When someone tells you that your business idea is crazy, you can do one of two things: listen to them and give up on your dream, or take a risk and jump head-first into the unknown.
Jonette George and her daughter Daniele Wilton jumped.
And almost seven years later, the mum and daughter duo are at the helm of successful Melbourne publishing house, Smudge Publishing.
Along the way they enlisted the considerable talents of photographer and family member Kaitlyn Wilton, have released 22 stunning culinary-travel books -- including the award-winning Flavours of Melbourne, The Burger Book and The Speciality Coffee Book -- and have an annual turnover of $2.2 million.
Not bad for their initial make-or-break investment of $1500, and not to mention proving wrong everyone who said book publishing was a dying industry.
Daniele told The Huffington Post Australia that Smudge Publishing, named after the family’s adorable 10-year-old Teacup Yorkie Smudge, came out of finding themselves at a crossroad back in 2009.
The financial crisis had forced George to sell her magazine business in Noosa, and Wilton had just finished her university degree and was contemplating whether she should pursue her pipe dream of getting a job in advertising in New York.
Neither knew what the future held but they knew they needed a change, so decided to return down south and head to an area they’d never lived before -- Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
It was there that it all fell into place.
“We didn't know what we were going to do -- we really just went there and rented a house and we were looking around the area, and we were just like, ‘this place is amazing -- let’s combine all of our passions; food and wine, travel and exploring and write a book.’
“Mum’s been in publishing all her life, so she knew how to publish -- we were really just eating our way around the area and there wasn’t anything we could pick up for information, except a few magazines and stuff but they were just airy-fairy; we wanted to get the story behind the businesses.
“After five meetings on the Mornington Peninsula with some restaurants and cafes and wineries, and getting all the excitement from everyone, we decided to do the book.”
From that stint on the Peninsula came Produce to Platter: Mornington Peninsula, which was embraced and celebrated by the local culinary community.
Buoyed by its success, the duo then moved back to Melbourne and set up Smudge Publishing.
Daniele said her sister Kaitlyn came on board as a photographer 12 months after the business launched.
“We started with $1500 ... and it’s gotten very big,” she said of the publishing house.
“It’s all been self-funded. Thank god for the Mornington Peninsula -- and that it worked! I really think that having the success of that book has led us to this success.
“It was just Mum and I down there and we hired a photographer and just hoped we could get enough money to pay him, and pay for the first print run.
“Katie was studying fashion at the time, and then she started studying photography and we were like, ‘we need a photographer so why don't you come and work with us?’”
She said their unique distribution model helped them achieve success early on.
“Distribution has been a hard thing -- with our model, it’s a little bit different -- we sign all clients up to go in the book and ask them to pre-order to sell from their venue,” she said.
“We don’t rely on book sales through our distributor so much. It’s a win-win; the cafes and restaurants pre-order 30 books, they sell them and recoup their cost of having their recipes and pages in the book.
“There’s 120 or so restaurants and cafes in each book, so through that there’s more than 3000 book sales each time and then the rest is through the distributor. It works really well, they all end up ordering more.”
Daniele said while she never dreamed the business would be where it is now, it didn’t come without hard times -- and naysayers who spouted that traditional publishing was dead.
“More people told us we were crazy than the other way around,” she said.
“You’ve just got to believe in what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If there’s that much passion and belief I think you can outweigh all those negatives.
“We had people come in and assess the business, and say ‘you should stop doing this’, but we didn’t, we kept saying ‘it’s going to be good!’”
Like most small business, cash flow was a major pain point for Smudge.
“Basically, everything has worked out to today -- it’s really just the money. We could do so much, but it’s the money that’s keeping us at bay,” she said.
“The team has slotted in, everyone is amazing and it’s really just that cash flow. But, in the past six months we've gotten it to a point we're really happy -- we got a really good accountant and that's just helped everything so much.
“Mum and I aren’t numbers people so it helps a lot with that taken care of.”
Now the managing director of Smudge Publishing, Daniele said she couldn’t have done any of it without her mum.
“I’ve learned everything I know from her,” she said.
“I didn't do amazingly at uni so I’ve learnt everything from her, and it’s been so much better than going into a big advertising company.
“Mum and I were a two-man band and now it’s grown into this amazing team with 16 people. And that's not to mention our freelancers and all the other people involved as well.
“I never would have imagined we’d be where we are today.”
Daniele said the brand has been so successful that they have created a digital platform called Smudge Eats that complements the books, as well as containing recipes, stories and videos.
“We've learned that we need to be very digital orientated in today's publishing world, so we created our website, Smudge Eats,” she said.
“Our claim to fame is that we really get behind each story -- we interview every single person -- it's really about the backstory and the history, rather than saying the decor or the lights are pretty.
“We’ve had a few people writing to us to say they have our Flavours of Melbourne book and got every chef in Melbourne that’s in there to sign their pages, it’s nice that they are engaging they feel like they know the people behind the restaurant.”
This year, Smudge Publishing will release nine titles, including two on international culinary destinations.
“For the past couple of years, we’ve been producing four to five books a year, this year it’s going to be nine so we’re stepping it up a little,” she said.
“We’ll see Tasmania, Bali, Shanghai, a couple more Melbourne ones, a wellness book with healthy cafes, and then in Sydney, we’re doing an all-round regional one, the Flavours of New South Wales, and we’ll travel around to all the rest and wineries.
“We get our writers and researchers to go out and talk to all the people and really tell those stories. Mum still does some writing -- she’s done Bali and will spend six months in Shanghai, but we are really just seeing everything from the top now.
“I’ve learned so much along the way and changed a lot as a person in the last seven years -- I don’t think I could have done that in another job.”
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