Starting A Sustainable Swimwear Label As A Solo Founder

from Sunshine Coast, Australia
started January 2014
alexa rank

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

My name is Steph and I am the founder for OceanZen which is a sustainable swimwear brand that uses a fabric made from recycled plastic bottles and fishing nets from the ocean.

I come from a background in Environmental Science and marine conservation and launched OceanZen by combining both of my passions together.

We ship worldwide from Australia and we have created a global community of like minded women who are passionate about the ocean. The OceanZen girl is a sea creature at heart.

I launched OceanZen in my final year of uni with $5,000, so I started small with only a couple of hundred pieces. Now we manufacture and produce thousands on sustainable bikinis and ship them globally!

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

In 2009 I packed up and went travelling on a one way ticket overseas. I had no idea how long I was going to be away for or really where I would end up, all I knew is I had to go. I ended up being away from home for 3 years!

From hanging out with elephants on safari in South Africa, to snowboarding mountain peaks in Canada and cruising South America in an old Volkswagen, I eventually ended up on a tiny little island in the Caribbean, The Cayman Islands.

Start NOW! Follow your passion and not a trend, because when times get tough you will want to give up if your not living and working your truth!

I landed a job working with wild Stingrays… YES. WILD ONES! My job was to handle (with training) and feed them every single day for eco-tourism interactions. From being in the ocean every single day for a whole year, I really started to learn of the human impacts we were having on the ocean. I could see where our plastic was going and how it was effecting these beautiful animals that I had come to love so dearly. So this is what essentially brought me home. I wanted to learn more and more importantly I wanted a voice for sustainability. So after much research and passion.

OceanZen was born. 😊

Having a degree in Environmental Science, plus all of my unique experience working with marine life, this has really made OceanZen’s values strong and these values are the foundation of the business.

When I came up with the idea of launching a sustainable swimwear company, it all happened so fast. Once I decided I was doing it, it happened. And I think this is key to anyone who wants to launch a business. Just Start!

I was working two casual jobs at the time (in marine conservation education and on a humpback whale watching boat) and studying my degree full-time, so a lot of my friends and family laughed a little when I said I was doing this. I got lots of comments like ‘where are you going to fit that in’ and ‘with what money’.

But my passion was my purpose and that is what inspired me and drove me to launch. This is why I believe it’s so important to launch something that you are passionate about, something that you believe in, otherwise you will lose interest and go onto the next.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

When launching OceanZen, something that was absolutely essential was ethical manufacturing.

By the time I was 23 I had travelled to 50+ countries, I had seen the rich and I had seen the poor. This life experience is what made my values as strong as they are. I wanted to support artisans in countries that needed support.

There’s a mixed debate over supporting only Australian made products, as I am sure there is a similar debate in the USA for USA made products. But how will the poor ever see wealth if the wealthy don’t share? Money needs to be shared in this world, so I set off to Bali where I lived for 3 months in search of a local seamstress that could produce great quality.

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It was hard to find, and I also learned that fashion brands don’t like sharing who their suppliers are, so it was tricky, but eventually I found a great place and I have been manufacturing with them since. I chose my manufacturer as they followed strict ethical standards and paid their staff 3 x above normal wage, offered medical insurance to their workers entire families, use sustainable fabric dyes and have regular safety audits.

The design process is all done by myself, I pick the styles and colours and prints that I like and outsource a freelancer who can put it all into a digital design for me to give to the factory. Selecting the prints and colours is the fun part. 😊 The design process is quite detailed and I am always learning. Even though I am creative I don’t come from a design background so my designers show me the ropes. When I didn’t have my designers one sampling round took 8 samples until a style was a good fit. Now with my designers it takes 2-3 samples, so that goes to show how worth it it can be to outsource your weaknesses. And I also know now that sampling is not my strength. Each style and print is designed in house, and therefore exclusive to each OceanZen collection. That’s the beauty, you can’t find these mass produced in the mall.  

The sampling stage is ALWAYS a nightmare!! I’m talking like 7-8 round of samples sometimes! This is always really stressful, but it’s part of the production process with every fashion label. Seeing it all come to life is worth it.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

When I launched OceanZen I didn’t have much room to play with. In fact, I had $5,000 which all went to production which left no room for a marketing budget which I soon learned was essential for growth.

So, I created my own website on a platform called Big Cartel and this took me a while to wrap my head around. I also launched an Instagram account and this is where I organically created my community of ocean lovers. Now, our Instagram account is at 30,000 which I’m personally really proud of. 😊 I grew my account by engaging with influencers, commenting and liking their posts and also through competitions with other brands. When you comment on an influencers photo, your brand name will pop up and anyone that comments beneath can potentially see your account. So it’s a great way to grow your page organically and for free. It’s also important to have a theme for your instagram and OceanZen’s shows that we are passionate for marine life and has lots of ocean blues, so it’s an attractive page to look at. Instagram is visual and each account has something that their followers like about them.

Eventually Big Cartel wasn’t doing it for me anymore, I wanted more room to change things and build plugins in, so I switched over to WooCommerce (which is a nightmare if you don’t have a web developer). I really want to move over to Shopify but just don’t have the time or the budget to switch over just yet, but I hear this is a great platform.

I had a launch party at my house with about 30 friends and friends of friends, there was champagne and a catwalk show… but none of my friends wanted to model in the catwalk show down my corridor, so I put the bikinis on and showcased them and got my first few sales that night! Since then, our launch parties have stepped up, with real models at a dreamy venue with goodie bags, grazing tables, drinks and beauty bars and a DJ.

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Once launched, I thought all of my bikinis would just sell… well they didn’t.

I didn’t have a strong way of getting my product out there in the world, and I also didn’t believe in paying an influencer at the time to wear my bikinis. I had strong values around credibility - I believed credibility should be earned not bought, but I soon learned that the world doesn’t spin as we want it to, and eventually had to invest in facebook advertising and influencer campaigns.

We didn’t really understand the importance of having a newsletter list until recently, and now with Instagram changing their algorithm, it’s the best way to get your brand/product direct to your customer, literally straight to their mailbox.

I still have mixed views on the whole influencer thing, how one Instagram post can be a whole week’s wage/sometimes a whole month’s wage for the average worker. But if you’re on the other end of the line (an influencer), then life must be pretty sweet…

Essentially the brand is paying for ‘exposure’ to their audience, but most of the time their 50,000 followers don’t convert to sales and quite often that $1,000 for one post doesn’t come back straight away in a return on investment. You have to invest in multiple posts, so that your potential customer see’s your brand at least five times before they make a purchase.

This is why having a marketing budget will help get your brand off the ground faster instead of taking the ‘growing organically’ route like I did. Having a marketing budget is essential, and something I wish I had known and invested in earlier.

Since launch, what has worked to attract new customers?

The OceanZen story is really authentic and has captivated the media naturally, so we have been really lucky to gain a lot of free advertising from the media.

From multiple radio stations, print publications and now guest speaking gigs, the OceanZen story has become an important marketing tool. If you are a start-up, share your story! Share your why, your passion.

Through all of our organic PR we have built up a really strong online presence, but we have also invested in Facebook advertising and have started to build our newsletter within the last year.

We didn’t really understand the importance of having a newsletter list until recently, and now with Instagram changing their algorithm, it’s the best way to get your brand/product direct to your customer, literally straight to their mailbox.

Here’s my growth advice for others:

Grow your email marketing list and have fresh content to share with your readers every few weeks.

There are so many ways you can do this, a pop up on your website offering some kind of incentive for them is a great place to start. We have a pop up that offers 10% to sign up to our newsletter. Then the type of content you email them is important, if you email them about sales all the time or asking them to buy they are going to think it’s spammy and sunsubscribe. We share content about whales, plastic, trips, and of course bikinis with a sale every now and then.

Facebook ads, can be really tricky but can definitely pay off in the long run.

At the moment we just do facebook ads for sales and our spend is $5 a day, but slowly our budget will grow to increase this. We find our sales work well on facebook ads, then you can retarget the people who have looked at your website again later through retargeting. If you are looking at running facebook ads, head to google and search Facebook Blueprint and they have free courses on their platform to teach you how you can use Ads Manager.

Get your story out there and submit to newspapers and magazine, if your story is unique enough they will share it.

Write down your 3 major draw cards that make your business what it is and then flesh it out into half a page document. Then have a think about where your story and business aligns, what publications would be interested in your press release and does their audience align with yours. Once one picks up the story you will find a few others will see it organically and want to have a piece of the pie as-well.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

Everything is coming along swimmingly, although we are at the point where we would be open to investment.

We have built an empire and now we are wanting to take that next big step which would be really challenging as a self-funded, self-owned business.

Our product is definitely profitable however it’s keeping up with the expenses that can lower the profit margin that can be challenging some months. One thing I completely underestimated was the amount of expenses involved in running an ecommerce business.  Production of swimwear is expensive, it costs me about $30,000 for a “small” production run which is about 1,700 pieces. So when I got hit with that I was a little surprised. Another expense is marketing and it is so important to make sure you leave a budget for this. If you have the chance, $5,000 for marketing to start can take you a long way. Invest in the right social media influencers and facebook ads and from there you should see your sales grow.

I also highly recommend you lay out the costs to get your accounts in order. This is something I have avoided and have paid for the wrong programs and then not known how to use them, when really I should have just invested in an accountant and bookkeeper once to show me what to do to save those costs involved.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

One of the biggest mistakes I made was not investing in social media marketing earlier.

As I mentioned before, I missed the boat because I believed in organic marketing, but actually, that has slowed the growth down with OceanZen.

I have also been thrown under the bus with not putting contracts in place to clearly determine collaborations and businesses partnerships. Contracts that clearly state what is and is not OceanZen’s responsibility was/is essential, and I have lost money and product on not stating this with partnerships.

The greatest decision I have made was investing in a fantastic social media influencer that shut down my website from 9,000 visitors coming all at once. Lesson learned - make sure you have a web host that can handle that amount of traffic (mine couldn’t and I lost lots of sales, but also made lots of sales).

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I am busting to get onto Shopify, currently I am on WooCommerce and am very much over it as I need something more user friendly.

Schedugram is a great tool for scheduling posts and layout, I use it everyday!

Use MailChimp to collect and store emails from your customers.

Social Blade is great to stalk your influencers follower growth patterns, so make sure that they are the real deal and haven’t bought their followers.

Canva is amazing for quick and easy graphics that look professional and it’s very user friendly for people with little graphic design experience.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Currently I am reading Peta Kelly ‘Earth is Hiring’ at the moment and in love! Anyone who is an aspiring entrepreneur should read this! It’s targeted at Millennials who are game changing the world!

Another great book is Lisa Messenger ‘Money and Mindfulness’. It’s a great book to learn how to manage your money in your business and personal life, and it really resonated with my journey.

I also really enjoy Tony Robbins and Melissa Ambrosini Podcasts where they talk about anything business or spirituality related.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Start NOW! Follow your passion and not a trend, because when times get tough you will want to give up if your not living and working your truth!

There have been a few times now that I have felt so overwhelmed and like I’m hitting brick walls that the slightest part of my has wanted to quit, but then I remember my purpose and I’m back on track.

Ocean conservation and marine life are my purpose, those are the things that make me happy and that’s what I have to remember when times get tough. If I were following a trend I would not have lasted this long haha so make sure that your passion IS your purpose!

Where can we go to learn more?

Steph Gabriel,   Founder of OceanZen

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