Anaita Sarker founded Olivia&Co, an Australian personalised accessories online retailer, 3 years ago and then went on to launch Hero packaging, a 100% bio-degradable and eco-friendly packaging shipping solution, just last year with her husband Vik.
She oversees two successful companies, has two children and is a guest lecturer at Macquarie University. So, there’s a fair bit to juggle right?
Her background is in marketing, but she interestingly explains in the interview below that this didn’t equip her with any of the skills she needed for her entrepreneurship.
Hero was born from addressing a problem she faced with running Olivia&Co, and a simple Google Ad test (before even launching, but just with having a standard landing page) showed a huge demand for the product with over 100 sign ups overnight! No focus groups needed to see the potential for this! Vik, Anaita’s husband runs the day-to-day of Hero packaging, while she runs Olivia&Co with her team.
Anaita shares those reasons she got into business, and the challenges she’s come up against. She has some amazing learnings to share and an amazing ethos of “say yes, think about it later” that she says has really elevated her business despite her personal fears of following her own advice at times!
What’s the story and reason behind founding 1) Olivia&Co and 2) Hero Packaging?
“There’s two parts.
Why I started a business and why I started Olivia&Co specifically.
Why I started a business… this is something that took me a little while to realise. I didn’t confirm to a lot of things. I didn’t conform to school life; I did OK but I didn’t like the fact that we were all placed in the same bucket. At Uni I also didn’t like it because of the same thing.
You’re not actually learning anything real and then you get put into this 9-5 job where you’re just doing these numbers and excel spreadsheets and then reporting back and you actually don’t know what you’re doing or what the big picture is. You work late hours but you don’t know why, and you’re just doing it because your boss has said to work late hours.
And so I never really fit into the mould, and I think looking back on it I was always really a business owner. Even in school I always tried to set up events and photography businesses, but I didn’t classify myself as a business owner. I just did it because I didn’t want to do what other people were doing.
So I started my business on maternity leave because I knew I didn’t want to go back and I knew I needed to have flexible hours anyway for the kids.
Olivia&Co specifically was because I wanted something where everyone could have something of importance. That stems from not really fitting in. It goes like a long way back but it’s about coming from India and having a weird name and a weird accent… and my parents not being understood by people, and them having weird names too. In school they would be like “What’s your parents names?” and I would just make it up instead.
To start a business in that field of personalising stuff – it was just a nice thing to do. I could make stuff for myself and my parents that we could never do before. It was just stuff that I really loved. It was just a card holder and phone case in the beginning. And putting my name on it was so exciting. And when people were purchasing from me from Etsy and Ebay, they were purchasing their whole name, which at that time you weren’t able to get from any other players in the market. Usually it was just intiials. So Olivia&Co grew from there.”
And Hero Packaging was born off the back of Olivia&Co?
“Yes, so just the fact that we were sending a lot of stuff and using a lot of plastic that you know is just going to get thrown away. Not only that, when you start an ecommerce store, the products themselves that are shipped to you are all wrapped in plastic. So we googled it (looking for alternatives) and there was nothing there. So we did it ourselves.”
What have been and are the challenges you’ve had? Are they the same challenges or have they changed?
“I think there are new challenges. We have always been bootstrapped so we’re not looking for outside investment or anything. So when you’re bootstrapping you’re actually funding growth as opposed to funding just current sales. So you’re making sales but that amount needs to actually be triple – that to me is the current challenge.
I think when I first started, and this is going to sound really simply, the challenge was just knowing how to make a sale or how to make a continuous sale. To find the right formula with the pricing and the marketing and how much you spend on goods and advertising.”
So how do you manage everything? You’ve got the two businesses (even if you’re husband runs day-to-day of Hero Packaging), two kids, and you guest lecture at Macquarie university. How do you do it?
“I have two pieces of advice.
So I now outsource a lot of the stuff that I was doing manually. For a long time I was doing the monogramming and I was doing the packaging and I didn’t like anyone else to do it. I would do everything. And that doesn’t allow for any growth or scaling. So now I outsource the things I can outsource.
So when I’m at Uni teaching and marking, I’m just teaching and marking. There’s no Olivia&Co and Hero Packaging. And if there’s anything urgent either Vik my husband can look after it, or I will have to step away and look after it. But usually I outsource all of the daily running to other people.
And it sounds really bad, but even the kids are outsourced; from Monday to Friday they are outsourced. They’ve gone to preschool and day care since they were about 6 months old. That’s the best thing for them. What that means is I am completely focussed on business from 9am-4pm and at 4 o clock Vik and I will pick them up and have 3 hours as a family. Then we’ll put them to bed and work on the businesses again. It works really well now.”
What advice do you live by in business?
“Say yes and think about it later.
That’s the biggest thing. So lately for Olivia&Co, more than just online sales, we’ve been getting a lot of corporate jobs which is to go to big companies and monogram all day for 3 days for a big conference or tradeshow or something.
Just a week ago I got asked by a really big retailer in Australia to stock 50 stores with 50 machines. And I can’t do that at this point but I’ve said yes, and I’m going to figure it out. And I think if I didn’t do that and if I wasn’t going ‘yes I’m really scared but I’m going to do this anyway,’ I wouldn’t grow.
In this field, there’s so many big players, so many little players, and the thing that will stand out is just being really easy to work with and just saying yes. And if they have any other adjustments just say “yes we can help,” and don’t have strict rules and things like that. That’s probably my biggest advice.
If you know there is a demand for your product or service, you’ve got to take the risk and do it. Otherwise there’s really no point.”
You are still in the early stages, but what has been a defining moment or turning point in your growth trajectory and why?
“It was Olivia&Co going from a copycat business to a consumer driven business. Because when I really started to see a real pick up in sales and sentiment for Olivia&Co it was September last year. And that’s when I decided to stop copying, because I had started to lose my way a little bit, thinking that you know all these big companies have come out with these personalised products, everyone loves it I have to come out with it too.
And now it’s more if a customer wants something, we will design it and produce it. So it suddenly has changed and I can see this huge uptake of people choosing us.
And with Hero it was the Google Ad and the landing page. And waking up in the morning and seeing 100 or so sign ups. And we were like ‘ok this is going to be big.’”
Has your marketing background helped you with your businesses?
“No. I was accounting and media and marketing and teaching, so all those things…. And the only thing that I would say helped me was the discipline behind it. So getting up at 7am and going into a job and making sure you’re doing the work and reporting on it. But the actual work no, because when you’re doing it for someone else you’re not doing the whole thing – you’re just doing one part of it. And so if I had to create an ad, I would create an ad, but I would never see how that ad performed. So for me that didn’t help me at all.
And photoshop, doing my own graphic design and creating my own google ads and Facebook ads – that all came from Youtube, podcasts, reading magazines and listening to videos from people who had been there before.”
So looking ahead, how do you plan to continue growing your businesses?
“So Hero is growing really quickly really fast. And it makes me very excited. I can now see the difference between a business that fills a gap and a business that I ran because I thought it was fun. So Hero is growing organically and I’m going to see where it goes. There’s not much to be forced there. We just have to make sure that the product is premium and that it’s doing what it’s supposed to do; because we have one main product, that product should be the bee’s knees. And so that’s all we need to focus on.
With Olivia&Co, it needs to be constantly changing because it’s a pure retail business so it’s not filling a gap but it is something that people feel like they want to be part of it because it’s a fun thing to be part of and it’s a good gift. Our new line is going to be more eco-conscious, I’m trying to move away from leather and trying to have more stuff that is just better and more in line with Hero packaging. Olivia&Co is now completely customer driven rather than brand driven. I get the samples made, they vote on it, and then we get those products made.”