Brisbane based Carol Haffke is the proud owner of The Shoe Garden, a women’s shoe shop specialising in gorgeous shoes sizes 10 and up. She opened her small business in her Queensland hometown five years ago and has never been happier. As someone who wears a size 12 shoe herself, Carol discovered there weren’t any stores in Brisbane that catered for longer (she and her loyal customers prefer this term to larger) sizes. “And it was about time Brisbane had such a shop!”, she says enthusiastically.
“I always order a lot of colourful shoes for my Queensland customers and they love it. Bright, bold colours and patterns work really well here much more so than interstate. I appreciate that in Queensland we have a lot of interstate and overseas visitors and many find their way to The Shoe Garden,” she says.
Having watched her parents run their own small business for nearly 40 years, Carol enjoys being a part of Queensland’s small business community. “It’s still new for me and I’m learning something every day,” she adds happily.
These are her top 10 reasons why operating a small business is a great way to future-proof your career.
1. You are just like your customers
When you open a niche business, you are probably just like your customers and that means you get it and you get them; a huge advantage in business. With size 12 feet, I knew first-hand that it was ridiculously hard to find shoes that fit, let alone were fabulous. This helps me relate to, understand and truly empathise with my customers who have experienced a similar frustrating journey to find footwear.
2. To diversify or not to diversify?
I know many small businesses are encouraged to diversify and to up-sell products on the side, but I love just focusing on shoes. I have experimented with selling handbags, shoe-related gifts and jewellery, but it never goes so well. I now know my customers just want gorgeous long shoes and that allows me to pour every cent in my budget towards helping them find some great choices. It’s nice not to be distracted by other stuff.
3. Stand out from the crowd
If I had to give one piece of advice to new business owners, it is to stand out from the crowd in as many ways as you can. By being a niche business, that’s already taken care of. I think it means we are not afraid to be different in other ways, too. To my mind, you need to find as many ways as possible to look, act and be different to everyone else. Being niche is a good starting point but definitely not the end point.
4. Relating to your customers
Probably one of the best things about owning a niche business is your customers. You are providing them with something that they struggle to get elsewhere, and often have struggled for a very long time, and therefore they are amazingly loyal, grateful and supportive. I am constantly amazed at their thoughtfulness, from giving me beautiful (shoe-related) gifts to sending me through funny quotes and images. They are just amazing!
5. Spending time with ‘your tribe’
Whenever there’s more than one customer in the shop, they will inevitably start talking and compare stories about horrible shoes they’ve been forced to buy and wear or horrible things sales assistant have said to them because of their slightly-longer-than average feet. It does feel sometimes like I’m running a support group, too, and that’s totally fabulous. It’s always nice to know that you’re not the only one going through something and a niche business such as mine means you can spend some time with “your tribe”.
6. Serving a unique audience
I think part of the reason that I love my small business so much, and going to work each day, is that because I serve a unique section of the population, I can truly give them great joy. And that’s contagious!
7. Be a champion for your customers
Owning a niche small business also means that you become a champion for your customers. Right from the start, I called my shoes “long”, not “big” or “large” which have such negative connotations attached. My customers love it and say it with pride now, too. I also constantly badger designers and suppliers to “go long” and find that as I get more successful, my voice gets more powerful.
8. What are the rules?
There are no rules in niche businesses. After all, you’re going at it alone, representing a target market that others are ignoring, so go for it. Be brave and bold and proudly cater to your market. It’s so liberating.
9. Less competition
Because you cater for a niche market it means you do have the advantage of less competition. For example, I’m the only shoe shop in Brisbane to specialise in longer sizes, so I do have some space to breathe. Then again, that should not morph into complacency and I am anything but.
10. Word-of mouth marketing
Anyone who is a customer in a niche market, often knows others in the same circumstances, and so if they have had a happy experience with your business, they are highly likely to share that with other people who are potential customers. As always, word-of-mouth recommendations are gold and so important to all businesses.