Outside of the box
How Mustard Made's lockers-with-a-twist became
a social media sensation in Australia and the UK
When Rebecca Stern co-founded Mustard Made lockers last year, she realised pretty quickly her biggest challenge would be persuading potential customers that metal furniture wouldn’t look out of place in a family home. “People don’t know they’re looking for our products until they find them,” Stern says. So, when she created an Instagram account, she carefully picked only pictures of her units nestled in real locations, rather than studio shoots. “They had to be authentic.”
It was a canny bet. Pictured alone, her steel storage units look, well, industrial. All Apple-like simplicity even with their bright colours. But place one next to a bed or a kitchen table or a sofa, and it pops, offsetting the soft furnishings in a way you'd wager only she realised in her imagination to begin with. Mustard Made, consequently, is now something of a local social media sensation, with each post averaging 300 likes. “We’re not selling the dimensions; we’re selling the feeling. It’s only when customers discover us that they fall in love with lockers.”
In fact, the brand is a modern small business success story in more ways than one. Rebecca Stern runs the company in Newcastle, NSW, and sister Jessica in London, England. The siblings launched here first, last June – it made sense because Aussies are more forgiving and chilled, thinks Rebecca – before promptly following in the UK a few months later.
Perversely, the 17,000km separation works for them both: Jessica was able to hold off from quitting her full-time job as a fashion buyer until the business was in full flow abroad; while Rebecca now gets to spend more time with her sons Dylan, 9, and Ellis, 2, working from home. “As a mum, Mustard has given me the flexibility to set my hours and, really importantly, to show my boys what can be achieved with a lot of hard work.”
The seeds of the project came to Rebecca after she read an article on Collective Hub. It stated the best business ideas are unique to the founder. Ideas where, even if you gave away the plan, nobody else could copy it, because nobody could do it quite like you. “I love metal furniture,” says Rebecca. “But I know some people wouldn’t have them in their homes. But that’s why it’s special. I figured, ‘If I liked it, wouldn’t others, too?’ But we also positioned it differently – you’re never going to find a locker quite like ours in a big chain store or a traditional high-street shop.”
Now six months after launch, Mustard Made has shifted 4,000 units, with prices starting at $200.
The company's far-flung ambitions, meanwhile, were born out of Rebecca’s pent-up frustration with her career closer to home. Previously, she’d been running her own jewellery business, House of Bec, but found the fun waned crafting the same products over and over. The real creativity, she realised, was working on branding and marketing, deciding the overall direction. So when Jessica came over to Australia for a visit, she pitched the idea to her sister during a walk on the beach. The joy was both could focus on their individual skills. “It was great because our passions were the complete opposite of each other.”
Or in other words, Jessica’s talent with logistics freed up Rebecca to focus on the creative stuff.
Fast forward a few months, and the business grew rapidly in tandem with the Instagram buzz. While their small size meant they had to lose half their revenue to wholesalers and stockists, those same outlets were posting Mustard Made snaps on social media, creating momentum from the start. It meant that, rather than selling individual units, the pair had the confidence to order whole containers. “It’s just scaled far, far faster than we ever pictured it would. We’ve got our next container on the way to the UK now, but we’ve already got orders on half of it.
“It was really about the images on Instagram. From the start, we’ve kept the budget tight but focused on showing the beauty of the products in real homes, either our own homes or at our friends' houses.” Today, though, it’s all happening for them. “There’s a snowball effect with owners posting photos and sharing them. One of my favourite comments was a user who said, ‘I’ve wanted a Mustard locker all my life,’ and I thought, ‘No you haven’t – they’ve only been out a few months!’”
With more than 15k followers and 4,000 lockers already sold, demand is tracking with its social media popularity. While the plan is to introduce two new products, the pair are hesitant about diverging away from lockers too soon. “We’d love to get them in some WeWork spaces because their members have families and kids, which opens more doors.”
What, though, of the future?
“It scares the hell out of me!” laughs Rebecca. “It should be the easiest part, but it’s the hardest… sometimes I think my imagination doesn’t go that far.”