Robyn Smith: If you know your worth, you will command it naturally

Robyn Smith is the founder and director of Faithful to Nature, a company that in eight short years has gone from strength to strength. Faithful to Nature is currently South Africa’s largest green online shop and they only stock and sell products that fulfil a very strict ingredient and production policy. Founded in 2007, Faithful to Nature offers great customer service, same-day dispatch on most orders, and detailed product information ensuring peace of mind for customers. . In this interview, Robyn shares her experience with us, the ups and downs of owning a business, what it takes to make it and more.

Tell us a bit about your business and what motivated you to start?

Faithful to Nature is South Africa’s largest eco-friendly online shop with the vision of becoming ‘Africa’s Green Amazon’. We were one of the first companies worldwide to create and implement a very strict ingredient policy that determines which products we sell and which ones we don't. This policy is our DNA and is designed to empower our customers on their journey towards ethical consumption and a healthier, greener life. We offer over 11 000 carefully selected products in the food, beauty, lifestyle, cleaning, home, garden and pet categories.

I recognised at an early age that I was wired to be my own boss, but it was only when I became passionate about the value of using organic products myself that I recognised a gap in the South African market. I had recently returned from a few years in London in 2006 and became aware of the rather poor distribution of truly natural products in South Africa as well as the surrounding confusion in the market about what constituted a genuinely non-toxic product. 

How did you raise your start up money? 

I used my savings from working in London for 2,5 years but I have to say we had minimal start-up costs and had to foster a very lean and innovative business culture as a result.

Did you write a business plan? Was it an effective tool for you?

Yes, as 101 as this is, I am a firm believer that everyone needs a business plan. You need to know what differentiates your business idea, and this is a great support to ensure you have looked at the execution of your plan from all angles.

Who did you hire to help you with your business - bookkeeper, an accountant, lawyer …? 

Due to our limited starting capital, I had to become a “jack of all trades” and when I look back now I surprise even myself at how many different functions I would execute on during an average business day. Our first hire was actually a very shy domestic worker to help us pack boxes. By the time she left us 6 years later she was proficient on a computer and we had also taught her how to drive. In fact, the first 5 hires were all generalists - our limited budget forced us to find people with potential but with a fairly chequered education and experience whom we would then up-skill. This is a testament of course to how important entrepreneurs are in building a strong and empowered middle class in South Africa. 

Would you suggest others do the same?

It all depends on your budget. I do believe the strength of your success lies in the team of people you find and develop, so if you can afford to hire highly skilled people who will add value from day one, then do it. Otherwise, if you cannot afford it, then commit to developing future superstars within your company. Faithful to Nature owes its success to each and every individual who has worked at the company in its lifetime. 

Have you outsourced any portion of your business? And has that worked for your business?

The heart of our business are our customers and the largest contributing factor to our success has been our extraordinarily high customer retention rates. The fact that we offer very customised and personal service has meant that we have had to keep everything in-house to maintain the high level of quality we expect. Whilst we tried to outsource various pieces of our operations initially, we have been unable to find partners that genuinely share the same level of commitment to their customers as we do.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

We understand the lifetime value of each and every customer. That means there is no limit to the cost and time we will put into ensuring that customers are satisfied. The way we have empowered our customer services team to execute on this is to give them an unlimited budget to solving issues on the spot with customers when they arise. We put our customers first and as a result, our customers are extremely loyal and motivated to help their networks become “Faithful to Nature” as well. 

We also have a very strong set of values within the business which guide the way we sell and also what we sell. We absolutely will not compromise on this, and the fact that our customers can shop in a completely “worry-free” zone with our large selection of carefully screened products is a very powerful platform from which to sell. 

How do you effectively manage the finances of your company?

We have a very detailed cash flow management system that we update and report on daily. We update our forecasts monthly and rework our business plan every 3 months. 

Do you have rainy-day savings for your business?

Not really - we put any profits back into growing our inventory, however, we have secured investment for the company which has created a safety net of sorts.

What's a financial mistake you made as a business owner in the beginning? And how did you bounce from it?

Natural and organic products have fairly limited expiry dates and we were too ambitious (by a long way) in the amount of stock we bought for the very first trade show that we partook in. This has actually happened a few times - an experience many retailers would understand. We were always able to turn potential disasters like this into opportunities though by using the stock as marketing collateral to increase our brand equity and engage with new customers.

With the current economy slump, what cost saving tips would you share with new entrepreneurs?

Marketing is a vital function in every business but I would recommend stress-testing your budgets at every chance. This is one area of the business where innovation should be encouraged because there is so much than can be achieved by playing smart. With the right focus, a good quality product offering and a deep understanding of your customer, you can grow your business without spending a fortune.

As an example, we could not afford to spend any cash on any item in the business that would not directly translate into customer acquisition or loyalty when we first launched, and this applied to business cards too. This challenge forced us to be extremely innovative and so we created credit card-sized pocket guides for safe shopping with our business details on them in lieu of business cards. With “business cards” that now added value to customers, we had inadvertently created very smart marketing material that our customers wanted to share with their friends and family. 

What advice can you offer female business owners on making sure they're being compensated fairly for their work?

Believe in yourself and work on believing in yourself more each day. You are in such a privileged position as a business owner to really be a master creator and if you know your worth, you will command it naturally.

Do you have business mentors, and if so, how have they helped you develop as an entrepreneur?

Unfortunately, I had very little support in terms of business mentorship, and it is something I regret not fighting harder for. There are so many networks that offer support to entrepreneurs and I would highly recommend finding one that works for you.

What have you learned from starting your company that might be useful to would-be entrepreneurs?

As an entrepreneur, you are 100% responsible for every touch-point in your business. If you are able to develop the self-awareness to be ruthlessly honest with yourself about weaknesses in your skill set, aptitude, and managerial style, you will be better able to find support and turn these areas into strengths. 

Your business success will largely be influenced by the team of people you choose to work with, so hire very carefully and be brave enough to call it when relationships are no longer manifesting the best interests of the company. 

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