Entrepreneur Secrets

"We really are making a difference here, it really is retail therapy" ... Birdsnest owner Jane Cay.

"We really are making a difference here, it really is retail therapy" ... Birdsnest owner Jane Cay. Photo: Andrew Sheargold

Three years ago Jane Cay received her first order through her online women’s fashion business Birdsnest. Today the business employs 70 staff in a rural NSW town, has won accolades for her entrepreneurial prowess and aims to create a workplace so vibrant that people will move from the city to work for her.

Cay, 34, had a high-flying corporate career in IT when life took an unexpected turn. “I ended up in love with a farmer, ended up in a country town, and I said, ‘What am I going to do with myself?’”

Cay and her husband bought, renamed and rejuvenated an existing retail store in the main street of Cooma, a town five hours south of Sydney with a population of 8000. It was a career shift that took Cay a while to get her head around. “I was never into fashion. I thought, ‘How am I going to cope coming from the corporate world to the shop floor?’”

But working in a clothes shop transformed her idea of what fashion is capable of.

“We really are making a difference here, it really is retail therapy. I do just sell frocks but part of it is giving her confidence and a dress so she can feel better. You don’t change her, you help her make the best of what she’s got. All of a sudden I found meaning,” Cay says.

It was this uplifting experience that Cay wanted to recreate online, in a side project that she started working on after-hours with a software engineering student.

“At the time the whole world was so far ahead of Australia in online shopping. People said, ‘You’re mad, as if anyone will buy jeans online, you’ve got to touch them, you’ve got to feel them. Why are you wasting all this time?’”

But the long hours paid off and even Cay’s persistence and optimism didn’t prepare her for what happened next.

“We always dreamed big but we had no idea what we were in for.”

The business has doubled in revenue every year since its launch three years ago, last year Birdsnest was a finalist in BRW’s retailer of the year, and Cay won Westpac’s Mary Reibey scholarship to study the Australian Graduate School of Management executive program.

Cay attributes the business’s rapid growth to luck and the website’s styling advice.

“It was a combination of timing and having the right offer. We met an unmet need of women who were searching online. They not only wanted a frock, they wanted to know how to wear it: what shoes to wear with it or will it look ok with my big boobs. It’s realising you’re not in the product game, its’ a service business.”

Customer experience is at the core of the business, which has reaped returns, with 70 per cent of revenue coming from repeat customers, Cay says. Keeping customers happy is central to the business structure: the largest team in her troupe is the one dedicated to tissue-wrapping items and writing personal notes to every customer.

With such rapid expansion, from one part-time student in the online part of business to 70 in three years, Cay says has become accustomed to letting go of control of various aspects of the business.

“I guess the first one [I let go of] was the books, actually paying every bill and seeing every single piece of paper that came in and out of the business. And letting go of the store – not being on the shop floor every day.

And then it happened progressively. The latest thing is I’ve just completely handed over operations to an operations manager, so now literally I am fully focused on the business development. If I was still trying to do the payroll and decide what the next thing in the online space was we wouldn’t be moving forward and it’s moving so quickly,” she says.

But rapid growth brings other concerns. “The scary thing is: how quickly can you grow and hang on to that experience that attracts customers and keeps them coming back?”

Her solution is to ensure she maintains the positive workplace culture she’s created.

“I’d love to create a place where people literally move their lives to Cooma because they’ve heard it is the coolest place to work. For me that’s the biggest achievement. We often get the comment from customers: ‘It just sounds like you’re having such good fun there, everyone always sounds so happy when they answer the phone’.

“If all the touch points are positive then the customer is going to have the best experience.”

Jane Cay’s entrepreneurial tips:

For running a business in regional Australia I think so many people are missing out and should take the tree change plunge. However if you come and live in the slow lane, to run a successful business in regional Australia you still have to think like you are in the fast lane, in fact, you probably have to be more innovative than the big boys in the city.
For handling rapid expansion (from 1 to 70 employees in 3 years in the online business)

Do everything you can to stay above water – employ mentors, find moments to plan logically, be flexible, surround yourself with right people but realise that sometimes sleep is seriously over-rated and the only way to make that decision is to use your gut feel and wing it!

For creating a positive workplace I believe you should jump out of bed and want to go to work. If the birds in the nest are happy then every touch point with our customers becomes a happy one. Most of the time, it is not what is said that counts, but how you make that person feel. You can only make a customer feel great, if you feel great. We have the same philosophy in our team – it is the small things we do each day to help each other feel good that makes a difference – saying thank you, telling someone they look gorgeous when they do, throwing spontaneous celebrations for small milestones and turning the music up to have a team boogie. I also believe that a great culture in a business starts by hiring people that share the same values – then the small things that add up to creating a positive environment come naturally to everyone.