In 2011, a couple moves from Fiji to Australia and starts a small side business. Little did they know, within a couple of years, they’d be living on the other side of the world, remotely managing a complicated network of warehouses and multiple wholesale and retail businesses that criss-cross borders and timezones.
That couple is Peta and Charles Stinson, and there is, I learn, a method to their madness.
The Stinsons own and operate Sapling Child, a 6-year-old organic printed baby apparel brand. I spoke with Charles about their journey, though, “My wife is really the face of the business,” he tells me, “No one really knows what I look like!”
Sapling started, as many small businesses do, as a side gig. At the time, the couple was living in Charles’ native Fiji where he worked as a property developer, and his wife Peta was a stay-at-home mom with two small children. The former academic began to get restless, and saw an opportunity to explore one of her passions: design. But what would it look like?
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Around the same time, as the couple was expecting another child, the universe answered. Shortly after he was born, he contracted meningitis, a disease that can lead to permanent disabilities and even death. The ordeal was really frightening, but in the end, he recovered and their experience inspired the business. Motivated by their son, the Stinsons wanted to create products for babies that were safe and non-toxic, but also beautiful. (The irony is that, by the time the products were ready for market, their own children had outgrown them.)
The Birth of Sapling
Sapling launched as the family was moving to Australia, the couple both taking new academic jobs. They business grew more quickly than they expected, helped by a smaller Australian market where their printed organic brand stood out.
As luck would have it, they also caught the attention of royalty.
“We had an order from Prince William and Kate Middleton when they were just having their first baby. We didn't realize it was such a big deal at first. It was just like this little thing that somehow got posted on the internet and just exploded. We were in all the media outlets and we had magazines and newspapers and TV shows calling us up. It was crazy. I think that was a bit of a catalyst of us getting the name out there in Australia and then when we just steamrolled from there.”
We had an order from Prince William and Kate Middleton when they were just having their first baby. We didn't realize it was such a big deal at first.
Peta, thereafter, quit her full-time job to focus solely on the business. Charles continued to work his day job, but handled all of the technical and behind-the-scenes aspects of the brand. He originally built the store on another platform.
“We started off with another website provider and we had all sorts of problems with it once we started to get popular. We'd get so much traffic that the website would go down. And we couldn't stop it from happening. Somebody recommended Shopify, thank goodness. We have never had that problem ever again.”
Initially, the couple focused on the Australian market, simultaneously winning wholesale clients by hitting the pavement, and gaining ecommerce customers via word of mouth. But international sales started trickling in, and their warehousing needs began to outgrow their home’s garage.
During its growth spurt, Sapling had the fortune of drawing the attention of another celebrity. When actor and model Jaime King ordered onesies after the birth of her son, James, she was so thrilled that she contacted the company to say so.
"Peta then got in touch with Jaime to see if she was interested in doing a collaboration with us. She came back with huge amount of enthusiasm and soon enough we were designing a whole collection, which wasn't the original intention, but she just had these good ideas. She was lovely to work with and she and Peta hit it off.”
The Jaime King for Sapling Collection gave the brand another boost, coinciding with already massive growth. Sapling was a side gig no more.
"We went from being a very small mom and pop garage/basement operation and we quintupled in size in one year. It just exploded in Australia and we became very, very popular. That's about the time I quit my job and started focusing full-time on Sapling with Peta and, since then, that's all we've done.”
There’s a whole world out there! A world of potential customers and untapped markets. How do you successfully manage a global brand?
To address the global growth, Charles began to investigate opening a US arm of the business, including an ecommerce store, wholesale store, and a second warehouse. He laments that he didn’t make the move sooner, but admits that the decision required a ton of research.
The entire family moved to Canada two years ago to concentrate on the North American market. They were remotely managing the Australian business while setting in the US, and the headache of managing inventory across multiple systems prompted Charles to find a solution.
“Because we have wholesale in both our Australian and our US businesses on top of the two retail sites, I was looking at managing four different websites and four different systems and I just didn't want to do that. What I settled on was an app called Wholesaler. It wasn’t a perfect system initially, but I worked with the the app developers to make a few little improvements and it works really well now. Now we have two retail sites as well as have two wholesale sites on Shopify and it is all integrated. What was a very complicated system is quite condensed and compact now.”
Now we have two retail sites as well as have three wholesale sites on Shopify and it is all integrated.
If the business wasn’t complicated enough logistically, the manufacturing of the products happens in yet another location. Sapling works with a small GOTS-certified factory in India that outsources some of the production steps to other local factories.
"We worked with a very big factory for our first year of operation, but then we teamed with a new small factory for which we were one of only a few clients. We are very pleased with them as manufacturing partners and we've kind of grown along with them. The factory we work with manufactures the garments themselves but they purchase the cotton and have it spun and woven by another factory in the same city. And then they treat it at third factory, before they do all the cutting, sewing, and final production.”
Organic baby wear goes hand in hand with a business that cares about social responsibility. On top of closely monitoring the factory conditions, Sapling gives back the the local community in India.
“About half an hour outside of the city where the factory is located, we work with a local orphanage. We sponsor them for school fees, electricity generation, and anything they need done in the orphanage.”
How to Run a Business from Outside the Country
Peta and Charles chose Canada because they had family there, but it meant that they were physically separated from both of their warehouses and markets. The logistics of managing multiple businesses in several countries is a game of chess, but Charles tells me that it was a move he’d wished he’d made earlier.
“It took me almost two years to actually make a decision to open our American company. I should have done it much earlier. Our business took off in the States while we were still shipping from Australia and trying to establish our brand without having a base there. We didn't have a warehouse there and people were paying international shipping rates. I feel like our business would have taken off much more quickly in North America had I taken that plunge earlier. Having said that, it is such a nerve wracking thing to do especially when you are a small company from the other side of the world.”
It took me almost two years to actually make a decision to open our American company. I should have done it much earlier.
I asked him what he’s learned from the process, and what advice he can lend to other new businesses:
- Start with wholesale. Retailers know the local audience best, and can help build your brand in local markets, driving business back to your website. You can use retailers to help gather feedback about the brand, and generate sales data to help direct marketing efforts and dollars.
- To grow wholesale accounts, work with local reps. Charles and Peta were surprised at the difference in business culture from Australia to the US, and reps helped them navigate the new territory.
"In Australia, it is a lot more personal between brands and stores. In America, it’s mostly sales agents that represent our brand, so it’s more of an indirect relationship, which is unfortunate. We like to have that personal touch, but most people want to work through a sales rep.”
- Check in on your factory. Charles travels to India a few times a year to maintain a relationship with the factory operations.
- Work with a local 3rd party warehouse. Save on shipping headaches and costs, and integrate it with your Shopify store, so that orders are fulfilled automatically.
“As soon as an order comes into our Australian website, it automatically gets sent to our Australian warehouse via a custom API, and they pick and pack and ship it from there. And the same goes with the US as well. They use a 3rd party app, and it only costs about $25 per month"
- Make it easy for customers. Allow customers to shop in their own currency, or operate separate stores for each country. Be sure to make it simple for customers to navigate the the correct store.
- Do your homework. Consult lawyers, accountants, and other businesses.
“Get as much advice as you can from accountants or other businesses that have done it before. Look into warehouse options and how federal and state taxes work—all that sort of stuff is key in that decision making.”
- Hire customer service staff or assistants in local time zones. Sapling has recently hired a part time staffer who lives in Australia, and Charles says he benefits from having someone in the same timezone to liaise with the factory.
“With our Australia warehouse the time zone issue is still a big one. I do a lot of my work either late in the afternoon or very early in the morning. Of course it helps to have a person there to connect for us, too.”
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Sapling Grows Up
Now that Sapling is a well-oiled global machine, Peta and Charles are ready for their next adventure. They’ve grown a loyal fanbase on social media, and dedicated customers, but their product—a baby line that stops at 1-year-old sizing—means that customer retention is tricky.
“Even though we have a very loyal customer base, their children grow out of our products very quickly so unless they keep having children we’re losing customers. Peta's come up with some brilliant ideas for a range that goes up to about a size six or seven. We have some very exciting things in store.”
The brand has also recently signed on with two major department stores—Saks Fifth Avenue in the US and David Jones in Australia. It’s not a decision they made lightly. In fact, they had previously turned down other department stores. Though the brand has grown past their imaginations, much of the day-to-day is still managed by Peta and Charles, as an effort to maintain the brand’s reputation as a small family business.
“It is a little bit scary, because we never want to lose that personal touch. A lot of people see brands in big department stores and maybe they are turned off or you do lose that personal connection, but it’s definitely that is a big step for us and we’re excited.”
Charles says that Sapling is their (fourth) baby, and something they see nurturing for the long run, but in true entrepreneurial spirit, the two already have their sights on other online business ideas.
"We are very emotionally connected to our business and we are definitely in it for the long term. We have lots of other business ideas that we want to pursue as well, and we don't have a 9 to 5 job now that we'd have to give up to pursue something new.”