Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Elly – Who we are

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since 2012 when we opened our single retail store in Cluny Court, barely filled with our dresses and crocheted toys. Over the years, I’ve been asked several questions in the interviews we’ve given and I thought I would share the story myself here.

How did Elly start?

Lil S was born in 2009 when I was still working in London. Carol used to send me her shopping lists for clothing before I came back for the holidays. She had a shopping list of brands she couldn’t find in Singapore or that were more affordable in the UK. On weekends, I would browse Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges which had gorgeous baby departments (albeit more premium) clothing.  This inspired us that we could fill a gap in the market for quality, beautiful and comfortable children’s clothes at affordable prices. The other thing is I had have a thing for fabrics. I would go to fabric fairs in Birmingham (where my husband and I single-handedly reduced the average age in the expo) and shop for fabrics all weekend. Back in 2009, I was already designing shift dresses for work and had tailors who agreed to sew baby dresses at the same time. Our first range was sold on Pupsik Studio, an established online baby retailer.

How did we get our name? 

Elly is the name of my favourite stuffed toy, an elephant.

How did we decide on the logo and colours?  

We wanted something fresh and eye-catching. We chose red for its boldness and turquoise because it’s a strong gender-neutral colour. We had bought our logo + website design from a designer online. We then hired someone to build our website technically on a platform we didn’t understand (and which is so archaic that we now can’t find any IT person in Singapore willing + able to upgrade it for us). Hence the need to start on a brand new platform.

How did we decide on the name of our website, ellyloves.com? 

To be honest, we would’ve picked Elly.com as first choice. But when we tried to buy the domain name, of course we learnt four letter websites were impossibly expensive to buy, oh and, erm Elly was the name of a famous Thai category III actress. Who knew!!!

Since we were being sold on another retailer’s website, we thought it wasn’t a big deal not to have an elly.com type of address.  But remember this was in 2010 – our online website wasn’t our main priority seven years ago. So we chose http://www.ellyloves.com, registered our company with the same name and started calling our collections “Elly Loves Spring”, “Elly Loves Planes, Trains and Automobiles”.

Why did we decide to open a store?

When I came back to Singapore in October 2010, we decided to sell our clothing ourselves. We started first by exploring fairs with our clothing every other month in 2011. It was exhausting. We had to take leave from our everyday jobs in order to stand on our feet, in the heat or rain, to sell our clothing. During that year, we figured our strengths (and also our weaknesses). We knew that fairs were never going to help us grow our business in the long run. We found a rare conservation unit and took the plunge and signed our lease in Cluny Court, quit our jobs and had our Grand Opening on 4 March 2012. We experimented by opening a sister store for tweens called Twelve by Elly in August 2013. Then Elly moved to a larger store on 14 November 2015 bringing in a wider range of shoes (with 10 international brands), toys and accessories. In December 2016, we had a new stockist, Motherswork at Great World City.

How did we decide on our brand collaterals? 

Because we were going to open a store proper, we sat down and looked at the bags and gift boxes from various international brands we had recycled over the years. We then designed our own. Yes, we did – we decided on every little detail ourselves, from the shape, colours to the little gift tag on the other side of the bag where you can write your name.

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We also designed our little gift boxes ourselves which turned out to be our most iconic collateral!

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The flip side of taking things one step at a time and doing it all ourselves is that we didn’t always have a big picture in mind as we went along.  We designed products on an “as-needed” basis. We used the concept from our old website and put it on our paper bags. We loved and still love our very first gift box – it was meant to pack our Elly clothing. But it wasn’t big enough to wrap clothing and other things e.g. rattles and toys. Hence we designed the hut box. Since this box was going to be rather big, we didn’t want it loud and colourful. So we toned down the turquoise to more of a light teal colour and shaped it like a cake box because we were starting to sell products of all shapes and sizes.

The last box we designed was to be able to wrap multiple pieces of clothing. The hut box left a lot of hollow space whenever we packed two or three dresses so we designed a striped box with a white satin ribbon around. We put an elephant in gold foil to make it special! We loved the look but it didn’t seem to fit well with our original elephant logo. In fact, if you stood all our collateral in a row, the different colours and look felt abit out of place.

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So we decided late last year that it was time to relook at our brand, our website and try to weave all the different adhoc looks together. We’ve worked with Fifth Column for the past six months (who thankfully has immense patience) and we’re finally ready to launch the new Elly brand and website on 10 May 2017.

So who are we, really?

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Elly – is our homegrown clothing line.

Our new Elly logo is inspired by Picasso’s drawings. Using a simple singular line to draw the shape of the elephant, we want to emphasise the design philosophy of Elly – sophisticated play.  Our new logo represents our timeless design principle – designed for comfort, classic style and playful simplicity.

Turquoise remains a core colour in the form of water splashes (derived from elephants at play) but now instead of a strong red, elly is in a softer coral colour, more befitting of a baby and children’s clothing brand.  (P.S. if you turn the logo anti-clockwise, you can see the E!)

Our flagship store at Cluny Court is The Elly Store – a store which stocks the Elly label of clothing, and curates the best toys, clothing and shoes for children.

Our all-new online store will launch on 10 May 2017 at a new domain on a brand new platform: www.theellystore.com

Our online store is, and always has been, a multi-label website designed to showcase the variety of international products sold in The Elly Store. This website will be mobile-enabled so you’ll be able to finally shop from your phone with ease! We’ve enabled a Quick Shop feature so when we launch our CNY collections and you can just add the pieces you want from the main catalogue page without having to click on individual products.

If you would like to create an account for easy checkout, you will need to register a new account on this website even if you have shopped with us before. We’ll be blogging about our new website in a separate post because there is just so much to say about it!

Will there always be clothing (or other products) you can only find in the Cluny Court store and not online?

The answer is, absolutely.  We want you to come to our store to have the full Elly experience, which is not just our products, but our service as well.  We will however also have special online previews and/or sales, so you will always have reasons to shop with us in both spaces.

How about your tween store, Twelve by Elly (or TBE in short), for 6 to 12 year olds?

From 10 May 2017, we will consolidate both our online stores and our social media accounts and marketing. The physical “Twelve By Elly” store will remain at #02-06 Cluny Court. After spending three years curating TBE, we are really loving the mix of products now. TBE will no longer maintain a separate instagram, Facebook page or mailing list. It will be merged with Elly’s so you will find at Elly a whole range of products for children from newborn to tweens sold on http://www.theellystore.com – this is especially useful for shoes in sizes up to EU36.

What can we expect from your rebranding exercise?

We’ve taken a back seat with designing these past two months because it was too much managing a store, trying to port over 800 products to the new online store and get new collateral created with the rebranding exercise.  We have still been launching new products in store regularly – in the past two months, we’ve launched the Monster clothing collection, Sticker Makers from Stickiemail, a new collection of books for your toddlers and new collections of shoes from Bobux, Old Soles and Livie & Luca.

We’ll be having a Mothers’ Day crafting event with Stickiemail at our store this Saturday 6 May between 2 – 5 p.m. so do look out for a post about it soon!

It feels like a reset for us – like a fresh start. But at the same time, it is an opportunity to return to why we are doing this in the first place, to remember everything about the kind of store and brand that we want to be.

When we started, we were accidental entrepreneurs – we just loved making clothing and it so happened that selling it helped us make more. Carol and I don’t have exciting entrepreneurial stories which inspire the young to quit their boring desk jobs and start their own company. We aren’t instagram savvy – in fact, we’d rather not manage personal accounts because it’s strange to post pictures of ourselves to the world or do Instagram Live.  In fact, we feel totally out of place in the e-commerce / social media generation. What we loved doing in the first place was (i) designing clothes and (ii) selling them. We loved meeting children wearing our clothing. Carol loved decorating the store and making it her own.  I loved fabrics and dresses. That was it.  Along the way, we got completely caught up with managing the store, stocking and restocking other products which weren’t even our own label, having constant meetings, marketing meetings, cold calls, collaborations etc. We were/are buried under HR/accounts/admin, trying to shoot our own Instagram photos or product pictures, uploading pictures on our website and trying to run two stores. There was never any time to think and we stopped having time to do what we wanted to do/loved doing and we let the work dictate how each day would turn out.

In many ways, a big part of who we are today was a result of what we needed to be as we grew – we catered to customers’ needs and filled a gap in the market for solid quality, non-kitschy shoes and clothes.  But it’s dawned on us these past few months that we perhaps have lost our own path in who we are in trying to just keep up, take new stock, inventorise, stick price tags, restock, pay rent, hire staff, do sales reports and accounts and chug along daily.

Because in fact, the best part about running your own business is that we get to write our own story at Elly. So the question we have to answer for ourselves is what kind of store do we want to be?

It starts with knowing what we don’t want to be. We don’t want to be just another kids’ store in this day and age with social media constantly in our faces that it all gets overwhelming with that media noise. We don’t do over-inflated pictures of our products. We don’t sell our products by bad-mouthing other stores in the mall to our customers. We want to be a different kind of business.

We want to be honest retailers. We tell it as it is. We tell you as we see it. The quality of our products, especially our shoes, speak for themselves. If you cannot find a shoe that fits, we would rather suggest another brand which might fit. Over time, we want to share with you our experience these past five years in selling products (such as shoes for your toddlers) so we can help you make the right decisions for your own needs.

We want customers to love shopping in our store with their children because they can find beautiful and timeless children’s clothing, well-curated and unique shoes, toys and accessories. We want to continue to make comfortable, easy to wear and classic pieces for your child to wear and be able to hand it down to his/her siblings.

And we want Elly to be a place for everyone. Starting this May, we will have a Quiet Hour shopping for special needs children on the third Tuesday (from 7 – 8.30 pm after closing) and third Saturday (from 8.30 am to 10 am before opening) every month (there will be a separate post on how to make prior appointments so we ensure that we have one team member for each child).

We love watching your children grow up with us. My team loves that the children come by for hugs every week after class just to say hi. We hope you will continue to love shopping with us so that we can keep growing and bringing you more unique things for your children. At the end of the day, we want to do what we love, which is to always find new ways to make retail fun so that you can look forward to coming to Elly week after week.  That’s why we started this in the first place.

And so the rebranding countdown begins for us – join us on 10 May 2017 for the launch of our new website.

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x, Audrey

 

f: facebook.com/theellystore
i: @theellystore
w: theellystore.com
e: contact@theellystore.com

 

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Getting our ducks in a row

It’s been awhile since I wrote a post about running our small business so I thought I’d do a summary of what we’ve been holed up in our office/warehouse/studio doing this year!

We started January 2015 with the launch of pre-orders for our CNY 2015 Home collection and for days after, we were hit with an avalanche of pre-orders and online sales (which we didn’t see coming). Obviously we had planned for our normal peak period with staffing based on last year’s crowds BUT we didn’t plan for growth. I know everyone says it’s a great problem to have but it really wasn’t. It was miserable because we were constantly trying to catch our breath and chase our tails, despite having thought we had planned everything neatly in the weeks before that. We barely slept all week!

By 2015, we had two stores running at full steam and it felt as if we couldn’t stop for a day to go through our to-do list or plan ahead because we were constantly managing staffing, incoming stock, production, promotions, events, marketing and admin / accounts etc etc etc.  There was always a longer list of missed deadlines than the ones we actually made.  And that felt miserable too.  Running two physical stores meant that we would continue paying rent and salaries, and customers would walk by and continue to want to be excited by their shopping experience. So in turn, we had to constantly update the store and come up with promotions or events or new products.

At some point, it was all just too much and so, we decided it was time to stop and fix broken parts and press the reset button.  We spent March looking for a warehouse, April setting up our new office-warehouse-studio, and May and June were for checking the boxes for “the things we still hadn’t done list” and boy, was this list long!  July was finally for “the things we always wanted to do list” and for putting systems in place.  WE HAVE SYSTEMS IN PLACE!!!  Good grief, I’m so chuffed I could shout this from a mountain top I tell you.  Yes sure we are still hacking away at the last outstanding bits but it feels so good that we managed to chug through the whole list!  On one hand after four months, it felt like we barely accomplished anything because it was just clearing up backlog (as opposed to taking nice big leaps ahead) but at the same time, it was vital we cleared up everything that was holding us back before we took our next step forward!  Taking time to focus on clearing up backlog also meant ignoring the stores for abit whilst our staff “held the fort” and took on additional responsibilities.  It also meant we would consciously not chase new ideas, new partners or new products which at the time required more time and effort than we could offer. In short, it was really about putting aside things that wore me down and made me constantly fed up about being behind and having to problem solve and never being able to get a system in place or “get better” at doing what we already did.

More importantly, the past three months finally gave us a chance to think about what we wanted to accomplish for both our businesses and for ourselves. For a while, I think we were taking every new thing that sounded exciting or new (rather than what would actually be in keeping with who we were) and as we kept doing that, we started to lose sight of what we had actually set out to be.

My 3 takeaways from this is to: (1) get your systems in place before you start anything; (2) fix a broken leg before you start running again (and I’m not really talking about running here); and (3) keep at it.

Our Online Store

In the past two months, we have (1) expanded the products available online, and (2) created a Gift Section especially for newborns also on online!  Over the past two years, we have had numerous requests to upload more of the products we sold in the store online as well so you wouldn’t have to trudge to Cluny Court and also for baby hampers of varying sizes and price ranges, some for corporate gifts as well. We’ve finally been able to do both!

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– You can find more Elly clothing online and we’ll be growing our Elly range in the course of this year!

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– You can find over 120 Jellycat plush toys, books, soothers, rattles and stroller toys!

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– You can also find the beloved Paddington Bear plush toy!

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– We’ve uploaded organic pyjamas and underwear from Maxomorra for boys and girls!

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– You can find Kid-O toys (some of which make great bath toys)!

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– If you’re looking for a newborn gift, we’ve put together a unique selection of gift sets!

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– There is even a category for mommies! Mommies can shop for Catseye makeup pouches, travel wash bags and coin purses!

And if you need to send any of these as a gift because you might have missed a birthday or not be able to attend a birthday party, opt for the courier option and add on one of our gorgeous gift boxes for just $3. We’ll include your gift message as well!

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So it’s almost August when we’ve finally gotten our ducks in a row!  Ok it did take a month longer than I anticipated but it feels so good to de-clutter and start each day wanting to actually be at work. Now for the next leap forward!

 

x, Audrey

8 tips on managing a small retail business

Hi!

If you’re a customer who prefers to read about our products than our processes as a small retail business, you probably can skip this blog post!! I needed to find somewhere to record these tips more as a gentle reminder for myself of these things! Here are our 8 tips on how to manage a small retail business!

(1) Have a weekly schedule and stick to it as far as possible.

As a small business owner, you don’t have teams to do separate types of work e.g. admin staff, accounts staff, inventory management, design etc. We’ve managed to keep it within the family and do all the ordering, production, stock takes, mundane admin work etc ourselves. But on top of that, in any given day, we get calls from sales and marketing people looking to work with us from various print or online media, new and old suppliers looking to showcase their new collections for us to select from, and as a retail front both in-store and online, we receive regular customer email and Facebook queries on designs and sizes available. A lot of these typically look like they should take precedence over our admin work, which means, in the past, I would always allow whatever time I had allocated to doing these things to be snatched away by “more important” work. In the end, our filing had a 2-month backlog easily (if not more). Now I find it best to spend an hour or two on allocated days just writing cheques, paying bills, sorting out paperwork, and for those 2 hours, I only deal with the most urgent queries. I’ve also allocated nights to prepare emailers and blog content because it’s the longest time in the day where I can focus on writing undisturbed (with the TV running of course)! I now set aside at least 2 days to finish each campaign which consists of a Facebook post, blog post, emailer and Instagram pics. Not because there is so much to write necessarily but just cos some days, I find it harder to write anything meaningful when I’m flatout tired. And don’t forget we have 2 stores so that’s 2 days per store every time each store has something new to write. Ugh. But it shouldn’t only be about scheduling work – the scheduling should also include time outs where you’re not thinking about the business and for me, that’s usually dinner time. I’m not one to take a whole day or weekend where I don’t work at all. That’s just not me. I like working on the computer after dinner and I find that makes tomorrow more livable because I know what to expect. But when you do schedule timeouts, take the timeout and don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t muddle about work through dinner with friends, don’t bring your work to the table and learn to switch off just for the short period. This is the same advice I’d say to young lawyers as I’d say to small business owners: the work will always be there. You will need down time to recharge so you don’t burn out too soon.

(2) It’s ok to say no.

Businesses grow at their own time. The time it takes to grow has to do many factors such as how hard you’re willing to work at the expense of other things, what other priorities you have in life, what finances you have available to you, what manpower you have etc. This answer is not one that other people can impose on you. At the start, we thought a lot longer and a lot harder before we said no. We were worried about the doors we were closing, the opportunities we were leaving behind and the successes that could have been.  But to be stuck wondering so hard on how we can take an opportunity could itself be a sign that we were simply not ready to take it on and to do it poorly would be far worst an outcome. Now I think we have a clearer picture of where we are going and how we are going to get there. So everything that doesn’t fit in that scheme of things right now can wait – even if it means not working with big players in the industry, be it media or stores. On hindsight, we are happy we turned down several opportunities in the past 3 years because we can totally see how we would have killed ourselves trying to get it done at the expense of building our own store and brand and we might have flopped the opportunities when our production wasn’t up to scale yet. So sometimes it’s ok to say no (or maybe just not yet).

(3) Keep plodding along.

There are days when everything and anything seems to be going all wrong at the same time. 3 years ago, I probably would have sat on the floor and bawled my eyes out and freaked out. Today, I keep doing what I was doing in the first place, totally nailing them one email at a time. Ok that’s a total lie. Today, well there are times when I know if i don’t have an immediate answer for problems, but mulling about it for 2 more hours isn’t going to help me. So i just keep plodding along doing what I do know how to do first. After I’ve finished the first couple of things on my To Do list and don’t feel like a complete failure, I go back to the original set of problems and try to kill them off one at a time. Of course it’s easier said than done, but panicking never helped anyone. So my motto is to keep plodding along, one foot in front of the other.

(4) Be flexible.

This seems to contradict item (1) I know but it’s really about drawing the right balance being disciplined with doing the things that need doing regularly and always being ready to adapt the minute someone throws you a curveball. This isn’t just relating to a daily or weekly schedule. It’s knowing when to call it quits on a marketing strategy or a particularly unsaleable product and also knowing when calling it quits is far too early in the game. So, just keep it in the back of your mind to be ready to adapt when the time is right. When is the time right, you ask? I think if you’re immersed in your business every single day for 365 days a year, you’ll know soon enough when the time is right (and wrong).

(5) Be ready to work like you’ve never done before.

If you thought starting your own retail business meant you could work from home, have a flexible work schedule and take off whenever you want to, then you’re probably better off doing a Monday to Friday 9 – 6 pm desk job. Running a small retail business is the antithesis of flexible hours and having holidays whenever you want to. The thing is, if your staff is sick or has an emergency, you’re back at the store working. On weekends when no one can work a shift, you’re working. When you’ve got new stock to put into the store, you’re redecorating the store. When you’ve got a big sale coming up, you rope in anyone and everyone for 3 weeks to tag and stock take. When you’re running a sale, you’re at the store 4 days in a row from 9 am to 7 pm on your feet, having to be at your chirpiest and most efficient and then after 7 pm you’re busy tidying up the store for the next day’s sale. (The husband says I was being Grumpy (as in the dwarf) by the third day of our August sale so I’m definitely not a good example of being at my best behaviour and I’m sorry if i snapped at you!) The point is, the hours are relentless; the work is relentless, the competition is relentless because the barriers to entry are low and you’ve got to be constantly thinking on your feet. So no planning to go on holiday during peak holiday periods, and I’ve discovered my new weekends start on Tuesdays! Weekends are the busiest periods and Mondays are for regrouping after busy weekends to restock and take stock of the week ahead. So Tuesdays have worked out to be the best days to make dinner plans!

(6) Chat with people who have owned businesses in similar fields before.

A few years ago, I was attending a wedding dinner and sat next to a friend’s husband who had joined the family business which was in shipping. We were from law backgrounds so I asked how he managed to even start in such a different industry. He said he went to all the uncles in the business and sat them down at a coffee shop and bought them beers and tapped on their years of experience. Chances are these industry players would’ve faced the problems you’re facing now – good time to ask them how they went about fixing it. Sometimes there isn’t an immediate fix, but at least, it’s good to know that just so you don’t bang your head against the wall in frustration. And, well, the beer never hurts. At the same time, I would also caution against talking to everyone. Not everyone will appreciate what you’re trying to do with your business and some people will dismiss whatever hard work you’re doing and whatever small achievements you’re accomplishing. Don’t let things people say eat at you. There’ll be friends in your corner and people who aren’t.

(7) Research and read.

Sign up for entreneurship articles on Forbes, New York Times, Huffington Post, and read up on everything to do with running your business and the market you are in. When you first start out, you’re your own creative director, inventory controller, traditional marketing manager, social media marketing manager, visual merchandiser, designer, production manager, QC manager, HR manager, and administrative assistant – all snazzy “managerial” terms but they mean squat. Call yourself whatever you want but it just means you are going to do it all. OK luckily for me, Carol’s the inventory controller, visual merchandising and administrative assistant, and now accounts assistant to the chief accountant too. Hahahaha. At least she does the tasks i loathe. Ok I digressed. From time to time, I get people asking me for advice on all of the above (and its funny cos i don’t really know the answers to most of their questions either!) but these days, the answers to these things are a lot more common sense, matter of fact, based on past experience. It also helped to read books and articles on various topics that were so unfamiliar to me because I realized that some of the answers of must-dos and must-reads in these books were either things I knew by trial and error, things I knew by practising constantly or things I had already read about. I know it’s daunting to read a whole book on social media marketing or inventory management and don’t expect every single chapter to be entertaining and useful. But grab a notebook and jot down key points you want to remember which may come in useful for future marketing campaigns.

(8) Always know what your numbers are.

The stress from not having a healthy cashflow is not something anyone wants to have to deal with, not whilst you’re dealing with being an administrative assistant, designer, inventory controller….(well, you get the picture). The worst thing that can happen is not being able to pay rent because there’s no point stockpiling inventory if you don’t have a store to sell it at, is there? (Note: This doesn’t apply if you own a gold mine to begin with and have unlimited resources.) If you have limited resources, then closely keep an eye on your numbers. It’ll help you decide how much stock to hold in advance, what kind of marketing activities you can do, and you’ll be able to plan your budget for the next couple of months. Also, you should know what each product is bringing you in terms of revenue and profit. In a small retail store particularly in a country like Singapore where rental is astronomical, it doesn’t make sense to have some products take up a whole display space and only earn you a tiny tiny percentage of your profits, especially if it has no aesthetic value.

If you’re looking to start your own business or already own your own business, I hope this helps you in some way! We’re still finding our way in our retail journey so I find it nice to stop once in awhile and take stock of what I’ve learnt thus far. If you have a more specific question, do leave a comment or send us an email and we’ll try to help!

x, Audrey