How to find your small business tribe

When Anthony Mananov was trying to resurrect the family’s textile business he reached out to like-minded people, and customers who he knew would have an affinity for their offer.

“We were really trying to find people who were passionate about the same things that we believed in – the use of good quality materials and local manufacturing,” he said.

Mananov has worked in the family business, run by father Les, since he left school in 1990.

In the early days, LMB Knitwear made knitted pieces for womenswear labels, and later woolens for surf wear labels. Then it either stopped production or went offshore.

Mananov says when business dried up, they sought the advice of a branding consultant who helped inspire the Otto & Spike incarnation, named after their children.

Launched 12 years ago, the brand has a range of accessories including scarfs, hats, gloves and socks. They since added plush throws and homewares to their product offering.

The business has received Ethical Clothing Australia certification, meaning it has a transparent supply chain.

“We are looking to someone [customers] who cares about what they buy and where it is made,” he says.

Mananov says in the early days they attended local markets in a number of states across the country to build word-of-mouth among customers who shared their passion for bespoke products.

“Retailers were not keen to take it on because it was new,” he says. “We would fill up the van and go to a market.” Mananov says they now have a limited number of stockists.

“We get requests from potential stockists but we don’t want to be everywhere. We like to look after our stockists by not stocking [other retailers] too close to their shops. That means they support us,” he says.

The Otto & Spike label has an online presence, which is often a second call for customers who know about their products but can’t get to a retailer.

Two years ago, they opened a concept store in Brunswick in Melbourne’s inner north.

“We always had people wanting to come to the factory to see the whole range because our stockists don’t always stock the full range,” he said. “But we couldn’t have them here because it would be too disruptive.”

Les and Kirstie Mananov of LMB Knitwear


Mananov says the Otto & Spike story has really resonated with customers, and once they know the story behind it, they often go on to be champions for the brand.

 

From working in public health advocacy, Vinita Baravkar has gone on to run an ethical business importing organic cotton goods from India.

Shocked by the conditions, she launched Bhumi Organics, which has an online store and a bricks and mortar outlet.

“Having Fairtrade certification has been extremely important for us and our customers, as it provides the validation and confidence that all our products are ethically made in Fairtrade certified mills and factories with no child labour,” she says.

Baravkar says the cost of certification is not insignificant for small businesses but it delivers plenty of upsides. “It can be expensive for small businesses but we believe it is definitely worth the investment,” she says.

Small business mentor Bruce Hall says there are a number of ways businesses can find their tribe.

“If there is a [locally made] accreditation I would suggest they look at that as that is what people are considering when they are making [purchasing] decisions,” he says. “I would also seek out thought leaders in the area and get their input.”

He says social media platforms and blogging can be an excellent way to find customers who share the same values as your brand or business, and engage with them.

When building a community around your brand or product, it’s important to step back and work out what keyword, phrases or features people use when looking for or talking about products online.

“Work out what they are looking for, how they talk about brands, and make sure you use those words in your content and in your hashtags,” he says.

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