At an evening at Soho Works, we asked three leading design companies a few questions about growing a creative business. Here are pattern designer Kangan Arora's stories and key tips...
What prompted you to start your own business? I moved to London in 2005 to study printed textiles at Central St Martins after completing a fashion degree in India. When I finished I went to work for Lisa Stickley when Selvedge ran their first spring fair so I took a table to sell all my graduation cushions. It went so well that I decided to set up on my own. Working with Lisa had given me a really good grounding in business, so I used all I had learned with her. I got a job in a cafe and did weekend markets for 2-3 years. As opportunities came up I just said 'yes'. I've done a Limited Edition for Heals, diversified into rugs for Floor Story but am now starting to move away from product, having just done Christmas packaging for Ren, so am excited to explore different areas with prints.
- What was the best opportunity you seized/one you missed and wished you hadn’t? A friend had taken on a pop-up shop in Walthamstow and asked me to design some rugs, which she would get made up. I didn't know anything about rugs, but said 'yes'. It was the start of an ongoing collaboration that has lasted four years. You have to say 'yes' and then figure out how to do it later! This year for the London Design Festival I was asked to do the India exhibition at Tent in the Truman Brewery. I couldn't say 'no' but knew little about space design, so I've spent the last 6 months learning about it, but then with the small budget had to do all the work myself. It was an amazing experience. So I haven't missed anything so far as I've just said 'yes'!
- What was the biggest hurdle you’ve overcome in all the years of trading? My biggest hurdle is scaling up because at the moment it is just me. I am doing everything whether it is production, marketing, photography, selling. But I am not particularly good at selling. So I'm making all these lovely products, photographing them and putting them on social media, but they have to sell for the business to be viable. If the numbers don't work - you have nothing. There are still products I am physically painting, stitching and making which ties up all your time. You are constantly playing catch-up. I am now starting to work with smaller manufacturers so I can push production out of the studio. Another story... a few years ago I got an order for 1,000 tea towels. I had to make them in two months, so outsourced them. Then I thought 'aha if they can sell them - I can too', so order 600 for myself. But I still have 50 left... I had no market for tea towels or knowledge. It was a category I had never sold in before. It not only tied up cash but also space at home and in the studio. This one decision then affected others.
- What was the best piece of advice anyone gave you? The best piece of advice I was given was by my old tutor who runs her own textile business. I'd been a sole trader for about two years when I was doing some photography for her and we were having lunch. I was telling her how hard I found it, that it wasn't happening and was too slow. She told me that you have to keep going, it was the only way. Lots of people reached the 3/4-year mark and give up as it isn't easy, but if you are the last man standing, if you turn up to work year in, year out, people will realise you are always there. And yes, you will have good years and bad years, but if you think you want it - you just have to do it.
- And the worst? I've always been told to tone my colours down. And that annoys me as it is giving up the essence of what I am trying to do. At college I was told to tone it down, then when I was doing a collection for Heals I was told to tone it down. "Yes we love your bright colours, but you will have to tone it down for our customers." I can see that they are looking at it from a commercial view, but then why are you asking me to do it in the first place. So you should stick to your guns. Although I did have to tone it down.
- What or who has had the most impact on your business - in an unexpected way? It is the people that have had an effect. But also Instagram. I don't really know how to do it. It is organic. As it is just me, I am trying a few different things out and seeing how it goes. This year all the work that I am doing has come via Instagram, someone has seen something and contacted me. It is incredible and feels quite current. When I moved here 10 years ago I was into Flickr and was a keen photographer. I took solace in talking to people who were into photography. We'd have yearly photo meet-ups going to a city where we would take photos for two days. But Instagram is great for young designers. It is so easy to put your work out there.
- What are the ups and downs of running a business by yourself? You need so many different skill sets and you can't be good at everything. I do wish I had someone with more business acumen. I get a bit from my husband as he works in design business development, which is great, but there is only so much I can ask him, and sometimes I don't listen to him... In there early days I shared a studio with a textile designer friend, thinking we could collaborate and work together, but trying to run our own projects and collaborate became really complicated. So we parted ways.
- What key piece of advice would you give to designers/creators looking to launch or grow their businesses today? Use Instagram. Don't be afraid to put it out there. When you are a student you are so protective about your work, scared it will be copied. Yes, it will be copied but you are a designer so your will have another million ideas. After all imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So take it in your stride and money on to the next thing as they don't know what you will do next!
- Who’s business - other than those in the room - do you most admire and why? I really admire Camille Walala as an artist. She is painting a building in Argentina. She does one thing really well and tries all sorts of things to get there. And I also love Block Shop.
- Are there any things coming down the tracks towards you that you think will have a big impact on where you are now? The packaging for the skincare company is probably the most commercial think I've done and will reach a different audience. I'm excited and looking forward to it hoping it will lead on to other things.