Creating Style

Holster

Ten years ago, Ben Nothling and his future wife, Natalie, were enjoying a sunny vacation in Bali when they hit upon an intriguing business idea. “I had just finished university and I was thinking about what I wanted to do,” Mr Nothling recalls. “And we kept seeing all these products in Bali – sandals and belts and surf wear – and just got some ideas.”

The young entrepreneurs secured a small bank loan as soon as they returned to Australia and began importing some of the items that had caught their eye. “We started selling and things just took off from there. It kept growing every year.”

After two years in business, the team added jelly shoes to their collection. “After we started importing the sandals and belts and accessories from Bali, we realised that we needed to do something different,” Mr Nothling says. Holster already sold leather sandals and they learnt a lot about design, fitting and construction of footwear in these early stages, so expanding the company’s footwear line seemed like a logical next step. The team’s instincts proved correct; the new product was an instant success. “We introduced one style of jelly shoe that we had designed and it sold like crazy,” Mr Nothling shares. Sales were so good, in fact, that the team realised that they had just forged a new direction for the company. “We began to focus on jelly sandals.”

The move paid off almost overnight. “We started to get distributors from England and New Zealand and South Africa coming to us, then from Japan, Thailand, and Singapore – they all just started coming. They wanted to sell our shoes in department stores and independent retail stores in their territories. And it happened quite quickly – one minute we were working in our garage at home, then the next minute we were having to get a big warehouse and offices and a showroom. Then we had to rent two more warehouses, build four more offices.”

Holster’s jellies kept selling like hotcakes – and the company kept growing as a result. Now, just eight years after the company’s first jelly sandal was introduced, the brand is carried in over 2,200 stores in 60 countries and on five continents – “and growing weekly.” Ben and Natalie have also remained the sole owners of Holster throughout the expansion. “We have no investors,” Mr Nothling reports. “We never want to have any investors. We just want to keep it a privately held family company.”

How did the ambitious couple take an idea from the beaches of Noosa Australia to a smashing success? The number one secret to success is quite simple; Holster supplies a product that consumers love. Furthermore, Holster has managed to add its own unique twist to the standard jelly shoe, creating a strong global brand – and a strong following. “Jelly shoes are really just a plastic or PVC shoe, so they can really be quite simple,” Mr Nothling explains. “But we make ours different by adding embellishments like jewels, studs and shells and Swarovski crystal to the uppers. They are not just simple looking shoes.”

Not only are these embellishments extremely popular, they also are quite difficult for competitors to copy to a high quality standard. “To learn how to assemble all those different jewels and stones on shoes is very technical, very complicated,” Mr Nothling points out. “You can run into huge issues if you don’t know what you are doing. You could lose a lot of money.” Holster has a significant leg up on anyone looking to break into the market because the team has already learned how to create these complex styles. “It’s a very big investment. Anyone trying to do what we do would have to invest a lot of money into the moulds to catch up. And they are going to have to make a lot of mistakes to learn; we have already learned from our mistakes.”

The company has also learned a great deal by listening to its customers. “A lot of our strategies come from consumer and retailer feedback on our product,” Mr Nothling says, “by just listening to what they have to say about it. They’ll say that one [design] worked, and another one didn’t, and we make that part of our strategy the next year. We try to make shoes that suit that customer.” The team isn’t afraid to fail, and will keep trying until they get it right. “A lot of it is feedback and experience,” Mr Nothling insists.

As a result, Holster has been remarkably successful in creating a brand that stands out in a crowded marketplace. “Branding is very important,” says Mr Nothling. The team has created a glamorous image for its product and reinforces this concept by shooting all of its marketing material on the sunny shores of their home base, Noosa beach. “We’re not based in Sydney or Melbourne, we are based in a small coastal town. That is quite unique about our brand, so we always push that aspect of Holster.” The company has captured the essence of Noosa – and of relaxed coastal living – in its marketing materials. “Say we run an ad in Vogue magazine; we will use one of our beautiful marketing images of Dannii Minogue in the Holster Rockstar jelly with the beautiful beach backdrop. It makes the consumer who is reading the magazine stop and look and go, ‘Wow, I want to feel like her – champagne at 5:00 pm wearing Holster shoes and a beautiful outfit by the beach.’”

Indeed, pop star Dannii Minogue, who became an ambassador for the brand six months ago, has helped cement Holster’s reputation for leading edge style. “We spotted her in a magazine about five years ago wearing Holster shoes,” Mr Nothling remembers. The team was thrilled to see that she enjoyed their product and began sending her several complimentary pairs of shoes each summer. They soon realised that she was a big fan. “She was always wearing them. So we thought, [since] she loves the product and the brand we have to ask her to be our ambassador. We put it to her and she said yes.” Having Ms Minogue on board has been a great boon to the company, Mr Nothling adds. “She is great to work with. She is very professional. Dannii is a great ambassador.”

The company’s location influences its culture as well as its marketing. “Because we are a coastal brand from Noosa, we like all our team to live a healthy, relaxed, happy lifestyle here,” Mr Nothling says. “We like our team to feel like they are part of our family. The door’s always open to talk.” The management truly cares about the wellbeing of the staff; they also understand that a healthy, happy staff will bring greater success over the long run. “We drink herbal teas every day. We eat well. We try to keep everyone healthy and focused on our goal of being the best jelly brand in the world. That is what we are all working toward.”

Holster’s unique product – in combination with a winning marketing strategy and a dedicated team – has brought the company great success. And Holster is still growing: “Our main goal is to just keep expanding globally,” Mr Nothling says. “To keep pushing the brand into new markets.” This month, the company will begin selling its jelly sandals throughout the Middle East in a number of countries that include the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait. With warm weather and sunny skies year round, the new market is a good bet. “We think that will be a great region,” Mr Nothling remarks. The company is also branching into the American market. In fact, the well-known department store Nordstrom has just placed a major order for next season. In addition, Holster is launching its product in China in March. Mr Nothling just returned from Shanghai after signing the contract with the distributor and doing a presentation to them on the holster brand.

With so much expansion in the pipeline, the team is confident that the brand will continue to take the planet by storm. The secret to this ongoing, global growth, Mr Nothling believes, is to continue to carry out the strategies that have brought the company this far – “to just keep innovating our footwear every season – to just keep coming up with really cool new concepts and promoting our brand to the world.”

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June 19, 2018, 10:46 AM AEST