There are many ingredients that go into a successful start-up. You need product-market fit, which means customers want to buy what you’re selling. You need access to your target market, whether you’re marketing to them or delivering an order. Timing plays an important role and background experience. Most importantly, start-ups are hard work. They require focus, dedication and a willingness to work hard, be adaptable and to learn something new every day.
When Celeste le Roux and Mark Knijnenburg launched Made By Artisans
, it was a response to the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The couple had always planned to start a side hustle – which was one of the reasons why they chose ecommerce – but the looming pandemic pushed their plans into motion.
Celeste’s background was luxury safaris, and while no one could have predicted just how long the pandemic would last (and that the travel and tourism industry would be effectively shut down for many months), it was clear that she would need an additional source of income for the foreseeable future. It was the perfect catalyst to finally get their entrepreneurial dreams off the ground and within three months it had gone from side hustle to Celeste’s full-time focus. From idea to market
With a background in IT, Mark quickly built a Shopify
ecommerce store. That was the easy part. The couple had a store with no products – but that was about to change. “We had always enjoyed markets and local products and it seemed like a good way to build a new brand while also supporting local,” says Celeste.
There were pros and cons to the timing of the launch of Made By Artisans. On the negative side, the hard lockdown beginning in March 2020 meant that you couldn’t operate without registering as an essential service.
“We wouldn’t have registered the business upfront,” says Mark. “We would have seen if it was viable first. But we had to register with CIPC to get our registered code as an essential goods provider, so everything was accelerated.”
The lockdown also meant that the site had to focus on food, which was not Celeste’s original vision. “We wanted to focus on arts and crafts, but that wasn’t possible.” In fact, the very first sale was jars of pickles sourced from a lady who made her own preserves in Wellington – to a customer in Wellington. Everyone was within a few kilometers of each other.
The pandemic resulted in completely unforeseen challenges, but it also had its benefits. For one thing, it promoted a degree of flexibility and adaptability that Celeste and Mark could not have predicted.
“The markets shut down almost immediately,” explains Celeste. “We made a list and we started phoning local producers, knowing that they would all have stock that they now couldn’t sell.”
Even so, Celeste and Mark expected to be ignored by many of the local brands. Instead, the opposite was true. They had a channel to market, and many local artisans needed that channel. “Everyone was very open to joining us. They even waved minimum order quantities. They were totally flexible. In the past, we would have needed cash to buy a minimum amount of stock before advertising product. Instead, we could start advertising and when we had customers, we would purchase products.”
The attitude that any business was good business allowed Celeste to build strong relationships with suppliers based on finding a middle ground. Instead of contracts that had to be adhered to down to the smallest detail, Celeste negotiated with various suppliers to find a middle ground.
“When you have to be so flexible to make something work, it becomes second nature,” she says. “I’m a complete perfectionist and I always wanted to add a personal touch to everything we do, but during lockdown we couldn’t even purchase boxes or stationery. We had to make do with what we had. It’s just one of the things that has made us extremely adaptable and unafraid to try new things. We’ll give anything a go and cross bridges as we get to them.” Staying true to purpose
Thanks to word-of-mouth, it wasn’t long before Celeste no longer needed to contact suppliers to build up Made By Artisans’ inventory – suppliers were reaching out to her. “We can’t stock everything, but we do try and support smaller brands as far as possible.”
In fact, Mark and Celeste will go as far as helping smaller suppliers with their photography and product placement. “We have a lightbox, and we can take beautiful images which we then share with the suppliers for their own websites,” explains Mark. “We also help with pricelists and making the brand look more professional. Part of our purpose is to support local, which means we want to help the brands that don’t have large and sophisticated supply chains as well.”
It’s a lesson that Celeste learnt during her days in luxury travel. “You’re never actually competing with your supplier,” she says. “Strong brands benefit everyone. Mark has even given some of our suppliers advice on how to improve their websites. We’re a marketplace, which means you can purchase multiple products from us that will all be delivered together. You can discover new products on our site, or source products you recognise from markets.. But if our supplier is also doing well online, that’s excellent because it just means the brand is growing.” Lessons learnt
It’s been a journey of highs and lows and many, many lessons. Here are the biggest insights that Celeste and Mark have gained since they launched Made By Artisans in April 2020. Transparency and authenticity build customer loyalty.
Celeste’s original vision was to deliver personalised service, which included always being available to customers. Her name is on the website, and anyone can contact her. This became extremely challenging when she spent a few weeks away from the business in hospital with her baby, however. Mark took over (while balancing his full-time job), but the level of service and availability that Celeste had offered was impossible. The solution has been to automate where possible and be extremely transparent with customers.
“We want to give the best service, but we are also clear that we’re a small business and that sometimes things will take longer as a result,” explains Celeste. “If we are extremely busy, we can have a backlog of hundreds of orders. We’re packaging and sending out at night and there’s still a delay. It’s important to let our customers know what’s happening and why. The main thing is that our customers know we care and that they are not just a number. Finding that balance has been key.” Put customers first.
This level of transparency speaks to a second key lesson – not all stock can be held by Celeste and Mark. There are over 5 000 product variants on the website and while the site has a full storage unit of the most popular and fast-moving products, some products are subject to a delay. This is clearly marked on the website but some customers don’t always see it. “We’ve found that the best way to respond to a customer who didn’t realise they would be waiting a few weeks for their order is to offer a full refund,” says Celeste. “Most people don’t take it – transparency and a willingness to fix the problem go a long way.” Automate where possible.
To streamline the business, Mark and Celeste have automated as much as possible – but again, this takes time, dedication and hard work. “There are so many apps in the Shopify store and you need to research them yourself to see what will work,” says Mark. “Celeste and I have watched hundreds of hours of Youtube videos. There’s also the challenge that as a start-up or small business, you can’t invest in one of the larger consolidated solutions that does everything. You need to find apps that really support your business, which means testing them out, and then as you grow you can invest in bigger solutions.” Build a strong, streamlined structure.
While automation is important, you cannot fix a bad process with technology. “It’s important to have a clear manual process that is organised and supports the business before you automate anything,” advises Mark. “Have a very clear structure based on who you are, what you are and how you operate.” Spread your risk.
“We have four different couriers in our address range and each is strong in a different area. We use a different courier for quick locations to large packages or more far-flung regions,” says Celeste. “We haven't focused on the cheapest price but rather what will support the business best. Working with four different suppliers spreads our risk and it makes everything faster. We can stagger our deliveries as well, which means orders that come in after the first delivery goes out can still be delivered that day in many cases.” Find a model that works for you.
There are many different business models in the ecommerce landscape, from dropshipping to consignment to purchasing stock outright. Mark and Celeste typically purchase stock and then sell it, but they have found that adaptability is important. “When we started we were so proud when we filled the kitchen counter with stock,” says Celeste. “This grew to a kitchen nook and now it’s our garage and a storage unit – although we can’t store perishables in a storage unit. Finding the right business model and keeping careful track of stock is critical to the smooth running of an ecommerce business.” Marketing is essential.
This was an area that Mark did not love investing in (the business started out by spending R10 a day on Google adwords), but it soon became clear that it’s an absolutely essential element in any ecommerce business. “SEO is important – you need to understand product descriptions and how to use titles and keywords – but you can’t rely on organic traffic alone.” Understand your niche.
It’s relatively easy to launch an ecommerce site, but simply having a store won’t lead to success. “The barriers to entry are low, but actually making a success of an online store is something entirely different,” says Celeste. “I’m an online shopping addict. If you don’t buy online, you can’t sell online, because you won’t understand the full user experience, which is crucial. Find products that you’re passionate about and enjoy the entire process.” Tailor your solution to a local audience.
Another key lesson that Mark and Celeste have learnt is that while there are thousands of online tutorials and videos available for ecommerce entrepreneurs to upskill themselves, most of them are US-based and the US market and the South African market differ considerably. “In the US, speed is everything. How quickly you can deliver a package is paramount,” says Mark. “In South Africa this is important but it’s far from the most important thing.” In fact, many of the products on Made By Artisans have a waiting period between order and shipment, which customers are fine with, especially when they are getting a handmade product. They want to support small and local and they know there is a delay because of that. The lesson? Understand your specific customers and market and build a business that supports them. Understand your cash flow cycles.
“It’s so easy to get excited by orders coming in and a bank balance rising that you can forget to plan ahead,” says Mark. “Historic data shows us when our peak seasons are and we need to order more stock, but even then, you can easily get tripped up placing orders and then realising too late that you’ve been too heavy on supply spend and you don’t have available cash flow for operational costs. Day to day management of cash flow is critical.” Build relationships with suppliers.
All business is based on relationships. “I was embarrassed to negotiate with suppliers at first, but then I started to realise that most people are open to discussing what’s best for all parties. We are all just trying to do business and support our customers. When you take a relationship-first approach you can have the right conversations without just blindly accepting terms that don’t always suit your business.” says Celeste. Being authentic is better than being perfect.
Throughout their journey, Celeste and Mark have always strived to do their best for their customers and suppliers. “We aren’t perfect,” says Mark. “We’re a small team and I’m employed full time. But we are always available for our customers, and we are honest. If something hasn’t worked out the way we thought it would – or planned for it to work out – we tell them. We’re a small business and we aren’t trying to pretend that we are something else.” So far, it’s a philosophy that is working well.