Running a sustainable business
ACU commerce graduate Phoebe James saw a timely gap in the market brought about by the global pandemic and seized the opportunity to take her business in a new direction.
“Just to be clear, I can’t wait for life to return to normal!” Phoebe said about the devastating COVID-19 crisis. “But at the same time, the global pandemic brought about a new opportunity for my business that I had to jump on.”
Phoebe began her accessories business Cordsbag while she was still at uni, selling her products to friends and family. While tote bags are her main focus, she has recently pivoted to producing handmade, upcycled fabric facemasks, which has proven to be a particularly timely move.
“I saw the need for masks, especially here in Melbourne where I live, and I realised there was a gap in the market.
I knew I had to move quickly and I started sewing straight away. It was exhausting trying to keep up. But I’m proud of what I’ve produced.
“My facemasks are a lot more trendy than what’s out there. They’re more comfortable, warmer, and just a bit more fun. I love incorporating colour and brightness into the designs.”
Sustainability was always going to be integral to Phoebe’s brand. “From the beginning I knew I wanted to be a part of the slow fashion movement. Most people I know didn’t realise where their clothes and accessories were coming from, and didn’t know a lot about sweatshops and worker conditions. I didn’t want any part of that.
“I only use high-quality materials to build bags and accessories that will last. All of my shipping is done with compostable postbags and I don’t use plastic in any part of my business. Plus, all of my facemasks are made with recycled fabrics.
“My hope is that I’m creating something for everyone, but something ethical too, which is where my personal beliefs lie.”
Stitching a career together
As happy as Phoebe is with the direction Cordsbag is now going in, she wasn’t always certain that running a business was in her future. “It was on my mind, and I knew I liked sewing, but I never thought it would be a career for me.”
The origins of her business started simply. “I just wanted a tote bag made out of corduroy. I couldn’t find anything, so I decided to make one myself. I thought it was cool and started selling them on Instagram. Later on, I got my website up and running. It was doing well, so I decided to go with it.”
Phoebe readily admits the sewing side of her business had a rocky start. “I grew up as a dancer, so my mum was always making costumes for me on her sewing machine,” she said. “I paid attention to her and I’m mostly self-taught. But I spent a lot of years of making truly horrible things! Eventually I got better at it.”
Phoebe said that freedom is by far the best part of running her business.
“I love working at my own pace, being creative, and finding inspiration and ideas from everyone.
"I’ve always been entrepreneurial, and my dad was forever talking to me about business ideas. He actually came up with the business name and he really helps me along. Plus, he and mum let me take over a space at home and turn it into a work studio, which I’m so grateful to have.”
The downside, however, for Phoebe is ever present.
“It’s just me. And that can get really overwhelming. Eventually I’d love to have more people on board to help me out. Sometimes my phone blows up with customer queries and it’s a lot to take on.”
Learning the basics
Phoebe said her Bachelor of Commerce (she majored in marketing and event management) has proven invaluable to growing her business.
“I really loved the entrepreneurial units. It’s where I learnt the most,” she said. “And I think the other students in my cohort would agree – in those classes everyone was really attentive and switched on to what the lecturers were discussing.
“I got some great advice about how to start a business, I learnt about price points, and I developed a good understanding of consumer behaviour. I was also taught how to retain customers and develop strategic social media plans. I wouldn’t have known any of that without my degree.”
Striking a balance
As a natural creative, striking a balance between the fun design side of her business with necessary admin tasks like bookkeeping has been challenging for Phoebe.
“I would have to force myself to sit down in a nice, calm spot with a cup of tea and tell myself, ‘Ok, you can do this’. But I got a lot of help from old classmates with the accounting side of things, as well as figuring out some of the technology. I’ve since learnt it’s really important to make time for every part of your business.
“And I admit I can be tough on myself. I always feel like I could be doing more. The biggest lesson is to sit back and appreciate everything I’ve done. And then to move forward, you just take it step by step.”
Learn more about where a commerce degree from ACU can take you.