Q&A: The entrepreneur who put her best foot forward to craft a niche business
This week we chat to Cheryl Botha, an entrepreneur who left a corporate career to “see the world”. During her travels Cheryl found herself learning the craft of creating Swarovski crystal leather sandals, a product she now offers Australian consumers through her company Ankalia.
CB: Starting Ankalia really came about by fluke but I did have to make the decision and go for it. Tired of sitting in a “box” in a tall office tower every day, I quit my corporate job and went off to do a few bucket list things. First of all, I did the Kokoda Track and then Mt Everest Base camp. Then I enrolled at The European School of Economics in Milan and studied Fashion and Luxury Goods Management.
After my studies I was holidaying in Italy and I came across a small traditional sandal shop, where an old artisan I now call Papa was making beautiful Swarovski crystal leather sandals. I kept going back to the same shop and I kept buying his sandals, to the point where they’d say “oh you again!” Then one day, out of the blue, Papa’s son said to me “you come, you work, we teach you.” I came home to Australia and discovered nobody here handcrafts Swarovski crystal leather sandals here so I jumped on a plane and went back to Italy. I worked alongside “Papa” as his junior for no pay, sitting next to him every day as he very patiently taught me his craft.
The rest, as they say is history. I launched www.ankalia.com online after spending a year getting it set-up. I now handcraft sandals in my little studio and I receive orders from all over the world. I call it my “mid-life career detour”.
ISB: What was the biggest challenge you faced in leaving a “safe” corporate role and launching your own business, and how did you overcome it?
CB: My biggest challenge was financial. A new business can be a money pit for a long time. So, I really recommend that no matter who you are or what your product is, you should hang onto your day job for as long as possible.
You might have a fantastic product or service but getting it out there into the marketplace is a huge challenge and generally you need to spend, spend, spend on advertising and marketing to get it “out there.”
I believe the saying “it takes ten years to become an overnight success” is very true. Also, most new businesses fail within the first 12 months and then a lot of people give up in under three years because it’s too hard. So, you really need to believe in your product or service and you be prepared to hang in there for the long run.
ISB: And how do you hope your success will help other women looking to “be their own boss” and safeguard their future?
CB: If I knew what I knew now, I probably wouldn’t have left my corporate job, I would have just taken 12 months sabbatical leave. The harsh reality is if you’re a woman over 50, it’s near impossible to get back into the workforce if you’ve taken time out. Again, I recommend hanging onto your day job whilst building your new business on the side.
Now I’m creating my own employment and I’m creating a business that I’ll be able to do for the rest of my working days, thereby giving myself a flexible lifestyle whilst safeguarding my financial future.
ISB: The fashion industry is incredibly competitive – how did you carve a niche for yourself in the market?
CB: The biggest threat now in the fashion industry is “fast fashion.” By that I mean fashion that is super cheap. It’s generally bad for the environment and often made by women who are exploited in forced-labour conditions. As we all become more aware of “fast fashion” versus “slow fashion” I think there’ll be a shift to responsible, ethical “slow fashion”. That’s where Ankalia is carving out a niche. My sandals are handcrafted with love by me in limited-edition quantities, right here in Australia. They are “slow fashion”, timeless, high quality and they will stand the test of time. They are not “throw-away fashion” so they will not create landfill. There is no plastic at all in my sandals, they are simply beautiful leather and therefore good for the environment.
ISB: How do you see the business developing in the next couple of years?
CB: Ankalia continues to grow every year and I’m confident it will keep growing. With an online business, it’s really important to know what you’re doing with social media and know how to work with Influencers to get your brand “out there.”
ISB: And, finally, what is the number one piece of advice you’d give to those looking to turn their passion into a viable business?
CB: My number one piece of advice to anyone looking to turn their passion into a viable business is to ask yourself “Why would someone buy my product ahead of what’s already established in the marketplace and how will I get my product “out there”?
After more than 15 years in the corporate arena where I felt like I was sitting in a box in a tall office tower every day, I decided to resign. I walked away from a Directorship and I told my business partners that I was going on a sabbatical.
Little did I know where that sabbatical would eventually take me but I knew I somehow wanted to reinvent myself and hopefully work in the fashion industry or do something that was a bit more FUN!
So, first of all I went and did a couple of bucket list things. I did the Kokoda Track and then also Mount Everest Base Camp. After my two hikes and on the other end of the bucket list spectrum I went to university in Milan. At the European School of Economics, I studied Fashion and Luxury Goods Management.
After my studies in Milan I stumbled across a traditional little sandal shop. There was an old Italian Papa sitting there handcrafting Swarovski crystal leather sandals. I had a fascination with the colours and designs and I bought multiple pairs of his sandals. I also kept going back to Papa’s shop almost every day, to the point where they’d say “Oh you again.”
Then one day, out of the blue Papa’s oldest son said to me “You come, you work, we teach you.” Wow! I was blown away that they were offering me this amazing chance to work with them and learn to be a sandal Artisan.
So, I returned home to Australia and thought well there’s absolutely nothing like this here and there’s definitely a gap in the market for beautiful Swarovski crystal sandals.
So, I jumped on a plane and flew back to Italy. For the next two months I sat next to Papa all day, every day and he trained me in the traditional Italian craftmanship of sandal making. I lived in a hotel and I worked for no pay.
Upon returning home to Australia again, it took me a year to do all the ground work to get Ankalia.com set-up.
Its’ been a fun and challenging journey. I’m loving doing something creative and working in a whole new industry. I now work in a little studio alone all day where I beaver away making sandals and creating social media posts. I’ve had orders from all over the world.
This is a job and a business that I will do for the rest of my life. It seems to me that people over 50 struggle to find employment, so I’m creating my own employment which will last me for the rest of my life.
For more information about Cheryl Botha and Ankalia go to www.ankalia.com