It’s fair to say that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on businesses around the world. With heavy restrictions imposed, the arts and entertainment industry, in particular, has been severely affected. This is the predicament that Jeremy and Tabitha Fleming faced. They are the owners and founders of Stagekings – a company that designs and builds large scale stages and custom event structures around Australia. As their business crashed practically overnight, they needed a new way to survive the pandemic.
This is why they started sister company, IsoKing – a work from home office furniture range made from beautiful birchwood ply that effortlessly slots together. In only four months, the company found itself up-and-running. 11,000 items were sold, it gained over 10,000 Facebook followers, and the workforce almost quadrupled in size to over 50 people. We are so inspired by this amazing start-up success story that we want to find out more.
Who are you and what brand did you start?
Hi, we are Jeremy and Tabitha Fleming – the owners and founders of Stagekings Pty Ltd, which is located out of Kurnell in Sydney, Australia. Stagekings was started in early 2015. Before COVID-19, we designed and built large scale stages and custom event structures for some of the biggest and most iconic events and festivals in Australia.
Since COVID-19, which hit around the middle of March 2020, we pivoted the company to create the IsoKing work from home office furniture range. We started with desks but have since expanded to a whole range of other home furniture items. We have a signature design that is entirely flat-pack, requires no tools or fixings for product assembly, and can be put together in under a minute. The products are all made from beautiful high-grade birchwood ply and designed in house.
Our target audience has shifted with this pivot. It is now an online retail and wholesale market which is continuously expanding in its reach and target customer. Initially, IsoKing was targeted to anyone who was working from home. Now we have expanded products and services in all directions, and with that, the target audience also grows.
As well as a range of about 40 home furniture products, we are now also making kids’ educational games, fitting out bars and restaurants, making equipment for schools, designing and installing custom fit-outs for larger-scale commercial offices and retail, wholesaling products to music stores, art stores, homeware stores (and more), and taking on all kinds of custom design projects. Basically, we try to say yes to everything.
We initially said we would be happy with 150 orders per month. In fact, we have now designed, made, processed, and delivered more than 11,000 items in less than four months, picked up over 10,000 Facebook followers, and almost quadrupled our workforce size to over 50 people. We were even asked to meet the PM recently on behalf of the entertainment and arts industry to discuss the new Arts Support package for COVID-19.
But the statistic we are most proud of is that from the start, we said we would donate money from every IsoKing desk order to Support Act, the heart and hand of the Australian Entertainment industry. In less than four months since starting IsoKing, we have donated more than $40,000 to the charity. With our new kids’ educational range (a partnership in conjunction with Mud Kitchen Australia), we will now also be donating 5% of all sales from those products to Rize Up, which supports families and children affected by domestic violence.
How did you come up with the idea, brand name and logo for Stagekings?
With Stagekings, we thought the Australian Event Industry – particularly the music and entertainment sector – could be enhanced by introducing custom-designed decorated stages, similar to some of the incredible large-scale designs that we’d seen across the European music festival scene.
I (Jeremy) have had a lengthy background in the staging and event production industries. I had also worked as a scaffolder and in carpentry and had spent time working in Europe in the world of events. Tabitha has over fifteen years of experience working in sales and marketing for music labels, including EMI, Sony Music, and Universal Music, who look after some of the world’s biggest artists. Together we saw the potential and were also very well-placed professionally to understand precisely what was needed.
Our name and logo are nothing complicated – it seemed like a good idea, so we got a designer friend to come up with the logo.
With IsoKing, things began a little differently. As with every person and company working within the event and entertainment industries, our entire business collapsed overnight when the PM announced a complete ban on almost all outdoor gatherings due to the COVID-19 restrictions. But adaptability and working out challenges are a day to day part of life at Stagekings, and we weren’t going to be beaten. I couldn’t bear the thought of telling all our hard-working team that they were out of a job, which fired us up even more to find a solution quickly.
A friend in Ireland had just started to make some similar furniture, which gave us the idea to make slot-together desks. A considerable quantity of Aussies were just about to start working from home, and also, the major brands like Officeworks and IKEA were very quickly selling out of all their stock. Of course, all those companies get their stock from overseas. With imports and nationwide deliveries slowing down rapidly, we knew that if we could design and produce locally and then deliver lighting-quick nationwide, we would be in a great position to sell to this new market.
IsoKing name comes from the original concept of ‘Isolation desks’ combined with Stagekings.
Describe the process of launching Stagekings?
We started Stagekings in early 2015. While we were still well embedded in the event and entertainment industry as a concept, we still had to try to carve our own niche, particularly as the decorated stages and structures concept was an element that people hadn’t been budgeting for previously. We just tapped into contacts we had already made in the industry. Within three months, we picked up a six-figure custom structure build for NRL as part of their ‘NRL Nation’ activation space near the Sydney Harbour bridge.
With IsoKing, we launched on the fly, and have tried to keep our foot fully on the throttle ever since, so that we can ride the wave of exposure. We literally went from idea to sales in a few days – ideas on the weekend, Sunday overnight designing, and 3D printing mini models of desks to see what they looked like. On the Monday, we worked out how to add an online e-commerce store to our website, made a real desk, checked if we could buy large quantities of birchwood, finalized the store Monday night, and went on sale Tuesday. That was all with just three people – me, Tabitha, and our Head of Production, Mick Jessop. We already had a big warehouse with the CNC routing machine, plenty of carpentry machines, and a team of carpenters and skilled labor on hand so that we could launch straight into production.
Early hurdles included quality control – within a week, we were making over 200 orders a day. It was a lot of strain on the warehouse team. Also, the delivery was challenging. It turns out that the average level of service from couriers nationally is generally poor to average. We used out-of-work event freelancers to hand-deliver across all the major cities to speed this up initially. Still, we had plenty of inevitable problems with more rural deliveries. Getting a good relationship with your courier company quickly can help. The logistics of connecting inventory management to the online store to couriers took us a few months to get around to and master, but now we have it sorted. We were just working off excel until that point.
We had no significant start-up costs with IsoKing other than buying tonnes of birchwood ply, and then a few more carpentry machines to speed up the production and keep unnecessary costs down by automating some areas. Credit card companies don’t release the payment for a couple of weeks, so you will need some up-front funds to keep producing if your business is set up like ours.
We first promoted just on our Facebook, which had less than 2,000 people on it from the previous work we did. We didn’t want to spend much on marketing, so our BDM Nick joined about 60 Facebook buy, swap, sell sites up and down the East Coast, and, with permission from the admin, posted our story and products.
The impact and reach were instantly huge – orders pretty much doubled. Also, we went hard commenting and liking every comment and encouraging everyone to leave Facebook and Google reviews – that really helps build consumer confidence. Now we spend about $500 a week on Facebook boosts. We don’t do much more marketing than that at the moment.
We were also fortunate. Because we were one of the first Aussie businesses to pivot so dramatically with COVID-19 hitting, we started to gain a massive amount of organic press interest searching high and low for feel-good stories. We are now four months in, and Jeremy is still getting asked to do media interviews and podcasts almost every day. This, in turn, means we get tonnes of people from all walks of life contacting us, meaning we don’t have to spend so much time chasing for sales. By far, the biggest impact was a story about us in the Sydney Morning Herald (Sunday edition). To date, this still impacted sales two to three times more than any other media outlet on any platform.
Since launch, what has worked best to attract and retain customers?
- Prioritize customer service. It has to be lightning-quick, personal, friendly, problem-solving, and transparent. Always call people back when they leave messages. Keep communications going – keep people updated on their order status and go over the top to solve problems or issues.
- Having a good back story helped us. We have been supporting charities and employing people at a time when the country needs it. Being genuine, honest, and having real and good values and ethics shines through and gains you instant trust, dedication, and respect.
Also, with the IsoKing, we have maximized our number & diversity of ‘selling’ points. These would all be strong on their own, but together they make a powerful brand and product. These include:
- Modern, beautiful, and simple designs.
- Environmentally friendly and sustainable materials.
- Local employment.
- Australian-made products.
- Quick and easy assembly.
- A good backstory (while supporting people and charity).
- Quick delivery.
- Going over the top on customer service.
In terms of being different, it’s incredible to see how just being very honest, open, and transparent is appreciated by customers, and how much instant loyalty that gets you.
With regards to business growth, how have things changed from a digital, revenue, customer and sales perspective?
Previously to COVID-19, we only dealt within the event industry. Overnight, we went to an online retail sales platform, so our customers were far more wide-reaching and diverse.
Every round number is a milestone, but we were delighted to get to 5,000 orders in the first three months, and 10,000 Facebook likes in under four months. We realized that we had been about twice as successful in sales and revenue than the furniture brand Koala had been when they started out, which makes for a bright future.
Also, one notable stat is that our customers are mainly women by a large majority.
With regards to managing change through crises, such as Covid19, can you talk us through your experience as a business owner and what you’ve learnt?
As mentioned previously, meeting the moment and adapting quickly is the biggest thing we’ve learnt. We acted quickly to understand how our core business could adapt and made it happen quickly by launching the IsoKing range.
Acting quickly then adapting on the fly is important, as is being open to the change and where it can take your brand and business.
How is the business doing today and what does the future look like?
While Stageking’s staging is on hold and IsoKing is going strong, we will continue to expand IsoKing at the same rate. We are adding at least one new product a week.
We are also talking to Government Industry Advisors about extending our business overseas, which will start to happen in the next few months. Finally, we are actively pushing out into as many different industry sectors as we can, including schools, pubs, retail, commercial, offices – every direction. We want to put as many eggs in as many baskets as there is a market for.
In terms of our long-term plans as the event industry returns and we start to expand overseas, we will probably begin to divide both the IsoKing and Stageking website as and when it feels right. However, we will keep a link between them. We will continue to push IsoKing hard. When staging and events drop back in, we will go hard on that too. We already held a solid niche reputation for what we did with staging and structures, but we will aim to capitalize on all the exposure we have received during COVID-19 outside of the event industry to focus on our skills and capabilities.
What’s been the biggest learning experience since starting your own brand?
When it comes to launching, don’t spend too much time thinking about and planning launching – just get on with it. But obviously that statement depends on your product, scale, and level of initial investment required.
Since we launched IsoKing, I’ve read a couple of articles on LinkedIn about how to make a successful start-up. If I’d read those before we launched, it would have freaked me out, and I would never have done it.
So for us, our advice would be to:
- Get a good team around you that are passionate, knowledgeable, and that you enjoy being around.
- Brainstorm hard and work fast.
- Set tight deadlines and clear objectives.
- Make sure the management team understands and respects each other and goes all in.
- If you are good enough and have enough experience, you’ll know if there is a realistic market to get you started.
- We don’t think you need to commission an expensive marketing agency to tell you what you already know – at least in the outset when money is tighter, and finally
- Go hard and listen to advice from those who know more than you, but trust your instincts within the core team. What would you like? Would you buy it?
What are your top 3 tips on how to setup an Ecom store for success?
- Do it yourself (at first). You can build a store easily on Squarespace if you watch some of their video tutorials. Don’t waste money getting others to. We did, and then incorporated it into Shopify later when we knew more about it.
- People love free stuff. We had no idea just how much people LOVE free delivery. They literally love it. We currently still charge what we get charged by the couriers (plus $6 in admin fees) for delivery, but when we do a sale with free delivery, the sales go gangbusters. So if you can incorporate the delivery cost into your initial selling price and it won’t affect market sale price much, maybe do that and have free delivery. The other thing people LOVE is a discount. Give them a sale or discount for a weekend and our sales triple.
- Have clear, user-friendly layouts on the store (we can definitely improve on this!).
What are some of your favorite online business tools you use to run Stagekings?
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Who have been the most influential people for you during this business journey?
Our own team.
Any other advice you’d like to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?
- Positive vibes. Don’t get angry when other people copy you. If you have a good idea, someone is going to copy it. Embrace it, and use it to drive you harder, faster and better. You don’t have to acknowledge your competition, but never criticise them, and never rise up to online social media haters. Unless the comment is really bad, just leave it there and don’t comment. With a bit of luck, one of your dedicated followers will slam them instead
- Hold steady: Don’t go too low on pricing. Get it right but don’t discount too much. There will always be a cheaper competitor. Have confidence and keep pushing.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now or open to new investors?
We tend to only hire from personal recommendations. We aren’t actively looking but if someone awesome turns up we’ll probably try to find a way to incorporate them!
We are always happy to have a conversation with any investors or business owners who could align with us to mutually grow.