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Social conscience and niche products a winning combo



Entrepreneur | Profiles | SME Inspiration | Sustainability

By Stephanie Zillman

For Melbourne-based entrepreneur Jonathan Hill, attending a backyard barbeque proved to be the start of a lucrative business venture.

Along with his business partner Phil Richardson, Hill is now the managing director of Branched – an Australia distribution company created specifically to sell eco-friendly We Wood watches and Proof Eyewear.

Priding itself on finding unique products with social integrity, the company’s core focus is to bring the Australian consumer new and innovative products from around the globe with an eco advantage.

How did you come to start your Branched?

It’s a rather funny story actually. I was in recruitment at the time, and I was at an Australia Day party, and a friend of mine was wearing some wooden sunnies that he had bought over in America. As soon as I saw them I thought “Wow they’re so different!” I’d never seen anything like them, and I just thought they would do really well in Australia.

What were the next steps, from concept to business?

I immediately went and registered a few domain names. In the days following I started researching and I couldn’t find any wooden sunnies in Australia. Then when I was digging around I found the watches, and I thought they were a really great idea too, and so I ordered a couple of them from the distributor in America. I approached both the designers – one was in Italy and one was in America – and they had been making a decision on the distributor for a while. I thought I would get the ball rolling, and set up as a wholesaler and so we created our website – branched.com.au – just as a medium to sell the watches at wholesale rates, and we couldn’t sell them to stores yet. But we set up the website just through shopify, and got the photos from their other sites, starting speaking to the media and building our Facebook community.

How did you start to grow the brand?

It was a good part-time gig whilst I was still working full-time in recruitment, and so I used to send out press releases to as many magazines as I could. Our first little feature was in Men’s Style, and that gave us a little publicity and we started selling a few products, which was quite exciting. I used to post them at lunch times, go down there with my bag of watches and it started to get bigger and bigger.

Then the designer in Italy came back to us out of the blue one morning. I had actually spoken to them every Tuesday morning just to make sure they knew I was passionate and excited about the brand and the product, and I was actually up against seven other distributors. But I had an email from them one morning saying ‘Yep we want you to be our distributor, but you’ve got to guarantee to buy at least 300 a month’. At that time we were probably only selling about 50 a month – so that’s when we decided to just really go for it.

Every lunch time we would make lists of shops and just speak to as many as I could, and get samples out to them. Then people started to really like the product, and we signed our first few shops and started hitting that 300 a month target.

Before starting Branched, did you see yourself becoming an entrepreneur?

Yes I did, because my Dad had his own company, and so I was brought up with my family not really working for other people, so I’ve always been interested in seeing other people do well.

I had my first business at 12 years old, selling things around the tuck-shop, and so I always thought I’d be in control of my own worklife. Then I started building and selling my own computers in my teens, and just doing anything to make a bit of pocket money. And I just really enjoy it, and love managing and creating something on your own, it’s something I really thrive on.

Also wanting to get out of recruitment was certainly a driver, and now I can’t really imagine ever going back to work for someone else. Because I’d always had businesses on the side, I was looking for something that would get me out of the 9-5, and when I showed all my friends the products, they loved them.

I think being proud of the products, and having something that our age group could relate to has given me the entrepreneurial bug. Six months ago I also set up another company, which is just about to launch.

Are you planning on sticking to wooden products?

No no, it’s more the social aspect that we’re looking for. We want to keep it fun, different, and appeal to the 25-40 age group, and have a social/give-back/eco conscious aspect to the product. We’re seeking new products, but ones with a sustainable/give-back philosophy. So with the watches, for every watch sold we plant a tree – then for the glasses, we give a percentage to eye surgeries in India for restoring people’s sight.

We’ve tried a few products in small numbers, and so far some of the others haven’t lasted, but we’re certainly on the look out for something new that we can bring to the Australian consumer.

What are some of the key challenges you’ve faced, and how did you learn from them?

A challenge has certainly been having to wear all the different hats so to speak. Our first Christmas period it was just me, and so I had to rope in my sister who was here on holidays to help. We had to get out 400 watches in one day, so all the labels, and going to the post office and registering them.

Dealing with the real increase in sales at Christmas is challenging, and that’s why we decided to outsource our shipping. So any challenges that we do face, it’s a matter of asking ‘what’s the problem, can we do it better?’ We focus on putting a system and process in place and it just gets better and better. I call it ‘Mcdonaldising’ so that anyone could come in and read the manual and know how things work.

What advice can you give other aspiring entrepreneurs?

Don’t give up your day job until you’ve proven your concept. If you can find something that you can initially do part-time, then grow into that business – I think that’s a great idea. I’d also say just go for it, and while you always doubt yourself in some respects, and there’s ups and downs, if you really want it, you should go for it.

You can’t just do it to make money – money can’t be your primary goal. You need to want to change something, or be bringing new things to people, and it can’t be something really mainstream. You need to pick your niche, because people don’t want mainstream products nowadays. And if you can get great people on board, and generate some buzz, that’s when things start to go well.

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