It is always great to share life experiences with others and last month I was asked by Katie Treggiden to contribute to her ‘how-to’ feature over at ‘Confessions of a design geek‘. I launched ByALEX at the London Design Festival in 2011 to develop modern and affordable furniture. The event was great fun, with many friends supporting me and lots of press/bloggers. British design is stronger now than ever before, with London being an international hub for creativity but there aren’t many furniture/product brands in the UK that are British. And for me I felt there wasn’t a great selection of affordable tables or desk on the market, especially made from wood. Tubular metal frames and legs were common place for affordable tables, but I loved wooden furniture – it’s warmth and sustainability credentials were important to me.
Back in 2011 I had no experience of product design, manufacturing, sourcing and working with a retailer, so the journey has been full of highs and lows. Keeping a business going for any period is tough work and I wish the design of a product was enough to sustain some growth in sales. The fact is, to build a successful British design brand you need a lot of help; financial, strategic, marketing + luck and good timing. I approached John Lewis with my first product design, the A Stool just as they had started to support young British designers. Their furniture collection had been transformed through design collaborations with established brands like Vitra and Kartell, or designers like Bethan Gray as well as young product designers who had been discovered at graduate trade shows. The buyer at the time liked my designs but timing was everything.
Building a British design brand takes time and luckily this was appreciated by our first angel investor in 2013, when we secured £110k through the SEIS scheme. Finding the right investor who can support your journey and offer experienced commercial advise is important. So much has changed about ByALEX over the last five years – you write a business plan or set some goals (creative and commercial) but things often pan out very differently. This coming week I have been invited to talk to students at London College of Communication about:
• How to run a successful design business (the relationship between design, communication, business and brand management, research and marketing)
This opportunity has made me look back at what we’ve achieved and question what could be done differently. So I’ve created a list of ideas, thoughts about starting a design brand in the UK. Modern furniture is my passion – often with a very graphic twist as I came from a Graphic Design background, but the ideas below are equally relevant to another product category.
How to create a design brand – ideas and experiences to help
- Be focused and committed
Once you have an idea for a creative business be it a product or service, ensure you have the commitment to see the project through, for as long as possible – it could take 5-10 years to really take off. Leaving a secure full time job and dedicating all your efforts into the business will take endurance, bags of optimism and the ability to try lots and lots of things until one idea works. I remember watching Paul Smith talking about how he set his brand up – he had a young family to support but was passionate about developing his own fashion ranges. So he took a part time sales job that meant his income was guaranteed at the end of the month. This took away any financial pressures and allowed him to be as creative and free as possible. Amazing advice if you ask me. Good design often comes when you are either thinking of an idea for yourself – far from commercial pressures – or when you have a serendipitous moment. But take note: any good idea will take an inordinate amount of commitment and perseverance. When I started I was very naive and this helped as I didn’t see the many barriers ahead – so many more ahead of me, ha! I have a strong believe that furniture can be designed and made better, with simpler ingredients and sold at affordable prices. Furniture has to move with the times – I love mixing Victorian or Art Decor pieces with modern furniture. As mentioned above, wood is still my material of choice for furniture as it has a timeless quality – I’m currently working on a design that uses a wooden frame but with a contemporary product to make the seating…. anyway, fresher, contemporary designs are needed to make all our homes more interesting places to live in – the bolder the better. If you have strong beliefs, then let these ideas drive your business as staying committed to values will help when you’re going through times. Above all, don’t give up too soon.
- Build a team around you with people you trust and admire
The team you build around you has relevant experience to the industry you are setting up within. Even with experience, be careful not to apply ‘big’ ideas or strategies that aren’t practical to your size of business (cash dependent and/or your resources). I’ve reached out to many professionals asking for help in all sorts of ways from developing furniture ranges, selling online or managing a cash flow forecast. Most have responded in some kind of way, even the really busy ones… Tom Dixon simply said to me ‘use the internet and watch your margins’. If only I had followed his advice sooner! As a company, we didn’t engage with an e-commerce consultant until earlier this year when we started working with October Communications in London. They have lots of experience working as a press and marketing agency solely within the design industry – design, product, architectural, interiors and art galleries. Their input and expertise in leveraging the web through e-commerce, SEO and press channels, has been invaluable. Designing and building a beautiful website isn’t enough either – you need experts who can understand the current problem and implement a strategy to reach your goals. Watching your margins is important but sometimes things will change within your supply chain that lead to your margins being squeezed. All I can say is aim for as high a margin as possible and this isn’t about giving the ‘middle man a healthy cut’. The UK offers high standards for design with an incredibly competitive marketplace. You need as much margin as you can get (the counter argument is that, the higher the retail price the less you will sell) and you often need to find the right balance between a retail price and your margin expectation, to reach the ‘sweet’ spot. These views came from experienced individuals, of which I’ve asked more marketing advice than any other subject. It’s hard to measure some forms of marketing however a successful retailer owner once said to me ‘you wouldn’t close your shop for the day so why would you stop your marketing?’. Seeing a return on your marketing investment isn’t always clear but it is important to trust the advice, think long term and make sure everyone in your team understands why you are doing something.
- Believe in creating something unique
I’ve read lots of branding books, most talk up the concept by making it overly complicated. The most important factor in my experience is to have a strong believe, stick to it (it’s easy to get distracted) and make sure you keep communicating it – another reason why you need excellent marketing people to help you.We’ve all heard ‘a brand is not a logo’ before, but it’s not until you sit down and start a company that you realise how hard it is to create a unique company. A logo is the visual mark for your brand – being the type geek that I am, a logotype is a typographic version and a logomark is a symbol, sorry. ByALEX is the name but the brand is a lot more. I had a genuine dislike and frustration of the large furniture brands in the UK who made cheap designs that wouldn’t last longer than one house move e.g the joints being so weak and the materials so low quality, that the furniture would fall apart. I also saw plywood being used within classic designs from the 1950s and 1960s (which were very expensive to buy) but not in any modern furniture. Why not? Plywood is very strong, sustainable and easy to manufacture with. It is made from peeling a tree trunk – just like an apple – and bonding a few layers at alternative directions to form the strength. Plywood is made from birch and comes in large sheets allowing you to make really interesting shapes – modern furniture that is sustainable and affordable, yes please! Moreover, I believe you can create simple designs using in-expensive quality ingredients, that are good looking and that stand the test of time. My next furniture design project uses other in-expensive materials… more details coming soon. ByALEX exists to develop modern furniture using quality materials in unusual ways. It takes time to get your message out there but don’t give up, there are people in the world that will find you eventually because they have similar believes.
- Make friends with investors
This last point is one of the hardest but probably the most important. Whatever you design or dream up, the ideas will need money. This doesn’t have to be a large sum, it can be smaller bits over the years – someone from a lighting brand said to me recently ‘if they’d ploughed all the investment they’d had, all at once, they wouldn’t still be in business today’. Not having enough money makes you sharper and more hungry. And if you follow Paul Smith’s path, you don’t need money to pay your rent, you need investment to understand what strategies will work for you. By strategy I mean everything from designing a new product range, testing a sales channel or launching into a new market. You have to try many things before you know what is going to work – what is going to lead to more sales? It’s much harder to build a design brand these days as the larger companies have diversified into so many product categories – French Connection make sofas. The reality is that most successful brands have had money injected at various stages. Some luck along the way will help of course, but you’ve only got one life so what’s stopping you to ask for help, find investment and build your own unique design brand.
I hope you find this useful – please leave a comment or get in touch if you strongly disagree or agree and want to share ideas. I have made some progress but it will take another five years or more, before I can say we have built a British design brand.