Home-based online business booms

JAMIE SMALL
Last updated 16:04 11/08/2014
Franny McInnes
CHRIS HILLOCK/Fairfax NZ

TENTH ANNIVERSARY: Franny McInnes uses her garage as an office and storeroom for her maternity clothing business.

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She runs an international business out of her garage, and Franny McInnes is a paradox.

Soft-spoken and petite, but full of energy and constantly busy. A stay-at-home mum and successful businesswoman.

She's anxious about the idea of moving her storage into an industrial unit, because she might not get to spend enough time with her kids.

Meanwhile, she has three factories in China, and one in Christchurch, producing her goods.

McInnes runs an online store called Breastmates, selling clothing and accessories for pregnant women and mothers.

This year marks her 10th anniversary in a business that started off by selling home made clothing on TradeMe.

McInnes says she was broke and trying to make a few extra bucks while looking after her first son. "So I'd just make things for his nursery, then make 30 more and sell them on TradeMe."

She would make clothes for her son, photograph them and list them in an auction, then if someone made a bid she would make another set to sell.

The business has never had any debt or financing; the brand was built up bit by bit.

Now McInnes is sending out 50 to 60 parcels a day.

She built her own basic website using a Yahoo platform, and started selling other brands. "It was pretty ugly, but it worked," she says.

The other brands didn't last, though, and McInnes started developing her own line.

"This happened slowly over time, as suppliers let me down by discontinuing a popular seller for example, and I didn't originally have any control over the styles available," she says. "I have my own range that isn't in other stores. There's heaps of baby stores but they all just have the same stuff."

McInnes didn't have any fashion training; she worked as an engineer before becoming a mother.

"It wasn't my passion," she says.

But she is handy with a sewing machine, and she says her experience as a mother helped her design maternity clothes with breastfeeding access that would be easy to use.

McInnes says for the first four years Breastmates was a hobby, and she had a part-time job as well.

In 2010, she got a professional website with an integrated online store.

Her database of customers is so big she can't email newsletters to them all or the visitor load - as many as 10,000 visits in 20 minutes - crashes the website.

So McInnes manages her marketing and targets select groups at a time.

She spends a lot of time on the computer working analysing spreadsheets of customers.

"I love Excel," she says, a remnant of her time as an engineer.

Finding new customers is especially important in the maternity business.

"It's a bit difficult because I focus on pregnancy and new mums. I kind of have customers for a limited time."

McInnes likes to use Facebook to engage with her fans in a more casual manner, but thinks most of her marketing is done for her by happy customers.

"I think the most word of mouth occurs when mums are chatting in real life, and wearing my clothing designs, and not just at a computer screen."

Australia has its own dedicated Breastmates website, and about 30% of the company's business comes from across the ditch.

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Orders also crop up from far and wide, including Ireland, England, Canada and Ukraine. A couple of weeks ago McInnes sent a package off to Uganda.

She is keen to keep the business growing, and it's reaching the point of having to move out of the garage.

"It's not what I planned, it just keeps evolving."

Her first employees, two part-timers, started this year.

"That's a learning curve to try and delegate and get everything out of my brain."

She's also exploring the option of going into the food business, making cookies and shakes for breastfeeding mothers.

jamie.small@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

- Waikato Times

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