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Vanessa Bell Mumbition the Podcast

Mumbition

The Podcast By Mums & Co

Episode 87: Entrepreneurial Excellence: Juggling Risk and Family in Regional Settings

Jane Robertson

Founder of Millwoods Shoes

March 4, 2024
In this episode, Carrie and Lucy sit down to explore the experiences of rural entrepreneur Jane Robertson navigating the unique challenges of balancing business endeavours with family life in regional Australia. Listen in as Jane shares candid insights, triumphs, and the everyday realities of running a business while raising a family. Get inspired by her resilience, practical wisdom, and the fulfillment found in pursuing entrepreneurship amidst the backdrop of rural living.

Links

Millwoods Shoes – Comfort, Style & Craftsmanship

Timeless Shoes For Busy Women (@millwoods) • Instagram photos and videos

www.facebook.com/Millwoodshoes/

Credits

Produced by - Lucy Kippist 
Edited by -
Morgan Brown 
‍Interviewers - Carrie Kwan and Lucy Kippist 
‍Guest - Jane Robertson  


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Learn more
    • Read the blog article
    • How this mum of three prioritised her family by pioneering rural entrepreneurship

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Carrie (03:43.342)

So Jane, now we'd love educating women on pitching with confidence. Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, your business and perhaps give us your elevator pitch?

Jane Robertson (03:55.319)

Oh, the pressure's on straight up. So, Millwoods is a shoe company. I started the business about seven years ago and we started with children's shoes only and in particular the leather moccasins for kids. Just because I wanted a leather shoes that my children could put on themselves that weren't sort of neon Velcro nylon shoes. So, long story short, first shipment came in. I found out I was pregnant with my third child and the world decided to get really difficult. So they were a really hard sell at the time. $80 for a pair of kid shoes was really expensive back then. So this was 2017 and once you got the kids into the shoes they wouldn't get out of them. So the parents kept asking for what the kids wanted. And it became really apparent that I either had to do something drastic or probably shut the business down because we weren't selling anywhere near enough shoes for kids to make it viable. So not looking defeat in the face, I can't accept that too well. I started designing a woman's shoe. So we started with our leather Linden loafer in Leopard and we launched that. And long story short, between launching that, wiping the bush, COVID, online marketplaces doing exceptionally well. Here we are today with, I think there's over 37 variants now that we've got here. And we've just ordered our largest order ever for autumn, winter next year. It's crazy to think that it's what early November and I'm not even thinking about summer. I'm actually even past winter, I'm onto like summer in 18 months time. So yeah, that's probably the short sort of history of Millwoods. In terms of elevated pitching, It's always the one that makes you feel really awful because I just feel like, oh my god, you've got such a finite amount of time to try and tell people how amazing you think your business is. But I think in a nutshell, owning a pair of Millwoods is a bit almost like a rite of passage for a woman. It's about classic shoes that transcend time. They're a shoe that can be worn anywhere. You dress them up, you dress them down, indoors, outdoors. They're made to last and they are very much a foundation of an Australian woman's outfit everyday, they give you the strength that you need to really cement yourself and step forward in the day.

Carrie (06:28.69)

Amazing. And I can, we can see you for our listeners, we can actually see Jane Darlene from her, her warehouse. And you can definitely see that the business is, has grown substantially, despite through all those challenges. And I love, I love how you've mentioned that, you know, you started with one particular customer, a target customer in mind, which was kids, but soon pivoted to women, adults and that was perhaps the trick that you needed at that particular time to get that next step and that next milestone and that sort of growth to continue expanding to the point where you're, putting your largest order. So it's something that I think I just wanted to highlight because when you start a new venture, you don't necessarily go with the market you thought you would go with.

Jane Robertson (07:24.411)

Not at all. Evolution and change every day. Like it's, yeah, every, I'd like to say, you know, we are absolutely rock-solid. This is what we're doing, but if you keep them with your blinkers on and you don't let change happen, I don't think you'll grow with it. And I think that's so important that you need to be able to grow with it. So as things change, you have to sit there some time ago. You know what? I need to change this. And it's not necessarily what I started out to do, but let's keep going.

Carrie (07:59.47)

Absolutely. So we know that many Australian business women, in fact about a third of them, are based in rural or regional areas and you obviously represent this incredible cohort of women. What do you see as the greatest strength as a business owner when it comes to being a bush based business?

Jane Robertson (08:22.239)

I think it's part of a really, really good story. Sometimes I think that rural and regional communities are almost forgotten as the laggards and that we're just out here sometimes and where the country hicks and we don't really, you know, sometimes it's like, oh, they're just the country folk. But I think you take those sorts of sometimes views and use them to your advantage. So recently I was at a trade fair and I had so many people stop by and go, so where are you based? Are you Melbourne or Sydney? And it's like, well, neither. I'm literally right out from a farm. And some people you can sit there and see, so it's like they just glaze over and keep going. It's like, okay, you're not legit. And other people actually stand there and they have a conversation with you and you've got this ability to actually capture them and you have this chance then to really talk about your story. And it gets them to stop enough so that you can have that further conversation. But I think when it comes to regional Australia, we know how to stand together and if there's one thing that happens out here it's that there is everybody is literally out to help everybody. You might not necessarily feel it at the time but if you just find a way to ask a really small question you would be surprised what unfolds and community is just so important when you're in these regional areas and that is such when you are doing something solely on your own. Because I had this conversation this week with my girlfriend and that, like while my husband and I are in this together, when you look at the company structure, he's not in this. I'm 100% doing this on my own. And then I have beautiful contractors that come and help. But I spend a lot of time sitting in this warehouse on my own. So I think when you do walk out that door and you head in to grab a coffee and all those sorts of things, your community is not just about my business. It's about the greater micro economy that's around me and creating something that, you know, we all help to feed off each other.

Carrie (10:27.022)

Beautifully said and I couldn't we couldn't we couldn't believe it well we believe it and we also see it because we often say that when a woman starts a business she's actually setting up this beautiful ecosystem of business relationships around her and whether that be with community or customer it's also with you know who we potentially employ who we potentially source from as vendors or suppliers who we collaborate with it's just you know, it's a beautiful ecosystem.

Jane Robertson (11:00.783)

It really is and I think that's it's very easy I think for the females to come together.

Because I feel like we're in this really beautiful age where anyone can pretty much do anything if you just ask for the right amount, the right sort of help. And those minorities are being built up so that everybody does get a chance. You can get a chance. It's not always easy to get the chance, but I think out here people watch and they listen and you're visible because you're not necessarily, like you're not part of a million people in like, you know, 10 square kilometre area, you have the chance to be seen if that's what you want.

Lucy (11:45.199)

Yeah, love that. As Kerry mentioned before, you're joining us today from your warehouse, which is located also near your house, if not on your property. And we know from a recent micro but mighty report by the McKell Institute that 40% of women in the micro business sector in Australia run online businesses, which is obviously also fits the kind of business model that you're running. What has really helped your visibility for Millwoods in terms of supporting this incredible growth that you've experienced?

Jane Robertson (12:24.895)

In terms of visibility, I have a conversation with my sister-in-law Laura and I have on a very frequent basis because I'm not, it feels very inauthentic for me to be out there selling PR to myself. It just doesn't come naturally for me to sit there and go, hey, I'm Jane. I run this amazing shoe business from my farm and I find it a real struggle. But in terms of what's really helped visibility as it's grown, and I have to say it is PR, the very limited amount of PR that we get, that and I think also standing by our key product features in terms of quality, comfort, and really trying to deliver on what it is we say that we're going to do. I think you can sell so many stories, but if you don't deliver on what you say you're going to do, then there's no point and you'll be seeing the wrong way. People see through it in two seconds flat. The world cannot also be a really nasty place once you get into social media and those sorts of things. So it's being able to, I think, stand really strongly behind our product and know that our quality and our product service is, it's second to none of what sets us apart. And then having the guts every now and then to find a story and pitch it without feeling like you're being really conceited. Which I find is the hardest part because we have had some really beautiful pieces in like pages like Country Style and those sorts of things. And you sort of sit there and go, well, I'm just here doing my thing. And what makes, you know, Sarah down the road, not as exciting to tell a story about as what I'm saying here, but it just is how those stories get told sometimes. So I think in terms of visibility, very much so being able to be really authentic in terms of delivering on our product and using PR where you can for your advantage.

Carrie (14:57.494)

Love it. And it always comes to mind, you know, that when, or a couple of things as you were talking, I was trying to wonder, I was thinking about, you know, is it because it's, you know, the media has a certain stigma to it in terms of how it works. But I can guarantee as long as you break it down into, you know, a personal, like a human touch story, it becomes so much more palatable and you know if that if that publication is there to serve humans that are interested in a certain area then your business is probably going to be relevant.

Jane Robertson (15:41.331)

Well, I think that's somebody said the other day, like it's just not gross to self-promote. And I think when it's, whether it's, you know, you growing up as a child and carrying all these, you know, you don't want to be the tall poppy, you want to do well, but you don't want to be the one that does too well. And you know, as a child, when you grow up, sometimes, you know, you have these almost limitations put on you and to then to fight those off as an adult, sometimes is really difficult because you're like going well. I know if I just kind of, it's not gross to self promote. And if I really focused on that, I could probably do a lot more PR, but it's really breaking that down and having the strength to step outside that and talk about your story. Yeah.

Carrie (16:30.178)

That would be interesting. And I often go forward with this because I wonder, I'm glad you went there because it comes back, there's a few elements here like imposter syndrome or that whole bragging, you feel like you don't wanna brag. And I'm like, well, you're not bragging if it's facts. It's just sharing that story. And I always wonder if this would help, just kind of when you actually do your story and someone else was telling it, but it's based on facts. And you'd be like, wow, that's fascinating. And it's like, well, that's what you're doing. That's your business. Totally, yeah. So if you ever have a doubt, maybe just kind of put someone else's, and often because it's we're the ones that are fronting the business, we're the ones that are showing up and representing our business because we don't have big teams. We don't have lots of different staff members in a, you know, we are the spokesperson. So you are talking about it on a very personal level as well.

Jane Robertson (17:27.006)

So personal, yeah, because that's, it's not just a business. It's like my kids get off the bus and I run up to the bus at the front to bring them home and they all come in and sit over here behind me with the colouring in tables. So it's not like it's, you know, I walk out the door and I leave, you'd leave it all behind. Like, and so many parents who run businesses from home would a hundred percent agree with that. It's at, and half the time at the moment, because we're working with Spanish factories at the moment, I don't start work till eight o'clock at night, but that means I have to tap out you know, at the worst witching hour, because like, I need to go and get ready. And I might not have had time, but then it buys me flexibility that, okay, right. Well, I can be at a nine o'clock school assembly, but that's okay. Cause I'll just work through till nine, 10 or 11 o'clock at night. Like it just is, it's so real. And I think sometimes you feel like, because you're a groundhog day doing that, that it's actually not worth speaking about. But when honestly, I love hearing about other people who work like this because like, okay, everyone goes, oh, you know, it's nine to five and you've got to find balance, but balance is literally comes down to however you do it. And it's so personal. So I think that's where it's like, right, well, I might run a shoe business, but I could be running a, I'm not really ag related. I just live on the farm, but you know, like it's farming, right? It could be sun up to sundown. It rains today. So you can't do it. So you have to do it tomorrow. Like it just is. Yeah.

Carrie (18:53.662)

I think we just have to work on our own terms and be unapologetic about it. So, you know, you just make it, make it work for you and your family. You are a mum to three children. What are some of the ways that you've blended the two, motherhood and business, over the last few years? I think you've touched a bit on that, in terms of the working hours. Was there anything else?

Jane Robertson (19:27.239)

Well, the business started because of the kids. I was in corporate governance when I had my son, I was working for a health agency in town in corporate governance. And as soon as I sort of became pregnant with James, it became really apparent to me that he was going like, it was going to take five years, obviously, but he would have 12 weeks holidays a year and I would have four. At the time my husband was a pilot for regional express, so, his hours could have been anything. So one of us had to be consistent. And I grew, had the really fortunate upbringing of never having to go to a vacation care. And very few times did we ever have babysitters because of the way that my dad always worked from home. That was, his office was always at home. So I actually grew up watching this. Mum was a nine to fiver somewhere else and dad his business was home. So school holidays and those sorts of things, I had the pure luxury of being here and I was like I wanted that for my children. So I think in terms of blending motherhood in business, I went in search of something and a way to be here for my children. Now is that the right choice for our family? I don't know because I tell you what sometimes this business is so hard that I literally just want to throw it in. I think only like two weeks ago was seeing how much I could sell it for. And then like this week I'm fine. And I think it's really getting clear on, I think what values you want to instil and then how you make that work for you. So Andrew resigned from flying last year purely because the kids are getting older now and he wanted to be around to see James play football on the weekends. Cause you, you know, you were guaranteed one weekend off every four or five weeks or something. So you know you get 20% of your son's life. So I think it's um in terms of blending it, I don't feel like I had a choice. It was the way that it needed to be in order for me to deliver on a family unit that I wanted to give my kids because a nine-to-five role was not going to ever have that flexibility for us. And what's the point of one parent being on holidays if the other parent's never on holidays? So when do you really have that lovely, beautiful time together as a family? It becomes so precious. James is 10 now. I've got eight years and he's done. Literally eight years and like at 10, he's probably not going to want to know me in the next three years.

Carrie (22:08.954)

Yeah, we're all at the same. Lucy and I, we will have boys at similar ages too.

Lucy (22:10.403)

We're all the same. Of course they're going to want to know us. Of course.

Jane Robertson (22:16.167)

Is that because I still wash for him? It's a little idea.

Lucy (22:19.391)

Whatever it takes!

Jane Robertson (22:22.707)

I started teaching James to use the washing machine this week. I was like, come on, you've just, you gotta press these three buttons. That's all you gotta do. I think it's just really, for our family, Andrew is a massive support and I can't do what I do without Andrew. And Andrew actually can't do what he does without me. And I think the two of us being, we talk a lot. I would like to think that I'm his greatest supporter and that he is mine and I think having that really, we talk and talk and talk. It's, they're not always nice conversations. They're not always conversations you want to have. But I think because we're having the conversations, we are able to blend the business with our families.

Carrie (23:20.238)

Absolutely. And shout out to all the amazing, supportive partners, husbands, who support women in business, because it really is such an instrumental part of our journey. When we're doing it with kids like you know, in all aspects, in all aspects, whether it's, it's domestic load, it's mental load, it's business success, because yeah, you're really keen. We thank you for all your support

Jane Robertson (23:54.825)

Yeah, you can't go without it, 100%. Since Andrew's finished flying, like he works seven days a week now. And it looks different. Like he's either out contract fencing, he flies privately, he's being a stock agent, he's studying, he's running our own farm, he's helping me with the kids. Like, I don't think in our family unit, it's building one up for the other, we're both building together. And this is really interesting. Last year, the International Women's Day was how are you breaking the mould? And I genuinely sit there and say, in our family unit, we're creating a mould of true equality, that my life is not more important than Andrew's and that Andrew's career is not more important than mine. And there are definitely times when one's at the forward and one's at the back, but that's always swapping and it's always chopping and changing. And that's where I've really come back to the conversations in that and respect. Andrew respects what I do just as much as I respect what he does. Yeah, I feel very fortunate that I have Andrew because of that.

Carrie (26:13.27)

And it's not just in terms of the financial benefits. I think it's actually the relationship that you have with your children benefits that come into, that win the most when they have both access to both parents.

Jane Robertson (26:29.351)

James will ask me to play football with him just as much as he'll play Ask Andrew. And I sort of take great pride in that. And then it's like, whereas the girls allows me to play loom bands, I'm like, oh God, do I have to sit on the floor and feed these stupid little things? So, okay, bye. Sit down. And I don't enjoy that as much, so it's really interesting.

Carrie (26:59.306)

It's okay girls, we won't play this part back to you, of the interview. Yes, it's totally fine. I get you, I get you. It's fine not to thoroughly enjoy some activities that our children make us do. Okay, let me take us back to the growth that you've experienced over the last few years. You've mentioned that it has grown in leaps and bounds. How has that growth at different stages of your business impacted your relationship with risk as a business, as a small business owner?

Jane Robertson (27:35.191)

Oh my God, risk. It's just this never ending black cloud over you, particularly when you're a product-based business and growth. Because what's really interesting is that you're always in a negative cash cycle. Because you, so when I say that, it's you take everything you'll send that you can and you reinvest back in. So you're constantly reinvesting in the business. So you draw out the, for us, we draw out the bare minimum. And because I don't, don't really want an investor, I really want to push Millwood's on its own. I want it to be our own thing so that we can manipulate how it works for us. So I have got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable in risk. Because if I am not, we're not going to grow. And I think it, so we're seven years in now. Oh my God, that's so scary to say seven years in. And I would say risk is something that I consider every single day. So we sell in seasons. So we have two main selling seasons, autumn, winter and spring, summer. And we sell so far in advance that it becomes really, it's risky. And that's the only thing. It's sitting here trying to think of a different word, but really you're making a call and you're drawing a line in the sand so far in advance. So we ordered autumn winter. So it's November. We ordered autumn winter five weeks ago, end of September. That doesn't, that arrives in stores February, March, April. So you're making calls on things right at the moment when you're watching all these other trends in other markets now, when you go, oh my god, I made a call six weeks ago. Oh God, I should have done this. Um, because I can see that trend happening in an overseas market. And you're like, you just have to go bring it back to our customer and go, am I delivering on what our customer wants?  

Carrie (29:46.562)

That's what I was interested in because we're all going to have to be exposed to risks at some point and what we do is we know that this is a risk and therefore we put these measures in place or these mitigants in place and you say, well, I'm watching trends or I'm doing customer research. It's all those little activities that help you mitigate that risk.

Jane Robertson (30:11.311)

Yeah, and since I have someone who helps me with customer service now, so Emily helps me about nine hours a week. That doesn't mean I don't do customer service at all, because those emails are gold in terms of really understanding your customer and what they have issues with your product. So whether that's like there's a fit issue, a colour issue, or they like the hair on, they don't like the hair on, they want more suede. If you aren't paying attention to those customer service emails and the comments that come in, I think you're going into risk blind. So it's really important, I think, to keep your eyes really open, but also be laser focused on what I'm trying to deliver to my customer and why in the past this has worked. I think it's so scary talking about it. It's so scary because it's a product-based business and you are, my lead times is such a long time. So really it's five months is a lead time and things, in the social media world and the world that we live in, five months can be archaic.  

Lucy (31:28.143)

Jane, at Mums & Co we talk about the idea of harmony, so you mentioned before the concept of balance being whatever you make it. So here we call it harmony and we describe it as a triangle of our ambition, our livelihood and our wellbeing, inviting you to describe the shape of what a good life looks like for you.

Jane Robertson (31:50.547)

How many sides to a shape can you get? So an octagon, an octagon. Yeah, one's up, then it leans to the next and then there's something else that's dropping. So it leans into the next thing and then the next one, you know, it might be running stable and then it kind of has a little bit of a levitation, but then look, it comes back around to the side. I think it's this really weird looking circle. So that's why I'll say an octagon because it's I love that thing where people go, oh, you can't, you can have it all, but you can't have it at once. And I think that's actually really true. I struggle to be fit, but I have beautiful friends and a great business and a really amazing marriage and beautiful. So it's sort of like, okay, one day I'll have time to exercise the amount that I'd like to. So that sort of might be the bit down the bottom of the octagon that's leaning out, not the bit that's leaning in. And I think it's try not to be too granular in your approach because the pendulum swings and it can swing on a dime.

Yeah, it's so hard. But it's not any more hard than anybody who's being in a paid position. Andrew and I have these discussions as well, you know, that you, all right, that's it, he's packing in, he's going back to work. But it's, so you sit there and you go, where do we come back to our values and what do we want for our family unit? And what does that look like for us? So I think that's where it is that give and take. And there's just so many moving parts that. Yep, an octagon might be a good one.

Lucy (33:41.495)

That's the shape. Thank you, that's a terrific, that's a beautiful answer. And the final question that we love to ask is in the spirit of women supporting women, who are the Mumbitious, the women unapologetically blending their ambition and their motherhood that you would like to say hello to?

Jane Robertson (34:01.663)

Oh wow, where do we start? Where do we start? So there's probably one in particular who, Jo and I both started our respective businesses at exactly the same time. There was an incubator that was going on in Wagga. So my beautiful friend, Jo Palmer, she actually won the Royal Women's Award quite a few, well, was it three or four years ago now? Jo's a really beautiful friend of mine. We actually have this little date, we've already put it in our calendars, we're going to the Maldives and we're going to get one of those overwater bungalows with the water slides that come down when our business has reached 10. So I've got a lot of work to do to save that money in the next three years. But Jo, I was talking to her last night and it's just never ending support. And to completely understand, she's just picked her family up and they've just moved to Singapore for her husband's role and it's like she's never left, she's still here. So I think Jo she has pointer remote roles for a bit of a shout out for those people that don't know her. Her business specialises in finding remote work for people, male or female. And then the other person that I will actually give a shout out back to is my beautiful sister-in-law who is Georgie Robertson which is the regional PR Co.

George for feeding my children ice cream at breakfast on the rare occasion that she has their breakfast time. It's really lovely to have incredible women who you've watched go through really difficult times seeing the beauty at the other end and the gold that is at the other end. And the hard part about that is watching them burn themselves out while they're doing it. But in saying that, it's so lovely to see how far they've come and how well they've both done. And I think they're also both incredibly different. So that's why, with children at really different ages as well, so George's, her girls are almost through high school and Jo’s are really little like mine. So they're, yeah, I think it's, they're two of my biggest supporters for very, very different reasons, and very different personalities, so they bring so much to a conversation, which is really lovely.

Lucy (36:31.311)

What an amazing little cohort the three of you must make.  

Jane Robertson (36:35.104)

Very fortunate, very fortunate. Yeah.

Carrie (36:39.318)

Yeah, we're very aware of Jo and the amazing work that both of them do. We've actually advertised our roles at Mums and Co with Jo as well, but she was also a member from way back and when you were talking about read through your customer emails, I vividly remember when she actually gave us some feedback on our membership product and we've got to get that sorted, which thankfully we did. And Georgie's work in regional PR and lifting women up in

Jane Robertson (37:06.043)

Incredible.

Carrie (37:07.351)

you know, she's indefatigable. So two amazing, amazing women.

Jane Robertson (37:12.959)

100%.

Remy (37:31.155)

How do I look after my shoes better?

Jane Robertson (37:36.319)

Oh, how do you look after your shoes better? Do you know what? If you've got laces, undo them when you take them off and open them up properly to put them in so that you don't crush and roll the back of your heels down. That would be my number one thing because if I watch my son putting his shoes on, I literally, so all our loafers come with a shoehorn to really stop the back of the shoes collapsing in. So this is just something that we do in our house now. We have shoe horns that are everywhere. I was so sick of the kids literally ruining their shoes and then getting little blisters because they were cutting in at the wrong place. So please undo your shoelaces properly, Remy. And slide them off and open them up nicely to put your foot back in every day.