After running her vegan store online for 11 years, Jessica Bailey opened her first physical shop in Sydney, Australia, in 2012, followed by a Melbourne location two years later. The Cruelty Free Shop owner shares some of the lessons learned in her entrepreneurial journey.
Your purpose or mission behind the Cruelty Free Shop has changed over the years. Tell us about this.
My main goal in starting and continuing the business is to make it easy for people to become and stay vegan and that was my first driver. Since then it’s also become also a public education exercise as well ; now that we have an actual shop front, we can reach the public with the animal rights message via our windows or just by talking with people who walk in and ask questions.
So our ‘why’ has evolved. It’s gone from providing a service to the vegan community to helping to make it easier to be vegan, to public education.
You sell a range of other people’s products and there can be a bit of a price mark up on them. How do you deal with that challenge to stay competitive?
There’s nothing we can do to compete with big supermarkets or the mainstream products and trying is pointless. All that does is cheapen your brand and put you out of business. We’ve calculated that we have to sell products at a certain price point to stay in business and so we price our products at that level.
Yes, we’re more expensive than the supermarkets but people understand that and are prepared to pay a bit more, not just for the product itself but also for the service that comes with it.
How do you go about finding and keep experienced and motivated staff?
None of my staff are experienced when they start. Everyone gets trained in the business and they’re all vegans so they’re all passionate about the business. Everyone seems to be really happy working here. They believe in what they’re doing and it’s a friendly environment so they tend to stay.
Do you advertise for staff within the vegan community?
I don’t advertise for staff because I’m too concerned that customers will apply and not get the job and get annoyed! So it’s always just through friends and contacts. One staff member is a former customer who used to come in all the time and one day just said, ‘Are you looking for anyone?’ And I said, ‘Oh yes, you’re the right type of person!’
We hire purely based on personality. Anyone can learn how to use a register or pack an order; it’s about who fits with the team and their passion. It’s really important to me that if someone who’s thinking of becoming vegan comes in and ask questions, the person answering them needs to be really passionate about it. I tell staff that if someone comes into the shop and wants to ask questions about veganism, give them all the time they need.
Now there are more vegan stores, particularly online, how do you stay competitive within the vegan business arena?
I’d much rather be competing with other vegan businesses than big supermarkets or non-vegan businesses. There is room as the vegan market is growing. I think we’re quite established and people know us. Plus we have the largest range and we ship all over Australia, so I think we still have a competitive edge.
Moving from an online business to one with two physical locations is a big move in terms of increased overheads. How did you know it was time to expand like this?
The online shop had got to the point where it didn’t fit in my house any longer. The whole lounge room was taken up with it, plus half my bedroom. My partner Stuart and I had a feeling that it would do well and that it would attract a different set of people, particularly those who are not comfortable with online shopping.
We also thought it would be a good complement to the online store – that online customers could come in and see everything and then go home and place their orders online next time and that’s actually worked out. The online store sales haven’t been affected by the shop which is a relief. Growth has slowed a bit but not significantly. We expanded to reach more people.
We had only two years between opening the Sydney location and the Melbourne one because we did some analysis on our online sales and it turned out that a huge percentage – around 60 per cent – of our sales were coming from Melbourne online. When we found out the local vegan store there was closing, we moved quickly to establish the Cruelty Free Shop in a fantastic location near other vegan businesses. It’s been a very successful move.
What qualities are needed to run a successful vegan business?
A lot of discipline and a willingness to work ridiculous hours. You have to be willing to self-promote a lot which can be hard because we’re taught to not ‘brag’.
You have to be able to change with the market and change with what’s going on really quickly. You can’t get set in your ways at all. You have to be flexible and you have to let go of stuff as well. I’ve been learning about the ‘owner’s syndrome’ with businesses where the owners get so embedded and entrenched that they won’t let go of things and that actually impedes the growth of the business.
Being being able to trust other people and delegate to them is important, as is a willingness to learn.
What advice would you give to people who are still employed but are inspired to start their own vegan-run business?
I felt that it was important to test the water first by starting up the business while I was still fully employed. I wasn’t prepared to jump all in as I had a young son to support so I couldn’t afford to take that sort of risk.
If you’re starting up your own business I think it’s really good to do it as a hobby to start with just to get a feel for how it’s going to work because lots of people have lots of ideas and not all of them are going to work. So if you do it that way, the only thing you’re giving up is your leisure time. And if it is a good idea and it does take off, then you can quit your job and run the business full time.
The Cruelty Free Shop will have a stall at the Sydney Vegan Expo on 24 May.