Founder of Lavenderia shares the story behind her eco-friendly startup

- September 24, 2013 9 MIN READ

Lavenderia NappyCare is Australia’s eco-friendly, modern cloth nappy washing and delivery service – providing nappy hire and washing services to families, hospitals and the child care industry. The business was built with a strict focus on eco-friendly work practices, utilising ‘cutting edge’ laundering and disinfection technology to meet the highest standards of hygiene without using toxic or harmful chemicals.

Founder of Lavenderia, Louisa Forrest, talks about the genesis, the highs and lows, and the lessons learned throughout her startup journey.

What inspired you to pursue this social enterprise? How would you say your startup is unique and disruptive?

Our business is unique in that we go to almost extreme lengths to do the right thing by the environment wherever possible. We have spent a huge amount of time on research and money creating eco-friendly product lines and use eco-friendly chemicals in our business. We also use very modern disinfection technology – so modern that the standards for our industry don’t even know that it exists!

We are a very unique business within the industry because our focus is always environmental first, profits second. The laundry industry within Australia is not particularly progressive when it comes to environmental awareness and we found it very hard to establish ourselves as a green operation. Within the USA market there are industry awards and recognition for ‘green’ laundering practices however this type of recognition is not given in Australia.

There are few companies out there providing truly green laundry solutions and we are very pleased and supportive of the suppliers we have established relationships with. They support our vision and in turn we support their initiatives and encourage them to keep moving forward towards even greener and more sustainable product designs.

Additionally, our business is operated entirely remotely. We do not have staff in an office. Our team is spread all over Australia and the world and we run everything via cloud based programs and email. Provided the procedures are kept updated and processes are followed, it works well for us and the team love the flexibility.

When you conceived of the idea, did you choose to raise money or bootstrap? Why?

We decided to bootstrap it. The Founder, Sean Corbett who is also my husband had been made redundant after 15 years with a growing company and a 25 year career within the finance sector. It was quite a shock to us and took a lot of adjustment.

During the initial few months when Sean was re-evaluating what to do with his life, he said he wanted to leave a legacy – ‘something Sminch (our daughter’s nickname) would be proud of’.

With that in mind, we brainstormed business ideas eventually settling on the laundry and dry cleaning industry. My husband created the concept and it was agreed we would use some of his pay out to fund the initial start-up and I was to get the business on its feet. We had to live off his pay out too – for over a year – which meant things got tight very quickly. It was stressful and scary for us both. I was terrified and didn’t always believe I could get the thing up and running.

Over two years have passed now and I am still running the business plus several other smaller businesses that all work together around the ethos of green living, green loving and being a ‘Mother FOR Nature’.

My husband has returned to the finance sector and is assisting greatly by providing ongoing funding as the businesses continue to grow. Whilst growth in business is fantastic and is often the initial aim, what most people do not realise is that business growth is also the most expensive phase to go through. It costs a fortune to successfully grow a company and we have become more than aware of this fact over the past 9 months as we have achieved over 500% growth.

Our team has grown from 1 + me to a team of 9 people now. We started with small machines of only 7kgs and now have 60+kg commercial machines in our depot. We started using only our personal car for deliveries and now have a fleet of 3 cars for our team to use.

Whilst we ‘boostrapped’ in that we did not raise capital (hindsight suggests we probably should have!) we also mortgaged ourselves heavily to pour as much into the business as we could. Personally funding the business makes for it a scary yet exciting proposition. My husband is the natural Accountant type of personality and he ensures we keep a sharp eye on our expenditure!

What is the size of your market? What slice of that market are you hoping to gain?

Before we started our business, there was no established market for what we had to offer. We had to create the market as we went along.

There had been many terry towelling cloth nappy services in the past however they have all closed down and we are the only service available throughout the entire Sydney area. Initially, we were the only service of our kind in Australia however more and more companies are popping up and leveraging off our concept. It is a great thing for the industry overall and a strong step in the right direction for Australia.

We hope to grow the business and become the main provider of cloth nappy hire and washing services for the national Child Care industry and for hospitals all over the country.

We have plans to grow the business nationally and have been asked to discuss this at an industry forum next year. To be asked was both humbling and an honour for us.

After you conceived of the idea, how did you go about building the business? How much money did you spend on building it?

When we came up with the concept, we didn’t want to jump into to it too quickly. I had previously operated businesses from start-up and made the mistake of biting off more than I could chew and not planning properly.

We tested the market a lot in a small and receptive demographic within the Blue Mountains. We did our own washing and then outsourced to a small family owned laundry in Leura.

We soon realised that we needed our own venue / depot, our own machines and a way to ensure we were meeting the industry standards. We found the CHEAPEST place in all of Sydney, gave it a good clean, several coats of paint and a new floor then filled it with our first lot of machines.

After that, business went from strength to strength and we hired people to work with us. We needed to ensure we could afford our team without increasing overheads. My previous time as a small business outsourcing consultant came to the fore here and we found that we could hire great people, have them work remotely and the business was not affected negatively. In fact, it started growing even faster.

We spent maybe $10 000 on the initial start-up investment of stock, company registration, insurances etc. Since then the expenditure is about 30 times that however we are growing very fast and this means infrastructure upgrades occur every 3 – 6 months i.e. more staff, new machines, cars, more and more stock.

How are you marketing your enterprise?

I am a big believer in marketing is the MOST important part of your business success and therefore needs to be a significant portion of your budget, in fact upwards of 80% of your time (and money if you can afford it!) should be spent on marketing.

We have tried all types of marketing, some with great results, others with less than average results.

Over time we can to realise that online marketing campaigns worked best with our core demographic being Mums. Mums rarely have time to read newspapers, don’t read their junk mail and are ALWAYS on their smart phones.

We have also set up a number of successful joint ventures with other businesses who have gone on to become our marketing partners. We also believe that even if a business says no to what we have to offer THEM, that they will often say yes to becoming a marketing partner and will happily feature our products and services for free in newsletters, via flyers, handout, gifts, sponsorships, vouchers and displays.

What is your business model?

We are a distributor / retailer business model with a lease / service element. We are looking to expand into a franchise model over the next 12 – 18 months.

As a business, the way we have chosen to operate is an expensive model in terms of initial capital required and certainly not something for the faint hearted!

What are some of Lavenderia’s positive achievements thus far?

Lavenderia Group which incorporates Lavenderia NappyCare, The Eco Mum, Mum’s Outlet and Eco Nappy Cakes has together purchased over 200 trees with Carbon Neutral to offset emissions. This makes us by far the greenest nappy solution available today.

Any new products we create are launched with a purchase of trees to offset emissions produced. We also work very hard to either distribute Australian made and owned products or use suppliers that support fair labour practices. Recently our manufacturer informed us that there would be a delay on our order of two weeks because they were sending staff home due to the high temperatures at the time. This, whilst inconvenient for the business, made us smile because we know they were looking after their team and that is important to us.

By far our greatest achievement is building this business with very little help or support from the industry or industry bodies. We tried and tried to get assistance, guidance and support however we were not even acknowledged most of the time. We cannot even get membership to industry bodies because no one is running them! Now, we have great relationships with a few progressive thinking suppliers and our little group of companies support and uplift each other.

We are launching the Nappy Launderers and Lenders Guild of Australia to provide that support and we are a founding member of the Australian Nappy Association.

Without industry support, it meant we had to spend so much time and money on research and testing that could have been avoided or circumvented by answers from industry bodies however it now means we are in a position to create a standardised approach to washing modern cloth nappies, Australia wide because we are the only authority on the subject within the laundry industry.

What have been the biggest challenges as a startup?

As mentioned above, the hardest part of our business journey was the total lack of support or guidance from the industry. We were new to the laundry industry and the standards had been written over 10 years ago, before modern cloth nappies were even heard of in Australia. This meant that if we followed standards, our nappies were destroyed – within the first 90 degree celcius wash cycle!

We had to find ways to work around the standards as they were set out (i.e. chlorinate or use very high temperatures) whilst still meeting bench marks for stain removal and hygiene (i.e. coliform bacterial count). It took a while but with much persistence and tenancity, a few sleepless night, many long talks over a lot of wine, we managed to work with a few key progressive supply companies to come up with a solution that meant all boxes were ticked, our nappies were safe and the waterways would not be filled with more toxic chemicals. We are very proud of this achievement.

What is your plan for the upcoming year?

We plan to continue our expansion into the child care industry and ramp up our operation. We have just taken on more staff and are also planning the launch of an online magazine for Mums and bubs who wish to live more cleanly, more greenly and more simply.

We are expanding our products lines across all 5 businesses to include innovative and natural products from around Australia as well as some of the most amazing products created overseas. We have just been granted exclusive distribution rights to an incredible product line that is used by some of the world’s elite and even Royalty!

As mentioned before, we have been asked to present our business for consideration to a large panel of established businesses around Australia next year. This is a very exciting opportunity for us and will enable rapid, national expansion.

We are very exciting about all these developments.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

We started this business after my first two businesses collapsed, I suffered a massive breakdown and my husband was laid off from a 25 year career in finance. We had a baby, mortgages and no income.

Some said that starting a business was financial suicide, some laughed at our ideas when we told them of our background and struggles in business previously.

A few people though had an intuitive feel, just like we did, that we were onto something, that this could be something amazing. We have taken huge risks to the point where if something went wrong, we would lose everything. We had no logical reason to do so; we just knew we had to. We have always grown our business from our intuition, not only from the numbers.

The five most important things we have learned since starting out in this business are:

1. Always, always, always trust your instincts. Never sway from what your gut feeling is telling you to do, no matter what anyone says or how impossible it may seem.

2. Good people will make your business. Bad people will break it. Hire your team with your head and heart fully alert and involved. Take a step back in interviews, watch body language, listen carefully. You will see everything you need to know by how the person speaks and conducts themselves. Hire from your gut instinct.

3. There WILL be days when you will hate it, when you will cry in frustration and anguish, when you will want to walk away. Know that going into it, plan for those days and have someone – just one person – who totally believes in you and what you’re trying to do. Keep them on standby ready to talk things over with. Always keep a bottle of wine in the fridge and chocolate in the cupboard. You will need it.

4. Be flexible with your team. If you hire good people from the beginning, you can afford to be flexible. Trust them – they know your front line, your clients, better than anyone because THEY deal with them. Ask their advice, get their suggestions, watch how they work. Let YOUR TEAM show you how it can be done. Work together and don’t micro-manage or boss them around.

5. Be prepared-financially and in every other way–for setbacks. They WILL come, it IS inevitable and you must be ready for it.

More information on Lavenderia is available via www.lavenderia.com.au.