Kathleen Buzzacott lives and works on the fringe of the West MacDonell Ranges, some 20km west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. For 20 years, the natural beauty of her surroundings has fuelled her creative output. In addition to painting Aboriginal desert artworks, Kathleen creates limited-edition jewellery, combining semi-precious stones with colourful native ininti seeds, which are rare and much sought after by desert women.
Before establishing her own business, Kathleen was working part time as a hairdresser in Alice Springs and devoting any spare time to her art and jewellery, which she sold through galleries and retailers in tourism hubs across Australia. A desire to become a fulltime artist and designer, and to take control of where her products are sold, and at what price, led her to establish Kathleen Buzzacott Aboriginal Jewellery and Art.
‘I gave up hairdressing three years ago and had been relying mostly on the galleries for income’, said Kathleen. ‘I started wondering, “Why am I relying on other people when I could market my own product?” And it just became a really strong desire of mine to start my own business’.
‘Attending those workshops really cemented for me that it is possible to operate a business in a remote area’, said Kathleen.
‘And, I tell you, those workshops were so helpful because I realised all these years I had been underselling myself. The facilitator had me bring in some of my jewellery, and she asked, “How much did it cost to make, how much is your time worth and how much are you going to sell it for to the galleries?” And when I told her, she said, “You’ve just lost $45”, and I just about burst into tears’.
‘My art has always been something that just comes from my heart. And it’s so hard to place a value on what you produce when you are just doing it to put something beautiful out there. How do you put a monetary value on that? So now, I’m still creating from my heart, but I have also developed a good business mind’.
Once Kathleen completed the Into Business™ workshops, IBA provided her with support to develop a business plan and engage a website developer to create her online presence. Working in a remote region, Kathleen acknowledges the business potential that can be unlocked through digital applications such as websites, and online media platforms such as Facebook.
‘Digital and social media is marketing; it’s modern-day marketing’, said Kathleen. ‘You have to move with the times and the technology, and acknowledge things are changing. What I’m trying to do is share something with the world, and opening an online store means I can reach a wider global market. It also means I can keep prices at a level where people can afford my work, because the mark-up in galleries can often put it out of people’s financial reach’.
In engaging a web developer and entering the digital arena, Kathleen was keen to ensure continuity of her brand across both digital and print mediums.
‘I conveyed to the designer what I wanted, and what I’m like, and said I was trying to create a personal experience for people. And he’s done himself proud; he even came all the way out here and taught my son and I how to content-manage it’, she said.
At around the time her website was going live, Kathleen’s profile received a valuable boost when a piece of her jewellery was selected for presentation to HRH the Duchess of Cambridge during the 2014 royal visit to Uluru.
‘Clive Scollay, who is General Manager of Maruku Arts at Uluru, has always been a huge supporter of my painting’, said Kathleen, explaining how the opportunity arose. ‘My mother has traditional affiliations with Uluru, which is how I came to already be selling my artwork out there. I would love to think the Duchess will actually wear the jewellery I created. It was very exciting to be asked, and you can’t buy that kind of exposure’.
Although she launched her website amid that media attention, Kathleen nonetheless continues to experience a challenge common among new online business owners: making her business visible in a busy online marketplace.
‘Going into that online world has not been as easy as I thought it would be’, she said. ‘People don’t know I’m here, and I haven’t done enough marketing of my website as yet’.
‘Also, selling jewellery, I’m aware that a lot of women like to try before they buy, to pick a piece up and look in a mirror, and they can’t do that online. In the meantime, it’s been good to still have other streams of income coming in from the galleries and other collaborative works where I get royalties’.
To raise more awareness of her business, Kathleen created a Facebook page. But while she has built a community of followers interested in both her creative process and her life in the Territory, she finds such interest does not always translate into sales.
‘I have found my Facebook followers are not necessarily my customers’, she said. ‘I am finding that people go to Facebook for a chat and to look at photos and interact with me; but they are not necessarily looking to buy’.
Like many small business owners short on time and staff, Kathleen has found it challenging to set aside the time to maintain her online presence while producing enough art and jewellery to sell. However, she understands the importance of nurturing and developing her online business relationships.
‘I’ve noticed with the online shop that some customers still want the one-on-one contact’, she said. ‘They want to engage with me on a personal level, so we will talk on the phone or send emails back and forth. And I make sure there’s that contact. The online world can be quite impersonal and it’s not an environment everyone is comfortable operating in. If I had a shop, I’d be keen to make sure a customer has a good experience in dealing with me, and it’s no different online.
‘Also, when I’m dealing with hotels, new galleries and other potential outlets, I always go and present my work in person, which is how I have established good working relationships over the years. Face-to-face relationships matter, because you develop connections with people and get a better sense of who you will be working with’.
Kathleen’s need for personal contact is one reason she recently opened her own artist’s studio on the family property to complement her online business.
‘I have realised I need to be with people’, she said. ‘I am used to talking to people at the hair salon. And the reason I stayed in hairdressing so long was the people; talking and listening and sharing together’.
The new air-conditioned studio, and much of its interior, was funded through a grant from the Northern Territory Government’s Indigenous Business Development Program. The walls and cabinets give Kathleen the opportunity to showcase her artwork and jewellery, including a replica of the necklace gifted to the Duchess of Cambridge.
‘To open up a studio here, right on the tourist belt of the West MacDonell Ranges with busloads of tourists and lots of traffic passing each day, it’s perfect for turning this from my business into a family business’, she said. ‘The studio will complement the website nicely, and it’s an opportunity for tourists visiting the gaps and gorges in the Ranges to stop in, have a cup of tea, meet my family and see me at work. Hopefully, having seen my art and jewellery first-hand they will be more likely to visit my online shop and tell others about it too.
‘I have taken out membership with Tourism Central Australia, and have created a brochure to distribute here in Alice Springs. A lot of tourists ask, “Where can we go and meet the people who make the art”.
I will now be able to use Facebook and my website to show photos of people experiencing that interaction with an artist, because that’s part of what I’ll be selling – the experience.
In offering that experience, I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of this area, the Arrente people. I am blessed to be able to live and work in such a special place’.
Kathleen says the encouragement and support of her husband, two sons and extended family has been crucial during this start-up phase of her business.
‘My 20-year-old is right at home in the online world, and his advice and technical know-how is important in building my online presence. He helps me with checking and responding to emails, and keeps my Facebook page and website up-to-date. That takes some of the pressure off me, and allows me to concentrate on creating products to sell, and marketing and promoting the business to let people know I’m here. He is enjoying helping me and I hope eventually to be able to employ him in the business.
‘And then there’s my husband who, as well as being one of my greatest supporters, is my voice of reason when it comes to developing the business. He often reminds me to slow down, and “Stop moving the goalposts”. But in my mind there are no limits; my plan is to kick those goal posts down’.