We're continuing the conversation with some fabulous founders building businesses in the 'animal product free' space - why they do what they do, what the market response has been + how they keep things firing when times are tough. We spoke with Jess + Stef Dadon, the style duo behind the inspiring HowTwoLive platform + Founders of shoe brand TWOOBS, Caroline Breure, Co-Founder of shoe brand No Saints + Co-Founders of bag brand, Ahimsa Collective, Susie Hemsted + Tessa Carroll. Approaching business with a feeling of abundance versus scarcity is one of the key reasons behind this post. These are small businesses still in startup mode - if you don't know of them, we invite you to look them up + and consider them for your next animal free bag or shoe purchase.
"THERE ARE TWO WAYS OF SPREADING LIGHT. TO BE THE CANDLE OR THE MIRROR THAT REFLECTS IT."- EDITH WHARTON
SB: What prompted you to start a business that didn’t use animals products as the building blocks?
J+S: We’ve both always been huge animal lovers so when we set out to create a brand it wasn’t even really something we discussed initially, it was practically a given that we wouldn’t use leather in anything we were going to create. Once we started sampling we realised that if we went one step further to ensure there weren’t any nasties hiding in places like our glues then we could service the vegan market with fashion-forward shoes which we were super excited about.
CB: I went vegan 2 years ago for ethical reasons and then realised I couldn't bear to wear my leather shoes and handbags anymore, which were some of my most treasured material possessions. I know that a lot of people continue to wear leather and change their wardrobe gradually after going vegan, but I honestly couldn't do it. Then I noticed just how few stylish animal free options were out there, not only in Australia, but worldwide. I realised it would still take years for mainstream brands to take notice of the increased demand for vegan products and took on the challenge myself. It felt like the perfect opportunity, as there was definitely a gap in the market, but also I would get to make a difference every time someone bought our shoes instead of leather ones. That's why I try to create products that will be coveted by people who have a great sense of style, regardless of whether they are vegan (and especially if they're not!), so our shoes need to be stylish and top quality.
S+T: As Co-Founders and individuals we believe that you can live a life without harming others, including animals. We were frustrated at the lack of non-leather alternatives in the market and with backgrounds in fashion and sales decided to stop complaining and do something about it. We are so excited to see this market now expanding, with incredible brands in the vegan space.
SB: Who (or what sort of businesses / individuals) do you collaborate with currently - and why - and how does their input add value to your business?
J+S: We're super passionate about supporting other females in business so usually when we're looking to collaborate with someone, whether it be for a product collab, outsourcing something or pulling together vendors for events, we'll try to opt for a female led team. This is something we actually took away from a podcast interview we did with Mia Freedman where she explained that this is something she aims to do in every aspect of her life, and we really loved that.
CB: I think I still need to improve in that sense of collaborating more and reaching out to people for help - a mentor or coach would be invaluable right now. I have however connected with former managers of mine who have gone down the entrepreneurial journey and are a few years ahead of me and their advice is always incredibly helpful, whether it is an idea, a new way of looking at things or tools and resources I could use. Plus there's nothing quite like talking to someone who's been on the same journey as it can feel quite lonely at times. I also have 2 business partners who have vast experience in strategy within big corporations, so they act like a sounding board for my decisions and help me think of the bigger picture and next steps.
S+T: Currently we collaborate with organisations like Clean Coast Collective & Riot Wine Co and like-minded people such as Ethical Made Easy, who are very value aligned in waste reduction and ethical/sustainable fashion. We always love when businesses reach out to us to collaborate, usually to develop a vegan alternative to their existing leather range.
SB: Do you feel you’re judged more harshly by the marketplace (compared to a business with pure profit vs purpose as the driver) because you’ve decided to go against the norm (ie by not using animal products)?
J+S: We launched TWOOBS in 2016 and definitely felt like at that point vegan was a bit of a dirty word that people didn’t find very attractive in fashion, so we opted for ‘animal-friendly’ instead. Fast forward three years and now it feels like the opposite, rather than being judged we’re finding customers celebrate what we stand for, even if they’re not vegan themselves in our experience people are excited to support a brand that’s doing good and standing up for what they believe in.
CB: Some people do have higher expectations of businesses who are vegan / eco-conscious / sustainable and expect us to be perfect. But there's definitely not as much judgement as I expected! While I was creating No Saints I braced myself for the worst, as I read so much criticism on vegan leather, for example, and thought I needed to be absolutely perfect to avoid any backlash (which we know is impossible!). With time I realised that if I'm doing my best and living my values, it will be enough for most consumers and the authenticity will come through in everything we do.
S+T: No, not at all. In fact our experience has been the opposite with the marketplace really championing our sustainable and ethical values. It can take some explaining as to why we took this route, but once it's understood, it's warmly received.
SB: When you’ve had a rough day in startup / small / mid size business land - what do you do to keep your focus clear + your spirits high?
J+S: Running a business can be super isolating so we’re lucky that there’s two of us in it, and we’re rarely feeling off at the same time so usually if one is down the other will pick them back up. We also like to keep our team productive and positive so we do things like a group stretch at 3pm, we write little compliments for each other at the end of each week, and we love to watch documentaries - this afternoon our team watched Brene Brown’s Netflix Special. Highly recommend!
CB: There are indeed so many rough days in a startup's journey! Firstly I force myself to take a little break, even if just for an hour. As a founder you sometimes keep going for hours on end and it's better to come back to it with a clear head and a fresh perspective. I also try and brainstorm what I can do to make things better (whatever the issue in question is) and write it all down - it seems little, but it gives me back the sense of being in control and that there's nothing that can't be solved.
S+T: Go to our local yoga studio for a brain debunk, or if it's really bad...a gin & tonic and completely switch off. Really it's all about coming back to our ‘why’ and the reason we started this business. We all have rough days and it's a case of just letting go, knowing that tomorrow is a new day.
SB: How important is the triple bottom line measure for your business (people / profit / planet) + have you reached out to others to help you bring this reporting into your business?
J+S: Initially when we set out to create a footwear label, the fact that it was animal friendly and made by great people were the things we cared about, and we hadn't thought that much about how else our production might be impacting the environment. Now it’s something we’re constantly striving to do better, and how we’re impacting people and planet drives majority of our decisions. We’re moving in a really positive direction but right now it's also about finding the balance between a start up budget and doing good which has its challenges. We don't have all the answers, so something we’ve been chatting about is bringing on a sustainability consultant to help guide us.
CB: Being a vegan business, the concern with the environment, people and animals is in our core. We have a concern for these 3 aspects in everything we do, every material we select and every choice we make. We haven't started reporting this yet, but it's definitely in our plans. One of our goals is to become a B Corp in the near future too.
S+T: Ahimsa means ’non suffering’ and we apply this to our treatment of the people, animals and the planet. With this as our guiding principle, the triple bottom line measure is very important to us. We donate $5 from every sale to a charity that is working to make the planet a better place. We also only work with suppliers and manufacturers who meet our standards and share our ethos.
We'd like to thank these women for their insights + vulnerability in answering our q's. Startup life has so many challenges - and equally, plenty of (sometimes intangible) rewards. Our top 5 takeouts from Part 2 of The Purpose + the Passion:
- Get yourself a co-founder ! (we say this tongue in cheek...it's not always an option to have a partner in crime...don't be afraid to go it alone if that's your path).
- Continuous improvement is the mantra - not perfection today.
- When times are tough, remind yourself of your WHY.
- When times are really tough, escape for a bit + decompress.
- Ask for help when you need it.