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Small Business Life During COVID

Small Business Life During COVID

Original artwork is "Yarlu Jukurrpa" by traditional Warlpiri Aboriginal artist, Alicka Napanangka Brown, courtesy of Warlukurlangu Artists

I am Charmaine Saunders, the co-founder of Mainie Australia, an Aboriginal-owned company built on a solid foundation of impeccable business ethics and a strong sense of social responsibility.

At Mainie, we are committed to helping Aboriginal women artists from some of the most remote and isolated desert communities in Central Australia earn an independent income from their own work and preserve their traditional cultural heritage for future generations.

The Aboriginal Dreamtime designs featured in our Mainie fashion collection have been ethically acquired from Aboriginal-owned arts centres and are licensed in accordance with the Indigenous Art Code. Under the terms of our licensing agreements, the Aboriginal artist retains the copyright to their original artwork and receives royalties from all sales. Every Mainie product sold gives back to the Aboriginal woman artist who created the original design, to elevate and empower her, her family and her community.

The Mainie fashion collection is designed entirely in Australia and produced from the world’s most luxurious textiles, including pure silk and Woolmark-certified Australian Merino wool. Each Mainie wearable art piece is carefully handmade by highly skilled, artisan textile workers and designed to become a cherished heirloom.

Since the launch of the initial Mainie fashion collection in 2015, our brand has quickly established itself as a distinctively Australian designer label. Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, Mainie was available at over 90 retail outlets across Australia, mostly in high-end international tourist shopping precincts, including airports, cruise ship terminals and luxury resorts. Mainie’s unique pieces had proven appeal to international visitors seeking a lasting memento of their Australian travel experience. Around 80 per cent of Mainie products sold in Australia were purchased by visitors to this country.

With the closure of Australia's international borders in response to the global epidemic, Mainie's wholesale division abruptly came to a standstill and sales revenues generated by tourist shoppers were drastically reduced. Another blow to the business was the postponement of Expo 2020 Dubai (rescheduled to 1 October 2021). Mainie was selected as the exclusive supplier of Indigenous Australian fashion products to the retail store in the Australian Pavilion and was well advanced with the development of a special range of products for this event. These plans have had to be put on hold, and all cashflow and profit projections likely to result from the event deferred in the interim.

With the loss of our core customers and consequent drop in revenues, Mainie was forced to halt its retail and wholesale operations at the end of March 2020 and immediately stand down all staff. The sadness of having to make our valued and talented team redundant was a low point during this time. As a small, family-owned business in regional Australia, Mainie has always been proud of our team-orientated culture, and the rewarding and harmonious workplace environment we had created for our staff. The shutdown of the business was felt both financially and emotionally by everyone involved.

As well as the implications for the business and the Mainie brand, this was also a heartbreaking time for both my husband and business co-owner, Denis Keeffe, and I personally, as we had invested so much of our ourselves, physically, emotionally and financially, into building the business from scratch. It seemed that our years of hard work and dedication founding the company, establishing our reputation as a reliable supplier of consistently high quality, ethical products, and gaining a firm foothold in the highly competitive fashion retail market had been nullified.

The first step that we took to recover our business was to re-employ eligible, essential staff members under the Job Keeper scheme and manage the transition of our operations from trading as a mainly wholesale business to an ecommerce business. The next step was to work with our investors and creditors to reduce operational costs such as rent and loan repayments until the resumption of normal business operations.

The most effective move we made during these challenging times was to invest in the development of our ecommerce division through website upgrades and digital marketing. The pivoting of the business from mainly wholesale to ecommerce almost immediately generated sales from around the world. This allowed us to clear excess stock from our warehouse, thus converting inventory back into working capital. Digital marketing also increased customer sign-ups to our Australian and international databases, which enabled direct marketing campaigns through electronic newsletters.

Increased sales revenues from the ecommerce division were invested in the development of a new product range of Australia Merino wool scarves featuring authentic Aboriginal art designed specifically for the broader northern hemisphere market. We have now initiated a campaign to enter the US market and replicate our Australian achievements in North America.

We are currently achieving a better than average return on our digital advertising spend. We expect to significantly expand on this ROI in the USA. We have also engaged a Los Angeles based fashion agent who is associated with major fashion events such as LA Fashion Week, and whose clients include leading retailers and department stores. We are quietly confident that our newly launched Woolmark Merino Wool scarf collection is the right product at the right time for the right market.

Through our collaboration with Aboriginal artists, we are sharing Australia's 60,000-year-old Indigenous heritage with the world. The secret to our success all along has been our partnership with traditional Aboriginal artists from remote communities in Central Australia to create an ethical, sustainable and uniquely Australian product. We take pride that each and every Mainie piece is a beautiful and meaningful celebration of the world's oldest living culture, and a work of art to be treasured in its own right.

Mainie has some way to go before we achieve our vision to become an iconic Australian brand recognised around the world but we are very proud of the progress we have made over the past few months in pivoting our business from mainly wholesale distribution in Australia to global ecommerce sales.  

Whatever the challenges that may lay ahead for us, we are as committed as ever to realising our vision of establishing Mainie as a global brand.

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