Happy 2nd Birthday Riff Raff & Co.: here’s 16 Q & A’s with Emma to celebrate!
To mark Riff Raff & Co.’s second anniversary, let’s go back to where it all began with owner, Emma. She reflects back on how the business started, what it means to her and what she’s learnt along the way.
RIFF RAFF & CO. – THE BEGINNING
- Why did you start Riff Raff & Co.?
I’ve always been interested in running a small business, even when I was younger. But there were two times in my life that I actually attempted it. The first was in 2008, after I quit my comfy, stable job and did a small business course. But despite my enthusiasm, I got stumped at the ideas stage. I just could not come up one that was truly valuable so I ended up returning to my previous position in human resource management at a metropolitan hospital.
The next was when I was due to return to that same position after three years of maternity leave. I was hit by a powerful motivation to make my own business work. It was driven by a need to help to financially contribute to the family but in a flexible way so I could manage childcare at the same time (well, I thought I would be able to manage childcare … turns out it was one of my biggest challenges!).
- How did it start?
In the lead up to my ‘idea moment’, I read business books and brainstormed ideas obsessively for about four months. When I say, obsessively I mean obsessively. It became my only focus outside of the kids. I read (and still read) every business book that was published worth a grain of salt, listened to podcasts and stopped reading/watching all traditional media in favour of, you guessed it - reading and brainstorming!
I had plenty of little ideas during that time but none of them stuck. It was only when we returned home from a trip to Bali and all came down with horrible bout of gastro that inspiration struck.
As I lay awake with a 40 degree fever, the idea hit me like a tonne of bricks. I realised we’d been carting around several toys for both Evie and Louis all over Bali, each one with their own purpose - one for sleep, one as a comforter, one for playing. I knew then that I was going to a make a toy that ticked every single one of those boxes. And Riff Raff & Co. was born.
- What was the business timeframe – from idea to production?
The idea sparked in August 2015. I had the first samples in hand by January 2016 and our first sales were May 2016. During this period, I worked on it obsessively around looking after my then three and two year olds.
- What about the name Riff, Raff & Co?
Once again, it took many hours of brainstorming! I was at the sample development stage and had my two very cute design sketches of the characters Fox and Fawn. They had a lot of personality and while they were soft and cuddly, they were also a bit cheeky and loud - especially the fox! I wanted to ensure the name reflected their characters.
During my brainstorming process, I stumbled upon the saying ‘riff raff’ and while in some circles it can have harsh connotations, to me it felt playful and bold and I just knew that was it! As for the ‘ & Co.’ part, I had dreams of more characters so it was natural to include that too.
- What was the vision for the business when you started it?
Because it felt like I was doing such an extraordinary thing (with a high chance of failure), my vision was incredibly simple. I wanted to create the best toy I could to help other families get more sleep; and sell enough to pay for our family holidays each year.
The vision for our company now is profoundly different and it has continued to evolve with our growth. While want to continue to reach out to as many mums and bubs as possible (can anyone say ‘global domination’?!), we also want to be a socially responsive company (keep your eyes on our website for the launch of our giving program very soon). Amongst all of that, we’d love to continue to provide lots of flexible employment opportunities for mums out there.
- Tell us about the Riff Raff & Co. team and how you found them
At launch in May 2016, it was just me, sitting in my kitchen doing all the assembly, packing, orders and posting. I worked extremely hard for those first few months of sales. I still vividly remember the feeling of disappointment on the many mornings I’d wake up to find zero sales … and there were plenty of those moments!
But as they say, hard work pays off. By October, I was busy enough to need to call on friends and family for help as I was struggling to balance the business workload, caring for my kids and attempting to run the household. I don’t have enough words to thank my friends and family enough for coming to my rescue in those early days - most of the time completely unpaid (as I had not even set up any sort of payroll system!).
Almost all of my initial employees were people I already knew and could trust. The advantage was they knew me and loved and believed in my product … plus they were very patient while I was learning how to manage a fast scaling business on-the-run.
My first ‘real’ employee was my best friend Liz who dived in to help out with customer service in the earliest days. She has since left to go back to a high-level nursing position, but her support and the flexibility she offered me in those earliest of days was priceless.
Two employees with me from the start
- Carmel: my current Social Media Manager and all round 2iC. She is friend from when I lived in Coburg with two little ones just a touch younger than my own. She’s an amazing stylist and also had her own successful small business at the time. She supported my vision from the very start and did an incredible amount of pro-bono work for me in those first few months. The moment I had the sales to be able to offer her a position, she was my only choice.
- Chelsea: is also a good friend from down Coburg way who has also been there from the start. She has the most amazing ability to ‘get sh*t done’ as a mum of three under two. She runs her household like a dream and now looks after our factory with the same immense energy and in a highly proficient manner.
While we’re always on the hunt for people who have a passion for our product, we now hire specifically for the skills we require. Also, while not all of the people who work for Riff Raff & Co are mums, I personally recognise the amazing skills working mums bring to my business and hope to be able to offer employment to more in the future as our business grows.
- How did come up with the designs?
Looking back, I now realise the design process was pretty crazy! Hundreds of hours went into it, both for the plush design and accompanying music. I spent so much time on it without any idea if it was going to get off the ground. In hindsight, it really was quite mad … but I’m ever so grateful for my craziness!
Once I had the premise of how the soundbox would sit in the head, I engaged a freelancer to sketch out a rough 3d design based on my initial concept. From there, it was just a lot of playing around with it.
I have books full of scribbles (and terrible looking sketches), notes on different animals, designs, tunes and functions. I got a lot of feedback from my mum friends and Coburg mum community while also learning to follow my gut instinct – it’s rarely led me astray.
Riff (the Fox) and Raffy (the Fawn) were my first designs. At that time, the fox was really on-trend so I wanted to take advantage of that. Plus the shape of a fox’s head lends itself perfectly to my toy design as it adequately incorporates the sound box and buttons. I also knew the bright colors would bit a hit amongst little ones.
I chose the Fawn as it is a nursery classic plus muted colors work well with a Scandinavian-themed bedroom, which is always very popular. It’s also slightly more feminine than the Fox but still very much a unisex choice. I have always had strong feelings about avoiding gender stereotypes with toys so you won’t see any ‘pink and blue’ in the Riff Raff range.
Bandit (the raccoon) was drawn up not long after both the Fox and Fawn as I was keen to extend the range to embrace the monochrome trend at that time. It continues to be one of our best sellers today.
- Was your partner supportive when you floated the idea of the business?
My husband Sam was pretty shocked when I first told him about the idea, but he’d known for a while that I wanted to try my hand at running a small business. He was very supportive though, even if he was not-so-confident on the inside!
It was a massive decision to access the money I needed for my initial order, particularly as we’d just gone through three tough years on a single income with a mortgage in Coburg. But he agreed without (too much) hesitation and continues to be super supportive, telling everyone he can about my business which I love.
THE BUSINESS NOW
- How has the business changed from its 1st year to its 2nd?
The first year was all about survival and change for me. The first six months, I was driven by the question ‘how can I not end up with 1000 toys in my garage forever?’. But when the sales kicked in, that quickly changed to ‘how do I do this, stay sane, care for two little ones at home and still run some sort of household?’. That second six months was very much one-foot-in-front-of-the-other every, single day.
In our second year, I feel like both the business and I are starting to mature. What helped with the transition was building a competent team around me; one I could trust. While it took some time for me to learn to trust people with my ‘third baby’, doing so has allowed me to regain some balance with my family. But above all, it’s helped me work on the business not in the business, which is what I love doing best.
We all now function really well as a team. We’re all clear on we are aiming for, what is important, when to panic and importantly, when not to. I am starting to realise that it is okay to dream, aim big and to shrug off my ever-present fear of failure.
- What has been the hardest thing about starting the company?
Where do I start??!! There has been so many challenges at different times. The hardest thing has definitely been trying to balance being a mum and running a business.
As an entrepreneur, the biggest, recurring challenge is self-doubt. Self-doubt is something I’ve addressed weekly - if not daily – ever since I started. If left unchecked, it can really cripple your entrepreneurial spirit.
My passion for my product, my real belief in the toys and my desire to see them out there in the hands of little ones are the things that helped me get past the self-doubt. Whenever I’m having a day when it all feels too much, I jump onto Facebook and see the beautiful photos and reviews left by mums in our community and it helps refocus me instantly.
- What has been the best thing?
Seeing our product truly loved in the homes of so many little ones. Families send us photos of their Riff Raffs attending the most special of family occasions - weddings, overseas holidays, christenings, even entire birthday parties themed around them! And then they write to thank us, when in fact, it is entirely our honour to be able to play such an important role in their little one’s life.
One customer story that stays with me occurred about nine months into the business. I received an email from a family who were looking to purchase a second toy. They explained that tragically, their little one had passed away and while they wanted to keep his toy as a keepsake, they also could not bear to bury him without it.
Just reading the email made us all burst into tears. That day really cemented in my mind how important it is to do our job well. I wish I could say that we have not received several emails like it since. They may be ‘just toys’ to some, but for others these are precious best friends. For parents, they become cherished symbols of such a beautiful, special time in their lives.
- What are the some of the lessons you’ve learnt from the business?
The lessons are aplenty! My top four:
- Go with your gut. Time and time again throughout this process, there have been moments when things just ‘clicked’ because I listened to my instinct.
- Don’t panic. I cannot count how many times I have ‘panicked’ over the last two years. I wake up in the middle of the night with this sinking feeling and cannot get back to sleep. Panic never helps and my husband is really good at bringing me back down. Action is the only way forward.
- It can be lonely. I never stopped to think about it until I was in the depths of it, but for me, this journey has been really lonely at times. I didn’t know anyone else who was in business and although my husband and best friends were always there to talk to, there are things I felt like I couldn’t share with them. I’ve now become a member of Business Chicks PowerPlayers and for the first time since starting the company, I have a group of women I can share my highs and lows with that understand from a business perspective.
- Be authentic & value your customers. In this world of social media, it is easy to succumb to getting caught up in the number of followers you have or how many likes you get per post on your Insta feed. While it’s always a good boost, nothing is more important than looking after your customers. For us, that means real conversations with real mums and real bubs; and the true value of our product being at the centre of everything we do.
- Who inspires you?
I have so many!
- Tim Ferriss – The 4 hour work week was the book that started it all. I listen to him every week because even though he does not explicitly deal with business, he is obsessed with performance and human psychology, which is essential in business.
- Podcasts - Two podcasts that I listen to religiously are How I built this and Masters of scale. Both are well produced and inspiring. Listening to podcasts is really motivating and I like to listen to them on mornings when I am finding it hard to get started. One episode later and I am ready to go!
- Tony Robbins and Richard Branson - I find both extremely inspiring and have read all their books. They’re definitely two people for my ‘dream dinner party’ list! I am very excited to attend my first Tony Robbins event later this year and I have set myself a goal to find myself on Necker Island with Richard Branson in the next five years.
- How have you juggled being a mum and entrepreneur?
Trying to be a mum, wife and entrepreneur has been - and continues to be - one of my biggest challenges. I was a stay-at-home mum for three years before the business got so busy. Suddenly having to look at childcare options was really hard and I tried several options before finding an arrangement that suited our family.
Even now, every week I struggle to strike the balance between getting the time to work on the business I love, doing the school, kinder and extra-curricular activities runs each day, running a household and being truly present with my family when we are home.
I wish I could say it was getting easier, that I have support with family nearby or that my husband can help with the load but unfortunately, that is not the case. Striving to balance being a mum and an entrepreneur will continue to be one of my biggest challenges.
HINDSIGHT & ADVICE
- If you could look back and say something to yourself before you started the business, what would it be?
Prepare to succeed. I was so terrified of failing that I could not comprehend that I would succeed. For a while there that meant I felt as though my business was a rollercoaster and I was just along for the ride.
Starting my business has been one of the most challenging and rewarding things I have ever done (competing only with having children and becoming a mother!) and it feels great now to have my vision set, to look forward to achieving our big goals and building a team around me to succeed together.
- Any advice for other mums who want to start a business?
I have four pieces:
- Keep your outlay low
- Read everything you can get your hands on
- Be prepared to work hard, and
- Go for it!
I think mums are often presented with unique opportunities to step away from our ‘old world’ and for many of us, if we take them, we rediscover ourselves as women and mothers … which only presents us with new opportunities and interests. It’s an amazing cycle!