We Took THE PLUNGE
IN RECOGNITION OF GLOBAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP WEEK IN NOVEMBER, WE CELEBRATE SOUTH AFRICAN WOMEN WHO HAVE CREATED AN INCOME THROUGH THEIR OWN CLEVER START-UPS
‘At the time of quitting my 9-5 in 2010, I’d just found out I was pregnant with my son Milo, the inspiration behind the company. I knew I was taking a big risk because I didn’t have a plan for what would come next, but I knew I was tired of creating for others. I wanted to play by my own rules and do something inspirational for my kids,’ says the mother of three. With no idea of what she would create, Nicki started using her design and photography skills to make nature-inspired, handcrafted and eco-conscious ceramic, wooden, glass, and textile homeware.
‘I believe beautiful art inspires everyone, so instead of putting these pieces on walls to only admire from a distance, I thought why not make it a part of everything we do? When we drink our coffee in the morning, why not incorporate beauty into it?’
This curiosity, plus a fascination with the imperfection of nature, pushed Nicki to create ceramics such as milk jugs and tapas sets, home fabrics that include cushions and picnic blankets, metal and brass products, and leather bags. Fast-forward a few years and Love Milo has become a fruitful e-commerce business, supplying local and international wholesale and retail stores.
Nicki’s experience in advertising and cinematography as a colour corrector came in handy: through her work with images, and a good understanding of colour, contrast and editing, she was able to cut down on costs that would have gone into hiring professional photographers and stylists for the Love Milo brand. ‘I did this all by myself and saved a lot of money in the process. Given the quality of the images we use for our marketing materials, we’ve had great interest from popular media publications to feature our products, which has helped to create further exposure and awareness of our brand.’
Within a few years, Love Milo grew from a startup to supplying decor items to wholesalers globally, working with retailers on custom designs, and running an online store. ‘I started by selling at a few markets like Kamers/makers and Design Indaba, where my range caught the attention of retailers. My first big order was with Poetry for my message mugs. It was an exciting sale, but I ended up taking a massive loss in profit. This taught me so much about how business works, specifically in terms of getting my margins down and avoiding losses by not under-pricing my products. This process also taught me a lot about producing and managing large quantity orders.’
In 2013 and 2014 Love Milo was invited to exhibit in New York, Paris, and Tokyo, which was a substantial boost for Nicki’s work. ‘Our products received huge interest in Paris and we ended up doing the show there three times. The French really seem to resonate with our designs and we’ve acquired many European customers through this.’ As a result of the exposure, Love Milo now supplies Nicki’s ornaments to international stores such as SARZA in New York, Latrette in Paris, Ecohome Store in Cyprus, Loft in Switzerland, Buk & Nola in Canada, and Joba in Dubai. Locally, the brand distributes products to Poetry, Superbalist, Yuppiechef, Faithful to Nature, Present Space, and a range of independent stores.
‘Our local client base has only really been built up in the last few years. We realised most of our work was being exported, and wanted to spend more time focusing on supplying locally.’
Love Milo tries to keep the manufacturing of products in-studio, with the help of two inhouse seamstresses and two ceramicists. Where they can’t, products are outsourced to local businesses. ‘This way we contribute to the growth of the country’s economy and uplift our local community at the same time.’
However, marketing her products to wholesalers hasn’t been an easy ride, cutting deep into profits, and Nicki has learned many lessons since her first order. ‘Marketing my products to retailers was very costly at first. In trying to mark the product at a price retailers could sell for, I sacrificed profit for recognition. In hindsight, it was probably an extremely risky move, but it helped spread the Love Milo name across the globe, and everything worked out in the end. Although I’ve reached a global audience, my biggest achievement is definitely supplying the restaurant at the Zeitz MOCAA museum in Cape Town, simply because it’s such a beautiful museum and it was such a privilege to have been approached.’
As nature lovers, Nicki and her partner Matt, who hopped on board as the company’s business and operations manager in 2015, spend a lot of time outdoors with their children, where Nicki draws inspiration for her designs. ‘Milo is always bringing me interesting creatures he’s found in our backyard, like dragonflies and butterflies. I focus on the smallest details, like the wings of the dragonfly or the pattern of a branch, photograph them and incorporate them into my designs.’
The French really seem to resonate with our designs and we`ve acquired many European customers through this
Love Milo, a boutique homeware and decor studio, has enjoyed local and international wholesale and retail success. Creator of the brand, NICKI ELLIS, chats to us about how she built it up from scratch.