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Passion for Merch

Troubleshooters Podcast
Troubleshooters Podcast
Passion for Merch
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Michael McGrath speaks with co-founders of MerchGirls Pippa Joseph and Hannah Chipkin who Mike describes as the ‘dream team’. Listen to these founders share their inspiring story of how they came together to start their company (from a bedroom), and how they have developed their start-up into the successful merchandising company it is today servicing many large enterprises.

About Merchgirls

Hannah Chipkin and Pippa Joseph, are the co-founders of Merchgirls.

Together they founded Merchgirls in 2015. Armed with experience in Design (Hannah) and Production (Pippa), and after many years working in fashion together, they combined forces to provide creative merchandise for the wider market.

As they mention on their website, “You could say from fairy wings, come big things.” What started with one client; The Australian Ballet, has grown to include a stellar list of some of the best companies Australia-wide. The demand for “merchandise that’s twice as nice’ is real.”

They have had a lot of fun building their business over the past 7 years and have made almost every product from tutus, to 2 metre tote bags, and everything in between.

One thing that is evident, these founders remain passionate about creating what they call “a next level merchandise experience for all our customers”.

Email: hannah@merchgirls.com.aupippa@merchgirls.com.au

Website: https://www.merchgirls.com.au/

Transcript below

Note: This has been automatically transcribed so is likely to have errors! It may however help you navigate the points of interests for you.

Michael: Hi, welcome to the Troubleshooters Podcast with me, your host, Mike McGrath. Now today’s guests Pippa Joseph and Hannah Chipkin are the founders and owners of MerchGirls. They have a cool creative agency that provides branded merchandise to corporate Australia. They are a veritable ‘Dream Team’ positive and energetic. They teamed up in 2015 and decided to start their business based in Melbourne. They built a highly successful operation. And in today’s conversation, they tell us how they quit working on their own in favour of a partnership – and a very successful partnership it is as well!  So Pippa and Hannah, welcome to the Troubleshooters Podcast.

Pippa: Thank you, it’s lovely to be here.

Michael: I really have been looking forward to this conversation because when I met you I was really struck with how together you were and how you seem to have a really interesting story. So you’re in the b2b space. Who would be your typical customers? Are they retailers, or are they large corporates?

Pippa: Retailers, and large corporates starting from Dan Murphy’s to Telstra, to Mecca, to Google, to a lot of charities,  such as Mother’s Day, Cathy Freeman, Starlight Children’s Foundation.

Michael: Why are they using you?

Pippa: It’s because “we’re twice as nice”, you know. We found that, when we really started looking at merch, I can explain the story and how we fell into the merch business later. But we started noticing that merch was really landfill. It had no personality, and it was bringing company’s identity down. Instead, where merch should be used to complement or elevate a company’s branding and purpose, and voice. And you know, merch is there to either create more awareness for brands, to encourage staff, or for retail, and it just wasn’t doing it. We both come from creative backgrounds, so we could really see how the power of merch. And even back to the little money-box, the 10 money-box you got at the Commonwealth Bank, how meaningful that merch was. So, we really wanted to create merch that clients were really happy with. It was really creating a return on investment because it was designed well, it was made well, it was something interesting. We just had fun with it.

Michael: So it’s the antipathy of “logo slapping”, isn’t it? When I came to visit you, I was amazed at the creativity of some of your products. What are some of the products that have really done well that have really set you apart? And then who comes up with those ideas?

Pippa: We do it as a team. We come up with all the ideas as a team, mainly Hannah and I I guess from the beginning. We’d be traveling, and we would find products, and we’re like, this is absolutely fantastic! You know, it’s more of a retail product, but let’s turn that into a promotional merch product. But we’re always trying to better what we have on offer. It’s more about how we really get creative with those merch items.

Michael: So you were in business before this, and you started this in ’15? So you’ve been going about what seven years. Is that right?

Pippa: Yes.

Michael: Okay, so prior to that, you were in business separately?

Hannah: Separately yeh. I think we’ve both been in business since we’re probably 21~22.

Michael: When did you fall into that first business then at 21? What was it that sparked you?

Pippa: I fell into the business at 21 when I was actually making clothing. So I started making men’s T-shirts out of everything and just started trying to sell them and just walked into stores, and some people would accept them. And then some people would buy them and that sort of turned into a little business. Then it turned into dresses, and then I was looking for manufacturing, for someone to make these garments. And I fell in love with this lovely lady called Juju in Indonesia, and I said, let’s set up a factory. And she said, but what are you talking about? Always happened sort of back to front.

Michael: Isn’t it interesting? So that’s how you got going. Then tell me about the day you’re bumped into Hannah?

Pippa: Well, that was with the manufacturing business in Indonesia that’s still going, that MerchGirls still support and that’s how I bumped into Hannah. So it’s a really cute story. I’ll let Hannah explain. But we’ve really been on that journey. It’s actually two massive journeys in my life that got me where I am in business. One with Miss Juju and one with Pat Canachiket. But it’s really about that respect and that relationship of being able to rely on one another, and not judge one another, and always know that you will be there, and you’ll have their back, if it’s with an idea, or if it’s with a passion or …

Michael: Tell me did you click straight away? Did you kind of just hit it off, Hannah?

Hannah:

So I’ve been in business for five years, but by myself, and I was looking for a manufacturer for my garments, and you can’t find those. There’s just no way to find manufacturing, it’s, it’s a big trade secret. People don’t want to tell you where they get things made. And I found a little add in a button shop when I was in a button shop, in Fitzroy, and in Melbourne, and it had a phone number on it. And it said that this person could make anything. no matter too big or too small, no job too big or too small. So I called the number on the little Ad-flyer. And I spoke to Pippa. We had a long conversation, and I told her that I wanted to make some amazing products, but I didn’t know how to do it. But I had the vision and she kind of made me feel very confident that she could make it happen. So we met not long after in Melbourne and had a coffee. And yes, I would say that we definitely hit-it-off on the spot, because when I went away from that meeting I was feeling really inspired. Like I’ve just found someone who is on my wavelength, with the excitement that producing and coming up with products. Same feeling about her. So we worked really closely and she made a lot of my products come true and delivered them. And we went beyond that kind of supplier relationship and started. It became very integral in collaboration and ideas. And, “Ooh maybe you should change that to that colour” and dadda….. So she became really involved, and we kind of formed a partnership without realizing it, but we weren’t in the same business.

Michael: It just helped me understand that, because I know there’s a lot of business owners that listen to this who are working by themselves and feel quite restrained, I think by that. Bearing in mind that I think of the 900,000 active companies in Australia, about 600,000 of them are one-man-bands, actually. So it’s a huge market, and they feel quite constrained. Many of them feel like they’ve got a poorly paid, highly stressful job. So talk a bit about how you how you came to that conclusion. And then, how’s it been since then, when you’ve teamed up with Pippa who’s clearly the right partner for you?

Hannah: Wow, to find a business partner is probably the hardest thing of business. And a lot of people have expressed their… I’m gonna call it envy. But it’s not the right word for our partnership. My husband included, because he’s not envious, but he really really, understands the landscape, and he often says, “do you know how lucky the two of you are that you have that you found each other?” So I think we did a lot of hard work in the formative years before we joined our businesses. And we learned a lot on our own without each other. When we came together, it was honestly a ‘stars aligning’ kind of moment. It’s not often that you can say that about a relationship that you come across. So I don’t know how, but it feels like it was meant to be I suppose. But every day, I’m very thankful for this partnership, because it’s gotten us to where we are today.

Michael: So it’s a really good point. And you know if you can find a business partner with complementary skills. So would you say your skills are complementary? In other words, do you ever argue over this or that? Or is it very clear how things are delineated?

Pippa: Look, we’ve got sort of a secret little rule, I think. It’s whoever’s most passionate. Because we actually agree on a lot. We use a special secret rule : whoever is more passionate about the direction or a solution. So we sort of pitch to each other. We’re like, “okay, I’ll pitch to you” and she’ll pitch and then it’s like, whoever’s more passionate then we just know, ok, that’s the way that we’re going. We’re quite different in the way that our brains work. We’re very different, but we’re also have that respect And it’s more of a passion thing. So if someone’s passionate about it, and they can really state their case, then we just know. “Okay, so it’s over to you”. So we don’t really get into positions where we’re like, “No, I want to do this, you want to do this”. We can let go.

Michael: There’s still quite a bit of give-and-take required isn’t there, which I suppose is the essence of any relationship, never mind just a business relationship. There needs to be give and take?

Pippa: I think there is. With partners and with children and yes, it’s a relationship thing. And I do remember someone told me maybe about seven years, you need to go make all these relationships. And I’m like, ”what do we do”? Do we invite everyone out for dinner, do we do all this”? But it’s not about that. It’s about the trust. Yeah. And the more I understand relationships, whether it’s with our clients, or if it’s with our suppliers, or if it’s between Hannah and I, or between our staff members, I actually I feel like I’ve really understand relationships a lot. And obviously, the goal, you know, having the right intention. If someone, has got the right intention, if that’s a client, or a supplier, or a staff member, a partner, or a child, the culture just moves in the right direction.

Michael: How did the business evolve in the last seven years? Did it all go swimmingly from the beginning? Were there any issues? What sort of advice would you give looking back, because hindsight’s great. So

Pippa: Wow. Um,

Hannah: We started like what Pippa talked about passion. And I think that that’s 100% where we started and 100% where we’re at today. We’re not bored. We’re not doing something we’re not loving. So a joint passion in a market that we were completely new at. All we knew is we wanted to have a real go. So the two of us started just the two of us in a kind of using my parents bedroom, in a in a townhouse. And we worked out of there for many years, just the two of us, and we did everything from little cute costing templates on Excel. I was doing all the design. Pippa was liaising with the factories. We’d never spoken to China before. We had to learn how to do that. So we really learned everything from the ground-up. We were selling, we were doing the specs, we were doing the production, we were delivering it.

Pippa: We didn’t even know what margins were!

Hannah: We knew but, like we wondered “what should it be”?

Michael: Yes, yes. I understand.

Pippa: It was totally draining. We definitely made our share of mistakes. And that’s how we learned.

Hannah: Um, but yeah, the biggest step was taking on, I remember, like our first like, part-time staff member. That was huge for us, you know. “Come and work for us two days a week, out of this bedroom”. And there was this little a computer and it was like….

Pippa: Yeah, like squeezing another staff member into this bedroom.

Hannah: I think we were quite sensible. We’ve always worked within our capacity. We’ve grown slowly, but steadily. And we’ve always used our capital to go back into the business. So we’ve spent within our means and grown in a way that allows us to comfortably take slightly bigger steps now.

Michael: You’ve now got staff. I came to the offices, beautiful offices. You’ve got quite a few staff. So when did you first get to the point where you guys going “Okay, this really, this is gonna work” . What was the day or the moment where you realize this was a proper business?

Pippa: I think I’ve always realized it. I don’t know. It’s sort of like little steps. “Oh, my goodness, Hannah. Oh, my goodness. Like we’re doing it. We’re doing it!”. I remember Hannah’s father said, “what’s your goal?” And I’m like, I think just to know that we can do this. Yeah. So we kept going. And he’s like, “What?”

There’s been a few pivotal moments. I think. We’ve had little goals, but someone that’s really helped us is a gentleman called, Tom Williams, who’s been our coach. And he’s really sort of guided us through start-up, to scale-up and given us the direction and the guidance for that.

Michael: So, just for the listeners that aren’t as nuanced as you guys, “merch” is short for “merchandise”, right? So you produce high-quality merchandise for big brands, effectively.

Pippa: Absolutely. And I think, you know, the public, people really like associating themselves with brands now. That’s becoming more and more obvious, and a bigger trade overseas. In America and in England, it’s huge! Every cafe will have their branded merch, you know, and people like that really show their respect to the brand.

Michael: I mean merchandise in a way has always been around. It’s much more sophisticated now. But, you know, even when I was growing up, there was merchandise. But it seems like today, by using technology, the way things can be produced and printed in smaller quantities, it might be now available to much smaller companies, whereas it used to be the preserve of Adidas or Nike or the real big brands. Do you see an expansion of merchandise being open to smaller businesses now?

Pippa: Absolutely! Definitely for smaller businesses. But also larger businesses want to do it differently and do it now. And I think there’s two things like in the 80s, 90s, it was always conferences. You’d get a branded pen. You’d get some crappy merch, and you take it home to your children. And now also with all the social media, and all those influencers, it’s really important for big brands to be seen in this world. I think that’s another thing. And also, to have brands in the household. Businesses want to get their names in the household, as well. So I think the power of merch for corporates, it’s so huge!

Michael: Yeah. Okay. So really there’s a drive to innovation and creativity and better products that have got more utility and are going to be more desired, I suppose.

Hannah: Absolutely. And there’s also like a massive drive to sustainable merch. A lot of our clients come to us wanting sustainable merchandise, which is a really broad term. And what we’ve done in that space, – and we’ve still got a long way to go. But like our number one is to make merch that’s highly reusable. So it doesn’t become landfill. Someone receives it in a conference, they will love it, they will use it, it will become part of their life. So the lifespan of a product is to have longevity, designed well. We also use recycled fabrications where we can, and we really want to get better at that. But we’ve got some really great ones that we’re using now, made of like recycled plastics and nylons.

Michael: Yeah, there’s a real drive and demand for that. One of the challenges I’m seeing. (I mean you know I’m on the boards of quite a few companies) and four or five of them are manufacturers and we’re continually being asked about this sustainability area. But it comes with a price. And I think at the moment we’re all wrestling with, “what will the market pay for that improved, sustainable product”?,.  I was talking to someone today and the big retailers have a particular appetite for certain products, I won’t mention it, but and there’s a 20% Delta-difference between the completely sustainable products, and the not-sustainable products. And time and time again, retailers are asking for it. And then when they get the price, they don’t choose it. And I think this is going on all over the place at the moment. You’re no doubt at the forefront of that.

Pippa: It’s 100% true, but also, I think there’s another issue with sustainability, and that’s education. There’s not one body that says, this is what it means to have a sustainable product, because it does A, B and C. So the educational part of it, especially in Australia, is very low, and corporates are very low on it. It’s really difficult to tick all the boxes. And people like say yeh we’re sustainable, but it’s very difficult to be 100% sustainable. So it’s really identifying how you can be sustainable with that product. What boxes does that particular product tick? Usually it won’t tick all the boxes, but what are the boxes? We spend a lot of time talking to government bodies, and they can’t really give you the Australian standards of what is considered sustainable. Being a business owner saying “Yep, we’re sustainable, or the most sustainable we can possibly be”. It’s a really difficult thing for a business to tick all those boxes.

Michael: Yeah, I think so. And look, I suppose we’ve all got to do what we can from where we are with what we’ve got. And some sustainability is better than none. And that’s what you were saying, you might not be able to tick all the boxes. But if you can tick some of them, or most of them, then that’s probably worth doing. And, I mean, certainly we’ve got increasing demand from the younger consumers that are really being demanding in this area. I think we are going to see some changes in the next decade.

Hannah: It’s really fantastic. And we’re really excited for this journey.

Michael: Isn’t that great!. Look, before we let you go, we always finish off with a few questions. A few personal questions. So, where’s your favourite place in the world? Start with you, Pippa?

Pippa: Oh, it’s me. At the moment, it’s Binalong Bay, in Tasmania.

Michael: Okay Hannah. Favourite place? We’ve given you a few seconds to think about it.

Hannah: When I go out of this country I’m going to Rome.

Michael: Rome? Lovely. Have you been to Rome much?

Hannah: I’ve only been twice. It is just a lively, and it’s all new. And I love chaos, and food. And I love the fact that, the people are out late having dinner and it’s just gorgeous.

Michael: What about people who’ve influenced you Pippa? Or people that you’d give a shout out to and say, Yeah, that was great?

Pippa: I really admire “Zoe Foster Blake” in business from “Go-To”. She’s just the perfect entrepreneur, in my opinion. Graceful and eloquent, and funny and self-deprecating, and bloody smart. She’s got the whole package.

Michael: Isn’t that great?

Pippa: Yeah, her brands is incredible. And I really look up to her. And she’s a good person. She’s an ambassador for lots of good. She does good stuff. So I think she’s fabulous.

Hannah: I think someone from an early age was “Cathy Freeman”. I thought she was absolutely amazing. And just watching her hype-up for that run, it just really stood out in my mind. I think she’s been amazing with her foundation, “Close the gap with education”. But the biggest inspiration is anyone that’s busy doing things. “Oh, my goodness, I’ve got an idea”. Doesn’t matter who it is, if it’s a two year old, or an eighty year, just people that are doing things that really excites me, and I just want to be around.

Michael: Well, that’s great. Look, thank you so much for joining. Coming on the podcast today and having a chat with me. You guys are successful. You’re the dead-set “Dream Team” as far as I’m concerned. And we wish you well at Merch Girls, and we wish you continued enjoyment and passion in in your business. You obviously enjoy what you do. And let’s stay in touch. Thanks a lot.

What great people! Honest and hardworking and highly creative. Partnerships are not always easy, but Pippa and Hannah certainly seem to have mastered it. If you want to know more about MerchGirls the details will be in the show-notes. Now a quick shout-out to our sponsors, “Oasis Partners”, corporate advisors who specialize in helping business owners unlock the value in their companies. They’ve done over 500 deals. Yep, 500 deals! So, if you’re thinking of selling, or just want to discuss succession, call the team at Oasis. And finally, if you like this content, subscribe and tell your friends. And if you’re really feeling generous, give us a review. Only good ones, please. Five stars would be very nice. So, until next time, thanks for listening and stay safe.