With the deadline for applications to this year's exhibition looming (Wednesday 31st January), the curator of One Year On at New Designers, Rheanna Lingham, shares her advice for young design businesses looking to make their mark (and a profit) …
Every year, New Designers’ One Year On programme supports and showcases dozens of emerging design businesses – some just starting out, others launching at New Designers’ summer show at Islington Business Design Centre. They might be product or graphic design companies, jewellery artists or illustrators, fashion designers or digital creators – any original design-based business can apply to participate.
Whether or not they do is down to Rheanna Lingham, the co-owner of craft-focused Shoreditch design boutique Luna & Curious, and curator of One Year On for the last four years.
Rheanna’s role extends beyond selecting the 70 or so creative businesses that exhibit at New Designers – she’s also responsible for the project’s in-depth mentoring programme. Over the five months preceding the show, Rheanna and a team of fellow design veterans share their experience and expertise with participants, offering essential business guidance on everything from handling costs and pricing to PR and product development.
This means that One Year On is much more than an opportunity for a design start-up to show off its skills and connect with customers and collectors – it is a fast-track course in business development for start-ups in any design discipline.
So, what characteristics do you need to survive? What mistakes are to be avoided? How do you stand out in a crowded market? And is now a good time to launch a business in any case? Rheanna tells all …
It’s a time of considerable economic anxiety – why is 2018 a good year for an emerging design brand to set up in business?
In times of economic uncertainty, it is the creative businesses that pull us through. The unknown quantity of Brexit and a poor-performing pound will affect already-established and big businesses, but small companies with the flexibility to adapt easily are in a much stronger position. Start-ups only know the current situation, so plan their business to begin and grow in current times. People are yearning for good news and change – young designers can provide this.
What advice would you give a young designer/brand looking for a foothold in the industry?
Starting a business is like building a house – every house needs strong foundations, but when it comes to the building, this is when you can get creative and stand out from the rest. Good foundations to a business come through research and planning – you must know what you want to achieve, long-term goals can seem vague and unrealistic – so take small steps, just plan what you want to achieve in the first year.
Research your industry, from the big players to the one-man bands. How much do people earn? How and where do they sell? How do they present their product? Who do they sell to?
Plan your money. Cash flow forecasts might seem dull and just something that the bank make you do to get a loan but, trust me, a business that knows its ongoings and outgoings week by week or month by month is much more likely to succeed.
With this strong framework, trusting your instinct is then easy – design with creativity and responsibility. Don’t imitate.
When starting out, sometimes you want to take every opportunity thrown at you, selling in a shop, partnering with a brand… But if this isn’t the correct fit for you it won’t work out, which can waste time and money, but mostly is demoralising. Don’t be afraid to say no. Pick a few good opportunities and throw yourself into them.
What makes One Year On such a good platform for emerging designers and companies?
Entering into my fourth year as curator of One Year On, my passion for the show continues to grow. There is no other show in the UK that provides such a good platform for start-up businesses.
The most obvious benefit is the exposure to influential trade contacts – including buyers, collectors, press and industry professionals. However, what is often overlooked is the mentoring that is provided by me and the New Designers team in the five months that lead up to the show.
Exhibitors receive advice on marketing, brand and product development, pricing, selling and display, as well as the fundamentals of starting a small business, delivered through talks, webinars and one-to-one conversations. The more tangible benefit of the show is the firm friendships that are born each year between the designers – relationships that continue for years beyond the show. These are people from whom you can seek support and with whom you can share experiences, collaborate on projects, share stands at trade shows or – as happened in One Year On 2017 – form a collective to sell work online and through a pop-up shop.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing new design brands seeking to establish themselves today?
Getting noticed is really hard. In a time where setting up a website takes a few hours, social media is an easy way to market your business and crowdfunding is a strong source of finance, one would think that getting noticed is easy.
However, there are so many people doing the same thing as you, shouting out to be seen. It’s very important to find your authentic voice and use it wisely.
Manufacturing costs and minimum quantities are often a stumbling block for most start-ups. This may affect fledgling businesses or be a problem that flounders a business a few years in. It may be that at the beginning you are able to produce the product yourself, often not properly costing your time into the selling price. This isn’t a sustainable practice – you start to look at getting your product made, but manufacturers can shy away from small orders or levy their fee for taking on the job.
Designers are sometimes tempted to over-order to secure a good price, with hope that they may sell all the stock, an unwise decision which often stagnates a business, as they have stock to shift and no money to move on to another project. Negotiating with manufacturers can be a lengthy procedure – in my experience, an original negative response can be turned around once you confidently explain your position, passion, respect and understanding of their own position. If it’s still a no, remember to ask if they know anyone else that can be of help. My partners and I have had great outcomes from this question.
In your experience, what are the common pitfalls that new design businesses can fall into?
Visiting trade shows over the last 12 years, it’s evident which brands are trying to tick every box, be everything to everyone and in doing so don't attract any excitement. It’s really important to develop a cohesive product range – keep it tight, especially at the start. Do everything you do perfectly and don’t grow too fast.
If you had to list three traits that a designer needs to survive and thrive, what would they be?
Resilience, kindness and self-awareness.
What does it take for an exhibitor to stand out at the show and make the most of their time there?
In preparation for One Year On, I spend a considerable amount of time working with the designers on how they will display their work. Many of them have an image as soon as they start – however, I always encourage them to put that to one side and spend time looking at other ways of displaying – to consider that every fixture or image is sending their message, so these are very important decisions. The exhibitors that have really engaged and responded to the advice they have been given undoubtedly have the most successful shows.
What excites you personally about One Year On?
I love the enthusiasm, the positivity, seeing new designers start the same journey I did 12 years ago. Each time, I get a little bit envious and wish I could start out all over again.
New Designers takes place at the Business Design Centre, Islington, from 27–30th June and from 4–7th July, 2018. Applications for One Year On close on Wednesday 31 January – apply here to take part.