A very dear friend of mine came for lunch this week, and we spent considerable time talking about the challenge of being totally honest when it comes to work. To be brave enough to admit when business is quiet, times are tough, or projects didn’t go as planned. To use Brene Brown’s words, there are times when honesty can make us feel more vulnerable. However, honesty can also help us to be more authentic, and for me, authenticity can often make someone more endearing. Hence, honesty about the challenges facing us isn’t always a bad thing! This conversation immediately took me back to a couple of Billie Goat experiences that echoed this message…
When we were first starting out with the business, we worked out of our garage. My wonderful husband John spent many weekends building makeshift shelves to house the soap that needed to cure before being sold, and we brought cheap kitchen cabinets from the local hardware store to provide extra bench and shelf space as we needed it. It was far from glamorous, but there was a tangible energy about the space. We had a small team who helped out each day. We didn’t have any fancy uniforms or sophisticated production processes – everything was done exactly as I had done it in my kitchen originally (only a room away!).
As part of our business strategy, we had earmarked the need to start researching requirements to sell to international markets, and I had met with our Austrade representative to learn more about how Australian manufacturers sold their products overseas. Our advisor suggested we send a sample of our soaps to their Korean office because Austrade Korea was doing market research and potential distributors would be happy to provide feedback about the products presented and their readiness for sale in their country. We were grateful for the opportunity to learn more, so I packed up some sample soaps and literally mailed them to the Austrade office in Seoul. Instead of feedback, we received three distributor requests to sell our soaps in Korea. In particular, one company was very keen to represent us, and wanted to come to tour our factory!
I didn’t have a factory. I had a garage with chipboard shelves and an old green fridge. I panicked. I tried every trick in the book to dissuade them from coming to my house. I offered to meet them in Sydney instead; I offered to fly to Brisbane for a meeting; I told them I could send them my complete range of soaps rather than have them have to collect them. Nothing worked, and they insisted on visiting our factory. In desperation I asked my Austrade Advisor if she knew of anyone that could lend me a factory! We could go there for the day, set up our soaps and trays and look like we were a big time business. We could look like a company worthy of international buyers. Roz from Austrade gave me the best advice for my dilemma – she told me to be honest. Be myself and let the product be the hero, not the place where it is made. On a hot summer’s day we hosted three Korean buyers at our house. They arrived wearing full suits and ties. They met with our team, watched us make soap and played with my goats. We had a barbie out the back for lunch and they loved every minute of their visit. Our first ever international order to Korea commenced a couple of weeks later and continued for some time. This is a photo of our soap being sold in a department store in Seoul, Korea.
As the business grew we began to do more international orders, and our next significant market was Taiwan. By now I was quite comfortable showing potential distributors our garage and I understood how critical it was to be honest about what we could or could not produce. There was simply no point talking to distributors who expected huge volumes of product because we didn’t have the capacity to produce it. We needed to work with international customers who understood our business and production capabilities and that meant they had to visit our garage to truly understand this. Our new Taiwan partner (Ginger) wanted more. She wanted to see the milking process to be assured that our practices were up to standard and our quality was good. By this time I had split the business. I was no longer milking the goats myself each day because I didn’t have time to do everything in a day. My beautiful milking ladies had gone to a friend of mine who had a herd of his own. He was caring for them and in return I purchased my fresh milk from him each week. I felt the panic rising as I realised this deal would be dependent on a part of the process that I no longer controlled. I decided to be brave, be honest with my customer and together we headed out to Luke’s property to visit the goats and watch his milking practices. My client was so impressed she insisted on walking the fields with our lovely ladies. As we stood in the paddock to discuss feeds, milking routines and dairy goat care the goats became increasingly curious about their visitors. We were surrounded by these beautiful, gentle curious creatures. It was only when we left the paddock we realised that one of the goats had actually eaten half of Ginger’s scarf!
Authenticity was the winner that day, and about three weeks later we sent our first delivery of soaps to Taiwan. Coming back to the time I spent with my friend this week I’d have to say that I’ve been fortunate to have had the gifts of honesty delivered to me over the years. Even if we may not see the immediate return from being so honest, the rewards do eventually come.