Sri Lankan Women Trading Globally 2019 Participant on managing business in a COVID-19 environment

02.06.2020 Angela Wright

In 2019, Bhagya Iddamalgoda was selected as a participant of the Sri Lankan Women Trading Globally Program held in Western Australia. With her keen sense of business, clear vision, and eye for design and aesthetics, the ECA has watched Bhagya’s business Candle House Ceylon continue to expand and evolve.

We have also been impressed by her growth as an entrepreneur, and she has been on the front foot when it comes to addressing the “new normal” arising from COVID-19. Bhagya shares her story with us through the following Q&A.

  • What led to you to establishing Candle House Ceylon, and what drove you to commence international expansion?
I launched Candle House Ceylon during the holiday season of 2016. My passion for business drove me to think about starting my own venture. I decided that candles were the niche I wanted to step into. Seeing that there wasn’t an extensive choice in candles in Sri Lanka, I started making and testing them at home. Combining my work experience in marketing for a corporate company, with my knack for handcrafting encouraged me to establish Candle House Ceylon; keeping in mind that I am tapping into a lucrative niche market.

Expanding to international markets was a part of my long-term strategy. The lifestyle industry of Sri Lanka has ample room to make a global mark and my artisan scented candles and lifestyle products like essential oils are a great way to get my foot in the export market.

  • What did you learn from participating in the Sri Lankan Women Trading Globally program in 2019, and what connections have you made?
The SL-WTG program was a great way for business owners to come together and share ideas between countries based on a common factor: export. I was honoured to meet other entrepreneurs from diverse industries, listen to their stories, share our experiences and learn from each other! I realised that each one of us has unique perspectives and innovative ways in which we contribute to our businesses goals. The program was comprehensive in educating us on the practical aspects of exporting our products and services.

What I took away from this program definitely helped me to better prepare for exporting, for example; getting to know that a product label has to be standardised to reflect specific and unique requirements for export as well as adhere to the country’s labeling format, rules and regulation. A few other topics that were of value to me were understanding the Incoterms and logistics of exporting, financial documentation, risk management, pricing structures of products and understanding the consumer needs in different markets. The site visits to export-oriented Australian businesses showed how these topics unfolded in a practical setting, giving us a broader picture; not forgetting to mention how inspiring their start-up stories were!

I’ve had the pleasure to collaborate with some of my colleagues from our program to complement each other’s products and services. In addition, networking events organised by the Export Council Australia has led to many introductions to individuals who have expertise and experience in the areas of exports, business and other related fields; something quite valuable to this phase of growth in my business.

  • As a result of participating in the program, what are some successes that you have experienced?
Candle House Ceylon stepped up to open its own retail space on a commission-based business model within the store of a design and lifestyle brand hub in the biggest mall in Colombo on their debut opening in December 2019. This opened up new opportunities, providing us with more brand exposure to both local and foreign shoppers.

  • How have you been impacted by COVID-19 and how have you responded?
Sri Lanka went into a period of curfews, especially in the bigger cities for about 2 months that severely reduced our sales. The first couple of weeks were uncertain, but I was keeping tabs on the global impact and decided to change my focus in my business. I had to address these questions:

1. If I don't have sales, what can I do with my business now that can benefit in the long run?

Given that I had more time on my hands, it was only natural I make use of that to focus on finishing my website. This launch seemed timely, as we later realised that scented candles were in demand because people were working from home and were able to be in their element.

2. How can I engage my followers now and stay connected with them?

There was a surge in the number of people using social media and online shopping during quarantine and it was imperative for me to use social media to reach out to people. I posted more on Instagram and Facebook using stories, polls and quizzes. I also started working on my personal brand on LinkedIn.

3. How can I support other small businesses and can I get them together to support each other?

When the curfew was imposed, one of the first things I started doing was “shoutouts” to small businesses that I know of and are familiar with, and eventually, this started cascading into other businesses.

Although there was a curfew, our essential services were still active which included delivery services as well. Because I had the advantage of starting on an online platform, I was in a unique position to meet my demands. We also ensured our safety practices were extra thorough as well. While our bulk orders did go down, our individual orders picked up, especially with the launch of our website and I was able to deliver our products efficiently to limited areas of the island.

I suppose the way I responded was to pivot in a way to focus on the infrastructure and to keep my followers and customers engaged. Brand exposure was important, and my idea was to upgrade my business internally, adapting to change and to be ready to pounce once a certain degree of normalcy is restored.

  • What would like to share with entrepreneurs who are working in the COVID-19 environment?
During this time, it is important to be strong, look at different solutions so that your mind is active, stay positive, and share that with your team. Reaching out to other businesses, brainstorming ideas and supporting each other is crucial. If an entrepreneur is not using e-commerce to market and strategises their businesses, now would be a good time to begin the process. This can be in the form of a website. Social media is an ever-growing and evolving platform that has great potential to grow. Apart from adapting to a “new normal” for work, staying up-to-date and being easily accessible online widens your exposure and shows that you are current.

The ECA would like to add that Bhagya has also published a comprehensive article on 101s for small businesses in Sri Lanka – The Pandemic Version which can be found via LinkedIn.
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