It’s a tale as old as commerce itself. When the economy is down, do you stop all spending, cancel your marketing, and hunker down until the bad times pass, or do you back yourself and your ability to find opportunities in even the most challenging situations?
For Michelle du Plessis, founder of online boutique, Macaroon Collection, there was only one answer – and it took a pandemic and global recession for her to recognise it. It’s all about mindset
In 2020, more businesses were registered in South Africa than any other year. Whether through necessity or chance, entrepreneurship was on the rise. But many businesses also faced retrenchments and short hours and some even closed their doors.
Some sectors were hit harder than others. Tourism and hospitality businesses came to a grinding halt during the extended lockdowns. Ecommerce, on the other hand, flourished, experiencing years’ worth of growth in a few short months.
That’s not to say that ecommerce businesses didn’t face their share of challenges, though. Supply chains were disrupted. Budgets were tightened. Imports were delayed and the rand depreciated.
For Michelle, it was do or die – it was time to decide if she was a business owner, or an entrepreneur.
“The start of the pandemic was devastating,” she says. “For two weeks I lay on my couch, watching the news and military trucks carrying bodies out of Lombardy in Italy. I couldn’t stop crying or see my future or the future of my business clearly. And then one morning I woke up and knew I was at a crossroads. I had to decide if I was an entrepreneur or a business owner. I had worked my butt off for nine years building Macaroon Collection. The question was whether I was going to let a pandemic take it away from me.”
The short answer was no. The longer answer involved a careful analysis of where internal weaknesses and external threats lay, followed by a strategy to leverage new opportunities.
Step one was Michelle’s own mindset. “I’ve always believed that there is a difference between a business owner and an entrepreneur. Business owners run businesses. Entrepreneurs are risk takers. They also don’t give up. There’s a story that I heard years ago that has always stuck with me. Two mice fall into a bucket of cream. They both start treading, but it’s tiring work and eventually one of the mice gives up and drowns. It’s just too hard. The second mouse keeps treading until the cream is churned into butter. That’s how he gets out. It’s hard, thankless work, but at the end, it’s worth it. That’s the mindset I’ve always cultivated. It’s not for everyone, but it is for me.”
Once she knew she would keep fighting no matter what, Michelle turned her attention to the two biggest challenges facing her business: sales and her supply chain. Until that point, Macaroon Collection sold a curated selection of products that Michelle had painstakingly researched, found, tested, and included in her product catalogue.
Her attention to detail and love for shopping meant the collection was elegant and offered value for money. “My brand promise has always been that if I won’t buy it myself, I won’t try sell it someone else,” says Michelle. “I only stock items that I think are worth it – if something is too expensive, I won’t take it.”
In the early days of the business, this meant a lot of research and reviewing products before building relationships with key local suppliers. “Where possible, I chose local. I eventually added imported footwear because we don’t have a large local selection, but most of Macaroon Collection’s stock supported local manufacturers and designers.”
And then the pandemic hit, and factories started closing down. The supply chain disruption was a big wake up call. “I can still help local businesses and stock the products I love, but I realised that my business was completely reliant on other people’s businesses and that’s not a good place to be in. Just as I knew that I would keep fighting no matter what, I recognised suppliers who were business owners, not entrepreneurs. They didn’t want to keep fighting. We all have our own paths to walk, but I wanted to be more in control of mine.” Strategising in the midst of a crisis
For Michelle, there was only one solution: She needed to launch her own collection. But unlike ecommerce businesses that can work on consignment or even with a drop shipping model, when you hold your own collection, you need to invest in everything required to manufacture a product. This meant finding a designer to work with, selecting fabrics and partnering with a manufacturing facility. In short, it meant Michelle investing her savings in the middle of an economic downturn when sales were down and there was no guarantee of success. She did it anyway.
“There was a lot of back and forth. I donated so many samples to hospice. The designs weren’t what I wanted, the fabrics weren’t right and sometimes the quality wasn’t good enough.” And yet Michelle kept moving forward until eventually she had a line of loungewear that she believed was perfect for the brand she had built, and ROON became the new face of the Macaroon Collection. Michelle also added gift boxes to her collection and continued to support the local brands she works with.
While she was developing ROON, Michelle needed to ensure that sales were up. Overall, ecommerce was growing, and people were becoming more comfortable with shopping online, but budgets were also tight – not to mention the initial lockdown when all non-essential retailers were shut down.
“I went back to basics and focused on who I should be targeting and what I needed to be saying to them – now was not the time to stop marketing,” says Michelle.
Instead of casting a wide net and trying to attract new customers, Michelle did the opposite. “The 80/20 principle tells us that 80% of our sales comes from 20% of clients, so instead of new client acquisition, I focused on figuring out who the 20% were and investing in them. I prioritised clients who had bought from us, experienced the brand and trusted Macaroon Collection and that was who I marketed to. I completely ignored client acquisition and it worked like a charm.” Building resilience
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Michelle admits it was scary pivoting with so much uncertainty around her, but she’s also quick to point out that you can’t rely on the security of the known. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s this lesson. Industries that were previously considered recession-proof, such as restaurants, beauty salons and tourism businesses were under the most strain. Faced with the decision to do nothing or take a chance, Michelle jumped fearlessly into the unknown.
“We forget that taking risks, facing obstacles and relying on grit and determination doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “As much as I believe entrepreneurs are born, there are a lot of lessons we learn that help us as we move along our journey. By 2020 I had been building Macaroon Collection for nine years and I’d tried my hand at multiple different businesses as well. I had a lot of different experiences and failures behind me. This gave me a good roadmap to work from, because I’d personally tried a bunch of things that didn’t work and so I knew what to avoid, but it also gave me the confidence that if what I was trying didn’t work, I’d survive. I’d pick myself up and I’d try again.
“From the outside success often looks easy. It’s not. Most of the time, it’s extremely hard. It takes a lot of resilience, a willingness to try new things and to allow people to sometimes see you fall flat on your face. That’s the trade-off. You also need to deliberately build-up experiences and skills.”
Michelle was a wedding planner before she launched Macaroon Collection. She has never been employed by someone else (even her marketing position was as a consultant), but in each position she learnt as much as she could.
“Interestingly, what I did before Macaroon Collection contributed a lot to my success. For seven years I planned weddings and that naturally dovetailed into corporate marketing events and slowly I moved into marketing management. I worked with magazines and media and was there when social media started becoming a thing. I learnt it from the ground up and eventually, once I realised that I didn’t want to be lugging boxes at weddings for the rest of my life and I launched Macaroon Collection, the social media and marketing expertise I had built up was critical to launching a new brand and reaching customers. But the biggest reason why I believe we’ve grown during Covid is that this wasn’t my first do-or-die moment.”
It was a big step for Michelle to stop doing weddings and corporate work (both secure and established sources of income) to focus solely on Macaroon Collection. It meant the business had to carry her.
The bet paid off, but there were still big lessons in Michelle’s future, particularly when a year later she opened a physical store. “It seemed the next logical step for growth. I opened the store in 2015 and closed it in 2016. It was the most traumatic 16 months of my life. I hated being in a mall, the online store carried the physical store and the whole thing just cost me a lot of money.”
When the world was turned upside overnight a few years later however, Michelle knew how to pull herself back up to focus on the future – even when everything was completely uncertain. And that’s what entrepreneurship is all about. Michelle’s lessons learnt
Learn from every failure. I’ve been building businesses for 16 years, which means I’ve tried everything. I’ve learnt lessons the hard way. You always lose something, whether it’s time, money or something else, but you gain something too – you know what doesn’t work, which means your choices get better and smarter.
Leverage your skills. We all have skill sets we acquire along the way. Use them. I’m not a good networker, so I can’t rely on that, but I do understand marketing, so that’s a core focus of mine. Know your strengths and augment your shortcomings with people who are experts where you are not.
Don’t be rigid. One of the watchwords that has emerged from the pandemic is agility. You never know what’s around the corner, so don’t be inflexible. I’ve always been fluid and organic. There’s no one size fits all when it comes to suppliers or customers, and so we’re always working things along as we go.