Marnie Goding: Before Elk, I worked for two very different organisations. Both gave me fundamental experience and from two very different perspectives. The NGV had a tight-knit team with a strong culture, and at Melbourne Zoo I was contracted by a massive US-based business to run their events. They were opposites in so many ways. From both, though, I learnt not only what to do, but not what to do, how to work smart as well as hard and how to value our customers. What has stayed with me from both experiences is the friendships I made, the sense of teamwork and learning that we were more powerful together — we could achieve anything if we worked as a group and that’s the way we work at Elk. It is a collaborative, team-based culture we promote — there is little room for hierarchical attitude here.
IR: You launched Elk almost 20 years ago, but if someone wanted to launch their own design label now, what are some of the new skills and knowledge they would need?
MG: The fundamental principles for starting and running any business are the same across industries and haven’t really changed. You need to be a jack of all trades, be prepared to hustle, to research, learn and experiment. In fashion. though, you need to really strike a balance between creativity and commerciality. You can be the greatest designer, but if you cannot market and drive revenue, you won’t ever be viable. The major change for us was allowing technology to transform everything we were doing and now one of the most powerful opportunities is for designers to understand who their customers are through data and analytics and then be able to market directly to them. It means designers need to be tech savvy and this should be a big part of their business plan. Not being proficient in digital marketing today would have been like us setting up a shop 20 years ago and keeping the door closed.
IR: What are some of the biggest challenges in running a sustainable store and creating transparency in your supply chain? What tips would you offer other sustainable retailers?
MG: Designing and producing sustainable and transparent products is massively complex, particularly when you are making across categories and all over the world like we are. So, my advice would be to start where the biggest impact is, to set yourself some goals or rules to follow and make conscious decisions. There is still so much to learn in this space, and things are changing quickly, so you also need to be OK with understanding that the decision you make today may need to be different tomorrow. This is OK as long as you are always making informed, conscious decisions in the first place.
IR: How would you describe working in a family business?
MG: It’s amazing. We have an incredible crew that are part of the Elk family, and by having a connected, personable culture it helps us achieve a good work-life balance. The team sees us tearing around after our kids, they work around the dogs that come into the office and we hope that all of this makes them feel comfortable to let us know when they need to leave early or take one of their kids to the doctor. We want to enjoy coming to work too — I have worked in jobs where I have dreaded going in each day and life is too short to feel like that.
IR: What do you miss most about pre-pandemic life?
MG: All being together in the office. It was chaotic, noisy, and lively. But whilst I miss this, I love how the pandemic has shown us a new way of working. Many of our crew are loving working from home more, none of us are travelling like we used to, and we have got to know each other more in some ways as we see each other at home on Zoom with kids interrupting and animals making appearances — it has shown us a new way.
IR: How has the pandemic changed how you lead your team?
MG: I can’t rely on catching up with people anymore by just passing their desk and having a chat. We have had to be more structured with our communication and make sure we call people that we don’t get to see. The pandemic has shown us a new way of working remotely that I could never have imagined and whilst technology has been the facilitator, it is our team that have made it work. However, it’s hard to promote an inclusive culture when we are all apart. So, we have had to make sure we make an effort to provide different ways for our team to connect, to know what’s happening in the business and in some cases to talk about when things aren’t great which is a change for us — we need everyone on board and to know where we are at.