Jane Coffey: passing on her studio-building experience
20 June 2013 by TexSelect in Alumni Stories, Home, Interiors & Auto
Working on the assumption that learning from someone else’s experience can both fast track success and help avoid costly mistakes, Texprint is piloting a new Hero Mentor initiative in 2013. This informal scheme will link successful Texprint alumni with those Texprint 2013 designers who wish to work freelance or establish their own businesses.
One shining example of a successful textile-based business is screen printer Jane Coffey. Sadly Jane won’t be participating in the Hero Mentor scheme as for some years now she has lived in Australia!
Jane graduated from the RCA and was selected for Texprint in 1999. She says: “Being selected for Texprint took me by surprise, it was such an amazing opportunity to show my work at Indigo. Now as a business owner I look back and realise that due to inexperience I probably didn't fully maximise the opportunity. So my message to all Texprint designers is to work hard and develop your portfolio of work because if successful at Indigo the contacts made can really help in launching your own studio.”
What happened next?
When I left the Royal College of Art I had a lot of money to pay back! My first job was with a CAD/CAM textile company (now Lectra) where I learnt how to use software and drew illustrations of clothing and accessories for Burberry – dog coats and lots of checks! As it turns out I loved working with technology and ended up teaching other designers how to use the CAD systems, taking my new skills into different workplaces and meeting many different designers – invaluable later for my own business where knowledge of digital printers and systems became really important.
I then worked as a designer for Peagreen Studio who exhibit and sell at Indigo and other trade shows.
However I always hankered after running my own business. I met my husband Adam, an engineer, in Winchester and we moved to Australia in 2005. There weren't many design companies in Perth so we decided to set up our own – our first studio was called Little Design Horse. Australia has grants for export development and we travelled around the world selling our design work.
We always wanted to create our own products so we gradually started buying machines. Every year a certain amount of profit from selling textile design went into buying new equipment. Our first was a 4-colour rotary screen printer for printing T-shirts – as our studio had a shop space at the front, so we opened the doors and started selling T-shirts that we'd printed (in the garage!). We had our first child in 2008 and that prompted us to start making more of our own products and we've never looked back.
Exhibiting and selling our products at local markets was a really important step for us and helped us find our customers. The website came later.
In the UK we're noting a move towards smaller designer/makers buying machinery and setting up their own businesses. Is this a because of the web, that it's now easier to become an e-tailer rather than suffer rent costs? Is it about independence and flexibility? Is it about provenance and customers wanting local product?
Yes to all these points. What I would point out though is that while the web allows you to sell overseas more easily, never underestimate your local market. Over time we've come to realise that we have a strong local following and these are the really important people. As is being inspired by what's around you. People like to buy something that makes them feel proud of where they live or to show off where they have visited. Selling independently means you don't have to follow trends or answer to big department stores. That's a huge freedom that you have to take advantage of.
As for retail costs, our shop/workshop Future Shelter is under one roof so is more economical. We made the move from textile studio to retailer very slowly over four years allowing time for our shop to be discovered without solely relying on a retail income. We have a bench behind the counter where we make or package products while the customer decides to buy – customers actually love this and it means our overheads are lower.
What is your set up in the studio?
In our workshop we currently have a large format digital printer, 4-colour rotary T-shirt press and screen printing facilities, a laser cutter, industrial sewing machines, a woodworking section with lots of tools big and small including a CNC cutter, and many custom built machines to make different products such as the coasters. Our latest machine is a digital ceramic decal printer and a kiln. I’m so lucky that Adam is an engineer who loves to work with all these things!
What are the difficulties you've encountered – what are the pluses?
The big plus is that I have my dream set up. We love the design and manufacturing sides, and bringing these under one roof allows us to learn about waste and test products in small batches before committing to bigger runs. This means we can be more experimental with design and not be frozen by feeling the need to follow the current trend.
Our main difficulties have been with outsourcing sewing or sometimes finding the ideal raw materials. Other difficulties have been keeping up with demand. We have purposely kept marketing to a minimum to allow us to grow slowly. This has been a really important as even with this idea of 'slow cooking' a brand and letting it naturally grow, we have a crunch time around Christmas getting orders out the door in time.
Scaling up too quickly can be a big problem if you don't plan it properly. We are right on the borderline of needed a bigger industrial space which means leasing two spaces, one retail and one industrial. Having a spilt site means needing more staff to cover the shop and production, finding the right space at the right price near public transport for your staff etc. So our next move will be a big one – and that has to be timed just right!
Another big difficulty has to be running your business with a small family – it's not easy juggling everything. I have a portable workspace in my sketchbook!
Many thanks Jane, and finally, what does the future hold?
We do a small amount of commission work for architects and private homes which is fun, so who knows where that will take us.
We need a bigger workshop and ultimately we’d like to build a workshop with a residence above or nearby – oh, and a fabric printer would complete our array of machines very nicely!