NEWCASTLE-founded homewares brand Mustard Made has launched in the United States, where it expects sales of its "soft industrial" lockers to exceed even its own expectations.
Becca Stern, who founded the company with her London-based sister Jess in 2018, said the US move, following its debut in Australia, Britain and select European markets, was far from smooth.
"I can say it with a smile now, but in the last 18 months we had a fire on an engine on one of the [freight] ships, we had containers backed up on the Suez Canal, there was COVID on another boat that went to Belgium, typhoons in China and [where the brand manufactures], COVID-19 closing our factory ... you name it, it has gone wrong," says Ms Stern.
"I feel we are tougher now and a bit braver and we know that things are just taking a lot longer, everything in freight is wildly delayed, it's harder than usual, so we are trying to relax into the situation."
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Mustard Made launched at a Sydney trade show with two products and six colours and has since quadrupled its product line. Its revenue has doubled year on year and Stern is confident it will be welcomed into the US, "the traditional home" of the high school locker.
"It was really the customer demand that pushed us to start making plans. We were getting emails every day from Americans asking for it," she said.
Initially, Jess Stern had planned to move to the US to over see the launch but when the pandemic prevented that the sisters scrambled to find a logistics partner in the US.
"We kept asking everyone we knew from advice and we came across a great warehouse partner, they are a British company that have a business that launched in the US and they learnt the hard way and they are there to support you on the logistics side - and that felt like the biggest challenge," Stern says.
Mustard's sales in Australia were doubled in the UK and Stern expects that figure to double again in the US, fuelled by their stalwart "mum" customers and those "feathering their nests" and work stations in the new work-from-home era.
"Mostly our biggest audience is mums with younger kids it seems and .. You can catch them at any age of your parenting cycle and they are still good which is nice," she says.
"With lots of people working from home that's been a big growth area in the home office or kids work space.
She believes the key differences in the markets will be customer taste: Americans like the "Twinnie", a tall double locker, in Australia the shorty or bedside-table size is the favourite.
Stern says the US move will have a big impact on the company, saying Mustard is only limited by "what stock we can get and how fast we can move".
"Stage one is launching and getting logistics right and solving problems we didn't know we'd have, stage two is wholesale and stage three is pushing the trade sector," she says.
"I think it is going to exceed our expectations and we are trying to keep them in line with what our big growth trajectory is ..we are a small team and it's a hard thing taking the leap when we are not there."
Having a company in three different markets often keeps Ms Stern her up until midnight on phone calls, and rising at 6am for media calls.
She handles the creative, design and marketing while Jess is knee-deep in production. There are 15 staff including Becca's husband Jono, a project manager, and Jess's fiance Mark, who oversees logistics.
When Becca Stern launched her first business, House of Bec, she described herself as a "broke single mum". Now she is married, with three young boys and a multi-million dollar company.
"Every day I wonder how I got here and I had some good chats with 'my PR person' about whether to say that. It's weird to me," she says.
"My perception of who I am is lagging behind maybe where I am. Jono is like, 'You can buy fancy pesto if you want to', and I'm like this 'this one one is fine'. I am adjusting and I think going through being a single [businesswoman] shapes you and toughens your skin. It's taken time to adjust and to feel confident in where I am at in my business journey."
Her biggest realisation has been knowing it is ok to take her foot off the pedal or relax more.
At House Of Bec, she recalls, "if I wasn't working, there was no money".
"Now I have a team, sales still happen and show up. It's that sense of that i can take my hands off a bit more," Ms Stern says.
She agreed to put the line of her change from single working mum to head of a highly successful company because she says its "so easy as a woman" to be shy about acknowledging achievement.
"There was a sense of well, someone might look at this and think 'that's interesting and inspiring'," she says.
"I think the scale of the business is something I am proud of. It's taken planning, wisdom and learning things the hard way."
Stern acknowledges questioning whether she's a good mother or parent when she's under pressure at work. With each child, she has been in vastly different life phases.
"Youcan't win, so just get on with it and do your best," she says, adding that her husband is very supportive.
While the pandemic has helped Mustard sales, it's also taken a personal toll on the Sterns and their staff.
"Trying to keep moral up when you are also sinking a bit has been challenging for Jess and I, we are not always at our best either and neither are they so that's been the personal challenge," she says.
The separation from her sister and British family has been tough.
"Jess and I are really good when we are together, that's why we kind of started, that's been taken away. We've both had a baby and not met each other's kids," she says.
"Living in Australia, the one thing I would save for was to go back to England, and we have to accept that's not going to be a part of life for a while."
Ms Stern says she continues to be driven in business by the satisfaction of having a team: "Having that joy and responsibility of being a part of it is quite new to me after having worked by myself."
Joy has also been found in being able to achieve business and life goals with her sister and being a role model for her offspring.
"I want my children to see me working and have a broader idea of what women can be. The other day my son drawing some lockers, it was the most proud moment," she says.
"[I love] the challenges of doing something that is new and the business has grown so fast that we are always a step out of our comfort zone which is exciting."
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