This is a follow up story for OceanZen. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published over 5 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
My name is Steph and I’m the creator of sustainable swimwear label OceanZen. We use a fabric made from recycled plastic bottles and fishing nets from the ocean and follow a strict sustainable business model.
At the core of everything we do at OceanZen is a strong respect for the people we work with and the environment we work within, our passion is conscious consumerism and by regenerating waste we are also reducing carbon emissions.
We also run retreats where our customers can join us and meet like-minded people with similar interests in adventure travel. We have been running retreats to swim with wild humpback whales in Tonga for the last 7 years and are branching out to other destinations.
What lead me on my journey to eventually launching OceanZen, began years before I started. I was traveling the world and ended up living in the Cayman Islands, the Caribbean working on a tourist boat taking guests to see the wild stingrays. This chapter opened my eyes to the human impacts humans were having on the ocean, and what inspired me to want to learn more about protecting it. That’s when I came home to study my degree in Environmental Science & Marine Conservation. I traveled the world again participating in many exciting research projects, such as researching sea lions & sharks in the Galapagos Islands, Humpback Whales in Ecuador, and coral reefs in Indonesia.
I realized throughout these experiences that I didn’t want to pursue a career in Science, but more so in conservation which is what inspired my unique environmental career path to launch a sustainable swimwear company, OceanZen.
Our main customers for OceanZen are women aged 16-38 who have a love for sustainability and swimwear. It has been an honor to be invited to speak at some entrepreneurial events here in Australia the last few years, and through that experience, I realized some so many girls wanted to start a fashion label and didn’t know-how. Emails were coming through every day from girls asking for advice so I created an ebook covering their questions and sharing insight into how I got started and what I did to launch OceanZen. I’ve linked it here for anyone looking to start their own fashion label.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
The company has grown steadily in the last few years both with our customer base and revenue. Our Instagram account is currently at 100,000 followers with mostly USA and AU followers. We grew this through Instagram competitions, collaborations with other brands, and working with influencers.
Don’t hold yourself back from starting your dream business because you don’t have all the answers straight away.
Instagram is still our main source of sales, which is amazing, but also now we are focusing on trying to convert them over to other platforms. Instagram might not be around forever so we must not lose them.
We went hard with influencer marketing this summer 19/20 trying and testing new girls- many charging between $1,000 - $3,000 per campaign. The results were not as great with some campaigns, and others worked brought in a successful ROI of 3x+. The ones that have worked well are the influencers we have been working with since the beginning, who have a genuine love for the brand and that shows through their campaign as their followers are used to seeing them wear OceanZen for the last few years. Influencer marketing is tricky now as it is a very saturated market, and the amount of followers an influencer has does not necessarily mean they will convert sales. We have had some influencers with 200,000 followers not make a single sale for a paid partnership. Then we have had others bring in over 100 orders.
It’s important to look at the demographics of the influencer and if their demographics fit your buying market. Many swimwear models in particular usually have a large male following, so likely to not get any sales.
We scaled our Facebook advertising this summer, and our ads were performing between 2x - 3x ROI but that does not include their fees. When COVID 19 hit we pulled ad spend and prepared to bunker down for the unknown, and this summer we might explore it again, but will only be working with 1 or 2 select influencers for paid campaigns instead of 8+ as the risk is too high during these times to recover a loss.
This summer we are launching a mini kids range and introducing matching mums and bubs and would like to bring out some beachwear as-well but we might wait until retail globally picks up again.
Recently I reached out to a few Talent Managers for some USA celebrities in Hollywood in the hopes of gifting some of our swimwear to them. I did this with absolutely no expectations, just knowing that they have OceanZen in their homes was already an honor.
Two managers were kind enough to accept the gifts and pass them along and we were grateful to see that a Hollywood actress not only wore our sustainable swimwear and tagged us in an Instagram photo (which is extremely generous) but also commented to one of her followers how much she loved them. This was so exciting for us as she is so passionate about sustainability and conservation, so to have someone of her status genuinely loving OceanZen truly meant the world!
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
The last 12 months have been full of lessons, especially with COVID 19 effecting the ‘normality’ of the world.
Late last year, I did myself a favor and removed my email app off my phone, it can be so easy to get consumed by receiving a notification every time someone sends an email and replying straight away. For the last 6 years, this has been a very unhealthy habit. I was consumed by knowing exactly what was going on in every aspect of the business from marketing updates, production updates, customer inquiries, and trying to offer the absolute best customer service. But this meant that OceanZen was constantly on my mind and affecting my mental health, effecting my time to fully focus on the things outside of work. When you have your own business, it can be hard treating it like you would at a ‘normal job’, because you are fully invested in your own business’s success.
Earlier this year, a really exciting partnership opportunity arose just before COVID 19 hit.
A hotel reached out and wanted to collaborate on a custom-designed one piece made from recycled plastic bottles and fishing nets from the ocean, inspired by their marine conservation projects. This was exciting, as it was for a large globally recognized hotel. The swimsuit should be released later this year. It was an honor to be recognized by such an established, luxury hotel and approached to partner with them on this collaboration.
March 2020, COVID19 hit. A force completely out of everyone’s control. It’s now July and it has been a very slow few months in the business. COVID 19 has put a halt on international travel, among other things. This meant that the girls in Australia weren’t able to escape the winter on their European holidays, and we have had to focus on marketing to the EU and USA markets instead of our Aussie girls this winter, but also those countries are in complete lockdown, so who needs a bikini when the world is stuck indoors?
We were also scheduled to attend two international trade shows in July and August, as we were taking the leap and wanting to scale globally and become stocked in stores. Both trade shows have also been canceled due to COVID 19.
Our retreats to swim with the whales and sail the Komodos Islands were also postponed until next year, so we have been affected by COVID 19 for the last few months.
We had an incredible opportunity to potentially stock our swimwear on up to 200 international cruise ships, but this, unfortunately, fell through to COVID 19. This opportunity would have been incredible, but cruise ships have also been hit hard now so sadly I think this is a missed opportunity.
Like many businesses, this has been a huge learning curve as we had to review all of our expenses to prepare for a healthy hibernation until things look a little better. By reviewing all of our expenses I realized we were spending way too much money on unnecessary admin, website apps and marketing so on a positive note COVID 19 has been a bit of a refresh, realizing what we need to run a business versus what we have been told we need to run a business. We have scraped back to the bare minimum, and it has helped get our margins back on track. A lesson learned here, only uses what you think you need.
Just before COVID19, I had felt like the last 6 years of hard work was starting to pay off so it has been a little disheartening experiencing missed opportunities that would have made it all worthwhile.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
Depending on how things pan out with COVID 19, we would love to stick to our plan on attending international trade shows to branch out into the retail store markets but this will depend on when international travel is allowed again. We do want to pivot into running more retreats in Australia to marine life destinations, we are running a retreat to the Great Barrier Reef in September and all the guests are based in the state, so should interstate travel restrictions come back at least the girls are all in the same state.
Would love to run our retreats globally to new destinations as-well when international travel is safe again.
We will continue to branch out into other sustainable products and clothing, but this all will depend on budget. This year we are introducing a matching kids range, this will broaden our audience to those who would like to buy gifts for kids or mums. If COVID 19 has taught me anything, its that swimwear is not a recession-proof product. Some businesses excelled during COVID, beauty, and skincare brands especially.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I recently read Earth is hiring by Peta Kelly, this isn’t so much business-related but more talks about becoming a change maker in the world, up-leveling to create a better earth.
Another is the 4-hour workweek by Tim Ferris, this talks a lot about creating the life that you want by not working the 9-5 and how you can live your best life on your terms.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
Try not to compare yourself to your competitors or other people’s successful business stories. I was crippled by constantly feeling OceanZen was not as good as other brands in my early stages and it disabled me to exceed. Once I stopped comparing, and focus my energy 100% on OceanZen began to succeed.
Having your own company might also look inspiring from the outside, but unfortunately, I do have to shed some inside light on what to potentially expect, which is long working hours and potentially not be paid for a while, or at all. For me, OceanZen might look like I can be at the beach all day wearing bikinis and swimming with whales, but the reality is very different. I work from around 7 am-6 pm Mon-Fri (for almost 5 years it was also nights and weekends) working in an office, doing the parts that I don’t necessarily love like administration, marketing, production management, etc. The whale swimming retreats also take months to organize and I’m organizing them 12 months in advance with suppliers, often with a lot of stress in the lead up to them.
Don’t hold yourself back from starting your dream business because you don’t have all the answers straight away. I came from a background in Science, no business knowledge, or fashion knowledge and I figured it out as I went. If you are truly passionate about something but don’t necessarily have the skills, give it everything you have got, learn, research, educate yourself. When I decided I was going to create OceanZen, it happened so quickly because I decided I was doing it first before learning everything, I learned as I went, hands-on experience and problem solving was how I learned.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We aren’t looking to hire but always interested in hearing from you. We are interested in getting our sustainable products into stores and breaking into the Hollywood celeb realm so if any contractors or small businesses that can help in this area they are welcome to email us
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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