Home work for adults

By Alan Perrott

Backyard businesses have moved beyond taking in ironing and fixing cars. Alan Perrott talks to five women who have started creative cottage industries.

Nilla(left) and her sister Gua work from a rented house in Kingsland. Photo / Greg Bowker
Nilla(left) and her sister Gua work from a rented house in Kingsland. Photo / Greg Bowker

It's a big call to think small. But it's one that more people seem willing to make. Be they hobbyists or artisans, recessionary times seem to be the push some people need to drop out, stop in, and start a cottage industry. Maybe that's why there seem to be new farmers and flea markets popping up everywhere.

All you need is a spare room and a good idea, one that someone - or hopefully lots of someones - is willing to pay good money for.

Then you have to convince the world of your genius, and that's where the hard slog begins. If the cottage label sounds quaint and cosy, remember this work is also notoriously high-maintenance. Canvas has spoken to five Auckland women who are going it alone from their kitchen tables.

Fashion designers

They have everything they need for a cottage industry. Everything apart from a cottage, that is. But the Loheni sisters aren't worried, they have timing on their side.

Elder sister Nilla had been looking for a new challenge since ending a five-year stint with Zambesi in November 2009. She had tried an AUT interior design course but didn't see a future there. For her part, Gua was working at the Gypsy Tearooms, having completed two courses in garment construction while also designing her own jewellery.

As youngsters they'd daydreamed of starting their own "Victoriana meets Wu Tang Clan" clothing label . . . so it seemed a good time for a sisterly chat.

"We sat down and looked at where we were at and decided we were ready to try pulling something out of nothing," says Gua. "But I'd have to say that the only reason we've got as far as we have in the past year is because we work from home - we could never afford to rent studio space - and because of some really supportive friends."

It didn't seem to matter that they were both renting. They had two worktables, a spare room at Nilla's Kingsland home, and most importantly, a supportive landlord.

The other key was social media. With no advertising budget, Twitter and Facebook became the ideal tool to introduce their LewLew label to their target audience. "Really, it's perfect for anyone trying to do this," says Nilla. "These kinds of businesses are already established, lots of people shop online now, so it's a great way for people to see our clothes, for us to tell them what we're up to, and, you know, build our brand at the same time."

But as everyone going it alone finds, work is a constant. Gua now has two jobs, while also serving as a walking billboard by wearing their designs whenever she goes out. Nilla's partner simply refers to her tiny workspace as her cage: "He thinks I've become a hermit and is always trying to get me out of the house." No chance, she's flat-out working her network of industry contacts. It has meant they get their fabrics and materials on account, while a friend built them a website.

On top of that, they have been taking a crash course in business practice. They attend free workshops offered by the National Bank and found themselves a mentor, Maria Fastnedge, through the Pacific Business Trust. Right now, they are on a 90-day programme where Fastnedge will study their processes and offer whatever prodding is needed. "It's been a bit like going back to school," says Gua. "Lots of homework."

Their progress has come as a surprise to friends who had listened patiently over the years without ever expecting the talk to amount to anything.

"I don't think they believed us until we showed them our clothes," says Nilla. "Then we'd get a reaction, and it was usually shock. Well, we're pretty calm and don't talk too much so I suppose they thought we weren't doing anything at all. I mean we've had a lot of really positive feedback, but it has been a mixed bag. Some people think we're taking a big risk. We just have to have confidence in our designs and work as hard as we can ... we know that our plans sound a bit romantic, but it's all good. It could even work."

Ginger beer brewer

After three recessions and three redundancies, Rebekah Hay was done with advertising. The problem was that her ex-husband had dibs on her best alternative.

"We'd been walking on a beach trying to think of something else for him to do - he'd been a sound engineer - when he came up with the idea of brewing proper, old-fashioned ginger beer. I thought it was a great idea so when he didn't do anything with it I asked if he'd mind me having a go. You could say it was a parting gift in our separation."

That was 2009. Since then she has poured more than $50,000 - including everything she had made from selling their London flat - into her new brand, Hakanoa Handmade Ginger Beer. While the name comes from the street where she lives and works in Grey Lynn, it also expresses some very personal baggage.

Breaking the word up, "haka" is, well, we've all seen the All Black's performing one, while "noa" is the peace following a tapu lifting which is marked by the sharing of food and drink.

Hay was 46 when she started her new venture (the same age her mother was when she died, after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.) Needing a registered kitchen to brew beer, and lacking the $90,000 to fit out one of her own, Hay found herself spending her nights in a Unitec kitchen in Mt Albert.

"I knew Mum had died along the same road, at the old Carrington Hospital. It was pretty gnarly and I'd been avoiding the area for years and kind of forgot where it all happened. Anyway, I was there one night and I got talking to the woman who ran the place. It turned out that we were in the old Carrington Hospital and the kitchen was the visiting room. Then it turned out that the bathroom I'd been using was the same one my mum had died in . . . so, yeah. I felt like I'd come a complete circle and I stopped feeling like damaged goods from what had happened. It's like she was protecting me, and I'd find myself walking around talking to her shadow. I'd been avoiding all that stuff, but I don't have to anymore."

The discovery was motivating. For starters, Hay immersed herself in all things ginger beer, tasting everything on the market and trying every recipe she could find. Cooking has always been her thing and she had some experience in dealing with yeast from making sourdough bread.

But it didn't take long to realise how much she didn't know. So she sought advice from Wellington brewer Rebecca Hardie Boys, who passed on two messages that gave Hay heart. Yes, it was possible to make a living from ginger beer, and yes, Auckland offered better prospects given the market size and weather. In exchange, Hay promised to leave Wellington alone.

Then one of her ginger plants went haywire and bottles began exploding, which was a lucky break as it put her in contact with brewing guru Bob Molony. She learned that each generation of yeast culture has a life span of four hours meaning by the time a plant is six months old it has - in human terms - undergone 40,000 years of evolution and become a super-efficient fermenter.

With the fiddly stuff sorted, it was sell, sell, sell. Hay even entered New Zealand MasterChef in the hope of using it as a marketing platform and reached the final 28 before dipping out.

She then sold her wares out of her van on Meola Rd before applying for stall space at every weekend market in Auckland.

There was no end to the experimenting. She quickly launched a chilli and lime-flavoured option (a pineapple ginger beer is coming) while also creating a ginger beer syrup. Given the short shelf-life of the probiotic beers, she has high hopes the syrup will become her world-beater.

But with her drinks becoming more popular Hay must now extend her reach and double the 600 bottles she brews each week if her business is to survive.

If she manages that she might let herself watch some telly. It now sits blankly behind her work computer and doesn't get switched on unless her to-do list is cleared. After 14 months, that list is still growing.

"You could say this whole thing has been a great leap of faith and people do seem to appreciate someone just giving it go ... but I still find myself thinking 'I really hope this works because I don't have a plan B'."

Wall decorator

Converting an idea into a full-time job has been an 11-year battle for Brigitte Smits. And it's splashed all over the walls of her Kingsland home.

She has conjured the marketing strategy you use when you don't have a marketing strategy: visitors stop by to see the family, see her work, and then ask for some themselves. Then they have people over and the process repeats itself.

So, what is "it"?

"That's something I find difficult to explain," she says. "You could call it wall decoration I suppose ... and that's one of the problems I have with working alone, my personality ... I'm more the creative person, not business. I'm not someone who does the selling and running around. That's the difficult part, I find. Getting an idea you think is cool and then offering it to people as a creative product is only the start, then you have to make the investment, sell the product, and sell yourself. I really don't like selling myself."

The idea for her company, Wallflower, arose from a trip back to the Netherlands in 2000. She started working with her sister who was doing commercial interior design work which featured vintage wallpaper patterns carved into rubber paint rollers. It's an old European technique for decorating difficult surfaces.

When she returned home - four months pregnant - Smits began experimenting in her basement studio, using blocks of different colour and stamp effects. If an idea showed promise it would appear upstairs on a wall, a cupboard, or over sundry domestic items.

She then began applying rollers to different materials and created a line of dresses and bags. Once satisfied, she tried several methods of getting the word out. She advertised on felt.co.nz, an online marketplace for handmade goods, appeared in a lifestyle magazine, and met with a range of architects and interior designers in the hope of working on their projects.

It has been enough to keep things bubbling along, but doesn't provide anywhere near to the income she needs, so she also freelances as a graphic designer.

Which all sounds like a struggle. What keeps her dream alive? In part, good old Kiwi conservatism. "I don't like to say it," says Smits, "but a lot of New Zealand design is boring. With just a bit of colour I know I could do so much to make people's offices comfortable and happy to go to. Maybe the problem is that I need to just stick with what I've got because I find myself always chasing some new idea I've had ... I don't know why, that's what I like to do."

She also really likes being around home. "I prefer to work by myself; it's less stressful and I can divide my time around family life. It's nice to have the right balance, I love my work, but I also like to spend time cooking a meal, baking bread and growing my own veggies. Yes it's still a very small business, but . . . we'll see."

Vegan food developer

There's a mild-mannered, vegan revolution fermenting in a Westmere bedroom. And it's being built on cheese, marshmallows and meringues.

Any resulting riches will be more karmic bonus than a stated goal. Alice Leonard has been a vegan for seven years. It was a decision that helped end her 15-year career as a freelance writer and set her up as a home-based supplier of morally upright food.

"It was life-changing. I'd seen the light and you could say I didn't want to be writing about the new cuts of chicken at your local supermarket or the latest feather and down duvets . . . they simply aren't industries I want to have a part in promoting anymore."

Her Angel Food brand started off as a vegan bakery she founded with her sister. Then, after hearing vegans and gluten-allergenics complain about how they couldn't enjoy cheese anymore, she sourced and began importing a vegan substitute. The cheese was soon joined by caviar, cream and condensed milk.

When the bakery fell over she soldiered on as a caterer, stepping up the importing, while also giving cooking lessons and preaching the vegan gospel to whoever wanted to listen.

Leonard admits to being an evangelist, if of the quiet, live-it-as-you-talk-it variety. "There's just no point in going around telling people that what they're doing is morally wrong - it was only seven years ago that I was eating and drinking all those things and seeing no problem with it - especially if you can't provide an attractive alternative. No-one is going to pay you any attention whatsoever. So that's what my business is about - finding or, if necessary, inventing, that attractive alternative."

Enter the marshmallows and meringues. Everyone needs and wants treats in their life, especially vegans getting by on fruit, legumes and vegetables while hankering for the food of their youth. What she couldn't find online, Leonard tried to make herself.

She spent two years experimenting with a gluten-free marshmallow mix before hiring a food technologist.

"At great expense as well, but I was determined to crack it," she says. The information gained then went into inventing a vegan meringue.

Both, Leonard says, are world firsts and are being exported to America, Canada, England, France, Germany, Japan, South Africa and India. Three new ideas are now under way.

"I want to create products that not only make it easier to become vegan, but also help vegans remain vegans. It's about being positive and non-judgmental, doing otherwise is completely pointless and counterproductive," she says.

Being able to run her enterprise from home makes life easier, especially as it keeps her environment heathen-free.

"I know a lot of vegans who have to work on projects that don't sit well with their consciences or who put up with workmates bragging about the snapper they caught at the weekend. That doesn't come up here; I control my surroundings. Not that being vegan means I have to isolate myself, but it does mean I see the world in a different way to many others which can be challenging and I'm facing enough already.

"New Zealand is a niche even if you're covering the whole country. So when you're only really selling to a small niche of that niche ... well, things get difficult. But that's okay, I believe in what I'm doing. I'm really lucky that it's something that matches my activism."

- NZ Herald

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