Elle Pugh, co-founder of retailer Elle + Riley, talks running a business with her mother, sourcing yarn from Mongolia and the unexpected success of her stores.

What does your business do?

Elle + Riley produces cashmere garments for men and women and we sell them through our retail stores as well as online and through our regional wholesalers spread across New Zealand. We have two retail stores; one in Auckland, Christchurch at the moment and another opening in Queenstown next month.

Me and my business partner - who is also my mum - launched the business in August 2016. We opened the first store in September 2017 and have been opening a store every year since then, that's our expansion strategy for now.

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What was the motivation for starting it?

We felt no one in New Zealand was offering a really great range of cashmere and also didn't provide it all year round, it was a really seasonal product, so we wanted to fill that gap in the market. Originally we only wanted to sell online but pretty quickly we realised it was a really tactile product and people love coming in and having that retail experience and seeing the product for themselves which is where the shops came into play.

How big is your team?

Mum and I do everything in head office but we have recently hired one person to help with that, and then our retail team is at about seven at the moment. We'll also have about four or five additional staff for the new store when it opens.

This is your first foray into owning a business, what's that like?

I couldn't have done it without Mum, she's had previous business experience, she owned businesses for about 10 years so that has helped immensely. Going into something like this alone; I don't know how other people do it. It's hard and you have to be really resilient and have thick skin because people will constantly tell you that you can't do something or it's not going to work. Even just having someone who knows how to start a business and register a company, all those little things; I've been lucky to have someone who knows about all of this.

Elle Pugh (left) and Yolande Ellis, mother and daughter co-founders of Elle + Riley. Photo / Supplied
Elle Pugh (left) and Yolande Ellis, mother and daughter co-founders of Elle + Riley. Photo / Supplied

Where are Elle + Riley garments made?

We get all of our yarn from Mongolia and we manufacture the garments in various parts of Nepal and China, and we are working on getting some product made in New Zealand. It's a lot harder to get product made here than it has overseas, mostly because the industry here is so small so finding someone who can do the products has been a really challenging process but we've persisted with it and I think we're nearly there. We're getting the yarn spun down in Wellington and we've got the product being made in Auckland.

What will the business be focused on achieving this year?

Getting the Queenstown store up and running is definitely our big priority for the second half of the year and making sure it succeeds instantly. We'll also be working to continue to grow our online platform because there's a lot of people especially in New Zealand who don't have access to our physical retail stores.

We're really focused on retail expansion throughout New Zealand, and especially throughout Australia in the next few years, definitely online to start with, because we don't see a huge amount of competition in the market there.

Have you been surprised at how well the stores have been received?

Definitely. When we first started we didn't really know what we were doing and went with our gut, figuring things out as we went and didn't invest a huge amount in marketing, so to get by over the past couple of years by word of mouth and people finding out about us organically is pretty amazing. I think that's a testament to the brand and product we've made.

Elle + Riley has opened a store each year ever since it began. Photo / Supplied
Elle + Riley has opened a store each year ever since it began. Photo / Supplied

How tough is to be a business operating in the retail industry?

It is tough and you have to make sure that instore experience is one people will remember and appreciate, that makes a huge difference as to whether they come back. We try to have events in store all the time to make sure our customers feel like they are being loved, and even offering things like water when they come into the store; it's such a small thing but you don't get it at very many places any more ... it's that little acts of kindness that people appreciate.

Finding great staff is the biggest challenge, also getting people through the door. We find once we get people through the door they love the product and are buying. Also, finding the right location for your store is really important as well - success can come down to just being on the right side of the road or in between the right shops - a shop needs to be amongst its peers.

What advice do you give others thinking about starting their own business?

Don't be afraid to ask for help would be my biggest piece of advice. You've got to be willing to spend up to 80 hours per week and up until midnight; for the first couple of years you really don't get a break but it is worth it in the long run.