When brother and sister James and Lauren Billingham were looking for a special gift for their mum Vicki for her 60th birthday, they couldn’t find something memorable to give her.
After a lot of thought, the Perth siblings ended up gifting their mum 60 personal, heartfelt messages from all her friends and family which were boxed into a unique Moroccan-style keepsake.
The present was such a hit they thought it coould be a good business idea – and it was.
The Billinghams unexpectedly turned their idea for their mum into a multimillion-dollar international success.
The NoteCube founders turned over $100,000 in their first year and by the second year, their expectations were completely blown out of the water when they generated $650,000 in sales revenue.
NoteCube is a way for people to express their feelings towards someone special with a stylish keepsake box filled with beautiful notes. The NoteCube database has over 35,000 notes to help generate the most natural notes for each customer.
James, who was a web developer before launching the enterprise, said he was “always dabbling in different businesses”. “I had experience starting companies but not getting past the point of a business with employees,” James told news.com.au.
They now have a team of 16, and Lauren still works closely by his side, running half of the business with her brother.
The business has grown so much that there are times when James will come to the office to be greeted by another new staff member Lauren hired.
In the early days, James would jog to pick up the notes for the day and carry them to the local post office. What started out as just a handful of packages quickly turned into a satchel and then a larger suitcase.
With most of their leads coming from their social media accounts, James said discovering Facebook and Instagram advertising is what really took the business to the next level.
“I would put money into Facebook and that would generate a return on investment and every year I would up my amount,” he explained.
“That’s how it grew each year. I wouldn’t drop it back down, I would try to hold and up it every year.”
Almost 90 per cent of their advertising spend is on Facebook and Instagram.
“Every year we’ve doubled,” he said. “Every year I don’t understand how it’s possible and it happens. It always seems to be growing.”
Last financial year, NoteCube pulled in $2.6 million and they’re scheduled to make $7 million this year. For the next financial year, they’re on track to exceed $10 million.
Their biggest achievement was when they made more than $100,000 in just a 48-hour period leading up to Christmas.
“We’re predicting at least $150,000 in the lead up to Valentine’s Day,” James added.
“My goal for this month is I really want to hit a million dollars in a month. I think we’re on track for it.”
But it wasn’t an overnight success as James remembers it took some trial and error in the beginning before they got the business formula right.
“It took a long time,” he said. “At the beginning of NoteCube we did a photo shoot and I tried to give a NoteCube away to everyone and no one would take it and I wondered how I would sell it if I couldn’t give it away,” he said.
While they made $100,000 in the first financial year, it was “a good year before that year” of work to figure out how they were going to sell the idea.
NoteCube ended up being included in an online gift guide, which led to the first two sales, before turning to Instagram.
After the first year, they were able to scale up and they’d see revenue increase year on year. “It went from $100k to $600k to $1.1 million to $2.6 million to this year close to $7 million,” James reflected.
“It is weird, it’s funny,” he said. “I always had huge dreams, but I only realise it when I speak to people who know me, that we’re actually a business and we’re doing pretty well.”.
NoteCube has expanded internationally, too, with 70 per cent of sales coming from overseas orders, mostly from the US where there is a large Instagram following as well as Canada and the UK.
At the beginning, the business was advertising only in Australia, but James saw the potential in expanding to the US market. He made a trip over to the US to try to make partnerships “with $70 in my bank account staying with family and friends”, but he flew back to Australia when he realised he didn’t need to be anywhere else to expand the business, as long as he put money into social media marketing.
The past year has thrown some challenges with COVID affecting shipping times of international orders which led to complaints and refunds – even though James said “we have been one of the lucky ones”.
“We’ve managed to grow through it but the biggest thing was the unknown and delivery times. Australia was OK but international delivery times were a nightmare. We were losing packages and had a huge backlog and customers blame you so there were a lot of refunds,” he said. “We had to hire another person on customer service to manage that.”
To tackle to delayed international shipping times, the team created a gamechanger digital version of the NoteCube that the customer receives immediately while they wait to receive their hard copy prints and box.
“There’s lots of smaller competition, but we’ve aimed to have a consistent product. You know what you’re going to get and the quality is going to be the same. We’re building a brand around someone you can trust that you can keep coming back to.”
James’s advice for people who are thinking about starting a business is: “Don’t protect your idea too much – put your idea out there. Start with something really basic, it’s called an MVP, see if people will buy it, get the price point right and don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t work straight away,” he said, adding that YouTube and Google are great resources for information.