Small business has suffered greatly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it be staff shortages, revenue downfalls or the inability to trade during lockdowns, the impact has been far-reaching.
If someone had told me two years ago that I would be navigating:
- The arrival and impact of COVID-19 on my beloved small business;
- Multiple and extended Victorian lockdowns (mostly home alone, with a newborn and a three year-old);
- The design and manufacture of a product pivot (to cater for significantly reduced consumer confidence and reduced spending); and
- The hospitalisation and freak illness of my youngest, requiring various long stays in emergency at the Royal Children’s Hospital;
I would have said NOPE; thank you, NEXT!
My name is Kate Dillon, and I am the founder of She Lion bags. We concentrate on solving the baggage burden that women experience primarily when they commute to and from the office and between meetings. You know that logistical nightmare when you need to retrieve something quickly from your bag to help you prepare for that pitch or presentation. Like a special document? USB? Cord connecter? Lipstick? Something that you need quickly, only to find yourself in a cruel Mary Poppins-type nightmare where you’re stuck pulling *what feels like* your entire life out of your bag. She Lion was created from this exact moment – to ensure that you never suffer this feeling again!
What does this have to do with the pandemic? Well, it turns out people don’t need beautiful and functional bags to carry their work gear around the house. Working from home rendered many of our products fairly redundant.
I must admit, for many reasons, this time has possibly been the hardest I’ve experienced to date. The lessons from this VERY bumpy ride, however, have been nothing short of magical:
Lesson one: The only certainty is change
Towards the start of 2020, we had invested greater amounts in luxury inventory in readiness for what we were forecasting to be a growth year. This inventory arrived in January and February 2020 and COVID19 in March. With half the country in lockdown and the commencement of JobKeeper/JobSeeker, it started to feel entirely inappropriate to market an exclusive run of limited edition, $800 luxe leather handbags.
Utterly gutted at the growing number of local businesses facing shutdown, including our dwindling relevancy, we wanted to do something that would make an impact for ourselves and local businesses. Something that could spark a greater chain reaction of events.
Lesson two: Big waves start as little ripples
We were faced with great uncertainty. Everyone was working from home (myself with two kids under three). We had minimal ongoing capital from significantly dwindled sales (more than 40% losses) and increased freight and logistics costs (+30%).
Local production of leather handbags, sadly, was not an option. The once plentiful Australian textile and manufacturing industry no longer exists. The majority of leather makers and handbag construction specialists no longer operate (or not at scale) in local markets.
We wanted to create something wholly Australian, which intentionally gathered as many other SMEs together in an end-to-end locally sourced and locally made supply chain. Having become fixated on wearing uplifting slogan sweatshirts during a lockdown, I realised that this may be the avenue that we could explore.
Lesson three: Vulnerability is a strength; ask for help and people step up
Knowing that the business needed to transform to survive and armed with the mantra, “Actually, I can” (and little knowledge about whether we actually could), the business changed direction to create an entirely new product category, intending to inspire and stimulate customers to buy local and give the wearer a much needed ‘spring in their step’.
I spent many months going back and forth between various manufacturers and makers with question after question, to find out what was involved with creating such an item completely onshore.
Through the many Victorian lockdowns (including one complete standstill), it took about 12 months to create a new supply chain that recruits 20+ local makers and suppliers. Together, we created sweatshirts that are:
- 100% cotton;
- Australian milled and manufactured;
- Soft-washed, dyed, sampled, graded, screen printed, embroidered, constructed and sewn in Melbourne; and
- Emblazoned with the words “Actually, I Can” and “Support Local”.
Lesson four: Anything is possible with guts and determination
Our mission is to help the wider community understand what “Support Local” really means, to highlight the incredible skills and talent we have here in Australia, and to spread some much-needed joy and community spirit in a time where there has been much distressing news.
The average customer knows very little about manufacturing garments. So many processes involved are unseen, often occurring offshore. Determined to reveal what goes on behind the ‘Add to Cart’ button and lift as many other local businesses as possible, this story is about so much more than a product. It’s a story about grit, resilience, and an amazing community of business owners coming together to support one another to send a powerful message.
Despite many logistical delays, stage 4 restrictions, naysayers, remote working challenges, small children at home, and everything else that lockdowns threw at us, we remained true to our mission, because supporting local is personal and, actually… together, we can.
Lesson five: Community is everything
A beautiful silver lining of the project has been the strength in the “Actually, I Can” message; and the powerful way it seems to connect people.
We have been so blown away by the many messages from people who are purchasing the sweatshirts who feel compelled to reach out and share how much the phrase means to them. It resonates with the circumstances of these times – many have said it has given them strength, renewed inspiration to carry on and a bit of magic in an otherwise dark moment to keep going.
It is doubly fantastic that sales of the sweaters support 22+ local makers, creatives and artisans, and are now continuing to spark happiness in wearers.
Lesson six: Good energy is contagious
Please share this video with your network and on your socials.We truly hope it spreads some much-needed love, community compassion and strength far and wide.
Kate Dillon is a Business Chicks member and the founding director of She Lion bags. She is a dual-qualified lawyer (Australia and New York, USA), holding an LLB (Hons) / BA (distinction), and an MLM Commercial Law (IP). Kate has completed various innovation strategy and design thinking executive courses, including training with Inventium Pty Ltd, Echos School of Design Thinking, Stanford d.school and IDEO. Kate is a graduate and member of the AICD, and a certified Agile Practitioner (DSDM). Kate has completed the Executive Program in Women’s Leadership at Stanford and holds an Executive Certificate in Strategy and Innovation from MIT in Boston.