Australian entrepreneur Danielle Holloway started Merry People to fill a gap in the market for comfortable, well-made gumboots that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. “My friends were either buying really expensive gumboots from designers like Burberry or Hunter, which were $200-300, or really cheap, plasticky ones,” Holloway told Inside Retail. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope someone designs a really great gumboot because there should be something in the middle.’” Sin
Since launching over 10 years ago, Merry People has expanded to the US and UK, and is now looking to open bricks-and-mortar stores in its home market. Here, Holloway talks about her journey from the banking world to fashion, Merry People’s strength in digital marketing, the challenges of balancing a business with motherhood, and why the brand’s future is unisex. Inside Retail: Can you tell me about launching Merry People, and what the early days of the business were like? Danielle Holloway: I grew up on a farm in country Victoria wearing quality gumboots. After moving to Melbourne, I was looking for gumboots to wear to a music festival, and at the time, my friends were either buying really expensive gumboots from designers like Burberry or Hunter, which were $200-300, or really cheap, plasticky ones. I remember thinking, ‘I hope someone designs a really great gumboot because there should be something in the middle.’ I never thought of myself as someone who would start a business, but a few years later, around 2012, I was in a corporate job at ANZ, walking to work every day, and I was looking for a waterproof, warm, comfortable pair of boots that I could wear on my commute. I couldn’t find anything, and I thought back to that idea I had in my early 20s and realised that no one had made that gumboot yet. Merry People founder and CEO Danielle Holloway. Supplied I was a project manager at ANZ and pretty comfortable working in areas where I was technically inexperienced, so I wrote a project plan and got a friend to put my sketch into Adobe Illustrator, and started reaching out to factories. I ended up booking a flight to travel around China for two weeks to meet with the different factories I’d been talking to on Skype. I took a translator from the hotel, and we had no idea what we were doing, so I Googled ‘how to import from China’, and had a meeting with a trading agent in Shanghai, and they came out with me to meetings. I found a factory I was really happy with and came back to Australia with a sample. I showed it to some retailers that I shop with, and a couple said they would sell it. A lot of my friends and family really loved the sample, so that gave me confidence. I did it on the side of my job and went full-time after two years. In my mind, I had nothing to lose. I just wanted to see if I could bring this product to life. IR: How did the brand grow from there? DH: I started out working with some retailers and selling at markets. I set up an online website, but I didn’t get many sales – mostly just from family, friends and people who were connected to me. Doing the markets was hard, but I learned so much about my customer. People in the country already ‘got’ gumboots, but it was a harder sell to bring people in the city on that journey. I was able to put that into my digital funnel, and the word-of-mouth effect also helped. Maybe it’s something women do, they share products they love, but we definitely started getting a lot of organic traffic. Around 2017, I did an accelerator with Monash University. They gave me $10,000 in funding and three months of mentorship and connected me with some e-commerce experts and other founders as well. It was the first time I had a group of people in the startup world who said, ‘We think this could be really big.’ And as the online side started to grow, I was able to ask them, should I hire someone, or outsource my warehousing and fulfilment? Being able to learn from other founders was a really important part of my journey. IR: Have you ever raised money from external investors? DH: I haven’t. I negotiated quite favourable payment terms with my factory, that really helped, and for the first few years, I did a lot of pre-orders. I used to sell out really quickly, so most of my sales in 2017 and 2018 were pre-orders, which meant I was able to pay for containers of stock with sales. I’ve used different working capital facilities over the years. We bank with Judo Bank at the moment, and they’ve been quite easy to deal with and really tried to understand the seasonality of our business. We have a lot of stock that comes in at the start of the year, coming into [the southern hemisphere] winter. We’re in the US and the UK, and I think we do need some more support there to grow, so I’m definitely open to getting an investor to help with the international growth side. IR: I’m guessing the UK is a market where people are really interested in buying gumboots, but also, they probably already have strong ideas about the brands they want to buy. Can you tell me about expanding into the UK and US? What has that experience been like? DH: We started in the US about two years ago. Initially, we took the same approach as we did in Australia, which was to let our digital ads find our customers – put a fair bit of money behind them and just let the algorithm work. But we quickly realised we’d need a lot more money to do that, so now we’re targeting wet, rainy areas – mostly the northeast and northwest. We’ve had quite strong growth. It’s off a low baseline, but we’ve grown 300 per cent from last year, and 250 per cent from the year before. Last year, we signed a PR agency, and we’ve got a 3PL [third-party logistics service] over there, so it’s growing. We’re having to push really hard, doing a lot of influencer gifting and a lot of PR and paid activity, but our cost per acquisition is slowly coming down and we’re getting more organic traffic, so it’s definitely promising. The UK was a little bit different. We decided to do a two-week test there. We did it off the Australian site, and we kept the price the same, but we offered free shipping. The whole point was to find out where customers were purchasing, so we could launch there, and that was really successful. We set up a 3PL and a PR agency similar to the US, and we’ve been there for just over a year. Wellies originated in the UK, so we’re coming into a saturated market, but a lot of the brands, like Hunter and Barbour, are really old, heritage brands. We’re positioning ourselves as new, different, fun and colourful. None of our competitors are talking about comfort, and that’s probably the number one thing that our customers tell us they love about our boots. The UK is already doing similar numbers to the US, so there’s definitely a lot of potential. IR: What makes Merry People boots more comfortable than other gumboots on the market? DH: They’re made with natural rubber on the outside, and the inside is neoprene, and we also have an inner sole, which also has neoprene in it, so they’re really comfortable. IR: You mentioned how important digital marketing was to the growth of Merry People, but with Covid-19 and so many brands investing in their online presence, it’s a lot more crowded and harder to cut through online. How are you navigating this? DH: We’re not seeing it as much in Australia – maybe we got into the e-commerce space early enough – but definitely in the US and the UK. We want to try to reduce our reliance on paid traffic, so we’re doing other things, like working with a PR company and doing partnerships with different brands. In Australia, we did a collab with Obus, which is a Melbourne brand, and last year, we did one with Karen Walker. We’ve also done the International Flower & Garden Show in Melbourne for the last two years, which the whole team loves because we get to talk to customers. We’d love to do more of those events. The dream would be to have stores where people can come in and interact with us and touch and feel the product and try them on – it might not be that far away. A lot of people I’ve spoken to in e-commerce have said how much it’s helped overall trade, and maybe it makes the brand look more legitimate. For now, we’re trying to do offline things to help customers discover us and have trust in our brand. IR: Besides the cost of acquisition, are there any challenges on your radar? DH: It’s more of a personal thing, but I became a mum, and learning to balance being a founder and CEO and a mum has been a bit of a challenge. I feel like I’m continually trying to learn ways to make it work, so I can be a great mum and also a great leader. On the professional side, it’s probably cracking the US and the UK. It’s hard because I don’t know what the answer is, and I think a lot of brands are trying to expand internationally, but it just feels like we’re pushing really hard, particularly in the US. It’s growing, and maybe I’m just being impatient. I’m not sure if there will be this magic thing that happens, because that didn’t really happen in Australia either. IR: On the flipside, what do you see as the big opportunities or growth drivers for your business? DH: We’re trying to grow into unisex. Right now, we’re predominantly women. We get a lot of people who own dogs, people who are into the garden, people who work with animals, but at the moment, we market in a very feminine way, and colour is maybe inherently more feminine, so that’s what we’re pushing at the moment. It’s a big part of our growth strategy – we’re doing a brand refresh – but I want to make sure that we still hold onto the essence of Merry People. And then, I think collabs will be a big driver for us. We did a patterned boot with Obus that sold out within a week. If we could work with artists and some other brands that are known for patterns, that could be a really great way for people to learn about our brand. We’re also on a bit of a sustainability journey. When I first started the brand, I wanted to make a quality product that people could wear for years, and obviously I wanted to make sure that our boots were made in ethical situations. But I didn’t really know where to begin with sustainability. There’s so much information, and you look at what brands like Patagonia are doing, and I was like, ‘What is the best thing for Merry People?’ I recruited an adviser who worked in sustainability at Nike in the US and now lectures on sustainability in footwear and apparel at the University of Oregon. He’s been mentoring me and my product team, and we’re doing a lifecycle analysis [LCA]. I don’t want to do things just because they sound great for marketing purposes, or because that’s what everyone else is doing. We need to learn where Merry People is having the most impact in our supply chain, and we need to go after that first. We’re working with a chemist to make sure we’re balancing sustainability and making a quality product that lasts, and we’re testing recycled rubber outsoles. We’ll finish the LCA by the end of the year, and we’ll be able to update our customers on where we think we can minimise our impact in the world. As a founder, you start a business and just want to get it off the ground. Now, I see people wearing my products, and I imagine all these containers going around the world that I’m personally responsible for. I need to make sure that I’m doing the best I can to have the least amount of impact possible.