The inspiring story of Lee's design business and his unique advice for all founders.

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  • The Great Indoors
  • Founders - Lee & Gesa Hopkinson
  • Based in Sydney, NSW, Australia
  • Started in 2013
  • 2 founders, 2 employees
  • Average monthly income $20K
  • thegreatindoors.net.au

Lee's a good mate of mine, and his honesty is a refreshing take on the day to day life of a founder.

This is a bloody great story of how a highly experienced creative, navigates the world of business.

Lee, what's your backstory?

I've always been artistic and creatively minded. During my childhood years, I made up stories to draw illustrations or cartoons alongside these stories.

I studied at TAFE for five years, completing both architectural drawing and interior design. I was taught how to draw by hand for freehand and technical drawings, there were no computers involved.

I was craving to get back to Europe when I finished my studies. I bought myself a one-way ticket to London via Berlin and never looked back. I met my now wife Gesa (Architect) in Berlin attending an urban design master planning workshop.


Gesa and I landed in London in late 1996 eager to be both submerged in the creative scene. It was a fantastic time to arrive in the UK. The country was lifting itself out of a recession. The arts were booming, and the country was being swept along by Britpop.

Gesa and I worked for many architects and creative agencies, for example, global names like Foster and Partners & Denton Corker Marshall in our time of fourteen years in London. We worked on big-name projects like Niketown London and Hearst Media tower in New York.

In 2009, we headed to Sydney with our two young children, Jules & Chiara, set for a fresh start on Sydney's Northern Beaches.

Tell us what your company does?

We are a (commercial) interior design consultancy with an emphasis on customer experience and branded environments.

We pride ourselves on free creative thinking explored through our ability to draw by hand architecture and interior design spaces that connect people with retail, commercial and hospitality clients.

We understand a client's brand, and we encourage them to improve on their brand if we feel it's needed. We don't have a 'house style' like most architects or designers. We focus on the client, the user and the brand. We aim to inspire and create a space that connects all the touch points, whether digital or physical.


Our work is diverse, we can be designing a café one day, and the next day be working on a sales and experience centre for a house and land developer.

We felt compelled to start a business like ours to explore a relatively new way of thinking to the Australian market through a 'Branded Environments' approach, having been immersed in this field in the UK.

How did you come up with the idea?

I love what I do. I was always driven to open my own shop. In my case, there was no light bulb moment I just needed the opportunity and the planets to align to push GO.

I have managed and directed other design studios and teams for over twenty years, and when I was offered to teach at a Billy Blue degree course, I started The Great Indoors in 2013.

Lee and Gesa

I made sure we could 'pay the rent' by teaching whilst managing and building a start-up business.

It's important to note that I was well connected and respected in design and retail through my time at Westfield as design manager. I had street credibility and experience. On a personal level, I'm friendly, warm, well-liked and I'm good with people.

How did you come up with the name of the business?

The name just came up in conversation one day. I was brainstorming with a brand designer, and he said look here is this magazine segment called
'The Great Indoors', why don't you just call it that? Yes, I thought – 'It does exactly what it says on the tin.'

I never wanted my name on the door. Most designers do, and it didn't feel right to me, I felt like it had to be memorable although it's funny as we are often referred to as 'The Great Outdoors' like the TV show.

I honestly don't mind this association; it's a great talking point when someone trips up in conversation.

How did you go about building the business?

Our business is a service-based design consultancy. It's important to note at this point that it can be the biggest challenge to convince clients to value and pay you for the time spent on project work.

It's very different from selling a product like coffee and a lot more of an investment for a client.

You have to outline your value and add in great detail via a process template outlining work stages.

Hold that pose mate

We are also challenged by platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. We have a very DIY society in modern times, and many people believe they are a designer because they can compile a mood board of images.

We started with no capital or investment from any avenue. We were offered external investment by people I knew, big players but my gut feeling was to say NO to these offers, and I'm thankful to this day that we kept the business to ourselves.

We worked and relied on talented brand designers within our network to design a logo, build a website and make it live. There was definitely an immediate aspect to being open to upskilling, learning on the go and a Do-It-Yourself attitude.

One challenge was we didn't have a 'playbook' of projects we had designed to sell our capabilities. We relied on past work from previous employment to have at least the content to form a credentials pack to put under the arm for your next coffee meeting.

We met people for coffee, there was a lot of coffee drinking. We strategically networked and picked up the phone and cold-called and asked if they had time to meet.

We found we were doing a lot of 'polishing door handles' as my wife Gesa calls it. I presented internally to retail landlord design teams like Westfield and GPT as well. Linkedin was a fantastic tool to reach out to your existing connections and make new connections.

This proved to be a much better way to get the name out there and receive a response instead of direct emailing.

In the early days, we met with larger brand agencies. We offered the 'add on' benefit to their business of progressing a brand design into a 3D physical space if the opportunity arose.

This worked, and we started to have connections to national brands that using other methods would never have happened. We started working with brands like Samsung and KFC. This was a big deal for us.

How have you grown the business?

At first, it was slow, like most businesses we started from the kitchen table. When we secured an account with the winemaker St Hugos to design an airport retail experience in South East Asia, we decided to move into a shared office space in Surry Hills through Brickfields Consulting.

I employed our first staff member. One project to work on an office space design led to a Harris Farm supermarket contact. From there onto designing key locations for a café operator.

The business grew organically in the first two years, and word of mouth was a fantastic tool to fuel our business.

We grew to five staff, and my wife Gesa, a qualified architect, joined the business in late 2015. Gesa became my eyes and ears to the company.

The founder team


We now hear it all the time from other people, 'oh I could never work with my partner'. My advice would be, if you can, and you complement each other's skills, then it's well worthwhile. My wife has saved me from going down several bad roads I usually would have happily travelled.

We found that we were punching above our weight, clients liked our approach to projects, they wanted the hand-drawn concepts and easy-going personalities.

We weren't precious, and we listened to clients. Design and egos can negatively impact a project outcome, future client relationship, and your prospects to win more work with that client.

What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?

When you are constantly trailblazing a path for yourself, you will continuously be challenged by making decisions on stuff you haven't experienced before. You are bound to fail along the way.

We have had to change course several times during the lifetime of the business. We were cash strapped in 2016 and 2018. During these times, we had to move office, make staff redundant and reduce outgoings.

We have faced seasonal challenges at the end of 2017 and 2018 when the summer holidays commence in December and projects don't start until March the following year.  It has taken six months of grind work to get back any cash and momentum we lost during these periods.

When a national fast-food brand stopped working with us at the end of 2018, it proved to have a significant financial impact on the business and our family.

In simple terms, we couldn't pay for simple livings costs, we couldn't pay the rent, put food on the table. It was a real low point. We managed to get back on our feet through the support from friends.

We reached out to one of our clients who had a new project, and we asked for 100% fees upfront, and to my surprise, he said yes. We bounced back from this time, and we needed to.

The family

I've learnt to future proof the business from the cash flow perspective. We've learnt to have sound agreements with clients and become leaner.

Gesa and I have both up skilled to be able to do the vast majority of the day to day work ourselves. We outsource the stuff we're not good at like 3D renders. We've come out the other side, I see the business entirely differently now.

What’s your biggest selling product?

We view and treat every design project as a unique concept for every client that commissions us.

We have done our best work in food & hospitality and property/real estate boutique office interior design. Our best work has come from collaboration with like-minded brand designers, and we've won both the Sydney and Melbourne Design Awards as a result of these collaborations.

What day to day digital tools do you use?

We use Linkedin, and we try to send out a post as an update once a week. We try to keep our website blog up to date to ensure we are adding more and more content as this helps improve our google analytics.

We photograph finished projects ourselves, or we work with a professional, these will be added to the website or Linkedin posts in due course.

We use Xero and Harvest for accounting and tracking payments.

What book has been a great inspiration to you as a founder?

I can swear by a lot of different self-help books.

Recommended:

WHY PEOPLE FAIL by Siimon Reynolds

RISE by Australian businessman and entrepreneur Mark Bouris.

Medium digest is also a useful tool for finding a work/life balance.

LET MY PEOPLE GO SURFING by Yvon Chouinard is inspiring stuff.

Anything you read, watch or listen to that help's you run your business?

I'm a massive fan of British Fashion Designer, Paul Smith.

Paul shows us that nice people can be successful. He has a great sense of humour and is very down to earth. His quotes are amazing.

Every day is a new beginning.
You can find inspiration in everything.
When you hit something - call it the target.

(Love this - not everything needs to be 100% all the time)

What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?

I write a do to list the night before I go to bed ready for the next day, and it clears my head.

Don't be afraid to work with your partner, they can be a lifesaver.

Befriend a like-minded business mentor/owner.


Ensure you have a great team, accountant, solicitor, bookkeeper and make sure they know your industry.

You will get a lot of advice along the way – not all of it will be relevant for you.

Choose social media that works for you – not all business' need to be on Facebook.

Find a hero/trailblazer, what would they do? How would they approach a situation?

Every day is a new beginning, you need to put stuff behind you and move on quickly.

Actively write stuff down on the go, a conversation can be easily noted in your draft emails whilst you are on the phone.

It's best to get stuff down on paper. If you're feeling anxious about a situation, write the email, save it in drafts and then sleep on it.

Take time out and keep fit and give yourself some headspace.

Listen to your gut feeling, it's amazing how many times its right.

Don't be pressured into making a decision on the spot. If someone tries to rush you to decide, say you'll think about it and sleep on it.

If people are overly friendly, it generally means they want something.

Get commitment from a client, you'll work for free if a client is sensing that you will work for free.

Running a business requires exhausting amounts of patience and persistence.

What keeps you up at night regarding your business?

These days not much anymore unless I work too late and then it feels like I'm drawing during my sleep.

Clients not paying their invoices.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had being a founder?

Entering our work in design awards and actually winning a few along the way was deeply satisfying.

I have time with my wife, and I'm able to spend the time with my children Chiara & Jules.

It's more rewarding when you are doing it for yourself.

I'm accountable to myself.


I have a certain freedom of not having to be sitting at my desk every morning at 8:30am unless I need too. We work when we need to, and sometimes that's a lot more than we did when we were employed before.

My quality and balance of life are actually a balance, not just a buzzword or an unclimbable mountain that I will never conquer.

Have you ever felt like quitting, if so why?

Yes – at different periods, I have wanted to quit due to the lack of consistency of work and seasonal lulls.

But it's natural to feel this way as people say it's tough, but one has to experience this, there are so many hurdles and roadblocks along the way.

You need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

What quote(s) do you live by?

Doing the same thing over and over every day and expecting different results - Einstein

A job worth doing is a job worth doing yourself.

Shit happens - Don't take life for granted.

They are only called mistakes if you repeat past things that didn't work out the first time around.

Experience is the best teacher; a compelling story is a close second.

In a few words what does it mean to be the founder of a business?

Independence

Be open and be flexible to change.

Take time for yourself to be creative.

A successful business doesn't need to be about money and growth; it can be about lifestyle, family and time.

Where can people find out more about your business?

www.thegreatindoors.net.au

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