How To Make a Long-Distance Co-foundership Actually Work

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We grill the twosome behind Bird & Knoll.

Bird and Knoll

Distance might make the heart grow fonder, but what does it mean for business? The duo behind Bird & Knoll helm their fashion label from two countries – Natalie Knoll in Sydney, Australia, and Auckland-based Macayla Chapman in New Zealand – and with their sixth line of signature, travel-inspired luxury scarves recently released and second resort collection soon to drop, the pair have seen their sales grow 500 per cent since they launched (sounds like a pretty healthy relationship to us). Nat and Macayla share how they go the distance…

Why was Bird & Knoll a business you had to start, despite living in separate countries?

Macayla: We were both ready for something different to happen in our lives – Nat was looking to change careers and utilise a growing collection of amazing travel images she had been taking for years, and I was looking to tap back into my creative side after having children that were then nearing school age.

Nat: I had the business background combined with the creative collateral and Macayla had the experience of working in the fashion and editorial space – having all of that working together created a spark and an energy that got the momentum going. But, really, what was most important – and this may sound a bit clichéd – we really liked each other. I could not imagine doing this with someone who does not have the same sense of humour or the same values.

Bird and Knoll

Were you hesitant about entering into a long-distance co-foundership?

M: We in fact saw the distance as more of an advantage where we could launch our brand simultaneously into the two markets – Australia and New Zealand – and draw from our connections and knowledge in both countries. Nat and I seem to have a wonderful understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and really haven’t had any issues thus far… we think this is quite unique and something we definitely don’t take for granted; it just works!

N: I totally agree. As much as I love it when we actually physically meet up every couple of months and jam-pack that time with brainstorming and strategising, we take advantage of the broad network that we have established across both markets. I also think that sometimes having that space and distance allows us to think individually, nurture ideas and then take them to each other and grow them together.

How does your business benefit from having trans-Tasman ownership?

M: We have someone on the ground in two of our major markets – divide and conquer, I guess you could say! It also means because we have no central office we both can base our office/showrooms in our houses, and this alone allows us to address one of our major issues many others experience also – time. As mums who both still want to be involved in the everyday aspects of our kids lives, we are able to have flexibility with hours. I start a bit earlier on NZ time and Nat works a bit later on Australian time, so our day collectively is pretty long!

N: The greatest advantage was getting traction in both markets at the same time. When we officially launched in 2014, I think that New Zealand was slightly more parochial at the time, which meant that the brand was adopted there quite quickly. Australia has caught up now, but having that initial following in NZ really helped spread the word and raise the brand’s profile.

Macayla (left) and Natalie

Does the business suffer due to the distance?

M: It would be great to be able to celebrate our hard work together after the big wins or even just at the end of a long week… clinking flutes of champagne over Skype just isn’t quite the same!

N: It can also be a bit challenging when we are in design mode, particularly as we look to grow the Resort side of the brand – and I think we will probably have to start doing more trips backwards and forwards, but we are navigating this pretty well so far using apps, DHL and Skype.

What are your preferred tools for communicating?

M: Leveraging applications like Skype, Dropbox, Shopify, Joor, We Transfer, and an unlimited trans-Tasman phone account, we can pretty much do everything and anything. We will occasionally use a conference call line if multiple parties around the world are involved, which is often the case.

Bird and Knoll

What advice do you have for other potential long-distance co-founders?

N: We are also both super-organised and focused. Working remotely from each other and also not being in a traditional office environment, it would be easy to lose focus and not be effective. Juggling the business and family and the distance and time factor, we have to be organised to maximise our time and get everything done.

M: When someone is stressed or sick, the other takes over. We support each other always and respect each other’s opinions and are both extremely positive people. There is always a way… anything is possible!

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