Q&A with Fabienne Costa, founder, YCL Jewels
Fabienne Costa has turned a hobby making jewellery into a full time retail business set to turn over a quarter of a million this year – three years after launching. Costa has just launched her first manufactured collection, after previously hand-making each piece sold (something she continues to do for the core collection). Inside Retail recently caught up with Costa and discussed the challenges of start-up life and scaling a business ethically, reliably and sustainably.
Inside Retail: What have been the challenges starting as a sole-operator?
FC: Starting as a sole-operator for me gave me assurance. When already taking so many risks i.e. quitting my job etc, I knew that as a sole-trader, I only had myself to be responsible for. It meant that I didn’t have any one else to worry about, other than the concerns I placed on myself. In the early days it was beneficial because it meant I could take more risks. For example, I rebranded after a year and made a few drastic changes to how the business operated. I could make those without affecting anyone else in my team.
Whereas, now having staff, I wouldn’t be with out them – you do have responsibility that is different. I have to manage and grow the business and brand but with staff in mind.
IR: Is finding ethical outsourcers for elements of production and concurrently scaling the business difficult?
FC: I first started looking for manufacturers around 2.5 years ago. I looked at options in China where I could have my product made in great volumes at a great cost. But as I looked further into it and how the factories worked, I realised it wasn’t right for me and the YCL ethos. I carried out more research and discovered that China wasn’t my only choice. It showed me I could take production offshore and find a manufacturer that didn’t conflict with the morals of the business and the brand.
I had been talking to potential manufacturers in Bali but something kept drawing me to India. I did a lot of research on potential factories and there was a lot of communication back and forth. In January 2016 I travelled to India to visit the manufacturers I’d hope to work with and ensure that it was all possible and what they were communicating about their practices matched up. Being there and talking to them face-to-face made all the difference.
When you’re looking to take production offshore you really have to consider what it means to you. If you’re concerned about the practices of the factory, it is important as a CEO to go there and make it a priority of the brand.
IR: How is YCL growing a sustainable and strong business online?
FC: It is important to be transparent with your customers and doing it in a way that is professional but still quite open. Talking about things – where it is made. For example, YCL’s Instagram bio communicates that our pieces are made in Australia and India. It might not mean much to other people but to me it means everything. It tells me a little more about the brand. They’re not always going to like it but the customers that resonate with what we do will find up. The way that I operate my brand is that I don’t need to rush collections. I could achieve a lot more, or make more money, but I’m okay with the process and that it is done right. And along the way we’re always sticking to our values and ethics.
I’ve come to realise I don’t need it all at once. I enjoy the process and I think that in this modern society, there is a hasty mentality with entrepreneurs, like, “Let’s turn over 1 million in a month”, for example. There needs to be a conversation about what impact does that have with the people you work with, the environment and at what cost does it take to achieve that.
IR: Any general tips and experiences of growing and managing an online business?
FC: I’ve found it is a big thing acknowledging when you need help. It might be scary to realise you need to hire a staff member and as a result be responsible for paying a wage, but do it in a way that is true to you. I was able to take on two Interns for three months, one of which now works with me full-time. It seemed less daunting to run a 3-month intern program and learn my own management style than jump straight into hiring permanent, full-time staff.
Similarly, it is invaluable to know areas that you are lacking. You might have capital to pay a wage but how can you outsource in a way that is going to better the brand. It might take some risk taking but that’s what is being in business is all about.
For YCL specifically, this applies to a product based brand, marketing is key. You need a clear vision first and a product you believe in. There’s no point perfecting something that isn’t selling. If I could go back now, rather than spending money on something that didn’t serve purpose I’d engage a marketing director far earlier. It was when I started with my marketing director that I saw just how stand-still my business had become.
IR: Is it a case of wholesale vs. retail modelling when it comes to jewellery?
FC: For me it isn’t a model around wholesale. And generally, from my point of view, the brand being largely handmade isn’t one fit exactly for traditional wholesale models. My heart is in online retail and selling online. That said, when we find aligned wholesalers that are a great fit for the brand and can sell YCL with integrity and without compromising our values we do look at it from time to time. Selling direct online allows me such a great opportunity to talk directly to our YCL fans and customers who have become such a part of our story and I love that selling online gives us that.
IR: How has it been starting a business as a young woman under 25?
FC: There’s a lot of fear around it and a lot of women under 25 think they don’t have the life experience or knowledge to launch something. If you’re passionate it flows. I left school early, left my study in nursing and I didn’t have a business degree but I knew that I was passionate about jewellery making and it was what I kept coming back to. So, when I said to my mum I was leaving study to dedicate to building what has become YCL Jewellery, she knew I was on a mission. I think it is also about being open to finding the community of young women just like you out there. It isn’t nearly as nasty or competitive as people might think and I find many are open to collaboration. I’ve met some of my closest friends through the business – it is such a beautiful thing. It is hard not to see your lack of perceived experience or education as an obstacle but it absolutely needn’t be.