From corporate jobs to building their own business, co-founders Lorraine and Stacey of Minnow Designs saw a gap in the market for a product that was unique to their concerns as both mothers and budding entrepreneurs. What was to be a relaxing day at the beach with their children ended up with an idea that would change the way businesses should think about children’s shoes.
- The beginning: hot sand and wet feet
- From being a mother to an entrepreneur
- Process to progress
- China: An unlikely market
What was supposed to be a relaxing day at the beach became a struggle for these two mums. Taking their toddlers to the water for some fun, Lorraine and Stacey had expected an ‘Instagram-able’ day but what happened was very different from what they expected. It wasn’t exactly the safest environment for their children to play in with the scorching hot sand and sharp rocks dispersed throughout the sandy beach.
“The children wanted to get down and walk but the sand was too hot, and they wanted to climb over rocks. We had to constantly bend down, pick them up and let them down over and over again, taking their shoes off and on,” Stacey explained.
Ugly, uncomfortable and unable to find the right fit – there was nothing on the market to protect their toddlers’ feet from the rough sand on the beach.
“We were originally going to buy aqua shoes, but they had a chunky hard sole that wasn’t good for swimming or they weren’t the right size. Even if they had the right size, they were super ugly,” Stacey further elaborated.
It was a couple of days later that Lorraine, who was a former fashion designer, had come up with a prototype that was a like a hybrid between a wet-suit and beach shoes for tiny feet.
This was a lightbulb moment for them.
Budding from a less than enjoyable day at the beach, this was the start of Minnow Designs. What blossomed was a line of beach booties and swim shoes for kids and toddlers. Protecting their little feet from the hot sand, sharp rocks and slippery bits, these shoes were something that other businesses hadn’t thought of.
Co-founders: Stacey Fisher (left) and Lorraine-Cherry Nguyen (right)
Lorraine’s husband was the person who introduced the two to each other. From meeting in France for university to settling down in Australia, this was the beginning of a fruitful friendship that would last for a lifetime.
From their shared values as two girls who came from farming backgrounds – Stacey from Richmond, and Lorraine from Northern Ireland – it was their blue-collar work ethic that tied the two together as co-founders with complementing skills.
The idea that hard work will get you to where you want to be was crucial in their relationship, not just as friends, but also as colleagues. Stacey’s background as a marketing manager and Lorraine’s as a fashion designer allowed them to fill in each other’s shortcomings.
However, this isn’t the first business that these two had started together. Starting out with a jewelry brand and sold off later in late 2016, this first venture gave them a solid grounding in the world of e-commerce and the life of a startup. The opportunity that the new business gave them was to be involved with a movement closely related to their heart – their families. It wasn’t just about filling a gap in the market but also about tightening this bond between mother and child, one pair of shoes at a time.
What they found through selling off a thousand units exclusively through e-commerce to test the market was that they had a viable product that was market ready and worth investing in. The passion project that began in 2014 from a tiring day at the beach became what would now be known as Minnow Designs.
“With our corporate jobs, we had income coming in. I don’t think we ever took it (Minnow Designs) seriously – it was only when our numbers were screaming at us did we actually take it seriously and needed to invest in production and time away from home,” Stacey explained.
Even with the risk of being involved in a startup and having to pay the bills, it would have made sense to continue with the security their corporate jobs gave them. However, it was their desire to move to a more flexible way of working and wanting to enrich their family life that motivated them to move on.
Keeping their corporate jobs weren’t a main concern anymore. For many founders, the corporate life presented them with an occupation they weren’t satisfied with. Whether it may be the lack of drive, a change in priorities or wanting to change the world, startups take root due to all kinds of reasons. For Lorraine and Stacey, their journey as co-founders began when their children were toddlers. It was their growing families and wanting more time with their children did they take the leap.
It wasn’t until the Summer of 2015, that they had their first range up and running.
From an initial test-run that was completely online, Minnow Designs is now carried in stores like David Jones and Little Treads. However, for many startups, the process from idea to actualisation of the product can vary from a few months to a few years. It’s one thing to have an idea for a product, but it’s another to have it ready and prepared for the market.
It was through a connection that Lorraine’s husband had with a manufacturer in China did they have their first pair of shoes. Being able to create a physical product from this connection shows how important they are when starting your own brand.
“It was finding someone that would work with us to help us develop the product. That was done mainly through contacts and networks – it would’ve been very hard to get done with just cold-contacting,” Lorraine described.
From having a reliable manufacturer to the initial sale of a thousand units, it was at this moment did they realise the value in what they’ve created and the possibility of it going global. Pitching to retailers, going on road shows and with investors backing them up, the potential for Minnow Designs to grow into more than just a passion project had materialised.
“Up until that point, we knew it was good business, it was going well. We thought we were investable,” Lorraine explained. “But until people actually put the money in your bank account, you really don’t know.”
“The business is a lot more tangible now that we’ve got a form of valuation with investors backing us,” Stacey added on.
There are several differences between the American and Asia Pacific markets. Lorraine and Stacey realised this difference after their expansion into the USA earlier in their career.
“If you go to a trade fair here or in Asia, it’s like a fashion parade. Everyone’s excited and there’s an energy about the place. You go to one in the US and they’re in massive convention centres. The whole system is structured very differently with older buyers in polo shirts and pens looking around. It’s much more transactional and wasn’t as exciting or innovative,” Stacey elaborated.
The lack of personal touch and the distance that founders had with their brand at these trade fairs were not what they wanted to be.
With Asia’s appetite for brands that had a connection with consumer needs, particularly between mother and baby, it was the daigou of China that approached them. The demand for the shoes was an opportunity they could not afford to lose. Expansion into Asia at this point just made sense. This newly opened door presented to them with an entire market that they didn’t think of before.
After winning 1st place during Haymarket HQ’s China Canvas Challenge and with their strategy and business plan pitch, they were able to develop a solid plan into how exactly they were going to expand and the baby steps needed to do so.
The possibility of selling to over a billion people in places like China was an opportunity that didn’t come often – but they aren’t expecting it to be easy.
“It’s going to be costly. It’s going to take time. There’s going to be mistakes. We’re expecting all of that.”
Supported by investors and secured funding, their sights were set on Asia. The next 6 months will bring them to countries like Japan, South Korea and Singapore where they’ll be picking up distributors. This unique opportunity to not just help them launch new products but also expand into other uncharted markets.
Contemporary, clean and light-hearted – Minnow Designs is more than just a brand of beach footwear. Their vision is to create a global tribe of one million unstoppable little explorers. Encouraging children to go out and play, what Lorraine and Stacey have coming up is all smiles and fun days at the beach.