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From weekend hobby to flagship store: How The Bachelor’s Laura Byrne did it

ToniMay founder Laura Byrne with Matthew Johnson on the Bachelor and sister Alicia de Graaf at the opening of the flagship Oxford street store. Images: Instagram (ToniMay, Ladyandacat).
ToniMay founder Laura Byrne with Matthew Johnson on the Bachelor and sister Alicia de Graaf at the opening of the flagship Oxford street store. Images: Instagram (ToniMay, Ladyandacat).

To the casual observer, Laura Byrne’s life has been defined by competitions.

In one of 2017’s biggest nights of reality television, The Bachelor Matthew “Matty J” Johnson chose her over Olympic hockey player Elise Stacy.

But unknown to the 1.5 million viewers who tuned in to that season final, this was the second major competition to change Byrne’s life.

Four years previously, Byrne - then a passionate jewellery designer slowly turning her weekend hobby into a secure source of income - won Harper’s Bazaar and 100 Squared’s 2013 Launch Your Label Competition.

And while you’d imagine that winning The Bachelor would turn your life upside down, this little-known competition had possibly an even bigger impact.

The rapid growth phase

“At that point in time, the conditions of the entry of that competition were that you had to have enough stock on hand to open your own shop if you were to win it, and I didn't have any stock,” she says, explaining that the winner received a two-month lease for a new shop.

“But I thought, ‘I'll just enter it anyway.’ Crazily, I won it.”

Six weeks of frenzied production lay ahead: she had to make enough jewellery to stock the new shop. Think, 200-300 pieces.

“I think I worked probably from six in the morning until two or three every single morning the following night trying to make jewellery, but that was the tipping point as to when I quit my full time job and actually started doing ToniMay full time.”

Named after her grandparents, ToniMay would only continue to grow from there.

The Bachelor phase

Crucially, ToniMay passed critical growth checkpoints like establishing scaling plans and taking on staff well before The Bachelor entered Byrne’s life.

“I had a good friend of mine, and I kept him as a mentor. I used to have a studio space that was inside his studio, and I remember this one time where he said, "You need to get ready. You need to be able to scale because one day you're going to have these big orders coming in, and the way you're running a business right now, it doesn't have any longevity.””

Byrne couldn’t afford to be the only one physically making the jewellery anymore: she had to take on staff so she could focus on design and business opportunities. Today, she describes it as the biggest change she needed to make to grow it as a business.

And it opened the door to what any jewellery designer would dream of: 1.5 million eyeballs.

“I was really lucky in that when I went on The Bachelor, a lot of our systems and processes were already in place. I was working on the business, but I wasn't having to work in it every day.”

Her sister, Alisha de Graaf, stepped in to help, telling Byrne not to worry about the time to shoot the show and to just see what happens.

“I thought I was only going to be away for a couple of weeks. I didn't at all expect that I would be away for a couple of months.”

But it was a good learning experience: ToniMay could survive without her - at least for a little while.

And, Byrne adds, ToniMay could survive The Bachelor.

Going on reality television as a small business owner is as much a risk as it is an opportunity: perform badly and your business might suffer. Perform well and you may see an influx in customers. You need to be able to accommodate those customers, and critically: retain them.

The retention phase

“It's definitely not a sure ticket to go onto a reality TV show and that that's going to be able to help boost your business by any means.

“I was really lucky in that it definitely did draw some attention to ToniMay, but that attention as well is pretty fleeting in that people are pretty quick to jump on a bandwagon when something's on TV.”

It has a short burn time, she explains. You need good products and branding to keep them there.

ToniMay has enjoyed high customer retention, something Byrne puts down to her personal connection to the brand- it’s tied to her travels, her style and ethos, while quality and originality also play a major part.

The next phase

Just months after opening ToniMay’s flagship store on Oxford Street in Sydney, Byrne is preparing for her biggest challenge yet: running a small business while being a mum (she’s due in three weeks) and planning a wedding.

“ToniMay does still take so much of my time, and so much of what I love doing is involved in my work. That's going to be my biggest hurdle.”

Add to that, a further extension into wholesale. Until 2019, ToniMay has been all direct retail. The business was burnt in previous years by a few significant boutiques that refused to pay - a difficult setback for a “small fry” business, as Byrne describes it.

“We thought, "No. We're never doing wholesale again." But now that we're a little bit bigger and now that we have a retail presence, we're excited to get back to the wholesale game... But we can do it on our terms.”

This could be the perfect way to describe Byrne’s approach to ToniMay: doing it on her own terms - The Bachelor, designing, hiring, scaling and now motherhood.

“For me it's just being able to work every day in a creative capacity. I think that that's really rare.”

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