Omar was 25 and working full-time as a dentist when his father was diagnosed with leukemia.
Younger brother Zane, in his third year of studying dentistry at a university in Australia but technically living in New Zealand, was 22. He had been receiving financial assistance from his parents while studying, but the cancer diagnosis quickly put an end to this. Something had to change, and quickly.
Fast forward two years and the brothers are now operating MAISON de SABRÉ, a personalised leather goods retailer.
According to Omar and Zane, the business made $1 million within its first few months of launching in July 2017, and has since gone on to derive $10 million in revenue.
In the process, it has grown from the spare room of Zane’s New Zealand townhouse to a dedicated office and warehouse space on the Gold Coast, employing 16 people.
My Business asked the duo how they did it, why they ventured into an industry so far removed from their skills and training, and the role their 204,000 followers on Instagram have played in getting the business up and running.
Why did you decide on a business as the path to take in trying to control your financial situation?
As Zane was from New Zealand and studying in Australia, he was not eligible for any type of fee-help from the government. The dentistry course was post-graduate and tuition fees alone were $60,000 per annum.
We had very little time to come up with the money to fund the tuition fees, and business was one of the most viable and sustainable options to fuel this.
How did the idea of leather goods come about, particularly since it seems so far removed from dentistry?
We wanted to get into the leather goods industry because we both had an overwhelming obsession with small leather goods. The amount of craft and precision that goes into each product is what fascinated us, and it was always about the small details — something that is carried over from dentistry.
We wanted to make a bang in the premium leather goods market. After designing an entire range of leather goods, we opted to start with our now classic phone case.
We thought it was the perfect fit, because we knew consumers today have an emotional connection to their phones — it would be the first thing they would reach for in the morning and it’s constantly in their hands. It was also a product that we knew would have high visibility in both social situations and on social media, and this means that it’s free brand exposure.
It snowballed from there.
You spent a year building a following on Instagram while undergoing product development. How did you do this without any products to showcase or customer stories to share?
MAISON de SABRÉ is firstly a lifestyle and secondly a company. We spent a full year posting on Instagram every day before we had any products to showcase.
We wanted to create a persona for the brand and set the tone for what was to come. We posted lifestyle content up until launch day, and this allowed us to grow our account to 10,000 followers at the time.
How did you deal with scepticism from prospective customers, given that you were yet to really establish your product offering at that stage?
We haven’t had incidents of scepticism from our customers, and initially when we were posting our non-branded content, we hadn’t even mentioned that there was going to be a brand launch.
However, scepticism comes with anything you do that goes against the grain. The secret is to stay focused on your craft and become persistent.
If you’re truly passionate and proud of your product offering, then hard work will always see its way to the top.
What advice would you give to other start-ups about building a following of their own in this way?
As technology is advancing every single day and the world changes every five years, what we did three years ago may not apply now.
There are always new innovative ways to capture your target audience; you just need to understand who they are and how to engage with them.
How did you finance the product development and establishment costs?
We started with a small loan from Omar, who at the time was in his third year of working as a dentist. We’re very fortunate that it’s allowed us to launch the way we did.
Were you concerned at all about building personalisation into the products and how this could remove, for example, re-sale opportunities?
Personalisation is one of the fastest growing markets right now, and the trend is not forecasted to stop any time soon. Our customers have the option to personalise their product or not.
How do you operate in terms of stock?
Our final production is all completed in-house, in our Gold Coast office. We forecast our quarterly growth and work closely with our logistics and supply team to ensure we’re manufacturing at the required rate, and always stocked with the right products.
All of our products are then completed with a hand-pressed monogram using custom machinery.
A lot of businesses can grow too quickly to be sustainable in the longer term. What steps have you taken to ensure that you’re not over-extending yourselves?
Scaling and growing at record speed can be challenging. The key to growing quickly and sustaining is managing cash flow effectively, setting accurate budgets, forecasting growth and implementing back-up procedures upon back-up procedures.
Business is never going to be a straight-line journey, and you need to accommodate for when things go pear-shaped.
Was it a scary decision taking the business from being home-based into its own dedicated premises in November 2018?
No, it was the right decision and we executed at the right time.
We couldn’t possibly keep up with the growth of working out of home, and as our staffing numbers ramped up, we knew we had to move to a dedicated premises.
And what happened with your father following his cancer diagnosis?
He unfortunately underwent chemotherapy for a year. It was incredibly challenging for us to see our hero become so weak and frail during this period.
Our father required a bone marrow donor for his treatment and we were not eligible. We were incredibly fortunate for his medical team who located a donor for him, and our father has since made a steady recovery.
He’s now enjoying a very well-earned retirement!