Monocle meets five creative businesses and entrepreneurs who have gone their own way, and we ask them how, and why, they did it.
What ties the following five stories together is that at the heart of each of them are entrepreneurs who went against the tide of conformity and followed their instinct to stick their necks out and try something different. At a time when risk-taking is not the normal modus operandum, the examples that follow show that striking out to realise an ambition pays off.
We find out how to build a thriving community from scratch and how to inject life into a city centre with a new manufacturing hub; we learn how to start your own cottage industry and grow it into a business; how to build a retail brand in bricks and mortar that gives life at street level and how to package a product so that it sings from the shelves, too. They aren’t tales of following spreadsheets or making decisions by committee, but rather common sense, skill, hard work and responding to human behaviour. And there are lessons to be learnt from all of them by all of us.
A Vida Portuguesa was launched by former journalist Catarina Portas (top left, centre of picture) in 2007. With stores in Lisbon and Porto, it champions classic Made in Portugal products such as sardines, soaps and shoebrushes.
Monocle: Why did you start the business?
Catarina Portas: I started A Vida Portuguesa with €1,000, some small-business advice from a friend and some bartering skills. I wanted to counter what was going on in Portugal; a kind of retail that saw 20 years of malls and hypermarkets. I loved these old products and I didn’t want them to disappear, but I also thought that the country needed a little bit of self-esteem, to appreciate its own products.
M: What sets your shop apart from others that sell classic Portuguese brands?
CP: We are more careful about presentation and we don’t have just any old tinned sardines – we have tinned sardines done in a certain way, in a certain place. We know exactly what we are selling.
M: Who are your customers?
CP: Everyone from old ladies who can only find their Alantoíne handcream here because all the small shops in their neighbourhoods have closed down to fine-arts students who like the atmosphere and buy Serrote notebooks.
Find the right site
Too many beautiful buildings in Portugal have been taken over by chain stores. Portas waited one year to find the right site for her Lisbon store.
Do your research
A Vida Portuguesa staff know each brand inside out – who makes it, where it comes from, why it’s important.
Make them feel special
The idea of A Vida Portuguesa is that it’s a secret place of discovery, and shops that specialise and stay authentic end up getting wider attention.
Kazutoyo Yamamoto has never been one to follow the crowd. As a boy, when all his friends were out playing baseball, Yamamoto was making a two-hour journey to the beach so he could learn to surf. Now he’s resisted Tokyo’s pull by opening an innovative development in his home town of Kumagaya. Called Newland, Yamamoto’s project is a mix of shops, cafés, a learning centre and open space. Although it’s less than a couple of hours from Tokyo, Kumagaya feels a world away from the capital. “Most people in Japan live in places like this,” he says. “The obvious thing would have been to do something in Tokyo, but I thought it would be great to build something here.”
Newland is split into three areas: “school”, “shop” and “house”. “These are the elements I thought you needed to build a community,” says Yamamoto. With limited funds, he had to work with what was already there: a giant disused crane-driving school, an ugly 1980s office building and a nondescript block, all laid out on a sprawling apron of concrete.
Yamamoto, an interior and furniture designer, called on his contacts in the design community for help. An architect friend, Koichi Futatsumata, worked on the school building, transforming it into a tranquil, wood-floored space. Furniture designer Yosuke Hayashi came up with the outdoor seating. Designers Torafu contributed ideas for the dog run, which is entered via an oversized kennel. The dated office building is now an art gallery, an office for Yamamoto’s design firm, dessence, which he runs with his wife Kazuyo, and a design shop. Yamamoto stripped the building back, clad some of the interior with wood and surrounded the exterior with soil for plants to grow.
The crane school warehouse is now home to several shops. There are eight so far and there’s room for a few more. Yamamoto himself has three places here: a restaurant, which is run by a surfing cohort from Kumagaya, an organic food shop and a surf shop he runs with a surfing buddy (he also gives lessons). There’s also a busy bakery and café, a dry cleaners, a curry rice restaurant and a womenswear shop. The popular Tokyo clothes and goods store 1LDK has also opened here – its first shop out of the city. A farmers’ market is held every month and there are classes and seminars on everything from wine tasting and coffee making to Hawaiian dance and skateboarding. Curious locals and metropolitan visitors mingle.
You get the sense that Kumagaya has never seen anything like it. The concrete has been torn up, fruit trees planted and insects and birds are coming back. “I’m hoping that someone here might be influenced by this and grow up with an interest in design,” says Yamamoto.
Choose a location with a connection
A big city might have made more business sense but Yamamoto wanted to do something in his home town.
Start small but keep it varied
Yamamoto’s Newland community has a school, office and art gallery plus eight shops and cafés, with room for more.
Build it together
Yamamoto called on friends and contacts for ideas, designs and help.
Factor in children and animals
“Our dog run looks a bit crazy but dogs love it,” says Yamamoto.
Yamamoto didn’t want to rebuild everything from scratch – he’s letting nature do the work by planting fruit trees and bringing in soil to allow foliage to grow.
In a design market saturated with ego-driven designers and hyped brands, Young and Norgate are a breath of fresh air. The Devon-based outfit, founded by Dave Young and Ross Norgate, specialises in crafting contemporary furniture with time-honoured techniques. “From start to finish, everything is made under one roof by hand,” says Young.
The duo set up shop two and half years ago after meeting on a cabinet-making course and built up a loyal following local community. Most of their pieces are bespoke or made in very small batches and take around three weeks to make. The current collection on their website features seven of 100 pieces that include a handsome Arne Vodder-esque sideboard made from American walnut. With a team of two apprentices and two craftsmen, they work out of a disused cider press.
Stocked in Liberty, London and with a new shop in Tokyo clamouring for their pieces, demand has quickly grown. Young says, “We want to reconnect people with furniture, how it’s made and who made it.”
Have an identity
Strong branding helps people connect with the business.
Make good products
Considered design and hand-crafted quality is at the heart of the business. By keeping production in-house they are able to closely monitor the quality of work leaving the studio.
Keep it local
This goes for both sourcing material and targeting clients. There’s a tendency to steer towards larger markets, but there is often plenty of demand right on the doorstep.
Working with other businesses and designers is a good way to increase brand awareness and build relationships.
It’s a cost-effective way of building up your labour force. It creates an opportunity for people to learn the business as well as the craft.
Hardware company Häfele Australia is a subsidiary of the German firm that specialises in furniture and architectural fittings. When Häfele won a contract to supply the kitchen and accessories category of a new hardware chain, they tasked Melbourne-based design studio ThoughtAssembly with creating an image for Häfele Home, their first foray into retail. “We had to turn their existing trade offering of complicated kitchen fittings in brown cardboard boxes into something appealing to the end consumer,” says ThoughtAssembly founder Nicholas Cary.
Cary knew the Häfele home range had to make an impact on the shelf. “Packaging in the home improvement world tends to be really busy and shout at you so we went against that and stripped everything back to turn the range into an instantly recognisable family.” Cary decided the focus should be the products rather than the Häfele brand. He pushed the logo back and introduced pictograms, photography and a colour palette to identify different categories of product, from door hinges to drawer handles.
Cary looked to the German modernist design heroes for inspiration. “Everything was so clean. There was no bullshit around what they selling. That was what we were trying to capture,” he says. It was a daring move but it paid off: Häfele has more than 40 subsidiaries worldwide and a number of them have considered the new packaging for their retail ranges.
Stand out on the shelf
The product should sing and be recognisable.
Look at its environment
Consider where the product is going to sit and the other products that will be around it.
Say what the product is, in a voice appropriate to the consumer.
Clear presentation is key.
From the logo being in the same place to the size of the typeface.
Edith Heath founded Heath Ceramics in 1948 in Sausalito, California. Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey bought the company in 2004 with a goal to preserve its original creed and expand it sensitively and organically into a sustainable business. Following successful expansion the couple transferred their tile production to a former industrial laundry factory in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission district, which opened together with a new retail space in June 2012.
Monocle: Why did you decide to bring manufacturing back to the city?
Catherine Bailey: People are interested in the whole Heath product: not just the design but how it’s made. We wanted to bring it to where people are and tie it all together.
Robin Petravic: We also wanted to be able to maintain job diversity in urban environments. And it builds awareness of what we do. If you put it in the middle of nowhere you’re going to have to put a lot of money into advertising. We don’t spend a dime on that.
M: Why is it important for San Francisco?
RP: This is a time when all of the city’s neighbourhoods are being taken over by start-ups, so cultural diversity kind of gets lost.
CB: And everything that people think is important here is virtual. Getting tangible things back in people’s peripheral visions adds a lot to the vibrancy of a city on many levels.
M: How did you find the space?
CB: We found it through [local manufacturing association] SFMade. A woman we’ve known for a long time who works there showed us an industrial laundromat, and within a few hours we understood what could happen there.
RP: The city has a long-term vision to maintain diversity in neighborhoods and makes sure there’s an allotment of manufacturing spaces. Ours was one of them.
CB: We really did want the building to honestly be an industrial building – we had a gentle touch with it, we cleaned it and made it interesting but it’s no bmw factory. It’s an industrial building.
M: What does the future hold?
CB: We’re looking at doing a restaurant in the building.
RP: But the new building also gives us more creative space. It’s a place where we can experiment.
Have a public face
A showroom or café will help your new neighbours understand what you do.
Get the city on your side
Working toward a common goal is key.
Seek out like minds
Identify organisations that help your cause such as SFMade.org. They can help you find an urban manufacturing workforce.
Find financial perks
Understand the economic incentives that might be available to you.
Make friends with the bank
Try to identify a community bank that has an interest in creating jobs.