Natalie Knoll, Founder of Bird & Knoll, met her Co-Founder Macayla Chapman at their children’s swimming lessons. A friendship was forged during the tedium of weekly lessons, which turned into a successful business partnership, that the pair manage remotely. Natalie is based in Australia and Macayla in New Zealand.
Bird & Knoll launched in March 2013. Inspiration for the idea behind the luxury cashmere and silk scarves printed with amazing travel photographs of distant shores struck Natalie while on a sun lounger on holiday in Hawaii. The scarves are all limited edition prints featuring Natalie’s photography, and are exquisite wardrobe investment pieces coveted by scarf collectors and travellers globally.
Tell us about making the career change from Assistant Vice President at Credit Suisse to professional photographer. And then from professional photographer to Creative Director of Bird and Knoll.
As much as I enjoyed my time in banking and the incredible learning curve that it offered, I think I was always destined for a creative career. I met my husband when I was living and working for Credit Suisse in New York. When we moved to Sydney, it seemed like a good time to make the transition and follow my photography passion. I built up that business in Sydney and then again when we moved to London. And had two beautiful girls in between.
It was flexible, it was creative and it was perfect for that stage of my life. On one of our many travels in 2013, I had the epiphany that I wanted to merge my love of fashion (I grew up in the industry with both my parents involved in the business of fashion in South Africa) with travel and photography. I am also a scarf aficionado so it seemed like the best place to start. I approached my business partner, Macayla Chapman (the Bird in our brand name) and the rest is history.
What lessons would you like to share on successfully launching a luxury accessories label into the Australian and New Zealand markets?
We launched into both markets simultaneously. Being a trans-Tasman duo, we were thought of as a kiwi brand too and therefore embraced quite quickly there. At that stage I think that NZ was a bit more parochial than Australia. That’s changing, and now more local talent is being recognized and supported at an early stage.
For both markets it is about networking and really pushing the story of your brand with media and influencers . The success and longevity of a brand hinges so much on having a story that resonates and gets noticed. The story of you, the story of your idea, the story of how you create your products, what they mean to you and what you want them to mean to your customers.
Always, always be nice! Pay your success forward by sharing information and resources with other people in the industry. It’s amazing how valuable that is and yet how few people do it.
How did you develop Bird and Knoll’s partnership with Qantas?
Our meeting with a Qantas exec at a dinner party was quite fortuitous. They loved our scarves and instantly recognized the synergy between the brands (both showcasing travel). We started conversations about how to bring it together and we are now looking at our third collaboration this year. I am a big believer in having open conversations with people who are as excited about their brands as we are. Even if there is not an obvious relationship, you just never know where those conversations can lead.
Tell us about working remotely and flexibly with your business partner, and what are your tips to making it work well?
This has worked well from the start. In fact the greater challenge for us is the juggle with family. We talk every day on Skype and use dropbox, googledocs and we transfer for sharing documents. We catch up face to face every couple of months and then jam-pack those sessions together, working towards an agenda of what needs to be prioritized. Even though the time difference is not big, we have also made that work, so that between the two of us, we are available to our customers for extended hours. It also allows us coverage with school drop off and pickups.
What destination is next on your travel list to snap a moment in time for a future collection?
We have just booked to go to Israel in April which I am very excited for. Can you imagine the amazing images we will get there?
What’s been your greatest challenge?
Growing at the right pace. The best advice was given to me by two of my mentors, John Mutton, CEO of Burberry Pacific and Paul Cherny, CEO Bendon Group: “Cash-flow trumps revenue”. In a business with constant cash-flow bottlenecks and foreign currency sensitivity, it is imperative that we remain aware of these cycles and can manage and mitigate these risk factors as best we can without compromising the brand, ourselves financially or our business relationships.
We keep our fingers on our fiscal pulse on a daily basis, keeping a very close eye on payables and receivables. Not very sexy and creative is it? We ensure that we know our financial position every day. Having a regular snapshot of our financial health is imperative in planning for seasonal cash-flow bottlenecks, debt recovery and making long-term strategic decisions without over-extending ourselves. It is not always an easy juggling act.
What are you most proud of?
This month it will be our three year anniversary and as we look back, there are so many highlights. Two collaborations with Qantas. Being picked up by David Jones within our first six months. A project with international jewellery brand Zoe and Morgan. Our celebrity following including Emily Blunt and Elizabeth Banks. The introduction in Spring/Summer 2016 of our debut resort collection was very exciting and has been very well-received. But above all, just receiving the positive reviews we get from our new and regular customers is always such a buzz!
What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?
As clichéd as it sounds I cannot stress enough to trust your own instinct. If you have a passion for your business and you know it inside out, you should be able to do that every time. However, that should be supported by not being afraid to ask for help. That is not a sign of weakness, rather it shows strength and vision.
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