Table of contents
- Founder - Chris Halaska
- Based in Cronulla, Sydney, Australia
- Started in 2020
- 1 founder
- 24K TikTok followers
Chris, what's your backstory?
I spent my youth with my two brothers and one sister in south Sydney, Australia. I grew up thinking I’d be a chef following in my dad’s footsteps, enjoying freestyling recipes and trying different things at home.
My introduction to digital design first came in my year nine computer class. My teacher, Mr Betcher, realised my passion and ability. He tailored my assessments towards website design and animation, while the rest of the class had the standard set tasks.
I was a short, small kid and vividly remembered having to carry a HUGE computer monitor home that he had generously loaned for me to use for trying out Linux. That was a long, heavy walk.
He was the first teacher to encourage my passion, and I was lucky enough to thank him in person when we later got to work together at Google.
I continued through school, working towards life as a chef. I enjoyed design but hadn’t realised that it was a potential career.
I was attending a visual design class for fun, and one day, the teacher said to me, “you’re really good at this. You should consider design as a career”. At that moment, my head exploded a bit. This thing I was doing for fun could fund my life. Sign me up!
I immediately shifted my focus to design and, much to my dad’s dismay, forged my unique path instead of following everyone else. He often says, "I don’t agree with your decisions sometimes, but you always land on your feet”. This was evident through my choice to do a shorter course just to get some qualifications, so I could get out in the workforce.
I spent most of my time there showing other students how to use the digital design software and knew I needed to get out there and start working.
I built my career as a designer, spending the earlier years of it in advertising before focusing on product design. I recently finished up six years at Google to join a startup in the crypto space. I ran a small t-shirt brand when I started my career. It would have done well if I had any clue about paid marketing. I remember the feeling I got when I would run into someone wearing one of my shirts. It stayed with me all this time.
Tell us what your company does?
HALSKA is a sustainable streetwear brand that offers Australian-made organic tees and a range of organic and ethical tees, shorts, hats and more. We care about the environment, the quality of our products and giving back to charity, which is why we donate 5% to a mental health charity, The Black Dog Institute.
How did you come up with the idea?
HALSKA was started when I was looking for a few things, mainly a t-shirt that I could wear to meetings that were comfortable, stylish, more than just a standard black/white tee and definitely not a collared shirt.
I noticed a shift in workplaces adopting more casual attire. First at Commonwealth Bank and then to the extreme at Google. Google was a little too extreme. I recall engineers walking around barefoot, wearing intense graphic tees with holes in them and not the cool holes. I wanted to present myself in meetings as confident and authoritative without sacrificing my personal style.
I also love the environment. Being an avid surfer living by the ocean, I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world and appreciate what nature offers. My love for the environment is a huge reason I strive to be as sustainable as possible even if it means less profit.
The name HALSKA is based on my surname, Halaska. This brand is a direct extension of my personal style, so I wanted it to be related to my name. It’s a bit unusual, and I enjoy hearing people try to pronounce it, but I think it sticks.
How did you go about building and launching the business?
When I started out, I wanted to test the waters, so I decided to use a print-on-demand supplier. This meant that anytime an order was made, it was sent automatically to a printer in Melbourne. They’d use a direct-to-garment printer to create the one-off shirt, sending it directly to the customer.
Print-to-order was a low effort on the fulfilment part but had a lot of issues. The profit margin was low. The time to order fulfilment was very long. The quality was very hit or miss, and the amount of energy (human, machine & transport) was over the top for one single order.
I knew I didn’t want to stick with this for the long term, so as I saw some success, I decided to do something about it.
How have you grown the business?
I started by ordering some hats in bulk to be embroidered locally in Sydney. I stored them in my one-bedroom apartment. I knew I wanted to provide a high-quality experience, so I designed my premium packaging in recycled cardboard boxes, giving the customer a great opening experience.
Once I was more confident with my brand, I decided to make a huge move and ditch the print-on-demand method, making a bulk order of organic tees to be printed in Sydney. This was about ten months into the business, and my apartment was starting to get a bit overwhelmed with my range.
I’ve been slowly growing my range and customer base ever since. This growth has allowed me to achieve one huge milestone I wanted from day one. This milestone was to create my own custom-fit tee produced locally and ethically in Australia, using sustainable certified organic cotton. These shirts have been a hit, and I sold out of my first batch fairly quickly. I’ve just restocked them along with some brand-new shorts, just in time for summer.
I’m very proud that I get a really high rate of returning customers, and their feedback is overwhelmingly positive.
I’ve struggled the most with getting new customers, I was having some OK results with Facebook (now Meta) ads, but ever since they changed their privacy settings, the cost per result was averaging $80-120 in some cases, which is terrible given my average order value is $80. I’ve since turned these ads off and only have one campaign running to get people to sign up for my mailing list.
Growing organically on Instagram was easier at the start but slowed to a halt. I still try and post there, but I should do more. It helps find the right type of customers and reach out to influencers for content I can reuse for my socials and website.
I see Instagram as a lookbook/catalogue of my product that people can browse and get to know the style. People following me here are more likely to be fans of the clothing.
Tiktok was something I was very uncomfortable with at the start, but I’ve managed to grow a decent following (24k) thanks to some of my content going viral. The audience on TikTok LOVE any behind-the-scenes content, so I focus my energy here on trying to show how I work with lots of time-lapse videos and similar types of content. My customers here are the ones who want to support small businesses.
The other area that I’ve focused more and more on is email marketing. Email brings the customer along with me as I launch new items, have sales, etc.
What's your biggest selling product?
My biggest seller is my Australian-made subtle slash organic tee. This is my signature tee that I designed and produced in Melbourne.
What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?
I hear a lot from customers wanting more items, colours and sizes. Being a small business with not a massive quantity of orders means high upfront costs and a lot of stock sitting in my place waiting and waiting to be sold. I wish I’d kept my range smaller and focused on the core things I do well.
I also got sucked into some terrible SEO agencies that promised the world and didn’t deliver. I learnt to check the agency reviews before moving ahead, as after I did, I noticed how many one-stars they had on Google.
My biggest failure has probably been the amount of profit I’ve put back into inefficient ads. I have been a bit too ‘set and forget’ and should have paid more attention, turning off campaigns and ads that weren’t performing or simply allocating those funds to getting more organic followers and sales through influencer marketing, etc.
What's next for you and your business?
My next step is to increase the range of Aussie-made items in my store. I aim to have a small set of quality items, all made in Australia with organic cotton, with enough variety in colours and materials to complete my range.
I’ve also recently started adding artwork to my range and hope to expand that once I get some time to create more.
I feel I’ve been on the edge of blowing up for some time now, and I need something to help me cross that chasm. I’m confident I’ll get there as I’m very passionate about this brand. I have my fingers crossed for the next viral video, feature in media or something else to get new customers in. Once customers are with me, they usually come back multiple times for more orders, which is a telling sign of what I can achieve.
What digital tools do you use regularly?
Shopify, Klayvio, TikTok and Instagram are my go-to tools for managing my brand. My best investment was in a label printer, and when I get busy, paying for an app to make picking the items easier is a must.
What books have been a great inspiration to you as a founder?
I’m all about creativity and the process behind it, which is why I love Ed Catmull’s ‘Creativity, Inc. Reading books like this inspires me and encourages my creative outlets.
Any podcast/websites that help you run your business?
I listen to a few e-commerce & startup podcasts that help me stay motivated and on top of the latest trends. My goto podcasts are:
The unofficial Shopify podcast
and social media marketing with Michael Stelzner listen to a lot.
Any quotes you live by?
One that comes to mind:
“The life of a designer is a life of fight: fight against the ugliness.” I even made a canvas print of this hanging on my wall when I started my career."
What do you love and hate about being a founder?
I love the learning along the way, but hate the lack of time to do everything well.
What do you do to look after your mental health as a founder?
I enjoy getting out into nature and exercising, surfing in the summer months, weekend camping/road trips and prioritising my life over all else.
In a few words, sum up what it means to be the founder of a business
"To be the master of your own motivation."
What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?
"Never stop learning, podcasts and youtube videos have helped me grow and learn so much along the way."