We were put in touch with Carol and Victor when researching one of the editions of Where To Retire In Australia.
What are your backgrounds?
My partner, Victor Pleshev, is an architect and my background is market research.
You spent some years living in Sydney?
Victor is an ex-pat Russian and arrived in Sydney as a child in 1954. I’m an ex-pat American, born in New York City, and arrived in 1970. We escaped Sydney in 1992 to start a completely new life in rural NSW.
How did you find the move from city to country life?
I found it easier to adapt than Victor did.
It’s all about organisation. In the city, if you run out of milk or screws, you just walk down the street to the corner shop or to the hardware store.
We live an 80km round trip from a litre of milk and a litre of petrol. So when we go into town to post parcels and do the banking, we also have a list of all the other things we need to buy for groceries, the house, the business, the garden, the work shed, the dogs, and the car. If you forget anything or run out of time to finish the list, you just learn to do without.
And you never allow yourself to run low on petrol. If there’s a midnight emergency dash to the vet or the hospital, you need to have enough in the tank to get there and back, which for us is a 150km round trip.
I’m a list maker and remember to take it with me and complete the list before I arrive back. Victor just walks out the door and hopes for the best.
Tell us about your business
This business is an accidental business.
In Sydney, we were forced to close down Victor’s architectural practice in 1992, at the height of ‘the recession we had to have’. All his clients were high flying developers and they were all going broke. Every time we picked up the Financial Review, another client was on the front page, biting the dust.
One day we drew a black wreath on the front page and knew it was time to make a decision to do something else. We had already lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees. The landscape for architects was bleak as architectural practices were falling like dominoes.
We lost 11 years of Victor’s effort in building up his substantial practice, and had to sell our house to avoid bankruptcy.
My market research business was still viable, but would never earn enough to support both of us.By 1992, every business was feeling the rope tighten around its neck. Market research was always a luxury for business and it was harder and harder to get new business.
We couldn’t afford to stay in Sydney, so we went bush, as we’d always wanted to live on a country property.
Rural NSW was three years into a drought (it never changes), and we were able to rent a 54 hectare run down, over-cleared, over-grazed sheep property at a very cheap rental.
We really didn’t know what we would do, but it had to be in design as Victor has a strong need to design. Anything. When doing fit outs, he often designed products for clients when he couldn’t find what he wanted.
Our first product, The Fitz Like A Glove™ Ironing Board Cover, was an accident.
Victor’s mother had a stroke and really struggled with her ironing because her cover kept slipping off her board. So Victor used his 25 years of architectural and construction knowledge to design a cover that never moved.
It’s a simple tension cord that holds the cover in place every time you iron.
He mailed the finished cover to his mother as a surprise gift and promptly forgot about it. A few days later she rang with orders for 20 covers. All from her friends in the Russian community.
So there we were, making ironing board covers at night on our dining room table. Victor was in charge of layout and cutting, using a pair of Singer battery operated scissors that cut two pieces of fabric at a time. I was head seamstress, using my 25 year old domestic sewing machine and a domestic overlocker.
And so a business is born.
The entire story is on my blog, The Ironing Board Cover Lady, here It’s a simple, down home story with no sales hype, about how we started the business driving on ‘L’ plates without an instructor.
Because all business is constantly evolving, we still feel that way.
How did you come up with the idea of a home based business?
Out of necessity. We had no money. Not a penny between us, as we used all the money from the sale of our house, a car and household goods to pay our debts so we could avoid the bankruptcy court.You can’t practice as an architect if you’re a declared bankrupt. We also have a strong moral responsibility to pay everyone who trusted us by extending us credit.
In 1992, a home based business didn’t have the credibility it does today. Back then, working from home was an indication you weren’t successful enough to rent office space. Working from home was also tinged with the ‘working in your pyjamas at 11am’ syndrome.
Today, a home based business is highly credible and often means you’re successful enough to both work from home and an office.
How times change.
And you also sell to the USA? (I remember you saying you sold to an apartment block!?)
Our business initially grew by word of mouth.
One of our covers was sent to a young lady in New York City by her sister in Australia. Mary was a journalist for the New York Times and she bought covers for everyone in her apartment building. She also got us into a shop in Soho and acted as our agent.
But Mary suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth and so we lost our supplier in New York City and our contact with the Soho shop. I still wonder what happened to Mary. It’s one of life’s little mysteries always referred to in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Column 8.
What was the hardest part(s) of establishing your business?
The tyranny of distance. The isolation. No email, internet, or even call waiting when we came here. There was no one out here who knew anything about a non-agricultural business.This combined with our inability to get any of our products into retail stores made us question what we were doing.
When we tested our products at field days, market days and special events, the public was very enthusiastic and we sold significant amounts. So the lack of interest by the retail network in the quality and innovative style of our products completely surprised us and utterly demoralised us. As we had no experience in selling a product, our plan was to distribute them through retailers.
We sat down and realised we simply did not know what to do. Outside consultants were no help as they thought ironing board covers were beneath them, even a $40 cover.
We had two choices. Fold up and get a job and drive 150 kilometres every day and spend half our income on petrol to work somewhere else. Or put our heads down and learn everything from scratch.
Thus we began a very steep learning curve. We taught ourselves everything we needed to know to sell direct to our customer. I did a TAFE course on small business operations and Victor did a TAFE course to become computer literate. We studied direct marketing strategies, how to use the internet, how to design a website, how to write promotional material and design brochures. We learned that promote or perish is not to be scoffed at.
We learned to be disciplined, persistent, to have faith in our gut feel and to never give up.
We did what everyone said we couldn’t do. We established a worldwide business while living and working on a remote property in rural Australia.
We climbed the mountain and we now have 90,000 customers all over the world who love the products they’re using. Our customers also think we have the best customer service anywhere, bar none. And we’re very proud of these achievements.
We now own the barren, run down sheep property.
Our property is hot and dry and all the neighbours told us we could never have a garden. We went to the Department of Primary Industry for advice and were told nobody in Ilford has ever been successful in creating a garden.
We’ve developed an exquisite hectare of garden surrounding the house. It has 200 intensely fragrant roses, thousands of fragrant plants, 110 trees framing the house and the garden boundaries. Plus many thousands of perfumed jonquils and buttercups in bloom in spring, accompanied by kilometres of honeysuckle draping the hectare of fence line.
Victor’s a gifted rock wall builder and the garden has spectacular rock walls and steps to add to the ambience.
We turned a leaking hole in the ground at the bottom of our garden into an ornamental dam, complete with a jetty, a small wildlife reserve surrounding it and a deck positioned under 3 grand Red River Gum trees.
The local wildlife loves it and we’re rewarded by having 80 species of birds visit the garden during the year.
At sunset, we sit on the deck at the dam and marvel at the entertainment provided by the birds settling down for the night.
We created all this without help, just working every week-end. We put the failures on the compost heap and planted more of the successes.
Do you see yourselves retiring?
Not really. We’re both energetic and love what we do. Many of our friends have taken early retirement and are really bored silly. You have to have something to look forward to every day. Victor’s motivation is design and mine is constant learning. Both can be done in retirement but we just can’t envisage it at the moment.
My older sister, who still lives in America, is very close to retirement age. One of her friends, who knows me from our childhood, asked her if I was retired yet. My sister said she was shocked that anyone would ever conceive of me being idle.
We have moments when we think it would be nice to have no responsibility. But we quickly realise the last 15 years have been living on the edge and having risen to the challenge, it’s become addictive.
What’s your concept of retirement?
We’ve never even discussed it. And I don’t think I’ve ever given it 5 minutes thought. It’s not something Victor has ever mentioned. I’m a firecracker when I get up. I’m busy from the minute I get out of bed until I go to bed. Victor’s father was one of Australia’s leading coal mining engineers. He worked until he was 77 and enjoyed every minute of it. Only illness made him retire.
I’ve been told there will come a time when we’ll both want to slow down. It’s just not on our horizon at the moment.
Any tips for people considering establishing a home based business?
It doesn’t matter where your business is located, whether you have an office or work from home, there’s one rule for small business that’s unbreakable. And it’s a very simple rule. The only time success comes before work is in the dictionary. So be prepared to work very hard first.
There are many types of products. Two types are the easiest to sell. Products that offer hope and those that have the air of luxury are always easier to sell.
Get rich quick schemes, beauty makeovers, weight loss programs and self improvement techniques are always popular. We all want to be rich, look beautiful, lose weight by popping a pill and be the clever ‘go to’ person for everyone. All accomplished with minimal effort.
Persuading you to indulge yourself with a luxurious item is seductive and successful.
But we’re at the bottom of the product ladder. Ironing board covers are just a notch above toilet cleaning products on everyone’s list of must have items.
The Fitz Like A Glove™ Ironing Board Cover makes ironing easier. But you still have to put in the effort to iron. Selling products that are chore orientated are always harder to sell. People buy what they want first because it’s sexier and makes them feel good. Buying what you need, to do a chore, doesn’t have the same personal satisfaction.
Business is like a new born baby. It’s high maintenance, needs constant attention, but the thrills and spills are often magical.