it, so, on that level we have a high level of engagement with our customers. There’s more to talk about and more to like. We get a lot of really positive feedback and we’ve got a big loyal customer base which I do think is due to our blend of style and ethos.
Has marketing your business come easy to you?
In some ways, yes, because of my advertising background. In other ways, no, because it’s a whole different kettle of fish when you’re marketing your own brand. Emotion can easily cloud rational decision-making. Marketing also takes a lot of time, energy and resource, and as a small business owner those things are in relatively short supply.
What marketing skills have you had to master to get your business out there?
Social! I’m not personally active on Facebook or Instagram so that was really hard for me. I like it more now but a social media manager will be my next hire!
What’s the biggest marketing lesson you’ve learned along the way?
Price is the not the determining factor of success. Some of the things I’ve done for free or really cheaply have been super successful, and some of the things I’ve paid big money for have not produced the results they needed to.
Tips on how to stay on top of everything?
Build timelines for big projects. Print them out and stick them on the wall. It’s much harder to ignore deadlines when they’re right in front of you. Plan your whole week on Monday morning and then block it out in your calendar (our whole business is on Google Drive and the good thing about using the Google Calendar is that everything is accessible and movable). Then spend 5 mins each morning going through your block plan and make sure your priorities are the 1st block/s.
What does a good day look like for you?
Waking up to lots of overnight orders and getting to work bright and early. My most productive days are by far the ones when I’m at my desk before 7.30. Getting my admin out of the way before chatting with stockists and my production manager – a good day definitely means no prod issues! A quick lunch with a friend, ideally outside in the sun, because I work on my own a lot, so I need to chat!! Followed by an afternoon of design – I feel like the luckiest person in the world when it’s design time – I love it.
What about a hard day?
A hard day would be slow online sales combined with doing all the jobs that I’m awesome at putting off – accounts, monthly reports (which are super helpful but no fun to put together), and difficult phone calls. Fortunately the good days far outweigh the bad ones!
Career highlight so far?
There have been many moments when I’ve been ridiculously happy – ranging from receiving thank you cards from customers to securing new stores and overcoming big obstacles. But, I think if I had to pick one highlight it would be last Summer when Jennifer Hawkins wore our Hummingbird Muscle Tee by choice. With access to any label in the world, it was pretty humbling to discover she chose to wear Betty Browne. Jennifer, if you’re reading this, thank you xxx
What advice would you give to yourself if you were starting out again?
Set clear objectives. Plan it and do it, and don’t be scared of it.
One piece of advice for other business owners?
Expect your wardrobe to MASSIVELY suffer while you build your business and don’t taunt yourself with visits to Net-A-Porter when there’s production bills to pay. I’m only half joking when I say before you start your business, buy giftcards to your favourite stores and stash them until you’ve had a shocker of a day, cannot stand anything in your pared down wardrobe and HAVE to go shopping – guilt free.
Name 3 businesses that inspire you?
Nudie Jeans. They’ve perfected the blend of ethics, intelligence, design and authenticity.
Collective Hub. Totally un-original but Lisa Messenger really does inspire me. She’s gutsy and smart, and she gets things done and makes things happen. Her business is definitely a source of motivation for me.
Samantha Wills. Incredibly talented, totally driven and genuinely lovely. An amazing woman with an amazing business.