Aussie start-up Joe Button had only been in the online retail game for three weeks when it was shortlisted as a finalist in the Online Retail Industry Awards, up against the likes of Sportsgirl in categories Best New Online Retailer and Most Innovating Online Retailer.
So what’s the secret to the company’s precocious success?
According to Joe Button co-founder Modi Song, it comes down to ensuring your idea solves your customers’ problem.
Song, along with co-founders Melissa Lee and Tim Fung, originally hails from the corporate world. It was out of this former life that the idea for an online store enabling people to order tailor-made business shirts at a fraction of the cost of off-the-rack counterparts came from.
Following a 2009 trip to Hong Kong, the intrepid trio realised they could offer customers the same premium quality dress shirts without large designer mark-ups, and with the added advantage of customisation and exact made-to-measure fit.
“There was a gap in the Australian retail market – it doesn’t make sense to have to purchase a plane ticket just to get your hands on custom-made clothing,” Song says.
“People value custom-made clothing because it’s good quality, it fits them and, in places like Hong Kong, it’s also affordable.”
“After some tough deliberation, we quit our corporate finance jobs and decided to bring this concept online and that was how Joe Button was born.”
From the outset, Song, Lee and Fung were committed to maintaining quality, despite Joe Button’s lower price points.
“We spent quite a long time in Asia trying to find a supplier who not only adopted adequate quality control processes and was willing to help us source fabrics from Europe, but also someone who was willing to invest in a long-term partnership with us,” Song recalls.
Understanding your business partners
And the newbie company has gone to lengths to ensure it understands the business rules of Asia. Both Song and Lee, shortly after quitting their corporate gigs, studied Mandarin and Cantonese intensively in Beijing and Hong Kong.
“Doing business in Asia means you have to play by a whole new set of rules… A lot of suppliers only speak very basic English and negotiations are difficult enough without the language barrier.”
“We actually speak English with our suppliers but we did make a concerted effort to make ourselves aware of the customs in Hong Kong in order to build that extra level of trust that is fundamental to establishing a solid working relationship.”
Australian retail market crying out for more online retail solutions
The Joe Button crew believe that the Australian retail market is primed for a solution such as theirs due to the local market’s high fixed costs.
“We’ve travelled fairly extensively across Europe and the US and find Australian goods to be more expensive than the equivalent product overseas,” Song says.
“In our case, there are a handful of traditional retail shops in Australia that sell off-the-rack dress shirts that are high quality but also very expensive. With social media playing a greater role in our lives, people are much more informed and can go online to get exactly what they want without the huge retail mark-up.”
According to Song, Australian consumers are increasingly getting their shop on online, but traditional retailers have been slower on the uptake.
“We have a very trendy fashion scene in Australia and there are some fantastic Aussie brands out there, but the online presence of these brands is just not the same as in the UK and US,” she says.
“This is one of main the reasons why we see a lot of Australian shoppers turning towards these US and UK-based e-tailers.”
The future for Joe Button
Whatever the outcome of the Online Retail Industry Awards, September 27, Joe Button has big plans for the future.
“We believe in creating things that add value to people’s lives as opposed to manufacturing goods and having to convince people that they need this product,” Song says.
“We would love to see Australians embrace the concept of online mass customisation as we have online retail. We’d really like to branch out into other apparel that we can custom-make exactly to customer specifications.”
Joe Button’s words of wisdom to other start-ups
New to the entrepreneurial game, the Joe Button crew are still revelling in the difference between corporate life and their online adventure.
“Being in the corporate world gave us the discipline we needed to launch our business, but starting our own business let us experience what it feels like to wake up every morning and be passionate about what you’re doing,” Song says.
“Everyone at work always used to look forward to the weekends but that’s like waiting for 5/7 of your life and only living 2/7 of it.”
The trio’s advice to other would-be entrepreneurs is to jump right in.
“Because this is our first business venture, we were quite risk averse and spent a lot of time planning when we really should have been testing the waters.”
“Looking back we would have just done the proverbial ripping off the band-aid and gone for it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with rejection and the worst thing that can happen is you end up where you started.”