Anna Ross had secured what she thought would be her dream job, but the reality was more of a nightmare.
In her early 20s at the time, the fashion degree graduate from New Zealand was working as a design assistant for a major clothing brand based in Melbourne, Australia.
She found herself having to work gruelling 90 hours weeks for little money.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” says Ms Ross, now 28. “I decided I hated working in fashion.”
It was a huge realisation for someone who had spent 60,000 Australian dollars ($42,000; £31,000) on her degree.
“I was gutted,” she adds.
Thankfully for Ms Ross, to take her mind off the slog of the day job and to maintain her creativity she also ran her own business in her limited free time.
She had started out making clothes while studying at Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin on New Zealand’s southern island, but after moving to Melbourne she switched to designing and producing jewellery in 2009. This she sold under the brand name Kester Black.
With sales helping her to pay the bills, Ms Ross then started to experiment with making her own nail polish to complement the jewellery.
She spent a year researching the complicated chemistry of nail polish production, and hired a chemist to help her make six colours.
Selling via her website and to independent shops in Melbourne the nail polish was an “immediate” hit.
So much so that Ms Ross was able to quit her day job to focus solely on her start-up business. She also decided in 2012 to stop making jewellery so she could give all her attention to the nail polish.
“Within three months we tripled our turnover from the previous year, just making nail polish,” she says.
Now four years later, Kester Black is one of Australia’s most recognised independent cosmetic brands, and is also sold in the US, Malaysia and Japan.
Not bad for a business that Ms Ross still runs with the help of just one permanent employee.
‘Social media savvy’
Ms Ross says her nail polish stands out in a crowded field because it is vegan accredited, not tested on animals, made in Australia, and free of the unpleasant chemicals that can be found in other brands.
“The concept of Kester Black is that you never have to look into where it’s made because you now it’s made here, and that the ingredients are safe,” she says.
Nick Bez, a director at Australian market research group Mobium Group, says that Ms Ross has also been particularly clever in her use of social media to boost Kester Black’s profile.
Pointing to Kester Black’s Instagram account, which is full of beautifully taken photographs, he says that Ms Ross has been “smart with her story”, and that people are attracted to the lifestyle that her nail polish promotes.
Mr Bez adds: “Being savvy with social media and using the online environment to talk to a wider audience [like Kester Black], means you can be a little brand and have a persona of something much bigger.”
Ms Ross admits that the popularity and visibility of the brand (which takes the first part of its name from a beach in New Zealand), has led to people thinking it is a much larger company that it currently is.
Although she runs a busy small business, Ms Ross’s working life is a now a lot less frantic than her old job in the fashion industry.
The Kester Black office in inner city Melbourne is only open four days a week, and Ms Ross meditates on the office sofa most mornings. She also often takes time out to practise yoga.
However, despite this relaxed outlook, Ms Ross is also determined to make her business work.
“When I commit to something… it’s thousands and thousands of dollars worth of time and energy,” she says.
“I do like taking risks. But I put a lot of power and force behind them to make sure that they succeed.”
Ms Ross gets around only having one permanent member of staff by hiring everyone else – from stylists to photographers and manufacturers – on a per-project basis.
As Kester Black continues to grow, both in Australia, and overseas, Ms Ross says she has to make a big decision – either slow down the rate of expansion, or continue apace.
“Should we stick with what we know, or should we keep expanding?” she says. “It’s hard to know as a small business owner.
“That’s something I’ve been asking myself for a year and a half now. Nobody can really help you with that.”