We spoke to Michele Riley, founder of Korean natural beauty retailer Niche & Cult.
What inspired you to start Niche & Cult?
It all started thirty two years ago, when my first child was born. Like any mother, I wanted to protect and nurture the small being I’d created, and I suddenly became aware of the synthetic, harmful chemicals that are in so many everyday products.
So, my first venture was into natural baby products. This response was electric (this was at a time when being vegetarian was considered extreme!) and then in 2011 I sidestepped into the natural beauty world (by accident, If I’m honest). But again, it rocketed, and my brand—The Konjac Sponge Co—is now a registered trademark, sold all over the world.
In 2018 we decided we might as well add some other beauty products to our arsenal: we have the warehousing, staff, contacts and customers, so it was a no-brainer for us to expand the business this way.
Our sponges are manufactured in South Korea, where our Konjac plants grow. The South Koreans really know their stuff when it comes to beauty: they almost always have beautiful skin, they take good care of themselves, and they age slowly. So it was a logical step forward for us to move into natural, Korean beauty, and that’s when we became Niche & Cult.
How do you handle shipping and fulfilment?
Our products are all shipped by container direct from South Korea about once a month. It’s always a bit of a challenge when they arrive, so we all muck in unloading them and putting them away.
But the dispatches are daily. Picking and packing them is a job for the warehouse, and then three or four different courier firms come and collect them. I’ve found that printed invoices are still absolutely essential: they’re ticked once by the picker, then again by the packer. It’s so helpful for the customer to see that we’ve checked and double checked that they’re getting what they ordered.
The beauty industry develops rapidly: how do you keep up with the latest advancements?
Trade shows, research and having a wonderful bunch of brand contacts in South Korea.
But gut instinct is also really important. Brands offer me new products every week, but I’m always looking for that special something that gives great results. I’ve always felt that one of my strengths in business is being the average shopper: if I feel compelled to try or buy a product, others probably will too. So far, being average has paid off!
How have you grown the site?
Social media has always been our go-to, especially Instagram. But when we launched The Konjac Sponge Co back in 2011, it was all about Twitter: it was me, personally, engaging with bloggers, influencers and makeup artists. And we still have some great contacts from the people we met in those days.
We’re also always keeping an eye out for awards we can enter our products for. They might be costly, but whether we win or not, they put our products out there.
Now we’re about to start a loyalty scheme that encourages customers to leave reviews, earn points and return to us regularly. Getting customers is hard, but retaining their loyalty is even harder. So we’re very much focused on happy customers!
What are the biggest challenges Niche & Cult has faced?
The biggest issue for us has been changing the name of the business from the Konjac Sponge Co to Niche & Cult: no one knew who we were, and we needed to get traffic to the new domain. I wasn’t prepared for how hard it is to keep up with the latest algorithms! We don’t have a tech team, so we have to outsource, but that’s very costly, and with so many people cold-emailing you trying to sell you their skills, it’s a minefield. How technology has changed over the last 20 years…
The main way we’re overcoming these issues is by providing great offers, like our current “lockdown boxes,” where the customer pays just £20 for over £60 worth of products. Obviously this isn’t profitable, we’re doing it as a marketing exercise: the customers join our database, love the products, and shout about them on social media.
Tell us about the tech you use.
Our company runs through Unleashed. I’ve been with them since 2013, and they’ve been such a huge support: I love how there are real people at the end of the line. It links to our Xero accounts page, as well as Shopify and Magento, which saves so much time and effort.
With KSC we’ve just switched to Shopify, which, although quite expensive, is absolutely fabulous. But nothing beats the feeling when my phone pings to let me know every time there’s been a sale! I also love the analytics, being able to see live interaction on the site, and having the ability to switch from site to site. But it’s definitely possible to get carried away and trial apps that end up costing a fortune!
Other daily essentials are:
- Growave (this seems amazing, but we’re still trialling it)
- Mailchimp (we’d be lost without it)
- Receiptbank (this is a life saver!)
- Timetastic (this lets the staff book their holidays: it’s fabulous)
What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in ecommerce?
Don’t just expect your store to work! It takes many hours of hard work (it’s not a 9-5 job) and a whole lot of luck!
Never think you’re better than anyone else. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and remember customer service is everything: they pay your salary, so you should listen to them. Even today I received an email from a customer who felt one word on our website (“extreme”) was misleading: we’d been using that word for the last ten years, but I listened, refunded her to keep her happy, and changed the word.
Finally, be open to advice from others, but take it as an opinion, not gospel, and then listen to your gut: it’s usually right.
What do you think the future will look like: for ecommerce, and for Niche & Cult?
That’s a big question, and one I find difficult to answer: I have no idea what the future holds. But I do know that things aren’t going to go back to exactly how they were. Our direct to consumer sales have drastically increased, and it seems that people want more bargains than ever. We’ve found that more people are signing up as account holding customers, expanding our email database.
But business is like a child. You can’t just decide that in ten years’ time you want it to be 6ft 2” with blonde hair and brown eyes: it’ll evolve organically. I’ll roll with the changes, embrace the development, and nurture it as it grows. That’s part of the thrill of it, surely?
Tell us about some art that has inspired you!
I’m a huge fan of Maria Svarbova, an incredible Slovakian photographer (check her out on Instagram). Her images literally entrance me: there’s something so haunting about them. I have two of her original pieces on my wall at home, and they inspire me to slow down and reflect every day.
This is another interview in our series speaking to ethical online entrepreneurs: we hope they’ll be helpful and inspirational for anyone trying to find their way in business. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!