Spotlight on Joanne Coe of Living Room
Tonight's Sunday Spotlight, my 200th blog post, is with Joanne Coe of Living Room, whose mustard velvet Model 2 Chair is in my bedroom and is an instant favourite whenever I post about it on Instagram (see picture below).
Jo comes into her own business with a history of furniture buying for several major brands Habitat, MADE.com, Tesco and Laura Ashley, and chose to launch her own business in 2017, creating her own British Made furniture in mid century styles, items that she loves and has in her own home.
Read on to hear all about Jo and her business and if you want to shop, you can here.
Launched in November 2017, Living Room designs and makes contemporary furniture, which pays homage to the vintage archetypes of British Mid-Century Modern.
As its owner, I am passionate about British and European manufacturing. After a longstanding career as a furniture buying manager and product developer for several big UK brands saw my travelling globally for years, my business plan is to make cabinet furniture and upholstery to a high standard in a way that supports local industry.
With a desire to work with people who share our values of craftsmanship, quality and provenance, our UK made upholstery uses fabrics from British and European mills. Using Designer’s Guild velvets and wools from Yorkshire’s Abraham Moon & Sons, each piece is created as an investment to own for years. With a solid oak furniture collection which is hand crafted in Lithuania, this small family business hopes to grow and expand its collections and we are working towards opening a studio and showroom space in our home town of Hitchin, Hertfordshire.
Following a degree in 3 Dimensional Design, my love of product development has seen my creating furniture and upholstery for high street names from Laura Ashley to Tesco and, most recently, Made.com. As a home specialist throughout my career, I have also bought Home Accessories and Soft Furnishings, from candles and home fragrance to lighting, cushions and rugs. Whether developing a picture frame or an armchair, attention to detail and originality has always been key to my approach.
Having always loved managing a team and developing others, along with managing large budgets, Living Room has allowed me to return to my first love of simply making things well in a style that I love and I hope others will too.
1. What was the reason behind you starting your business?
I had wanted to do something of my own for such a long time, but the right idea took a while to materialise.
Up until the start of 2017 I had been a furniture buyer and product developer for 20 years, working for several big UK retailers after starting my career in the late 90’s at Habitat. I had worked across all areas of price and quality, sourcing globally and travelling to the Far East several times a year to meet suppliers and visit factories. However, I have always been passionate about manufacturing in the UK and Europe, and was increasingly concerned at how much harder it was becoming to justify UK and EU sourced product in the face of cheaper Far East imports. Similarly with furniture retailing saturated with low cost flat pack and quality so often determined by price, I was keen to create product that was built to last and made to a standard that I myself wanted to buy but could rarely find.
Combining this belief in ‘making better’ with my love of contemporary design was what gave life to Living Room. I often found myself buying British Mid-Century vintage as not only did it appeal to my love of design from this period, but was simply made better. My design heroes all stem from the 1950’s ‘Festival of Britain’ era, so I wanted to reference this but create a look that felt right for now, made to a standard that would have the same longevity.
2. How did you start up?, kitchen table? Mum’s garage, renting premises?
To begin with this is very much a kitchen table business. Until I can grow and hopefully graduate to a studio and showroom space, I have learnt that you actually need surprisingly little to run a business like this. Likewise in starting out, I think it really helps to be hands on in everything. In my previous world of larger scale retail, you rarely got to interact with the people you made things for. I love that my customers seem to really respond to the fact that they are having a very direct conversation and that I am personally overseeing their orders from beginning to end. In making my own furniture, I also have a very handy sideboard to hide the business behind at the end of every day, although my husband and daughter are now used to the business being ever present!
3. How did you fund your business?
I applied for a start up business loan in order to create the website and bring my first product collections to market. Since November’s launch, I have then reinvested every order.
4. What was the most difficult part of starting up your business? Access to money, advice, finding people to buy, marketing etc?
Honestly, the biggest hurdle was me. After a career spent with my successes or failures attributed to other people’s brands and vision, telling myself that I was brave enough and, above all, good enough was my main challenge. Leaving yourself open to failure is exposing, but revealing too and you learn a lot about yourself.
5. What help was missing for you?
I am fortunate in that I am still working in the same industry that had been my career to date, so calling on existing contacts and asking for the support of suppliers with whom I had established relationships has been really beneficial. I also took advantage of lots of free business support through the Hertfordshire Start Up programme, a brilliant local social enterprise.
However, I wish I had known more about website marketing from the outset and have probably spent time and money on things that I didn’t entirely understand at the beginning.
6. What went wrong in your first year? Few months if you haven’t been trading that long?
I had a very clear idea of the look and feel of the website and what I wanted the customer experience to look like both visually and practically, but having a lovely website is of course only the beginning. Getting the brand and website visible without an big budget for paid search remains a challenge, and I am only just getting to grips with the power of SEO and web content, having largely taught myself with some steer from my local business community.
I have recently taken much more ownership of the website, which is making a real difference.
7. What have you learnt?
I was so nervous of social media when I began and was really intimidated. My determination to get the brand and myself out there forced me out of my comfort zone and to my surprise it is now something that I really enjoy.
Instagram is a hugely supportive community and I have met some amazing people who have provided no end of inspiration and advice. Being part of this network of other creatives and small businesses is like having your own online cheerleading squad, which makes a massive difference on those days when you feel like you are trying to push water uphill!
I have also learnt that you don’t need to be shouting from the rooftops to be heard. Making furniture that I am proud of and talking about it in an honest way, in my own voice, has resulted in a slow but genuine build of interest.
My last big learning has been in collaborating with other brands. Having been introduced through our mutual supplier, allowing some of my product to be sold in Sofas & Stuff was a big decision as I am very protective of my brand philosophy. However, understanding that with high value purchases, people often prefer to see before they buy, being in their stores has not only been great for awareness but has also accessed customers who would not have considered the brand otherwise.
8. What is the most important piece of advice that you could give others thinking about starting a business?
Knowing your market – Even after a 20-year career in my industry, I still carried out a huge amount of background research before I felt confident to progress my idea with suppliers and funding applications. The British Library’s business research centre is a fantastic resource, but I also spent endless hours online researching market comparisons and seeking inspiration.
Knowing what your skill set is, and isn’t - I collaborated with a specialist on the website creation because it wasn’t my knowledge base and I wanted it to be executed as well as it could be. Likewise I try to listen to the advice of others, particularly on the manufacturing side, where the breadth of knowledge amongst the makers vastly exceeds my own.
Knowing yourself – The weight of responsibility with business ownership cannot be under-estimated and it takes a lot of personal drive.
9. And what do you enjoy the most?
I have fundamentally always loved making things, never happier than when sketching or in a factory. Getting to do that on your own terms and to your own aesthetic is the best feeling and when other people like what you do, that makes all the hard work worthwhile.
I also love taking my 8-year-old daughter to school every day and being around more for her clubs and activities, something that my old commuting work life never allowed.
10. On a scale of 1-10 how hard do you find it to run your own business?
I am still in my first year, so 7! It is tough going, particularly in terms of raising awareness of your brand with a very limited marketing budget. Also my product is a really considered purchase and is certainly not for everyone. However I am really lucky to have the support of fantastic manufacturing partners and some brilliant collaborators who have offered no end of help and support.
I wouldn’t trade it. Although I miss the camaraderie of working within a team, being my own boss has made a massive difference to my life on both a personal and creative level.
Nicola says "Jo's advice "Knowing your market, knowing your skill set and knowing you" is absolutely on the mark for anyone starting out in business. Jo has a little black book of suppliers and years of experience in her chosen market, yet marketing herself and her products has been a learning curve for her as has creating her own website (which she outsourced recognising it wasn't her skill set) and manufacturing.
But I come back to this time and time again, "Knowing yourself" is also key, you will be tested, sometimes to the limit, when launching your own business and it takes a lot of personal drive to succeed. There is, as Jo mentions, a weight of responsibility that falls to you and only you and as your business grows and perhaps you take on staff, that will become more apparent."
The Girl with The Green Sofa