Sarah and I met for the first time at the Queensland Young Achiever Awards. She was nominated for the Online Achievement Award and I was the MC of the event. I was probably a little naïve about just how successful she was. She was unassuming, humble and real! While I wasn't familiar with Sarah, I was very aware of her company Beginning Boutique.
Two years later we finally sat down to talk about success and share our passion for women in the workforce. What I loved most about it - Sarah brought her 10 month old son Finn to the cafe in West End. Welcome to the modern world!
Here’s what I learned about Sarah Timmerman in My 30 minutes.
Lots of people would know your company name – if I say to them Beginning Boutique they’d know what I’m talking about. But a lot of people may not know about you, so who is Sarah Timmerman?
"Well she’s not that exciting. (laughs) I love reading, meditation, I have a baby, I have a cat, I’m quite nerdy and I want to run the New York Marathon this year in November. And I think probably... it’s a hard question because I think when you talk about ‘who are you’ I think a lot of the words you have to use are more describing words rather than ‘I have a baby and I do this’, so I think for me...
"If something isn’t making you happy, change that thing. So that’s who I am, I think?"
Your husband didn’t get a mention?
"He’s good though. I love him. Maarten is the reason I could stay doing what I was doing, because he supported us when I wasn’t working. He worked as a welder and brought all the money in. Then when we could afford to put him on staff which was only 2 years ago – he had no digital marketing skills - now he’s running all our paid digital advertising which is really cool."
How did you start Beginning Boutique?
"It was a trip overseas that inspired it and just shopping on James Street when I was 20 or so, and you wanted to buy one nice thing from 'sass & bide' and feeling like you’re an imposter in their store, and I really hated that. I hated feeling like you had to prove you could afford to buy something. I think people should treat you really well every time you go into a store. That’s what I experienced in Paris - even if you only had 20 bucks to spend, it wasn’t an issue. Not every store in Paris obviously, but this one store!
So decided I wanted to provide a really awesome customer service experience with a cool product. This is before there were those awesome shops like General Pants which has a cool mix of fun product, as well as cool clothing. That was the original idea and it was supposed to be on James Street but there were no shops for lease, so my friend suggested that I went online. That’s when we decided to go online."
What year was that?
"It was 2008.
"It was really difficult to convince people that online retail was a thing."
And that I wasn’t an eBay store that was going to cut all their prices. It was really difficult to get started. Also because there wasn’t that much traffic online."
Which is crazy because the rate at which online has grown in 10 years is almost unfathomable?
"I’m so glad that I went into online because being in physical retail – like we did a pop up store 2 years ago and you’re just really stuck, you can’t really scale out of a store, yeah it's great in terms of building online traffic but the investment it required is very high."
At that time because no one was really doing that... how did you model the business and what did you do before you actually every launched?
"My mum was a CFO of a company, so we modelled out the financials before I started. I got a loan from family to buy the inventory and to launch the website. And I started with my graphic designer doing the logo design. From there I was recommended a web development company. From there we built the website. It was a nightmare – being 20 and female, dealing with a mid 30s male who had been building websites for the government... everything was my fault, which clearly it wasn’t. So it was a really difficult initial year before we even started because the website was so delayed and we had designer stock that was sitting there for 3 months without a website. Everybody doesn’t want to buy 3 month old stock at full price, so it was a really interesting problem to solve."
At the time was there anything that nearly held you back? What is it about Gen Y that you just think ‘let’s just go for it’?
"I wonder when people say that if it's a generation thing, or if it’s just a sheer belief thing. I always believed I should have my own business.
"My nana said to me just before she died ‘You never regret the things you did do. You regret the things you don’t do.’"
I have always kept with that. If there’s something I think I should do – I go do it! I’m not talking about stupid things like spending all my money on a race car, but it is really important to follow your purpose and what you think your dream is. So I don’t know if that’s a generation thing or just a belief thing?"
Did you feel there was any sort of fear holding you back?
"100 percent fear. There’s always fear. Even now there’s still fear and I think that’s a struggle because you’re obviously trying to push the envelope with everything you do and that’s scary because people want to cut you down and say why you’re wrong, or why you’re wasting money, like everyone has an opinion about what you’re doing wrong. But then there’s always amazing people around you saying you did a good job, that things are cool, that you’re doing different things. I’m always scared of letting my staff down, I would hate to let them down. I’m not really scared of losing what Maarten and I have because we love each other, and I could just go live on nothing with him somewhere and we’d figure it out again. Fear is definitely always real.
So it’s 2008, you’re 21 years old, you’ve finally launched, things are up and running – what was the big moment that things shifted and you saw this as really working?
"It was actually in the 4th year. The first two years I spent working out how we were going to fix the website because it was so bad. I got a pop-up store at South Bank in the cinemas there and it was pretty ridiculous rent when I look back at it, it was very expensive. I used to work my butt off in that store, I did all the hours. I did have some people who covered for me and that was great because otherwise I would have gone insane. But I saved up enough to rebuild the website and I had this guy rebuild if for me and it all turned around from there.
When we had a proper functioning website – it all turned around. That’s when we started using influencers as well. We were giving people $150 vouchers if they wrote about our store on their blog."
At that time were you one of the first people doing that sort of thing with ‘Influencers’?
"I think so because people didn’t really understand it. I’m sure it was happening overseas – but here in 2012 blogging was very new. That’s before Gary Pepper Girl was huge – before she was Gary Pepper Girl, when she was still Gary Pepper Vintage."
When you were in your 20s the company you owned turned over a 7 figure amount – when was that milestone?
"I don’t actually know when that milestone was, because honestly it was not that important to me. I was more focused on building the business. It took me like 6 years before I took a proper wage and that was like an entry level wage. It was never good money, it was never about the money, it was always about just growth. Not growth at any cost – considered growth."
This is your 10th year in business. What are you going to do to mark the milestone? And when you look back what do you think?
"I want to have a big party, definitely a big party in October! When you look back at something like that it’s almost like your first child. It’s nice because it really does relate to raising a child like the first few years are so intense and hands on. Now that it can walk on its own, I can focus on bigger strategy things like running the company.
Some of the things I look back on and am really excited about is actually when I’ve given myself permission to run the company as I want to. As you work with more and more people, and especially sometimes being younger than them, they’ll impose their thoughts and beliefs on you. I haven’t worked for anyone else, so it’s very difficult not to take that as ‘oh that’s just how it needs to be done’. So every time I’ve given myself permission to run it how I want to run it – there have been such cool things come out. Like the Tammy Hembrow shoot, what we did with Splendour. And then just some really cool things that aren’t even cool – like when we got PayPal for the first time... just stupid things."
How have you found the fashion industry? There’s a bit of a stigma that it’s competitive, obviously it’s a very visual industry. In terms of other people – did you find a lot of support or was tall poppy syndrome a problem? Were people looking to build you up?
"It is a very isolated industry, but I think it’s also a choice. So for me I’ve always chosen to make a conscious effort to support other people, and I think you get what you put out. If I’ve ever known that someone is upset with me or upset with Beginning, I’ve always called and tried to apologise and make things right. But there’s room in the industry for everyone and I think people forget that."
I like that... there’s room in the industry for everyone?
"Definitely. If you are doing what your customer wants you to do, they will reward you with shopping with you."
"It’s not about how many players there are, it’s about how you do it."
Consumerism seems to be really ramping up – because of things like social media. Even viewing your friends photos is a form of advertising and it makes you think you want things that you don’t have. Are you seeing that in terms of growth?
"We’ve had really exponential growth but I’m not sure it’s because of social media or if it’s because we’ve had a renewed focus on our customer. In the last year I changed everything and my team really changed everything as well. So we’re seeing growth from that. Of course social media plays a role because it’s a form of advertising but you could probably invest the money on Facebook advertising or something like that and have the same results, if that makes sense? But I do think when Kmart is doing $29 velvet chairs and beautiful interiors – consumerism is on the rise in terms of cheap product, but it’s because they’re meeting customer demand."
When you look back at the 10 years do you feel you’ve reached a level of success? How would you measure success for you personally and do you feel like either you’re there, or there’s glimmers of it? Or are you someone who is always looking to the next thing?
"It’s definitely important to be happy right now, but you have to enjoy the ride and I think people forget to do that. I’m happy right now, do I think that I’m ridiculously successful – no, I think there’s always more to be achieved, but I’m happy with what I’ve achieved so far. When I look back because I turned 30 two years ago… I look back and think ‘did I use those 10 years wisely?’ And there are times when I thought I should have just done what I wanted to do and I didn’t.. but for the most part I’m happy with how I used my time."
If I asked you to create a definition of success, what would it be?
"I think it’s definitely tied to profit in terms of business success. It’s definitely tied to profitability because otherwise you’re not running a successful business. I think it’s also tied to staff happiness because you could be the most profitable company in the world, but if everyone hates your guts I think that’s not success either.
"I would tie it to a profitable company, with a company culture that encourages the staff to grow and have fun."
What about personal success?
"Happiness, love, cherishing the relationships you have because the grass isn't greener on the other side."
You can’t have a different family, you can’t have a different husband, you can’t have a different baby. Just enjoy and love what you have! That’s success because you can have that right now. You don’t have to achieve something for that!"
You recently had a baby. Finn is now 10 months old – what was that like as the CEO of a company? Especially in the lead up because a lot of women worry that if they have a baby it will change their career prospects. Did you have to look at that?
"I think the man should be doing that as well. I’ve always had a really supportive partner in Maarten and he always said he would be the stay at home dad. I think he thought that meant a lot more PlayStation than it does. (laughs) We planned it and I planned it – the timing, everything around the retail calendar year. If you had a baby at Boxing Day it would just be a nightmare. I have a friend who planned their pregnancy around their businesses peaks. You do have control, so use it would be my number one thing. Also there’s no rush to have a baby because as soon as you do have a child it does become all about them, obviously. If I didn’t have a supportive partner it would be a lot harder to remain CEO of Beginning Boutique, unless I got a nanny. There’s ways around everything actually – you could have a cook, you could have a cleaner, whatever. It’s all around perspective and making sure you have the support in place."
Did you have any concerns about how a baby would change your work?
"Definitely. I worked right up to the day I had Finn. I had preeclampsia and he turned the wrong way around a week before he was due, so once he turned the right way around it was time to go. For me that was perfect because I didn’t have to stress or think about anything but there is always fear. It’s a huge change in your life. You now have to consider something else above everything else. No regrets obviously, it’s part of my plan that I wanted for my life, but it does change things and you just have to work with it. But that is business – it changes all the time, no week is ever the same."
Finn is 10 months old now – how have things changed? What was the journey after giving birth and when you returned to work?
"I think the hardest part was the pressure to breastfeed. I know that’s something people don’t like to talk about, but for me that was a really huge pressure because my family had very strong beliefs on breastfeeding.
Vogue Online Shopping Night happened and a crane fell over on the corner knocking out all the power in our office, so it was a massive day for us and we had no electricity. I had to go pick up two generators with a staff member, we set up the generators, we set up hired lights so we could get our packages out, and I forgot to express. So I’m sitting up in the board room overflowing, should we use that word? And someone is trying to have a conversation with me while I’m expressing. And I thought ‘this is not worth it – how can this be a good family decision?’
Also the time it adds into your day! So you want to express – you have to take yourself away and you can’t work at full capacity for at least 45 minutes and you need to do that two or three times a day. I’d rather be at home for three hours. I think that was probably the biggest pressure.
So when I stopped breast feeding at three months, that was a huge relief. Other than that, life has stayed relatively the same except with new routines. Like you don’t go out for dinner, you go out for lunch or breakfast. That’s all got to do with Finn’s sleeping, like he’s sleeping now next to us as we do this interview. He’s really great, if he was a baby with colic or whatever - totally different story - I’d have a different interview for you."
Have you still been able to work and what are your hours like?
"A normal day is either eight until five, or nine to five. After Finn goes to bed I’ll do some emails. Nothing major, I don’t work major hours. That’s definitely not part of my definition of success. If you’re working until midnight… I just can’t function without nine hours sleep, I need that. So nine hours sleep, interrupted by baby, but nine hours sleep and nine hours work."
When you’re in the office, he’s at home with dad. Do you find you’re able to fully focus and do what you need to do?
"100 percent! You’d be surprise that when you have a baby life feels more normal in the office, than it does with the baby. That’s not because I don’t love him but that’s because it’s a new routine and I’m a very routine person.
I’m learning everything about Finn, I’m learning how to be a mum, and how to live both lives. Whereas at work it’s so natural - you just get to work, get your job done and go home. On Friday’s I’m at home with Finn and it’s a lot of fun! When he’s awake we’re playing and when he’s asleep I’m working. But when you go to work it’s just work."
What’s been the reaction from people that Maarten is a stay at home dad?
When we were in the hospital... the amount of times we had to keep saying ‘Maarten is going to be the stay at home dad, can you please tell him how to do this’ and they just kept referring to me. When I didn’t go to Finn’s first doctor’s appointment, the doctor was like ‘Oh I expected that the mum would be here’.
"I found it really strange that if a dad took five weeks off he’d be a hero, but because I only took five weeks off it’s really strange for people and people struggle to understand the role reversal."
But Maarten is a better stay-at-home dad than I could ever be. When I was stay-at-home I had an app that I would put everything of Finn’s into, I was not a good stay-at-home mum. I would have driven Finn and me crazy with organisation and stuff like that."
So we’ve got a long was to go with that stereotype still?
"Absolutely. Even the assumption that I would hand the business on, and the assumption that I wouldn’t be able to do my job anymore.
I had HR specialists tell a team member when I wasn’t there... that even though I said I was coming back, they needed to prepare for me not to come back full time. Two male HR specialists. It was very shocking and it was very presumptuous considering they’d never met me."
So after Finn your business carried on, and so did your personal life - you went on a big overseas holiday last year and you took Finn. A lot of people think that once you’ve got a baby you can’t go overseas. What did you do?
"When Finn was four months old we wanted to go back home to see all of Maarten’s family and friends. We went back to Spain and it was amazing. We got a campervan, and yes Finn was jet lagged and it had it’s challenging moments, but not really. It’s just the same routine in a different country. The only problem we had was not getting a big enough van and Maarten couldn’t fit in the bed. (laughs) The trip is a really special memory!
That’s another thing I would define in success – taking time for yourself. We always have four weeks off a year. Not always in a block, but at least four weeks annual leave. Life is not all about working, it’s about doing a good job when you’re at work, but not always working."
You turned 30 a few years ago. How was that?
"I was four months pregnant and it was actually one hell of a time in my life. We outsourced our warehouse and there was major problems there and we had to bring it home. So we had just got our warehouse back with one weeks notice – that was incredibly stressful, huge legal battles! We also decided to buy a house without finance, which was fine because we figured it out – you always figure it out. But we bought a house at auction. We brought our warehouse home. I was four months pregnant. And on my 30th we had it at a café close by called Miss Bliss, it was just all my friends and we bought them dinner. It was really lovely. It’s a good time to look back and go ‘Am I happy with how I spent my post school time, what would I change, what would I keep?’"
Looking at the future both professionally and personally – what are you hoping for?
"We definitely want to have one more baby. Finn needs someone to bitch about his parents with when we’re old and crazy.
Personal life is all about making sure we’re ready for retirement. All the normal stuff – planning your financial future and that sort of thing.
Also, personally I’m very passionate about helping women in business and trying to figure out how I can do more for that – pay equality and ‘me too’. So hopefully it will get to a stage when I can do more on that.
Professionally with Beginning – making sure we don’t hold back. Continuing to be innovative and hopefully game changing across the entire company.
And there’s always more to do, always more to improve."
Do you have any ambition to do another business?
"I think the fun thing with Beginning is that if I want to do bikinis I can, if I want to do active wear I can, if I want to do handbags I can. There’s so many businesses in the business.
But I have thought of that – would I want to run another business but it’s almost like we already do. If I want to go to China and help with fittings I could, if I want to go to Coachella with influencers I could.. it’s pretty cool!"
Where do you think you’ll be in 10 years?
Maarten wants to live on the Gold Coast in 10 years, in eight years actually. Potentially living near the ocean. I definitely want Beginning to be more of an international player and we’re working on that pretty aggressively. So in 10 years I’d like to think that will be cemented. And definitely doing more work in terms of helping other women in business. Maybe business coaching – but not as a profession more just investing into women.
We are right on time – 29 minutes 53 seconds."
*N.B. - This was not a paid interview. Sarah donated her time for 'My 30 Minutes'.