Brought to you by our friends at TAFE NSW.
Jane Cay is one of the featured entrepreneurs in the TAFE NSW Women in Business Program for good reason. Since launching her retail business Birdsnest in 2008, she has grown it to be one of the country’s most successful online retail businesses. We talked to Jane about leadership, scaling a business, lessons learned and dealing with COVID-19.
Can you tell us a little bit about your business and what inspired you to create it?
Whilst I grew up always wanting to be in my own business one day, the fate of falling in love with a farmer played a role in me landing in the world of retail, and then fashion (which I knew nothing about!) I left my corporate life and e-commerce consultancy role with IBM in Sydney and moved to the NSW Monaro Plains, and not being sure how to adapt my city-based skills to a regional area, I took the plunge and purchased a little bricks and mortar clothing store in Cooma, NSW.
The lightbulb moment for me was the moment I discovered that retail therapy was real, and the magic of this business began when I realised we were in the service industry. We are the matchmaker between a woman and her perfect outfit. We have designed unique ways for women to discover their style – including recommendations curated just for her – taking into account her body shape, lifestyle, favourite shapes, colours and brands.
After four years of serving women on the shop floor, we launched online in 2008, and have since grown 30 times bigger, employing 140 locals in a town of just 6,500. In that time, we have sent out over 1 million parcels to customers all around Australia and overseas, all with a handwritten note.
What have been some of your biggest challenges, and what have you learnt along the way?
I guess just the initial challenge of taking the plunge to start a business jumps to mind. I didn’t know anything about retail so I was starting from scratch, luckily I had an experienced team to hold my hand. When we launched online, lots of people said it would never work because, ‘no-one would buy clothing online Jane, are you crazy’? Well sometimes I thought I was, especially the day I hired our first employee for the website and not one order came through that day. Somewhere underneath I always thought it could work and it helped to have a very encouraging husband, Oli, who would always answer my concerns with, ‘don’t worry, you’ll be right, just wing it’. There is something about trusting your instincts, and then putting your head down and going for it.
While there are daily challenges to overcome in business and life in general, what I have learnt is that most of the real challenges happen inside my head! For example, about 5 years ago I was very overwhelmed and began to question whether I was the right person to run the business. It took a coach, a heart to heart with my leadership team and learning a whole lot of new tools in self-nurturing and self-compassion to turn that back around. Out of that came a mindfulness educational program adopted across the organisation and a daily meditation practice that the team can tap into.
What have been some of the best investments you have made in your business?
My greatest passion is for people to have jobs they want to jump out of bed for. This has led me to see my role as creating a workplace that provides the right environment for people to reach their potential and feel like they are making a difference. We have certainly not achieved this perfectly and every time, however we must be doing something right as in 2017 we were recognised as the 4th best place to work in Australia for workplaces with over 100 employees in the Great Places To Work study. No-one was more surprised than us, and did we party!! I truly believe that if your team is happy and truly cares about their role, everything else falls into place, they make customers smile and the impossible seems possible.
How important have collaborations and partnerships been in scaling your business?
Partnerships in an online retail business are essential in offering your customers a range that meets their needs and delivering it to them in a timely way.
Our manufacturers and suppliers are the lifeblood of our business and we have grown up together, learning along the way and looking after each other. There are many companies and families that we have been working and evolving with for over 10 years.
We know that when a girl orders a dress, she really wanted it yesterday so getting it there tomorrow matters. Being a business based in regional Australia, the ability to reach our customers with fast and reliable postage has been made possible through the Australia Post express post network and a solid partnership that started back in 2008. What started as bags carried down the street to the local post office, moved to shopping trolleys and later Australia Post sent a little van to the nest that has turned into a big truck twice a day.
What are the qualities you bring as a leader?
You should probably ask my team that! I do know that I’m a much better leader when I’ve slept and been for a walk that morning!
What I can observe about myself is that I do have a deep and genuine love of my team and all the diverse, talented and incredible humans that come together each day in our nest. I tend to enthusiastically see the best in people and their potential and I hope that helps them see that potential in themselves.
I have learnt that leadership is as much about the hard conversations as it is about inspiring curiosity and commitment to a new idea. Both require you to put yourself out there and – as Brene Brown would say – embrace our vulnerabilities.
What actions do you think have been most important in manifesting your culture?
They say that when it comes to business success – culture eats strategy for breakfast. I learnt this the hard way when we were growing so quickly, hiring like crazy and making many, many mistakes, like hiring somebody’s cousin’s girlfriend just because she could start tomorrow.
It was somewhere during this time that I worked out my job was to cultivate the right soil for the team to grow and thrive in. So together we created our BIRDSONG which underpins everything we do – from hiring, inducting, appraising and making decisions. Each letter stands for a different value that sets the tone for how we behave together as a team and make a contribution. For example, D is for Dance Together which is all about cultivating joy, being daggy and not taking ourselves too seriously and G is for Gratitude, noticing the simple, good things and being thankful.
Each month we focus on one element of BIRDSONG to remind ourselves of the values and practice living and breathing them.
The introduction of our mindfulness education and practice across the nest has helped us make sure we are not just intellectualising these cultural values – we are much more aware of whether we are behaving in line with them and can catch ourselves earlier. We are human after all and we need to consistently remind ourselves of these intentions for them to become habits and ways of being together.
In light of COVID-19, is there anything you’d do differently, knowing what you know now?
No, I don’t think so – you cannot live your life or run your business thinking an event with the catastrophic impacts of a 100-year pandemic could be around the corner. It would stop you taking any chances. Luckily I’ve been surrounded by accountants all my life, including my father and sister, and we have always run our business and cash flow with excess in the tank, just in case. This will serve us well to buckle down and weather the storm.
Hear more from Jane, and other Australian female entrepreneurs in Women in Business. A NSW Government and TAFE NSW fully subsidised* program for women who are looking to establish a micro business, a small business, or who are already operating a business. It’s online and totally flexible, so whether you’re self-isolating or balancing other commitments, you can make it work for you. Learn more and register today. (*eligibility criteria apply)