Defining your product offering is one of the hardest things about starting a business – you want to chase down every lead and be hungry for every job, but often that comes at a cost. Learning what work to say yes to and what to pass on was a game-changer for Premium members Hannah Chipkin and Pippa Joseph of MerchGirls. We sat down with the work wives to talk challenges, business lessons and find out how they came to disrupt the merchandise market.
BC: What’s the first thing you do at your desk in the morning?
Hannah: Coffee and put on the music.
Pippa: Coffee and write the team to-do lists.
How many tabs do you have open on your computer right now?
Pippa: 53 tabs
Hannah: 5 tabs
How did you come to be working together?
Hannah: I was approached by the Australian Ballet in 2015 to create a bespoke merchandise range to increase their revenue. They wanted it co-branded with my former label, Chip Chop. The collaboration grew into about 50 items throughout the year, ranging from fairy wings, tutus, pyjamas through to adult active-wear, totes and accessories. I had just finished up with my former fashion label and had time on my hands, but I wanted a partner to work with. Luckily the stars were aligned at the time. I approached Pippa who I had worked with closely in my last business and floated the idea to her. She jumped on the opportunity. I took hold of all things creative and Pippa took control of all Production. It has been the kind of partnership you can only dream about.
It was a great first project and a really big learning curve as we had to quickly learn how to produce this wide range of products, both locally and overseas. It was a great first experience into the world of sourcing and manufacturing. They wanted it co-branded with my former label, Chip Chop. The collaboration grew into about 50 items throughout the year, ranging from fairy wings, tutus, pyjamas through to adult active-wear, totes and accessories. It was a great first project and a really big learning curve as we had to quickly learn how to produce this wide range of products, both locally and overseas. It was a great first experience into the world of sourcing and manufacturing.
Tell us about some of the other brands you’ve worked with?
We have been really lucky to work with some really impressive clients in all different sectors from non-for-profits, Arts companies, start-ups through to Government organisations and high-profile corporate brands.
To name a few: Australian Open, Seek, Mecca Brands, The Australian Ballet, Bush Heritage, Jean Hailes, Bauer Media, Cricket Australia and of course Business Chicks!
We absolutely love how varied the brands we work with are. Each project presents a new challenge and an opportunity to make creative merch to reflect the client’s brand identity while fulfilling the purpose the merch was made in the first place.
Do you approach brands or do they come to you?
We are still pinching ourselves that the bulk of our business comes from word of mouth referrals. This has ensured a steady flow of work for us at a comfortable pace without the need to do the hard sell.
That said, with the recent launch of our Merch Menu, our plan is to introduce our product range to a wider audience: identify the new clients we would love to work with, pick up the phone, make appointments and get on the road to show what we can do. With our Merch Menu, it will be much easier for future clients to envision how their brand can look and what products they are interested in from the get-go.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Hannah: Time management: there are so many areas of the business that need our attention. And it’s an art – that we are yet to master – to be on top of it all at the same time. And systems, the process can always be better. It’s something I re-visit all the time. It drives Pippa craaazy.
Pippa: Transitioning from working in the business, to working on the business. Growing from a duo to a team, means transitioning from an employee into a Manager. Having amazing team is a blessing but training them up handing over your work so you can focus on winning new work is not straight forward. We are still finding our way with this.
What business lessons have you learned the hard way?
Undertake work only within the timeframe you can realistically commit to. There have been a lot of jobs we have undertaken with very tight turn around (cause who likes to turn down work?) Only to be chasing the clock frantically to ensure it all gets there on time. This kind of stress is almost not worth it! And it puts added pressure on everyone involved.
Learn to say no to the jobs that you can’t service competitively or that aren’t your core products. At the beginning, we would nod and undertake every enquiry that came our way from earrings through to edible horse shoes and everything in between. We were busy researching all new things all the time. Now we are much clearer with our product parameters and are comfortable saying no when someone asks for something way outside of our core offering.
Trust and strong working relationships are the corner stones of our success with our clients and suppliers and they take so long to build, we try our best to keep it that way.
For the product designers reading this, can you step through your design process from brief to conception to final product?
Briefing stage: We try to meet with all our clients face to face for a first meeting. It is at this point that they will discuss their merch needs and talk about their motivation or specific event for the product. There is also a show and tell session where we take them through our sample ranges and past work. In this meeting we try to extract the brief as accurately from the client. After this meeting, this brief along with a product proposal of what we recommend would be the best suited to the client is emailed.
Once this is approved and or modified, we begin the Design process where we either roll out the Creative supplied by the Client onto the various chosen products OR if given total creative license, this is where we really rev the engine.
Design Process: Our design process often starts with a dip into the black hole of Pinterest, gaining inspiration, trends and just getting a feel for the overall vibe for the project and possible aesthetic avenues. Once we have nailed our key inspirations, we are able to narrow down our design directions. We then put together mood boards based on these directions and send them to the client for their feedback. Once we have this feedback we begin the Artwork process – this is usually 3-4 options. We then refine these designs through a series of approval stages. Once signed off, we finalise the design specifications for the supplier and prepare all final artwork for production. Then we wait for it to come to life in the sampling stage, and once we are happy with the pre-production sample, we hit go on bulk production. This whole process from brief to landed product takes about 12 weeks, providing decisions happen quickly.
And finally, how important is sustainability to your business model?
Really important. Our 3 pillars for our work are: Design, Quality and Purpose.
We care strongly about the environment and feel that we have a responsibility, as makers of mass product to manufacture with mindfulness wherever we can.
- Right now, our most popular products are our Eco-Tote and Wonderbag. These bags are made from used plastic water bottles that would otherwise end up in landfill. Instead they are repurposed into gorgeous new tote bags, designed to be highly re-used.
- Our tagline is ‘Merchandise that’s twice as nice’…so we don’t want to contribute to the amount of landfill out there. We want the end product to be highly re-useable and desirable to the customer.
- To reduce our footprint as much as possible, Merchgirls say NO to individual plastic packaging. This means as a rule, all our products come packed nude (ahem).
Connect with Pippa here, and check out the awesome work the MerchGirls are doing here.