How She Does It: Sophie Ellis of Small to TALL
I am really excited to be sharing this lovely interview with Sophie Ellis of Small to TALL with you today. Sophie started her career as a digital producer and went on to become a user experience expert who I had the pleasure of working with several years ago at a digital publisher in Sydney. After having her two boys and not being able to find reasonably priced and ethically produced stylish kids clothes, Sophie decided to fill the niche herself and setup an online boutique called Small To TALL.
Sophie is a Sydney-sider and in today’s interview she’s talking about how her business has developed and how she balances it with being a mum of two young boys and a part-time UX consultant.
1. Tell us a bit about your professional background?
I started my career as a Producer in London during the very early days of the internet boom. My first production job was to create training materials in multiple languages, in the form of printed papers and acetate presentations which we shipped around the world. I have fond memories of proof-reading acetate slides in Arabic and Simplified Chinese (not that I speak them, mind you!). Not long into that role, I was asked to get stuck into developing an intranet site to serve as a centralised distribution hub for training materials, and so my role as Digital Producer began.
After 5 years working as a Digital Producer I decided to specialise in the area of user experience design — which is a fancy way of saying I helped businesses design a product for the people who actually use it. It sounds like a no-brainer in today’s world but in those days it was a relatively new concept, as businesses tended to design things in a way they thought their customers wanted rather than actually sitting down to understand what their customers were actually doing with their products. During my 15 year career I have worked with a number of large eCommerce, Financial Services and News Media clients both in London and Sydney. I still consult part-time and I am currently working with consumer association CHOICE to redevelop their website.
2. Why did you decide to start Small To TALL?
I have a nephew in the UK who is a little bit older than my eldest son, Jack, so I was lucky enough to receive lots of fantastic hand-me-downs. I struggled to find similar items at a similar price in Sydney and knew that other mum friends felt the same. After many a play-date moaning with Sarah — a friend I had met in my mother’s group — we as good as dared each other into setting up shop and our new baby was born.
Sarah and I worked together to set up Small to TALL and ran it as a partnership for the first couple of years. Our first step was convincing suppliers to sell to us. We quickly realised the importance of developing relationships with people who stood for the same things we believe in. This enabled us to build a collection or ethically produced clothing and accessories which use recycled or organic materials and sustainable methods of production. Once we had stock we launched the online store quickly to get a feel for what would resonate with the local market and to nail our price point.
3. Are you a one-woman business right now?
I am. At the start of this year, Sarah made the difficult decision to leave the partnership as she wasn’t able to give the time to it any longer. I decided to give it a go alone which was a massive change, but exciting at the same time.
Wearing every hat is tricky and it’s hard not to let all the things on the list compete for attention. Some weeks are more productive than others and I am learning not to be too hard on myself during those weeks where the to do list ends up longer at the end of the week than at the start! It is easy to panic when there is no one else to pick up the slack and it is tempting to just keep going into the wee hours of the morning, but, in the long run, it’s not sustainable and sometimes you just have to cut yourself some slack!
4. You have recently updated your website, what inspired that and have you started to see benefits from it?
The main reason for upgrading our website was to move onto a better platform. We had started out with a product that was cheap and did what we needed to at the time, but as the business grew it was clear that it was not going to sustain us for much longer. I knew what I wanted to do with the website but the platform was holding us back and I was spending a lot of time just fixing issues in the backend.
It was a hard slog doing the work myself but I was able to relaunch the site on Shopify in February this year and it has been hugely successful. I knew that the majority of our users were looking at the site on their mobile or iPad so my first priority was to optimise for smaller devices and Shopify allowed me to do that really easily. The site works better and is much more user friendly than our old site and that has had a positive impact on conversion rates. So far this year the number of sales each month has exceeded the total number we made in our first trading year. Make it easy for people to find your store, present some great products in an inspiring way and make it easy for people to buy and I have found they generally will! There is still so much I want to do but I am happy to be where I am with it right now.
5. What’s been the biggest help in running your business? What would you have done differently?
One of the things I am eternally grateful for is the fabulous design work that the very talented Kristi Trujillo of Trujillo Design did for us in developing our brand. Sarah and I knew early on that we wanted to develop a brand that reflected our style as well as resonating with our customers. Kristi was amazingly patient with us (I think we were the most painful clients ever!) and she worked hard to develop a brand that we both loved and we are so proud of. Having a serious brand gave us such a strong base to work from as it meant that people took us seriously. It really helped us get some great suppliers on board.
As a one-woman band I love the fact that technology allows me to keep things ticking over even when there is chaos in the background; if the kids are sick, or worse, hubby and I are sick or when it is school holidays. I could not do this without my smartphone and the fantastic tools out there to work with. The three things I could not do without right now: eCommerce platform Shopify, email marketing tool MailChimp and design tool Canva.
There are loads of things I *should* have done differently: I should have had a business plan and detailed forward projections, I should have developed a marketing strategy and a PR plan. But the flip-side is that if I had spent time developing all those things I may never have got this off the ground. It’s a moving target and much of it is in my head itching to be documented… when I find the time 🙂
6. How do you balance your time with the kids and the business?
It’s really tricky. I not only have the kids and Small to TALL to balance, but I am also still working the day job as a part-time consultant for CHOICE. Jack started school last year and Cam spends 4 days a week in Family Day Care but there is still a lot to juggle – the same with most parents these days.
Ultimately, Small to TALL loses out at the moment and I do find myself at my desk at midnight just finishing up those things that can’t wait. I have reached a point where I am itching to focus on Small to TALL as I am torn so many ways but that’s just not possible right now. I am fortunate that I do not have investors or any business loans to service so I don’t have that added pressure. I just have to accept things as they are while the boys are still so little.
7. What’s a day in your life like?
Changeable and chaotic 🙂
I try to contain my ‘day job’ to Tuesdays and Thursdays when Jack has after school care as that gives me a few more working hours in the day. Where possible I work from home which allows me to be more flexible in the tasks I can tackle. I then reserve my shorter ‘school hours’ days for Small to TALL and general life but that doesn’t always happen. I will always need to catch up during the evening or at the weekend though as there are just not enough hours in the day.
8. What is your best piece of advice to someone else thinking of starting a new business with kids?
Be kind to yourself. It sounds like such a cliche but it’s true. Sometimes things will not get done and that’s ok. It can be frustrating to fit work in around other people’s schedules but the more you fight it, the more stressful it becomes. Always ask for help when you need it as well, the worst people can say is “no”.
9. Who are some of the people that inspire you, in any area of your life?
This is a tricky question to answer! If I am honest, I think I have been most inspired by those closest to me: I look to my Mum with her endless patience, humour and kind words and try really hard to be that mum when I just want to scream (I don’t always succeed, mind you); I think of my brother who left college during the recession in the 80s who worked incredibly hard for little money and am inspired by his work ethic. I look to my Dad, an engineer who built some of Hong Kong’s most iconic landmarks and am inspired by his vision. Most of all, these days, I look to my boys who live life with such joy and try to see the world through their eyes instead of drowning under my to-do list!
I would like to thank Sophie for her time and generously sharing how she continues to develop her business. I always benefit from understanding how someone else weaves their business and family lives together, and hearing her wise words reinforces how great it is to connect with other business women.