Wairarapa farmer Kate Tosswill talks about her creative outlet, branching out to start an e-commerce business and what working on the farm has taught her.
What does your business do?
Hipi (meaning sheep in Te Reo Māori) creates ethical and sustainable handcrafted homewares that focus on quality and longevity from the lamb's wool that my husband Michael and I grow on our sheep and beef farm. We're sheep and beef farmers first and foremost, and decided to take the wool from our farm and create products from designs I've sketched.
What was the motivation for starting it?
I'm a knitter and every year I go to Knit August Nights which is a national knitting conference-retreat of sorts, in Napier, and I got speaking to other people who are passionate about wool and fibre. I was telling them about what we do and how it is Michael and I that run the farm, and they saw from external eyes what we do and expressed support for the value within that.
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At that point, we were getting paid a pittance for the wool that we produced and there was that growing trend towards slow fashion, conscious consuming, and a return to the more natural product, so combining all of that, and my background and love of design and fashion, I had a mad scheme and came home and told Michael that I wanted to do something with wool. That was about 18 months ago.
How do you split your time between the farm and Hipi?
I'm still the chief shepherd on the farm as it's just Michael and I that run the 586 hectares, so life is pretty busy. Thankfully we work really well together and when he needs help I help him and when I need a bit of support he jumps in and helps. I prioritise family first then the farm, then Hipi - the premise was that it always supported the main investment and activity, which was the farm.
I'm quite flexible with my time but there is a lot of work on Hipi that happens after hours. The farm work is quite seasonal so that works pretty well, and when you're doing something that you're really passionate about it doesn't feel like work.
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What's your background and when did you first get into farming?
We've only been at Bagshot for just over two years, we moved on to the property February 2018, but we bought into our first equity partnership in 2012; that lasted for five years, and while it wasn't a successful partnership, it set the groundwork for some great disciplines around accountability, governance structures and plain old hard work. We bought our current farm with support of Michael's family, he's a third generation Wairarapa farmer, and I grew up in Auckland. I worked in fashion, I worked for Zambesi and Alexandra Owen, in Wellington - a world away - and then I trained as a nurse and worked in nursing for a while.
After I had children I found that my skill set and time was more valuable in our farming business than in an off-farm career, and it was more cost-effective and efficient for me to support that labour need.
How involved are you in the design process and what does that look like?
I drive the wool up to Hawke's Bay where it's scoured and milled, then it goes up to Auckland to our manufacturers and we do the product development up there, they do a wonderful job of interpreting my designs, and then they send the finished product down to us, where I attach the handmade leather labels and send orders out from our house. I work from the kitchen table and spare bedroom fulfilling the orders and attach the labels. I do all of the sketches and designs and then we work through any constraints in what I'd like to do from my hand knitting inspiration and what we can translate to machine knitting. I love the design process and there's so much inspiration within knitting for me to draw upon.
How much investment was required to start Hipi?
We put in about $120,000, that includes the cost of production for the first season; that's more than I expected to spend to start the business, but as we went along we realised that you can have a great product but if nobody knows about it then it's not going to fly, and that's where we've had to put money into investing in imagery and digital marketing consultants. We're farmers, and while we're used to running a big business, it is a very different business trying to set up an online store selling high-end wool products - it certainly has been more challenging than we thought it was going to be.
What are you focused on for the next 12 months?
We've got our second season of wool being shorn on Friday and I'll be focusing on the design for that, looking at different products around throws and cushions, and increasing the scale of the business. We're focused on creating homewares as I think there's a gap in the market there, we're also looking into baby products.
For the first season we produced 674 kilos of raw wool, and that has a 67 per cent yield, which is roughly 430 kilos of net finished yarn that was made up into 1005 products. This coming season we're looking to clip 1000 kilos of raw wool and get that processed down to about 660 kilos of net finished yarn and therefore increasing our products to hopefully around the 1500 mark. The wool that is going into the line is only a snippet of what we produce annually on the farm and we'd love to increase this and grow demand.
What are your long-term plans?
At the moment we are focusing on building the brand and getting our story out there. I'd love to see Hipi go offshore, in an export capacity. We're just starting to open shipping to Australia, which is a bit of a minefield with so much to learn. There's also been quite a lot of interest in Hong Kong and the United States as well so we're looking into those markets.
What advice do you give to others who want to start their own business?
Have a go. You get out so much more than you put in, in terms of what you learn about yourself and what you are doing, and you can't imagine the positive spin off that comes out of having the courage to step up and have a go.