Melbourne writer Kath Dolan explores the nuts-and-bolts of creative business with makers, designers and craftspeople.
“We’d love to be involved but, full disclosure, I am not sure we’re the right people to be giving expert business advice,” quips Lara Davies when I sound her out about this interview. But Fortune 500 listing aint no prerequisite for THIS series…
Lara and her business partner, Jess Wright, more than qualify as a success story worth mining. They’re the textile designers and workshop queens behind Brunswick’s beloved crafting HQ, Home-Work. Think Cheers, with fabric inks.
Screen printing, shibori dyeing, gold foiling: you name it, Jess and Lara teach it. With such genuine warmth, humour and consummate ease that even novices leave workshops in their light filled, paint splattered studio with more finished goodies and hands-on skills than they ever dared hope for. Adults and kids alike.
The Home-Work gals also periodically combine their artistic (Lara) and graphic design (Jess) prowess to create playful, sell-out ranges of screen printed accessories and homewares. Melted ice cream totes, anyone?
Their latest baby is their first-ever book. It’s called Print Play. It’s published by Hardie Grant. And it’s how-to heaven, Jess and Lara style: 24 awesome and eminently achievable projects (think beach towels, napkins, planter boxes, even wallpaper). Plus real-world advice on uncovering YOUR creative inspirations, and developing colour palettes and patterns reflecting YOUR style. Not someone else’s.
Impressive, undoubtedly. It meant a year of heads down, bums up: dedicated time slotted in around their popular workshop and school holiday programs. Putting products and markets on hold. Saying no to all sorts of opportunities that’d normally elicit a ‘hell yes’.
Most impressive, though, is the quality of their partnership. It’s stronger than ever, despite the wear and tear of a decade running joyful but labour intensive businesses. And having kids. And negotiating life’s occasional potholes. Over the past year they’ve had a book deal, a sea change, a child’s Asperger’s diagnosis and a bout of Ross River fever in the mix.
Jess and Lara were fast friends before business entered their heads. They understand each other well enough to give each other room to move. Literally. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it’s prioritising friendship and family that seems to keep their business on track.
FRIENDS FIRST AND FOREMOST
The pair met over dinner 15 years ago when Lara started dating an old friend of Jess’s. “We became really good friends and it just kind of clicked,” Jess says.
“We knew each other for a few years before we even contemplated doing any work together,” Lara adds. “I was fresh out of art school and started teaching at the CAE. Jess was working in commercial textile design.”
That’s a really fancy way of saying I designed pajama prints for kids, Jess laughs. It was not a glamourous life.
SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT
When Lara asked Jess for computer help on a textile print commission they got their first taste of creative collaboration. Complimentary skills were a bonus from the get-go. “Often when you try and find that person who you want to work with creatively you might be best friends but you have exactly the same skills set,” Lara says. “So there’s always going to be a friction there. Whereas we’ve always let the other person’s talent and knowledge be the thing they bring to the table.”
We still think the other person’s skills are magical, because we haven’t done it, Jess laughs.
“Lara has always been an amazing drawer and painter. Whereas I was good at taking those and turning them into repeats: taking them onto the computer and manipulating them into an actual pattern.”
“And you’re so good with colour and imagining a product, bringing it all to life in a different sense,” Lara adds.
SPOTTING A NICHE
In 2009 Lara took maternity leave from CAE. Jess stepped in – and found her calling. “I think I probably didn’t sleep for three nights before the first class because I was so nervous,” Jess says. “But it ended up going really great.” Feedback from students hungry for more hands-on screen printing practise convinced the pair to try running workshops together.
“Lara in her infinite wisdom said, ‘We should come up with a place where you can actually get your hands dirty and do all this stuff’.” This was pre-Instagram, at the start of the handmade movement/craft market/private short-course boom. “Suddenly every weekend there was a new crazy craft market, people were quitting their jobs to start up businesses,” the pair recalls. “People seemed to want that handmade, different stuff.”
Their first business was Harvest Textiles: screen printing classes and homewares initially HQed in Kensington in space sublet from fellow textile designers Ink and Spindle. The super practical course content Lara adapted for those early classes remains, in essence, the formula for their sell-out workshops today.
If anything it was overcomplicated then and we’ve stripped it back to be just the real fun things that people want to learn when they come and take a day out of their lives, Lara says.
TOP WORKSHOP TIPS
PRODUCTION AS PROMOTION
Collaborating on simple, screen printed textiles evolved naturally, as did selling these products to help spread the word about their courses. “They evolved naturally from things that were pretty basic, that just had some illustrations that I’d done on them, to us then working together on designs and developing patterns and things as we had more access to a printing studio,” Lara says.
A lot of the products came from, ‘How are we going to promote these workshops?’ Jess says.
“We need to get into these craft markets. It almost started off as a promotional strategy. If we go to these markets we can hand out flyers about the workshops.”
But the products – fabric packs, T-shirts, towels, dresses, tea towels – had a joyful spontaneity that won plenty of fans. “People really loved them because they … weren’t overly considered,” Lara says. “They were just a free, fun thing and people were really fascinated with those. The second range that we did was probably our most popular and successful. Jess really stepped up … with, ‘We’re going to make these amazing products, here’s my vision, here’s the shape of the bags we’re going to make, here’s how we’re going to take it to the next level’, “ Lara recalls. “And all that stuff is the bags everyone still has 10 years later. They love them and they’ve held up.” Following up the first, experimental range with bold, fun prints (like the melted ice cream motif still going strong 10 years later) established Home-Work’s signature style.
“A lot of the stuff at the beginning was more muted and I feel like I am not a muted kinda gal,” Jess laughs. “I was like, ‘How do you feel about this craziness?’”
LEARNING FROM FRIENDS
Like so many makers, Lara and Jess learned about business on the fly. Both had some exposure thanks to grandparents who ran their own small businesses. Skills and nous for their own enterprise came from several quarters. Lara’s friend Emma Byrne joined them at Harvest, bringing valuable business experience to the table.
Melbourne Artist Supplies proved pivotal. It’s owned by the parents of Lara’s ex-partner (and is Home-Work’s neighbour and landlord). “I learned a lot from them,” Lara says. “You see first-hand how running your own business is a lifestyle,” Jess adds. “There’s no end to it.”
“It never sleeps, Lara concedes. “You never stop thinking about it. And you have to really love what you’re doing to be able to bring it every day.”
Mentoring from Ramona Barry and Beck Jobson, then at Craft, was invaluable. “They were great, and they were really no-bullshit,” says Jess. “‘Yep, nup, don’t do this, do this’. Super supportive.” Their offer of a free place at Craft’s stand at Design:Made:Trade (a sadly defunct trade fair that kickstarted many a local maker) brought media attention and product orders.
Design:Made:Trade was a bit of a game changer in terms of us just getting ourselves out into the world, Jess says.
Flush with success the Harvest gals signed a lease on a Brunswick shopfront studio of their own. “In retrospect I’d say that was a little bit premature,” Jess admits. “It was great. But we could probably have kept ticking along at Ink and Spindle for a bit longer and saved some money. But I think we were all very bright eyed and so excited to just have our own space and our own print table and all that kind of stuff. We probably had rose colored glass on. The building was half falling down but we were like, ‘that’s just part of it’. There was a tin roof out the back so it was boiling in summer. It was all unsealed so it was freezing in winter.
All of that stuff that seemed really exciting at the beginning just became a slog.
Reality sets in. But I have pretty amazing memories. It was an exciting time the three years that we were there.”
A show-stopping Christmas market in their first year showcased not just their wares but gems from then-fledgling friends like jeweller Emily Green and food truck pioneer Raph Rashid of Beatbox Kitchen. It unexpectedly lured bazzilions. “It was insane,” Jess recalls. “We had two rubbish bins because we were like, ‘Who’s going to come?’ Literally you couldn’t move. It was all day. All the other businesses in the strip were coming and yelling at us. We just hadn’t prepared anything at all.
We didn’t know what we were doing. It was just insanity. And I don’t think we’ve ever had anything go off like that again. But it was exciting.
BUILDING BUSINESS KNOW-HOW
With products and publicity booming Lara and Jess had to build business skills as needs arose. “Even simple stuff like sending people confirmations when they book a class,” Jess recalls. Initially they paid others for photography and web design but eventually accrued those skills for themselves. “As time goes on you want to have more control,” Lara says. “To change our website whenever we want. Quality photos whenever that moment arises, not just in a shoot.”
“It was that push that made us really learn all that stuff – but over time. You can’t learn it all at once. And you have to find the areas that you’re really interested in.
Flexibility keeps things fresh. “There’s time when you tire of certain things,” Lara says. “So you just can say to the other person, ‘I just can’t do class confirmations at the moment’.”
“Or ‘Can you do the Instagram for a while because I just can’t look at it’,” Jess laughs. “I’m in awe of people who run a business solo. Firstly, it’s so great to have someone to celebrate with and commiserate with. But also, just keeping that level of enthusiasm for every part of the business at all times – I don’t know how they do it. I bow down to them.”
A FORK IN THE ROAD
After three years, with Harvest’s lease ending, “Emma was ready to go off and have another baby and do her own thing,” Jess says, “and we were really excited to take the products to the next level and get into making bedding and things like that.” Melbourne Artist Supplies had a lovely, light-filled studio space next to Howler ready to share. Jess and Lara jumped in and Home-Work was born. “Home-Work was this great chance to make a really clear, collaborative style as well,” Lara says. “And quite a different visual style to Harvest,” Jess adds.
We know we’re not saving lives, Lara says. Let’s just have fun.
KNOWING YOUR AUDIENCE
“That did seem to be a theme of a lot of the people coming to the workshops,” Jess says. “They’re not there to learn to be a master screen printer. They just want a day out of their lives to do something really fun and creative. Even if they don’t go home and continue on with it.”
Harvest workshops embraced “super technical” territory. Home-Work loosened the reins. “Obviously we want to teach people the technical stuff, but it’s much more about them feeling really comfortable and confident and not feeling bad if you mess something up.”
“Just enjoy it rather than obsessing over making the perfect thing every time.”
REFLECTING YOUR INTENTIONS
The pair used the new space to communicate that intention and aesthetic from the moment workshoppers arrived.
It’s joyful and messy, Jess says. Embrace that.
SHIFTING YOUR FOCUS
Initially Jess and Lara helped Melbourne Artist Supplies manage their subletting of additional space to makers of every stripe – illustrators, weavers, fashion designers, jewellers – until a dedicated studio manager took the reins. “That was quite exhausting,” Jess concedes.
In the early years production and markets demanded hours of time alongside workshops. But last year the pair put that on hold to realise their dream of creating a book that captures the experience of their workshops.
“Because we had to create so much stuff for the book it just never would have happened,” Jess says. “And Lara had just moved down the coast so we didn’t have that time together. Also, we just needed a year off markets.”
Now they’re shifting gear again: promoting the book and developing a new range to support it.
“It’s so exhausting,” Jess says of the design market merry-go-round. “And it’s really expensive. Firstly you have to pay so much to get into the market. Then you’ve got to make all the product. Even to break even you have to sell so much. For us it usually turns into a promo for the workshops. That’s where we get the true value from it.”
We still make money from it. It’s definitely worth doing it. But our tank was pretty empty last year.
Markets are a great source of online sales from Home-Work in the weeks afterwards. But making products that shine in that highly competitive environment and in the volume required means there’s no doing markets by halves. “There’s no point rocking up to a market where you’re competing with hundreds of other brands with something that you’ve just slapped together,” Lara says. “It has to be pretty resolved. And we knew that we couldn’t do that last year.”
Talking with peers has taught Jess and Lara more about business than any short course or You Tube tutorial. “Everyone has disasters,” Jess says. “Or you think you’re having a really great month and suddenly everything goes dead. It’s nice to have other business owners to go, ‘Yeah’. You work out the flow of the year, when things are really popular, and then you can prepare for when things are really dead. We’re still learning.”
We probably should have sat down with some business coaches along the way, says Jess. Slap some sense into us.
Experience has shown them the value of diversity and saying yes to collaborations out of left field. “Doing stuff like the school holiday workshops and collaborations with people – we kind of say yes to everything,” Jess says. Interestingly, the offers dried up for a bit while they barricaded themselves away to write Print Play. “Because every time you go teach somewhere new or go to a market you meet new people and it organically snowballs into something,” Lara says. “If you don’t put yourself out there you’re not coming across new opportunities.”
FOCUS ROCKS TOO
“We were quite happy to have one big long-term project last year,” Lara says.
We knew we had been people doing everything all at once for so many years. We just don’t want to do that this year.
“We don’t want to do that with the book. We want to do one thing and do it well. And it was challenging for us to do that, to be honest.”
“And financially quite challenging,” adds Jess.
Their new how-to book is the culmination of a decade honing their skills. “We’ve been wanting to write a book forever,” Jess says. “We constantly get asked in classes, ‘What’s a great screen printing book you recommend?’ We could never find one that we really loved. We always kept saying, ‘We should write one’.” Hardie Grant jumped the idea and the deal was done.
“It felt like the perfect timing,” Lara says. “Home-Work was established and our look and feel was established and so there was never any question in our minds about what the book would look and feel like.”
What we’ve ended up with is this book that really embodies the experience of coming to the studio, being in our workshop, in our website and our Instagram. It just feels really authentically us.
“We’re really happy with those results.”
OUTSOURCING VS DIY
Finance isn’t a passion. Wrapping their heads around tax returns and BAS statements never appealed like mastering photography and web design. They happily outsource these necessities to an expert. But they understand the profitability of their various activities and maintain a workable balance. School holiday programs, for example, may not be jam packed with Instagramable moments, but they help keep the lights on.
Balancing family needs is equally influential. “Sometimes you have to be working for a week of the school holidays,” Lara says. “Other times we need holidays off. So we come up with strategies … to deal with that balance. We’ve always worked around being there for our kids. We want to be there to pick them up from school. We want to be there with them in the school holidays. So there’s a real fine balance to all of it.”
“And sometimes it all falls in a heap,” Jess admits. “Schools sports. Classes. The calendar sometimes doesn’t line up the way you wish it did. We used to do heaps of admin into the middle of the night and we’ve both just realised we can’t do that anymore.”
We really ran on startup adrenaline for years, Lara says.
“The first few years of Home-Work we were mental,” Jess agrees. “We would put our kids to bed and come back into the studio. Nuts. We were some haggard, haggard gals.”
THE BITS NO ONE SEES
TEACHING THEY’VE MASTERED
“Sometimes you might have had a hard week with your family or whatever and rocking up to class it can be challenging to give it your all as a teacher,” Lara says. “We always walk out the door feeling better than when we started.”
“People get so much from the class. And it’s really great to be reminded that that’s something we’ve created.
There’s no accident in any second of the class. It’s all been considered and it’s all been fine tuned.
We feel so confident that people are going to come up with a good result. It’s great teaching and being, ‘We’re really good as this’. Helping people to find that little creative spark. It’s really nice to see that formula continue to work 10 years later.”
“I feel like we also just know who we are that this point,” Jess says. “We know what feels right and what feels wrong. I feel like when people walk in that get that sense of us. We’re not pretending to be the world’s greatest experts on anything. I hope that we just make people feel really comfortable and excited to be there.”
They so do.
HONESTY ENABLES EVERYTHING
Jess says the pair’s most useful business strategy, aside from endless flexibility, is “being super honest with ourselves and each other – where we’re at, how we’re feeling about things, what we realistically can commit to.”
“Also, the fact that we’re friends before we’re business partners. Every phone call we have starts with personal stuff before work stuff.”
“We weren’t like that when we first started working together,” Lara says. “But we’ve been through divorces, births, and people’s lives have drastically changed from year to year. And what people want evolves. Just because someone’s living a certain way doesn’t mean they want to do that forever. If Jess was like, ‘I’m gonna go move to LA tomorrow’ I’d be like, ‘Cool’. You have to allow people to evolve.”
Deep in our hearts all we want is for the other person to be happy, Jess says. So whatever that involves, we’re not going to stand in the way.
It’s true the studio’s quieter since Lara scratched her itch last year to live by the beach. “I moved down there really for my kids,” she says. “I’ve been a single mum for four years. I just was like, ‘I can’t do the inner city any more’. It’s so expensive. And I grew up by the ocean. I just wanted to go back. My parents moved to Geelong from Freemantle. I wanted to have time near them, and I have really old friends down the coast. There was a year where I thought about it obsessively. I got to the point where I actually just needed to try it. Because in my mind it’s like this happiness at the end of the rainbow and if I don’t try it I’m not going to know.”
It was the right move. Lara and surfer dudes are happy as pigs in poo. Jess and Lara talk multiple times every day and spend at least a full day in the studio together every week. Jess admits she struggled initially. “We just get so much done when we’re together,” she says. “It was like being a relationship to being in a long distance relationship. But it’s worked out amazing.”
“At the start I was coming up a lot but then I got sick and so I just couldn’t,” Lara says. “This year I made a much bigger effort to come up once a week. Rock up and just be at the studio, keep my head in it. That’s really good. That constant contact is the key to us keeping things ticking over.”
“It’s been hard in lots of ways but it’s really good. I really miss all my friends and being near the studio and that sort of stuff. But there’s new things in my life that I didn’t have. It’s changed things a lot and how we’ll move forward into the future. But also the book has changed that.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
“I feel like this year’s going to be about promoting the book and trying to use that as a spring board to whatever we want to do next,” Jess says.
“At the moment our business is so focussed around people coming to visit us in Brunswick,” Lara explains. “That’s very specific.
The book is going out to the whole country and the US and UK. So how can we grow as a business to make the most of that opportunity?
“Maybe go to them instead of them coming to us,” Jess says. Literally? Online? Can you actually capture the Work-Shop vibe online? “Exactly – that’s where our heads are at with the new phase,” she adds. “How can we open this up to the world a bit more but still keep our vibe and personalities?”
”We haven’t completely got our heads around it,” Lara says. “But we know that it’s a challenge we need to tackle.”