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Amy Richards

When Amy Richards’ partner had a near fatal motorcycle accident, the old cliché ‘life is short’ was driven home in the most frightening of ways. It was this life-changing event that gave her the push she needed to start Sterling and Hyde – the women’s accessory business that was to become the first to offer customers the ability to design their own Italian leather handbags. 

For many years before her partner’s accident, Richards had had a penchant for handbags but had battled to find colourful leather options that were functional, affordable and appropriate for her professional life. The Commerce/Law graduate had always worked in male-dominated industries – for the Department of Defense and the Transport Worker’s Union – but it was during her time at a pharmaceutical company that the motorcycle accident occurred.

“He [Peter, Richards’ partner] actually died on the operating table a few times. It took months in hospital and rehabilitation before he had recovered,” she said.

“That massive scare taught us both to live for the moment and pursue our dreams. For him, that was to move out of the city. For me, it was to start my own accessories brand where I could offer women great handbags and accessories that they don’t just carry through the day, but which are fashionable and functional and help them conquer their day!”

When Peter had recovered, the pair moved to the Victorian town of Sorrento and, using the money from the sale of her apartment and an investment property, Richards launched Sterling and Hyde. Initially, she operated from a retail store, but demand was so strong she opened an online store and branched into wholesaling within a year. Now, she’s a pioneer in the local accessories market thanks to her bespoke handbag service.

“Now women either in our store or online, at sterlingandhydecustom.com, can create their own dream leather handbag which we make especially for them and deliver to their door.”

This innovation came after many conversations with customers, who told Richards they often spend years searching for the perfect handbag.

“A handbag is such a personal thing; what works for one woman does not for another,” she said.

The risk of taking on too much

As many start-ups can relate, a lack of resources and cashflow management are Richards’ two biggest challenges. Cashflow is especially tricky for Sterling and Hyde, as being located in a seasonal tourist town makes for wildly fluctuating revenue.

“We have very good systems and reporting in place to ensure we manage our cashflow like a hawk. I’ve always been very good at managing my money anyway, but of course managing a budget of a business is more difficult,” she told Dynamic Business.

Good systems and processes are also helping the business to allocate its limited resources more effectively – Sterling and Hyde still has only 2 full-time staff – although Richards does admit she does think they might be taking on too much.

“Monthly meetings help ensure we can quickly identify trends and are able to respond to them like a nimble start-up should … but we have been growing quickly in the last 6 months and really need to find time to consolidate.”

“With a small team, we have learnt if you focus on too many things at one time you never end up perfecting any,” she added.

The other big risk has been with hiring. According to Richards, choosing people to come on board to help grow the business comes with its own set of challenges.

“Finding employees who think like entrepreneurs is very difficult indeed.”

Share your vulnerability

Looking back on her start-up journey, Richards said one lesson stands out above all the rest: Forget perfect, and instead be authentic. 

If you give it a go, try to share yourself and your brand with your customers – they will appreciate your authenticity. People want to connect with humans, not brands, and sharing your vulnerability occasionally is not such a bad thing.”

It’s also vital to plan for the future, which includes budgeting for the worst. To do this, Richards ensures she has enough cash to live for a year without taking money away from the business that could be reinvested.

I’m naturally pessimistic by nature, which is unusual for an entrepreneur, but I have found most businesses fail in the first few years as they run out of cash or haven’t done sufficient market research to ensure their products or services are actually valued by customers,” she added.

As for what’s next for the start-up, Richards is taking a cautious approach to growing the business too rapidly. New stores and an expanded product range are on the cards, but the entrepreneur won’t be rushing into these until the time is right.

The current climate is still very unstable for retail and we’re waiting until this settles before expanding our bricks and mortar presence.”

“In 3-5 years time we hope to have five physical stores, a thriving wholesale business and be a market leader in custom leather handbags,” she added.