As self-proclaimed candle junkies, we admit that we’re pretty ecstatic to have Almira Armstrong, founder of the luxury lifestyle candle and product line Lumira, here on The Everygirl today. Oh, and one of our favorite things about this gutsy lady, aside from her (insanely) amazing products? She’ll be the first to tell you that life wasn’t always this glamorous.
While the rest of her classmates in Sydney were landing jobs at highly coveted fashion PR firms, Almira began her career in the marketing department of a legal publisher…selling law books. Not one to sulk, she soaked up every piece of knowledge she could and went on to successfully launch not just one, but multiple businesses and products of her own.
As an advocate of making do with what you have and being your own “expert” whenever possible, Almira was able to successfully launch Lumira on a modest budget – something most product-based business owners know is easier said than done. By choosing to tackle the initial branding and marketing on her own, she was not only able to save capital for the company but also achieve her own specific vision. Keep reading for plenty more on building her business from the ground up, how she prepared for the launch financially and what advice she has for you to do the same.
Full Name: Almira Armstrong
Current Title/Company: Founder and Director of Lumira Luxury Home Fragrances
Educational Background and Professional Training: Masters of Marketing
Year you started your business: 2013
What was your first job out of college, and how did you land it?
My first job after graduating was for a legal publisher in Sydney who needed a marketing and public relations coordinator. Without any connections in marketing to speak of, I had to endure that agonizing task of trawling through employment websites and applying for anything that remotely resembled “marketing”. At a time when it seemed as though all of my classmates were getting these amazing gigs with fashion labels and top PR agencies, my first job was definitely the least glamorous of them all but, looking back, that’s precisely what made it such valuable training; marketing and selling a product as dry as law books isn’t easy and it takes a good amount of creativity and persistence to get the consumer’s attention and convert that into a sale.
You studied public relations in college, but it wasn’t long before you were striking out on your own with your own business ideas. What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
I have owned a number of businesses in my career, but I didn’t set out to become an entrepreneur, per se. There are certainly a number of benefits to operating your own business; there’s the freedom of working on your own terms, the heightened sense of uncertainty and excitement, and reaping the rewards if you get things right, but the one critical factor that stands out the most for me is definitely a passion for the core nature of the business. Be it public relations, e-commerce or lifestyle, the passion for the actual “doing” has always prompted me to take that first critical leap of faith; it’s the fuel that gets me out of bed early in the morning and it’s what keeps me going in the face of setbacks. When it comes to working for yourself, passion is paramount!
Prior to launching Lumira, you founded Picaholic, an innovative do-it-yourself web-design service catering to creative professionals, and Love Conviction, an e-commerce store focused on jewelry and home wares inspired by love. Tell us a bit about those businesses and what prompted you to start them.
My foray into Public Relations in 2004 happened to coincide with the resurgence of e-commerce after the wake of the dotcom crash in the late ‘90’s, and served as a great platform to see the true power of “online”, away from all the froth and hype. While a lot of my clients in the business community were under no illusions about the power of “online”, there was still a lot of trepidation and ignorance amongst smaller businesses on how to harness this new medium. With this problem in mind, a friend and I set up our first pure ecommerce business called “Picaholic”, which was an online do-it-yourself web-design solution initially aimed at photographers. What we soon realized was the much broader range of creative’s who were beginning to understand the web’s power to promote their work and share information. A lot of these professionals wanted to own the task of designing and quickly modifying their own websites but didn’t have the know-how. Our easy-to-use solution gave them that power, and the take-up just exploded.
Within a few years, I ended up moving to the US for a year, which is where I had the idea for Love Conviction, an online boutique that sold jewelry and lifestyle products inspired by love. Most of the brands were US-based as I developed relationships with them while living there. I worked with brands such as LUV AJ, Sunahara Malibu, Erica Weiner, Michelle Chang, and AV Max. With the knowledge of online behind me, I created an e-commerce website easily through Shopify. Utilizing my contacts in the fashion industry, I was able to generate some fantastic editorial internationally, which increased the recognition of Love Conviction and returned sales. Through the power of social media, I used my Facebook fans to showcase items they had bought in return for gift cards to the Love Conviction. The constant conversation from customers continued and it was one of the strongest marketing tools used for Love Conviction.
How has your business venture with Lumira compared with Picaholic and Love Conviction? What were the different challenges and obstacles with each? What has been easier this time around, if anything?
The big difference is that my two previous ventures were fundamentally about creating viable online platforms for other artists to display and sell their creations, whereas, with Lumira, I am able to draw on that skill set, as well as my own creative talents, to build a platform to sell products that I have designed and produced myself. One aspect of this business that I particularly enjoy is that it really requires me to be both logical and creative. So, when I’ve drained myself in one respect, I can recharge by focusing on the other.
How did you first become interested in fragrance and candles?
I’ve had a love affair with candles and scent for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories as a little girl was playing with mum’s bottles of perfume at any opportunity and during my teens I taught myself how to make candles in the kitchen at home, which I would give to friends and family for special occasions. After university, a career in marketing kept me in creative circles and offered the valuable opportunity to live and work overseas, but becoming a mum prompted me to rethink the path ahead and I decided to pursue my dream of creating products which allow me to indulge my love of scent, design and travel; and so Lumira was born.
When you were launching Lumira, was there a specific hole in the market that you were hoping to fill? What was your inspiration behind the business?
Yes. While there is certainly much growth in the market for home fragrance, to my mind, there is a big gap for high quality products, which are beautifully crafted and presented, but also priced sensibly. And, in fact, that can be said for a lot of other product segments. The inspiration behind Lumira is to create beautiful, luxurious lifestyle essentials that are not only useful but also accessible. Our current line of home fragrance combines beautiful scent with bold, elegant design. We aim to provide a means of enhancing the day-to-day with a sense of comfort, luxury and olfactory escapism, no matter the location or occasion.
When it came to branding and packaging design, did you outsource to professionals or did you go the DIY route in the beginning?
I took the DIY route! In the early stages I did a lot of key tasks by myself, before eventually handing them over. While DIY can be cumbersome it is so important to me for three reasons; the first and most obvious is usually money. Before you’ve established a reliable cash flow, capital is often scarce and has to be conserved wherever possible. Secondly, by doing something yourself initially, you can design features exactly the way you intend. And thirdly, when the time comes to ultimately delegate or outsource the task to someone else, you do so with credibility and from a position of authority. In my experience, that helps ensure you eventually select the right person for the job and you can monitor quality control more reliably.
What was that creative process of forming your brand like? What was important to you when designing a look and feel for your brand?
When you’re operating in such a competitive space, the importance of branding and having a clear point of difference can’t be overstated. We spent a lot of time in the early stages clearly identifying the core elements behind Lumira because they serve as our co-ordinates for everything which has followed, and which we’ll do in the future. In terms of look and feel, Lumira’s branding is bold and original without being too heavy on the embellishment. We aim to convey a strong sense of identity and individualism, without seeking attention.
One element which we pay a lot of attention to is the finishing and packaging of the product; this doesn’t come at the expense of the integrity of the product itself, but we want our customers to immediately identify that ours are artisanal products of significant quality. To that end, we use high quality packaging and labels of different textures and we keep the design of the packaging minimal and elegant.
Knowing what you know now, would you advise a new business to invest in PR/marketing services, professional branding and web design right off the bat, or over time? What have you found to be most invaluable to Lumira’s success?
I think that comes down to your existing skill set and how much resource you have available. Even with unlimited capital, I think there’s still a lot of value to be gleaned from doing some of these tasks yourself, initially, because you’re learning about the details of your business. I also think that we routinely underestimate our own abilities and put too much faith in “experts” when the difference is not much more than reading the instructions on the label! So, I would always recommend involving yourself to some extent in these types of tasks. If money is tight, look to do it yourself. Otherwise delegate the job, but remain involved in some capacity, as marketing is such a crucial element to any business.
As for Lumira’s success so far, I’d highlight the importance of having a point of difference. We invested heavily in our fragrances as well as our packaging. When you are different, you won’t appeal to everyone, but you will get noticed by the people who understand you. This is true in home fragrance, as in life!
After you decided to launch Lumira, how did you prepare yourself for it financially? What obstacles did you have to overcome along the way?
It definitely helps to have some money set-aside before starting a business, but not so much that you don’t feel the pressure to perform. Different businesses require different amounts of working capital. We started with a fairly modest budget; maybe $10,000. Once we had decided on our range, got a press kit together and built a website, that money was all but gone. Then it was all about finding customers, building a steady cash flow, and growing the business within the constraints of that cash flow.
One lesson this business has taught me is that, surprisingly, strong growth can be even more disastrous for an enterprise than no growth at all! The growing demand for Lumira’s range has seen so far has required us to continually reinvest our profits to satisfy the ever-growing orders, and expand into new product segments where we see strong demand. While the business has generally been cash flow positive, we see so much opportunity in the lifestyle space right now and want to capture that while it’s there.
Tell us a bit about the process of getting your products sold in stores. How did you approach retailers about your products? What did you learn along the way?
I have to admit that it was really pretty simple and straightforward; I started out approaching local stores that I knew and who I thought might be interested in the range. Some were already stocking candles but, for others, it was a totally new segment. The hard sell isn’t my style at all, so I just introduced myself and sought their honest feedback on the range, asking how they thought their clientele would respond to it. I didn’t go in with high expectations at all; I thought that, perhaps, three or four in every ten stores might be interested, so I just resolved to meet with 30 to 40 stores to find those ten potential stockists. Incredibly, the response was a lot better than I expected and, more times than not, I was also getting orders. At the start of the process I was concerned about not finding enough stockists, but suddenly I was faced with a different problem of how to fulfill all of their orders at once.
Looking back, the process taught me the value of just putting yourself out there; don’t be concerned with rejection, just see it as part of the journey; while it can be a bit dry, its important to have an infrastructure behind you that can support the business as it grows; and lastly set aside valuable time each week to focus on the strategic objectives of the business rather than just the day to day operations.
How many people are currently on staff at Lumira? How has your team grown since you first launched, if at all? Do you have separate offices, or do you work remotely from home?
We run a fairly lean operation with four people and one intern. Our team has grown from one to five in the last year and we now have a studio space where we work and produce our products. I also have a small office at home where things I don’t complete at work get done.
One aspect of the business that I really appreciate is the flexibility to work from anywhere when needed. We have a lot of meetings with suppliers and clients outside of the office and you’ll often find me working in all sorts of places and spaces!
What were those first few months like? Were there any slow business days? If so, how did you keep your spirits up?
The first few months of any business are uncertain but exciting, and so they should be. We spent a lot of time experimenting with our range. This is something we still do, in fact. I’m a Virgo and therefore a perfectionist so, unfortunately for everyone around me, this is no simple task!
Initially, we turned to our friends and family for valuable feedback, which we used to refine the range before agreeing it was ready to go to market. Then comes all of the preparation for PR and marketing: look books and press kits; sales presentations, order forms and line sheets; and then hitting the road visiting potential stockists. During the early stages you also find yourself wearing a lot of different hats; one minute you’re working on product development, the next you’re doing a budget, then pitching a potential customer, etc. As I said, while this can be frustrating I think there’s a huge amount of value in getting to know the nuts and bolts when building a business, without letting your time get totally consumed by the minutiae.
Thankfully, there haven’t been any slow business days. There are certainly days when sales aren’t breaking records, but that gives us a chance to work on other aspects of the business that need attention, and there are plenty of those!
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Take more risks, don’t be afraid, and start right now!
Almira Armstrong is The Everygirl…
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Grace Coddington. We would have lunch and I would order a chicken salad. We would talk about what inspired her to begin a career in fashion and what it is like to work with Anna Wintour.
My all time favorite scent is Marc Jacbos Woman Eau de Parafum. An elegant and classic beauty.
Ultimate simple pleasure?
Early walks before breakfast with my boys and a mani/pedi.
Safari through Africa.
I wish I knew how to:
Sing! It just makes me feel good.