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From a festival to selling flip-flop animals

Ocean Sole is a social enterprise that creates art and sculptures from discarded flip-flops from the coast of Kenya. Their designs create awareness about plastic waste and provide work to over 900 low income Kenyans.

We spoke to UK distributor Mark Dougal about how he got involved with Ocean Sole and his experiences of running a small business:

How did your Ocean Sole story begin?

“Three years ago, when I was travelling to Kenya for a festival I asked my nephew if he would like me to bring him back a souvenir. After long deliberation while looking at the world map he replied…..A lion!

And so I set off with an aim to find the greatest lion gift I could find. On arrival in Kenya, my friend suggested that I visit a small group who collect discarded flip-flops from the beaches and carve them into animal sculptures.

Perfect, I thought, this will not only keep my promise of a lion present, but it will be educational and help the environment too! And so I vowed to visit this company before I left.

As fate would have it, 5 days later, at a festival in the middle of the bush about 70 miles from Nairobi, I was having a Bloody Mary at the bar and I bumped into Julie, the founder of Ocean Sole. She told me all about the company and I was hooked! I soon agreed to take some of the animal sculptures over the to the UK to see if they would sell.

I began the UK operations by showcasing the flip-flop animals at an artist’s open house and within the first afternoon all 10 pieces had sold. That’s when I realised how much people loved the story behind Ocean Sole and I decided to fully invest myself in sharing these great products. Since then I started the website and I regularly receive large shipments from Kenya.

Last month, 60 second Docs shared a video on the Ocean Sole and our popularity has skyrocketed. In just over a week the video reached 75 million views.

What are your company goals and aspirations for the future?

I want to grow the demand for Ocean Sole products to the point where we can expand the social enterprise to other countries; we’re currently looking at Egypt and Guatemala. They also have flip-flops washing up on the beaches en masse and people in need of work. Last year we recycled over 500,00 flip-flops from the waterways of Kenya and donated 20% of our profits to other marine charities. I want to see this expand even further.

I also want to raise even more awareness about plastic pollution and the detrimental effects this has on our oceans. Ocean Sole sculptures allow us to do this in a fun and interesting way.

What do you enjoy most about running a small business?

As a nature lover and a diver I’m really passionate about our oceans and how amazing they are. Ocean Sole allows me to do my small part to clean them up.

I also love meeting people, I regularly promote the brand and products at events and shows and I love seeing people's faces as they spot our funky animals. This is made even better when they hear what the sculptures are made of!

What struggles have you faced in running a small business?

Heaps, as someone who specialises in sales and distribution for a large corporate company as my full time job I’ve had to (and continue to) learn about areas of the business that took me outside of my comfort zone such as websites, basic accounting, social media etc. I run Ocean sole in my ‘spare time’ and it really does take up a lot of time. It’s all doable though, for me life’s 90% about a positive mind-set and turning up.

The biggest struggle to date came when the 60 Second Docs video went viral, Ocean Sole received over 10,000 emails and I had hundreds of orders to pick and pack by myself. It was a tough few weeks and it was at that point that I realised I needed to look for some help.

The journey so far has just served to reinforce my belief that most business problems are just a few conversations (and a bit of graft) away from being solved. You just have to keep asking questions and if it isn’t working for you, don’t accept the status quo, change it.

What advice would you offer someone looking to start a small business

Beyond the obvious advice of building your business in a sustainable way...

If you can, make sure it’s something you love so it feels less like work.

Have a business partner to bounce ideas off, ideally someone who brings different skills to the table, either way it’s good for the soul to have someone you can share the highs and lows with.

Get help. I joined the Federation of Small Businesses and their resources and legal support in the beginning were invaluable. A great friend has helped me with the website and Tamazi LTD have now taken the reigns on the warehousing and dispatch side of things which has allowed me to focus on growing the business.

Lastly, and I see the value in this again and again...Give! Not irresponsibly, obviously you have to make money, but where you can. The sense of fulfilment is palpable and material rewards often flow back your way.

What made you decide to outsource your fulfilment to Tamazi?

Until recently I kept all the sculptures in my 2-bedroom flat and packaged the orders as they came in. Although great conversational pieces for guests, the flip-flop zoo that lived in my living room soon grew out of hand and took up way too much space, as well as looking like a colour fairy had vomited all over my flat!

When the viral video hit, the order pace went nuts and I spent two weeks getting home from work, locating the products which were squirrelled away in my cupboards, and staying up late to fulfil the orders. After two weeks of this I was tired and anxious incase I had stuffed an order up.

Once things had calmed down I went for lunch with my business partner and explained that I needed him to look for 3PL solutions. I had tried before but the ones I came across were over-priced or not local to me, which is important as I regularly need to collect stock for shows.

Fate struck again as when I arrived home an email landed in my inbox from Mel, the owner of Tamazi LTD, offering 3PL solutions among other small business about timing!

I gave her a call and visited the warehouse a few days later. As soon as I arrived I knew this would be a good fit for Ocean Sole and myself. As a smaller freelance and fulfilment company they are flexible and offer an incredibly personal service and I know that my orders will be sent out with care.

I’m so glad that I got in touch with Tamazi LTD. They have been awesome and have worked everything out with me on the basis that it needs to work for both parties.

Here are a few of the things that I want people to know about them:

They’re friendly and professional

They’re services are reasonably priced

They are a one stop shop and are genuinely interested in my business

In addition to storage and shipping I know that they can help me with things like blogs, customer service, photography, SEO and more if I ever need them to

They’ve worked out how to efficiently store and pack 1.5 metre giraffes, 1 metre long elephants and the other crazy shapes and sizes the animals come in... enough said!

They’ve helped me to fulfil orders from overseas quickly and easily

Bottom line, it feels like they’ve got my back, and that’s exactly what you need when running a small business.

Check out the Ocean Sole website to see all of the amazing designs!

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