A year on since launching Nisa – an ethical underwear company that employs former refugees – founder Elisha Watson reflects on all the things she’s learnt about running a business with a social cause.
Quitting your job to pursue your dream is one of life’s great cliches. You’re probably working a desk job – stable, lucrative, maybe a bit soul-crushing – that one day you decide to leave behind. It’s what pipe dreams of made of, and sometimes, they work.
No one said it was easy though, and Elisha Watson will be the last person to tell you that doing what you love is a walk in the park. One year on since quitting her job as a lawyer to start Nisa, an organic cotton underwear company that employs women from refugee backgrounds, life as an entrepreneur remains just as hard, albeit slightly offset by the fact she can finally afford to pay herself a salary as of last month. At the moment, it’s $200 a week – just enough to cover her share of the rent.
“I think what I’ve realised is how most people come from a very privileged place to start a business. I’ve relied on my parents a huge amount and I’ve relied on my partner a huge amount. If I can’t afford my rent, I can move back home. It makes me really sad to think of people who have big dreams and aspirations who just don’t have those privileges and it seems like such a waste,” says Watson.
“Even if you know you can afford to pay yourself on one particular week, you’re constantly worried about what’s up ahead. It feels like when you pay yourself that you’re hurting the business. It doesn’t feel like you’re just another employee.”
That’s because for Nisa, it’s been a tumultuous year of highs and lows – or “feasts and famines”, as Watson calls it. “If you look at our sales, it’s almost like looking at stormy seas: stratospheric, nothing, stratospheric, nothing. We make enough when we do really well to cover us for when we don’t.”
An example of that roller coaster existence is when Nisa launched its first pop-up store in Wellington on World Refugee Day earlier this year. The business had about $1,000 in the bank at the time, which was less than a week’s salary. Over the next few days, Nisa made more than $17,000 thanks to the pop-up and hype that went along with it. “That literally saved the business,” Watson recalls. “By the end of it, the shop was basically empty. People were buying things that we’d sewn that day. I’ve never seen people sew so fast! It was literally off the machine, into a bag, and off to the store.”
Highs and lows are a natural part of any business, but not everyone’s so keen to talk openly about the latter. Startups, in particular, are at pains to make a good impression, putting on an unwavering face of confidence, success, and infallibility in an effort to be taken seriously. Watson, however, is surprisingly candid. She’s made plenty of missteps in her first year of business, and they’re not small ones either – like when she realised at the very last minute that she needed to change where Nisa sourced its elastics. “We needed elastics that couldn’t be made in New Zealand, and the stuff from overseas was coming in like a month or two. We had our launch party and everything planned though, so I really had to scramble.”
“We also accidentally deleted all our reviews from our website. We had something like 80 reviews from people saying Nisa was their favourite pair [of underwear]. But when we were doing our pop-up, we were doing all these fancy things in the backend to keep the online inventory separate from the in-store inventory. So we duplicated products thinking that everything would copy over and then deleted the originals when the pop-up was over. Then we realised that it didn’t drag the reviews over.”
Working with former refugees has also brought about its own set of challenges, and a lot of that comes down to the fact that New Zealanders love to be notoriously indirect. “If someone brings something to me and they ask me what I think, I’ll look at it, raise an eyebrow, look quizzically at it, and say ‘it’s okay.’ But they’ll literally hear ‘It’s okay. You’re doing great.’“
“I think when people are learning English, there isn’t a lot of space in their mind to be reading your body language and listening for intonation. So if something’s bad, you literally have to say point blank: it’s bad. And if it’s good, you say it’s good. You have to be so much more direct than any Kiwi would be comfortable doing. So I’ve had to do a lot of learning around that.
“You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. But at the end of the day, if that communication’s gone wrong, that’s bad for everyone. In such a diverse workplace, you have to try a million different ways to make sure people are understanding each other.”
The end goal for Nisa is that one day, Watson can pay someone from a refugee background to take over the business, but to get to that point, she has to keep building. Nisa’s current “feast and famine” approach can only go for so long, and Watson knows it needs to find more sustainable ways of operating. She says one option is to move into a combined workshop/retail space where customers can come see the work being done first-hand as well as having the ability to buy items on-site. Another option is to sell its garments through other retailers, and while she’s “loath to part” with the company’s singular grip on the Nisa experience, doing so would provide the company with a more consistent flow of sales. But in the more immediate future, the business is preparing to launch its first swimwear collection ahead of summer and is looking around Wellington to see if it can take on more employees.
“We need people to be repeat purchasing, not just when it’s exciting,” she says. “Our mission is to be the first pair of underwear you reach for in your underwear drawer. You’ve done a wash and everyone has that one pair you’re glad is back. We want to be that pair for everyone.”