Katie Johnston is the Australian founder and CEO of sustainable lifestyle brand WILD – THE LIFESTYLE CO. She launched the business, formerly known as EcoBling back in 2014 where it was known for its contemporary jewellery products made from upcycled wood. After the recent rebrand, the business broadened its range to include art, homewares and furniture. The Noosa-based ecopreneur opens up to EWP editor Jennifer Nini about the real, no-BS side of running a business.
If you want only the fluffy, positive side of a sustainable entrepreneur’s journey you won’t find it here. This is an honest account of what it’s really like to be an eco-conscious business owner. What Johnston shares in this interview is raw, not often pretty and sometimes downright ugly, but it doesn’t deter her from her mission and it’s why we admire this kickass power-tool wielding female entrepreneur so much. #girlcrush.
If you’re running an ethical or sustainable business or considering starting one and ever wondered the truth behind all the beautiful photos shoots and social media imagery, this interview with the straight-talking sustainable entrepreneur is going to open your eyes and maybe blow your mind – in a good way!
EWP: You launched EcoBling in 2014, tell me about what inspired you to launch the eco jewellery line.
Katie Johnston: I launched EcoBling for several reasons.
1. I was fired, moved to a hippie commune and hated the idea of working for someone else again.
2. I was so inspired by the concept of upcycling and wanted to test it out to see the response. So I thought a good place to start would be small things, like jewellery. So I started upcycling waste into jewellery. I didn’t know how to do it, so I just went and bought what tools I thought I needed and made it up as I went. Turned out to be the best approach, my naivety meant I had no idea what was coming (had I known I may have RUN!)
3. I want nothing more than to protect and improve the state of our environment and natural spaces. I needed to find a way of funding that, a way that fit with my values and had a positive impact not where I spent the profits but in the process of creating the piece as well.
EWP: You then rebranded in July 2018 and your business is now called WILD. What prompted the rebrand?
KJ: EcoBling was very orientated about being an accessories label. I had a lot of stockists stocking homewares and furniture and seeing the junk that was being manufactured I wanted to create pieces that last and were made from natural materials. We’ve all heard of fast fashion, but the movement of fast furniture is killing the world (MDF is evil, medium-density fibreboard that is). I wanted a name that put our WHY first and foremost. Why do I do what I do? For the WILD. EcoBling was a fun name but as we evolved in branding and design we grew out of the name. It no longer was a fun, backyard project. It was a lifestyle label and needed to be refreshed with a new name to match the evolving look and expanded product range.
EWP: You studied psychology but you’re now an ecopreneur. How do you apply your education and knowledge to what you do at WILD?
KJ: I studied psychology (behavioural science) to understand why people do what they do. I wanted to know why people hurt others (I am a “survivor” of rape – I say survivor because my faith in humans, my hope, dreams and spirit almost died) and what made people do good things. I thought that by better understanding that I could heal and inspire good things to happen in the world. I quickly learnt that in order to inspire you must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. So I began my mission to prove I could make a job out of doing good things. I started my mission of becoming an ecopreneur. Studying at uni also helped me understand critical thought and constructive scepticism. It helped me see things more holistically and understand the complexities of the world and just how little control we have individually.
EWP: While we’re on the subject, how can sites like EWP help change behaviours and influence more mainstream people over to our side; thinking and living sustainably?
KJ: Although I do understand we have little control individually, I do believe that in numbers we can make a difference. Platforms like WILD and EWP don’t only advocate positive change but, and I think most importantly, they make it relatable, honest, practical and engaging. They make real change possible by, as shallow as it may seem, making it popular. And this is fundamental because if people don’t want to aspire to someone else’s lifestyle then continue doing what they have done and their thoughts and therefore behaviour doesn’t change. If that doesn’t change then the world is screwed.
EWP: Describe your typical day.
KJ: I wish I had a typical day sometimes, some structure would be nice. My week is spread between meeting with consultants, lawyers, my accountant, swinging off power tools, writing emails, admin, bookkeeping and remembering to breathe. Photoshoots, creating, sketching, marketing, social media, the backend of the website, product launches, cleaning and trying to catch up with friends… I feel like I am stuck in a tornado most days but I have to keep my cool as others look to me for direction. So I do my best to keep forward momentum…
EWP: Any “business failures” you’d like to share and what motivates you to keep going?
KJ: I always feel like I am failing in some way. You learn to see failure as “lessons”, otherwise it destroys you. You can’t avoid failure, so don’t be scared of it. One year I did a trade show and risked a lot to do it, it paid off in the first few hours. The next year I did the same trade show, the same spot, an even better range and it was dead! Just because you “fail” doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing. Sometimes the elements are just not in your favour… So just give it a go and keep trying… when the elements are right things will flourish!
Two years after I started EcoBling I went to Nepal once to work with Earthquake victims. I took a photographer, videographer, a consultant and worked with a reputable not-for-profit who were going to coordinate everything on the ground. I wanted to make damn sure I was doing exactly what I needed to do to make a go of it. We were going to upcycle earthquake rubble into beads and use profits to fund the rebuild of the community centre. We launched. I waited for people to share the video and buy the product. I waited and waited and waited… nothing. A few close friends supported it but nothing… I had media lined up and they shared the story, it was just another piece of entertainment people flicked past. It didn’t work! I failed, I helped no one and built up expectations I was sure I could deliver on but I was nowhere near it.
My lesson here is never assume because you do something good people will care. It is brutal but the only thing people want is something that will add value to their lives. I was told I should have got a celebrity on board because then people would feel like they were getting value. Apparently giving money for a product that supported changing people’s lives wasn’t enough of a motivator… I learnt a lot during that project. It was confronting and a bitter pill to swallow but sometimes you have to keep your feet on the ground and surrender to the fact that growing slowly is a good thing and to take on the big ideas once you have a solid foundation. People will only trust a brand they have heard of… Now that is my mission. To make sure people hear about us.'Never assume because you do something good people will care. It is brutal but the only thing people want is something that will add value to their lives.' Katie Johnston, founder and CEO of WILDClick To Tweet
More recently, I was involved in the biggest business failure of my life. I was buying the assets of a liquidating company and moved everything forward at my expense only to be outbid by the previous owner’s Dad in the final hour. I had never been used like that in my life. Business can be a dirty world and I was not prepared for that reality shock. There are more predators in the business world than the “real world”. So you have to have your wits about you otherwise you’ll be a deer stuck in the headlights. In business, don’t trust anyone unless what they are saying is written down… by a lawyer.
EWP: What is it that you wish customers knew about your business that you rarely show on social media?
KJ: Social media can be a whirlwind. I have fun sharing all the fun stuff happening but it does create a false reality. I worry that I will scare people off if I appear on an Insta story crying my eyes out about how hard it all is (which is OFTEN!). Brands are the result of people’s hard work, blood, sweat and tears. They have real people behind them, people who have risked it all/are risking it all. They try, fail, try, fail, try, win, try and fail over and over again. Social media is a platform to share the wins. I wish customers knew how much hard work and sacrifice is in every little detail. Even the sacrifice of time to date! I am still single WTF haha.
I wish everyone knew how much we work to ensure we are making items that will last forever and that the much cheaper product will cost you and the Earth so much more in the future. I wish customers knew how happy they make me when they support my work and how much their trust and belief in me means.'Social media can be a whirlwind. I have fun sharing all the fun stuff happening but it does create a false reality. I worry that I will scare people off if I appear on an Insta story crying my eyes out about how hard it all is (which is OFTEN!)'Click To Tweet
EWP: Any parting wisdom or words of advice for other entrepreneurs?
KJ: If you want to work for yourself because you want freedom then think again. You have a lot more freedom when you get to go home, switch off and enjoy the weekend while you wait for your paycheck. If you are willing to sacrifice everything and willing to fight until you cannot lift your arms then pursue your entrepreneurial dreams. You have to be willing to NOT have a happy ending. You have to be OK to lose everything.
I thought I was exempt from the “bad” businesses because I was savvy, smart, and sassy. Fuck was I wrong. Your business success depends on more than you. It depends on who you know and luck. Luck? Yep! You have to bump into the right people, be in the right place, at the right time. You cannot know that ahead of time sometimes. It also depends on your team, who you have helping you. It depends on their skills, honesty, commitment and passion (and that changes all the time). Business is not as A + B = C as we’d like, it is a continuous fumbling mess you have to navigate every day.'I thought I was exempt from the “bad” businesses because I was savvy, smart, and sassy. F*$! was I wrong. Your business success depends on more than you. It depends on who you know and luck. Luck? Yep!..' Katie Johnston, founder and CEO of the WILDClick To Tweet
EWP: Anything else you’d like to share?
KJ: Oh so so soooo much I could talk about! But my closing statement would be to say thank you to the people doing their bit to make the world a better place. They need the encouragement!
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