Elizabeth O'Connor-Cowley - Director, eeni meeni miini moh

Elizabeth O'Connor-Cowley
'It's good fun but hard work! You need clear vision, passion and sheer determination. If running a business were easy, everyone would be doing it!'

For a business that has been going for only six and a half years, eeni meeni miini moh is making its mark in children's fashion on the world stage. The company was recently short-listed for the Premier of Queensland's Award for Emerging Exporter and also won two categories (Kids and Innovation) in the 2006 Australian Fashion Design Awards.

Cate Blanchett's son, Ignatius, and Naomi Watts' baby, Alexander, have also been seen in the eeni meeni miini moh signature beanie. Made from all-natural fibres, the eeni meeni miini moh range is unique and is in great demand from mums and dads the world over.

What is eeni meeni miini moh?

eeni meeni miini moh is a children's lifestyle brand. Primarily we create seasonal collections for newborn babies to 12-year-olds. Within the next six to 12 months, however, we will also be expanding the brand to include soft toys, accessories and a bed linen range to complement our children's fashion collections.

How did you come up with the idea?

Initially, I studied visual arts at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) majoring in painting and realised that I would need to do something else to feed myself. Shortly after graduating, I fell into the commercial furniture industry where I worked for a German brand and stayed for 10 years. I have a real passion for contemporary furniture and loved working with interior designers and architects. I've always been ambitious and entrepreneurial and had a great desire to design a product, produce it and market it to the world. The only problem was that I had no idea what that product was going to be!

For years it tormented me and I searched high and low for that 'big idea'. It wasn't until my husband and I were on a holiday in Europe and looking for gifts to bring back for a friends' children. We found ourselves in many gorgeous children's boutiques and suddenly we thought 'that's it!' We could develop our own contemporary, innovative children's fashion and lifestyle brand!

How long did it take to get started?

From the initial idea to our first container arriving was 18 months. Both my husband, Philip, and I had demanding careers and it was 18 months of much planning and long, long hours working late into the night most nights and every weekend. During the product development/planning stage, I fell pregnant and gave birth to our first son but somehow we got there in the end!

Were you ready to go into shops when that first container arrived?

Yes and no! While we had product to sell, we didn't have a single confirmed order to dispatch! Our freight forwarder said to us 'right, when the container arrives, bring all your orders over and we'll get them picked and packed and out to store'. Philip and I looked at each other, laughed nervously and said 'we don't have any orders'. He was horrified!

We had plans to present our product at a Lifestyle/Gift trade fair in Sydney that month so there was a plan! It was imperative that we came across as being professional and having product in stock so we took the risk of ordering a container – that was a massive risk. We were determined to work hard to make it happen. We both have vision, passion and drive, so 'failure' was not in our vocabulary.

Do you have children of your own?

We didn't when we first planned eeni meeni miini moh but we do now. We have two beautiful boys – Emrys who recently turned seven and Anselm who is almost four.

How is your work-life balance? Do you work harder now you're running your own business?

Absolutely! I read your interview with Anita Gleeson in Be Your Own Boss who works her own hours and ramps her time up or down depending on what's happening in her life. I wish! We don't have that luxury, I'm afraid. It's all just full-on for us and has been from the start. The seasons just keep ticking around so there's no down time unfortunately.

What's your point of difference from other children's fashions on the market?

I'd say our colour palettes and styling. Our design language is unique and we only use natural fibres. We often receive feedback from our customers expressing their satisfaction for our high quality and the fact that our product washes well.

Do you manufacture in Australia?

We design our collections here in Australia and manufacture offshore to enable us to compete in the global market. Another reason that we have our garments made overseas is that we can't source some things locally, like the trims and accessories that we want to use. We also design and specify the fabrics – and have them milled to our specifications to ensure our products are unique.

What about the growth of your business in terms of staff?

Initially it was mainly me in the planning stages. Once that first container arrived, Philip came on board and it was just the two of us for the first six months. Then we were approached by a production coordinator who used to work for another company. To be honest, we didn't even know what a production coordinator's responsibilities were at that stage. We thought 'there's no way we'd be able to afford to hire people' but we decided to meet with her nevertheless. We immediately realised that we'd be mad not to bring her on board in some capacity! After two weeks part time, she became full time because there was no way we could manage without her! Shortly after that, we hired someone part time to help us with picking and packing. That person is still with us but not in a picking and packing role. Today we have a team of 15 so we've definitely grown over the past six and a half years.

How important is publicity and marketing and what do you focus on?

Marketing is vital. We advertise each season in leading children's fashion magazines and, in addition, we receive a lot of editorial in Australia and overseas. Each season we also produce catalogues which are very expensive, but in our opinion they're a very worthwhile form of marketing. Another avenue is our website which is going to be updated soon.

Trade fairs are another great way of building brand awareness. Each season we present our collections at the very prestigious Pitti Immagine Bimbo in Florence, Italy alongside the world's leading boutique brands including Armani Junior, Baby Dior, Kenzo, DKNY and Burberry. Participation is by invitation only and we we're honoured to be the first Australian brand to be invited to showcase our collections in a stand-alone space.

Your company was a finalist in the 'Emerging Exporter' category for the Premier of Queensland's Export Awards. How did this feel?

We were one of four finalists out of 64 nominees in this category so it was a bit of a coup for us. It's a feather in our cap that we are recognised as an emerging exporter. Export doesn't form a large part of our business as yet, but we certainly believe that, in the future, it will be a major growth area.

Have you had support from government?

Yes, we have. Advice is good and some of the people in the various Austrade and Trade Queensland offices around the world are very helpful. Earlier in our development we received support from the Queensland Government in the form of their QIDS and Small Business Accelerator Program grants.

We've also received some assistance from Austrade with our export marketing, but unfortunately that was limited last year because so many people applied for assistance.

As a small company, we're grateful for all the government support we receive. It makes a huge difference, particularly assistance with marketing.

Financially, is the company going well?

Yes, we're definitely growing. There are challenges that we face each week. The industry is very competitive – new players come into the game all the time, and others go. We're certainly growing but that's not without challenges.

What's the hardest part of running your own business?

Ultimately, as a director and business owner, we take on 100 per cent of the risk. At the end of the day, if something goes wrong, it's all on our shoulders.

The hours are also hard – particularly with a young family. Philip and I do a lot of hours in the office but we also do a great deal at home. So our children do suffer from the long hours we put in.

The business never leaves us. We take it into the shower, we take it to the grocery store, we take it to bed!

What's the best part?

You get to choose the people you work with, for a start. You get to choose your team and we have a fantastic team. Also, you're definitely in control of your own destiny so if things aren't going in the direction that you'd like them to go, you can change course and steer things in a different direction to arrive at the goal that you're striving for.

What advice would you give to others thinking of starting their own business?

Definitely employ people who have a great attitude. We think it's imperative to get the right type of people. We hire first on attitude and secondly on skills. You can teach someone skills but you can't teach someone with a bad attitude how to get a good one. Unfortunately, we didn't employ people to assist us in the planning/start-up stage, which meant our initial growth was slower than it might have been. It's all a juggling act and it's difficult when you don't have a lot of funds.

In summary – it's good fun but hard work! You need clear vision, passion and sheer determination. If running a business were easy, everyone would be doing it!

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