Caroline McCulloch is the co-founder of FRANKiE4 footwear.
Launched in 2010, the Brisbane brand is making giant strides in the bespoke footwear market, expanding from its Indooroopilly and Windsor stores into more than 90 stockists, growing online sales and an annual production run of more than 100,000 pairs of shoes.
Each pair is laced together with Caroline's background in podiatry and physiotherapy - expertise which the Brookfield mother-of-two says is integral to the company's burgeoning reputation.
"You can't separate podiatry and footwear - there's a natural link there," she says.
"It shouldn't be a case of having to choose whether you want shoes that are supportive or stylish. We pride ourselves on providing designs which are slimline, light and on-trend while helping to alleviate and prevent foot pain without the look of a chunky orthopaedic shoe.
"As a podiatrist who loves fashion, I'd never recommend a pair of shoes I wouldn't wear myself!"
Tried and tested by physios, podiatrists and nurses, and stocked across three continents, there's certainly no doubting the sole power of this Brisbane success story.
What is your greatest business learning?
In the 14 years of managing my business I've learnt a lot.
I have pretty much done every role in our businesses; I've been the podiatrist, the receptionist, in charge of marketing, I've liaised with website developers, managed fit-outs, I've negotiated business leases, recruited staff, terminated staff, put through wages and created rosters, and I've done my fair share of pick and packing.
I used to worry about everything all the time, particularly when things would go wrong, but I am such a different person to who I was when I started this business.
I have learnt that the toughest times, the times that felt scariest, were the times that I was pushed and nudged in the right direction.
Each season I am more knowledgeable and confident because of what I learnt during the times that I felt tested. So now, rather than feel overwhelmed I can field curve balls in a cool-headed manner. It is a more sustainable way for me to grow this business, but it was certainly something I had to learn.
What is your greatest business success?
We operated in the red for a long time and it felt as though we were never going to break even. FRANKiE4 sucked every cent of profit out of our Brisbane-based podiatry clinics (AllPodiatry & The Shoe Co). I didn't want this to be an expensive hobby, I desperately wanted to have a profitable and respected footwear business.
Simply operating in the black feels like success to me. Combined, my companies turned over just shy of $10 million in the last financial year.
I'm also very proud that I use FRANKiE4 to raise funds for BrainChild. I developed a sock range where net proceeds of all sock sales go to help this foundation. I'm on track to raise $10,000 for them before the end of the year. I'm ensuring that when I look back, success will be feeling proud of how I operated my business. So far, so good!
What three things should someone consider before starting a business?
- You must love what you do. I love building this business, piece by piece. To me, there aren't enough hours in the day to do what I want to do. I can start work in the morning and before I know it it's time to pick up the kids. I truly love what I do and that's what keeps me resilient during tough times. I simply can't have this business fail, because there is nothing else I want to do. If you don't have that passion for a business you want, you put yourself at risk of quitting when the chips are down.
- Be sure you have a market. One of the reasons we did FRANKiE4 is because we could clearly see there was a gap in the market for fashionable functional footwear. Before FRANKiE4, for many years my husband and I sold other footwear brands in our podiatry clinics to our patients (allpodiatry.com.au). I was able to see and hear firsthand what women wanted. I could see that there was an opportunity to provide a product that women were looking for.
- Hook in. If you're not prepared to hook in and do some long hours, stomach some stressful decisions and make some sacrifices, especially in the early days, then opening up a business is probably not for you.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
Could I have handled or done things better along the way? Yes, absolutely. But truth be told, I really don't have many regrets.
In hindsight, I'm very grateful for some of my failures or setbacks. I can see they were the times that made me re-evaluate and often re-invent myself or my strategy. I've had many setbacks and failures, I have re-invented myself and my business many times over, and I feel this is the reason my businesses are successful. I learn from my mistakes, I improve, I get stronger, more agile, smarter, and become a better businesswoman each season.
What have you found to be the most effective way to promote your business?
Shoes on feet! My product speaks for itself and word of mouth I believe is the most powerful marketing tool. For example, I organised for doctors and physiotherapists that were local to our concept stores to be gifted a pair of FRANKiE4's. This has helped referrals to both FRANKiE4 and AllPodiatry & The Shoe Co.
I'd rather people experience the FRANKiE4 difference themselves and spread the word rather than focusing heavily on technical information.
How do you stay up to date with the latest business information?
I follow the Australian Financial Review and Footwear News. I have multiple reports I receive from my staff on a weekly and monthly basis, and on the completion of the financial year to ensure I have my finger on the pulse of my business. If anything goes backwards or drops then I ensure we understand why. I am watching the footwear space constantly to ensure we are competitive.
Where have you sought business advice?
My husband, Alan, and I have been in business together for over 14 years. He is a podiatrist as well. We both own and operate Brisbane-based podiatry clinics, All Podiatry & The Shoe Co.
We work so well together - his strengths are my weaknesses and vice versa. No-one knows our businesses as well as we do and we both align on our core values and goals, so he is my main source of business advice. We are really proud of how many patients and customers whose quality of life we have improved through our products or services.
What financial factors should be considered when wanting to grow a business?
Cash flow! Managing the cash flow hurdles of a rapidly growing businesses I didn't find fun. if finance isn't your strength, I would strongly recommend investing in someone skilled in this area if you want to grow your business.
We have a full-time CFO as well as a bookkeeper. Getting these two on our team was a game changer for us. To grow, we needed our bank to be confident that we were a good, safe business. Our CFO maintains that relationship with our bank manager so they have full transparency around our business. It also meant I could concentrate on the areas of the businesses that needed me.
How do you manage risk?
- By being agile. If something isn't working, I change it as fast as possible.
- By personally wear-testing my product so that I can be confident the product and style is right.
- By listening to our customers to ensure I'm always developing a product that they want.
- By having the right supplier to ensure quality issues are minimised.
- By having the best team. If I have the right mix of people and skills in my team it means that very best person can field any problems relevant to their role. Staff are a critical investment; they can make or break you.
- By not making the same mistake twice.
- We also don't have all our eggs in one basket. We have several channels of income. We have our podiatry clinic that generates an income. FRANKiE4 has two concept stores, an online store, we are wholesaling to stockists across Australia and New Zealand. We have also just launched a quality 7-free nail polish range to offer a healthier option to our customers and patients.
What value do you place in business plans and why?
Having a business plan helps keep the team on track with the company's goals and helps keep everyone in check on what needs to be done. A business plan can also help you keep your cool. When I'm juggling so many things, the business plan just helps me put it all in perspective.
But it's important a business plan doesn't make you inflexible, or cause you to operate with blinkers on. You can plan till the cows come home, but often you just can't foresee an opportunity, a better strategy, or a hurdle that could throw your plans out. My business plan is a fluid document. I can spin our strategy at any given time and have my whole team re-group, re-evaluate, and hook into a new policy, plan, strategy or promotion if I see the business needs it.