When the Prime Minister cancelled events across the nation due to COVID, single mum Lena Hughes had to think quickly to keep her fledgling business, Bubbles and Brushes, in the black. Based in Orange in NSW’s Central West, Hughes business delivered ‘paint and sip’ workshops which allowed novice painters to experience the joy of creativity at a hosted event. When the pandemic forced restrictions on indoor gatherings, Hughes business took a nose-dive.
“My darkest moment this year was when Scott Morrison shut down all events. As an events-centred business that ran painting parties, I was shattered. I remember just bursting into tears and thinking, ‘It’s over before it even really began’,” Hughes tells Kochie’s Business Builders (KBB).
Hughes says she was dismayed for a day or two and then thought, ‘You’ve got rent to pay and two kids to feed, what’s the plan here?’.
“I had already been playing around with the idea of turning my parties into a DIY art kit you could do at home, so I had a lot of the work half done. I just hadn’t had the time to look at it properly,” she remembers.
“Suddenly I had all the time in the world. So, I built the website in a night and put a few pieces up on the Facebook page. Within a week I was selling enough to pay my rent, and I thought, ‘Ok, I’ve got a good plan here. Let’s grow’.”
Hughes confesses she was initially operating in survival mode but that quickly changed when she realised the impact her kits were having on people in lockdown.
“I know we weren’t out on the front lines saving lives, but I had customers writing to me to say thank you for helping them escape into a little world of creativity for a few hours. I even found that myself – when the news was just overwhelmingly bad, I would sit down and paint.
“So my vision to keep encouraging the growth of the business came from knowing that it was impacting people’s mental health in a really positive way.”
With orders exploding, Hughes said the first step in the process was to streamline production.
“The packing process for the kits is very labour intensive. I changed the way we pumped out the paints and I worked with Nikki, who runs fulfilment, to find a better way of strapping the kits together during freight so the paints didn’t spill.
“The postal delays were another issue to contend with and it was taking ages for customers to get their products. So, I put up a header on the website asking for patience and explaining that we’re a regional NSW-based business just doing our best. I also did a Facebook video saying the same thing. I think people appreciated the honesty and were, for the most part, pretty understanding.”
When it came to advertising her new DIY offering, Hughes admits her campaign was pretty basic.
“I had images of the pieces and a little descriptor of what you get in your kit. Those were the ones that kicked everything off, but I noticed a few people assuming we were ‘paint by numbers’ so I did two new ads – one was a fast-forwarded ‘unboxing’ of what you get in the kit. The other was a video that said ‘Stop Painting by Numbers!’. They both got great engagement and I think because the messaging was really aligned to the business, they are the ones that saw us explode.”
Before the pandemic, Hughes business was pulling in about $10k a month and focused on physical events. By shifting her business to focus on DIY art kits, Hughes has been able to leverage lockdown to massively increase her revenue and is on track to make two million this financial year. It’s a pretty impressive pivot for a business she admits she first started on a whim with a friend. Speaking of Bubbles and Brushes origins, Hughes says she and Gabby (who’s since left the business) had both attended ‘paint and sip’ events in the city and thought it’d be a fun concept to bring to Orange.
“So, we came up with the name, invested in some paints and brushes and made a bunch of easels. We put up the first event on Facebook and just advertised it locally -it sold out in a couple of days,” she recalls.
Hughes says growing the business from these humble beginnings has not been without challenges.
“Obviously the events being shut down knocked me over for a while, but the kits were the saving grace. Then the sales exploded so rapidly that I couldn’t keep up. Orders were late; customers weren’t being responded to fast enough, cash flow was a problem and so was trying to get enough stock to fill the demand. So, I had to build a team and find a space to work really fast.
“To be frank, I found growing quickly utterly terrifying because of the sheer volume of fast decisions I needed to make, the primary one being staffing.”
Hughes tells KBB hiring the right people has been crucial to her business success.
“I posted Facebook job ads and pushed them on my page because I figured I’d probably find my best staff from the network of my followers. For a ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ thought, it wasn’t a bad one as I’ve ended up with an incredible team.”
Equally important was finding the right venue to scale the business.
“Working from home didn’t cut it for too long once I had a team, so we were able to land a short term warehouse lease where we temporarily set up. We found it to actually be too big for our needs because we’ve got a really tight process on our kits now. So, we’ve made another pivot and are in the process of opening a cafe that will double as an event space for us. We have a packing room out the back and it’s already working so much better for us.”
Hughes says one of the biggest reasons she decided to move to the new location was because of the versatility of the venue.
“When COVID-19 hit I had all my eggs in one basket and it was a huge feat to be able to reinvent the business to survive. I don’t ever want to put myself into that position again, so I’ve got contingency plan after contingency plan for keeping this business afloat now. Having multiple strong revenue streams is a big part of that plan.”
As Bubbles and Brushes continues to grow, Hughes says she is increasingly reliant on technology to ensure her business is optimised. She says embracing digital tech and cloud solutions have been critical to her success.
“I couldn’t have done it without those cloud platforms because they allow and facilitate scale. We run Shopify for our store, our shipping plugin is Shippit, and we’ve leveraged social media both organically and in digital marketing to achieve growth. You can’t do all that without solid systems in place.”
Having access to real-time data around her finances has also been a crucial part of the Bubbles and Brushes growth strategy.
“It’s essential to have that real-time access. I can’t look back on the last quarter and make decisions; I need to make decisions based on what happened yesterday,” she explains. “Cloud accounting gives me a real picture of my cashflow at any one time. We use Xero because it gives us accurate, real-time information to help us make more informed decisions about where to invest our resources to deliver the best results.”
Hughes acknowledges it’s been difficult to make decisions in this uncertain global climate.
“But what COVID-19 has taught me is that no decision is as airtight as you think it is. I had a very different ‘airtight’ plan for this year. There’s always risk with every choice you make. The way I look at these kinds of longer-term financial decisions is with a bit more realism. I have several plans for what I could do with my space if the cafe doesn’t work or if the events get shut down. I can’t completely eliminate all these risks, but I can be smart about how I mitigate them.”
As restrictions ease and some sense of normalcy returns for small business owners, Hughes says she is looking forward to expanding the Bubbles and Brushes empire further.
“I’m definitely a dreamer, so I’m always cooking up new ideas. As I’ve mentioned, we’ve just taken over a cafe in Orange, so we’ll be launching that in the new year. My vision is to be a creative hub where we can expand our workshops beyond just painting. We’re also expanding into New Zealand with our art kits and launching video tutorials here and in the US next year. So there’s a lot of balls in the air.”
They’re ambitious plans. Fortunately, Hughes has already proven she’s an adept juggler.
You can find out more about Bubbles and Brushes here
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