In March 2020, 21-year-old Julia Tonna left the shuttered Sheffield University to fly home. Together with her family, she hunkered down to wait out the pandemic. But just as the rest of the world was slowing to a halt, Julia’s entrepreneurial mind was picking up speed.
Teri Spiteri finds out more about the start of her new business, WhizzFix, in the latest issue of Business Now.
“While I was studying business and marketing at university, I learned a lot about sustainability, the environment and carbon footprints. I grew conscious of the environmental consequences of fast fashion, and wanted to do something about it. Then suddenly, the pandemic had retail outlets closing their doors. People started being more careful with their money, thinking harder about the repercussions of their actions,” WhizzFix Founder Julia Tonna explains.
So, on one of many quiet lockdown days, she turned to her father. “I was having an open discussion with my dad about what to do. We had the chance to spend time together, discussing opportunities and brainstorming ideas,” the young entrepreneur says.
And Julia’s father brought some rather specific experience to the table. “When my father was 18, he joined my grandfather’s lifelong business in the shoe industry. He was one of the main manufacturers of shoes in Malta and, when my dad joined, he taught him all the tricks of the trade. He’s worked with shoes ever since. As the third generation, I have to say… it’s in my blood!”
“We realised that nobody on the island was offering shoe and bag restoration. That’s how the idea for WhizzFix came about,” she continues, describing it as “the perfect marriage of two ideas: offering quality shoe and bag restoration while promoting sustainability to make the world a greener place. After all, why throw something away if you can fix it?”
When asked about the business model, her eyes sparkle. Julia’s ardent enthusiasm is palpable as she talks through the concept, affirming, “I’m on a mission to encourage others to restore, reuse and purchase pre-loved goods. I want them to appreciate the value and sentiment in the items they own or that have been passed down to them, while encouraging them to be conscious about the environment. So, I combined the services of a traditional cobbler with the modernised service that customers have come to expect of a contemporary business.”
And just like that, a business was born. Its focus is mostly on the restoration of shoes and bags, but WhizzFix also offers seamstress services that give clothes a second life, as well as laundry services to keep it all spick and span. Meanwhile, home pick-up and delivery are standard, making the process easy, efficient and COVID-friendly.
Business grew steadily, and it wasn’t long before Julia spotted another opportunity to further her mission. Understanding that, sometimes, people simply fall out of love with the items they own, the young entrepreneur is determined to save them from the landfill nonetheless. In her own words: “if you own something that’s no longer to your taste, why dispose of it or leave it to rot when you could give it a second home?”
This led to the launch of her first sub-brand, WhizzFix Outlet. Here, Julia collects good-quality items that are well looked after and promotes them for resale on her social media pages. If any restoration is needed, she’ll take care of that herself – her only goal is to find a new home for these items. After taking a small commission of 15 per cent of the price, Julia passes the payment onto the original owner.
Her studies in business and marketing have given Julia a solid foundation to launch the venture, although she admits that a lack of practical teaching did make things quite tricky. “I did face quite a challenge in setting up the business myself. I had no idea how to handle the corporate registration process and, once that was sorted, I found that I lacked practical knowledge of all the marketing tools that are available. I taught myself everything I know about design, communication and branding, and while it was quite a steep learning curve, I’m happy with how far I’ve come,” she says.
Still, there was one other challenge that threatened to stunt her business from the start, one that would prove to be a lot harder to overcome. “There is quite a stigma in Malta about repairing and reusing, and even about buying second-hand items. I received a lot of discouraging feedback – people claiming that they would never consider buying someone else’s used shoes,” she reveals.
It would take more than a few brush-offs to quell Julia’s steadfast determination, however. She stayed the course, explaining her reasoning and showcasing the quality of her work online. Over time, she noticed a growing interest in her services: “I was breaking through the throw-away mentality and getting people to repair and reuse. I was so happy – it restored my faith in the Maltese population!”
“This shift in mentality is how I measure success. It takes an insane amount of polluting chemicals, water and resources to make just one shoe, so if people had to understand the carbon footprint that’s required to produce the items they own, they’d be blown away. Seeing my clientele grow is a sign that I’m making an impact on the way people think. It’s highly motivating to feel like I’m actually getting somewhere and making a difference,” the WhizzFix Founder maintains.
Shifting a nation’s mentality sounds like a full-time job in itself. This begs the question: how big is the WhizzFix team? “I’m actually a one-man band, although I’m lucky to have my father backing me up. He’s very supportive, and takes time out of his busy day to help me maintain and grow the business. However, I’m mostly thankful that he’s willing to share his years of expertise. He’s taught me everything I know about restoration.”
It’s not the first time she’s gushed about the support she gets from her parents and younger sister. “I’m ambitious by nature, but my family have always encouraged me to pursue my ideas and follow them through to fruition. In the Tonna household, it’s always a learning curve – never a failure,” she smiles.
It’s also worth mentioning that throughout all this, Julia never stopped studying. She’s just graduated, and couldn’t be happier to continue building her business on her own terms. Having taken a gap year before University to work at a gaming company, she has already experienced life in a nine-to-five job – and it just doesn’t do it for her.
“The flexibility and freedom to expand my ideas without having to follow orders is what I love the most about starting my own company,” she says. However, she’s quick to acknowledge that her year of work and training in customer care is something she’s grateful for today. “Knowing how to establish and maintain a personal relationship with each of my clients is the most important part of the business. It’s about trust. These are valuable sentimental items I’m handling for them – their grandmother’s wedding shoes or the bag they wore to their first interview. They need to feel secure in making that transaction, to know that they can be open with me about their requests, expectations and feedback.”
With her sights set on growing the business over the coming years, Julia admits that she’s looking into third-party services to handle collection and delivery in the near future. Nevertheless, she’s determined to retain that personal touch with each of her customers by any means necessary. “I make sure to call or text each of my clients to check that they’re pleased with the results. I believe that listening to their feedback is essential if I hope to grow the business,” she continues.
On that note, I ask about her plans for the future. “Right now, I simply want to do more of what we’re doing. I want to better myself and the service, finding new approaches and focusing on our clients and their needs.” In the long term, she hopes that this will translate into a larger clientele served by a bigger team – all with the aim of encouraging more consumers to embrace the sustainable approach to fashion. “I’m very happy with what we’ve achieved so far, but I know there’s more that I can do,” she adds.
She speaks with a self-confident determination that makes you forget she’s only 22. It’s clear that the business is the main focus right now, but I’m curious about her personal life. Does she struggle with work-life balance at all? “It’s not something that bothers me. Every morning, I wake up excited about what I’m going to do next. My boyfriend shares this ambition – he’s starting up his own company as well, so we’re both super focused on our work and encourage each other to keep going.”
“I did have to make some sacrifices, of course. Partying with my friends on the weekends was something I gave up early on. Since my week is taken up with restoration work, pickups and deliveries, I dedicate my weekends to marketing the business. I take photos, plan my posts for the coming week and get it all scheduled. I have no time for hangovers. I’m very passionate about the work I do, so I’m happy to do it,” she states, smiling broadly.
As our conversation draws to a close, I think about how this all started just a few months ago in her family living room. One year on, what advice would she give to anyone starting a business? “There are going to be people that pull you down and others that encourage you, but whatever people say, don’t get distracted. Stay focused and keep moving forward. Don’t get side-tracked by comments and challenges that arise, and don’t look back. There’s no time to dwell on what could have been. Stay focused, overcome the hurdles and keep going.”
This has been adapted from a feature carried in the latest edition of Business Now.
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