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Building a business with artisans and crafts

"Like anything in life, you get out what you put in.” Mark Boldiston

Building a business with artisans and crafts

Lord Coconut is a men’s jewellery and accessory retailer located on the fourth floor of Mitchell House in central Melbourne.

Mitchell House is a rare example of Art Deco among Melbourne’s mix of nineteenth-century facades and glass boxes. Lord Coconut is likewise something of a rarity: selling jewellery and accessories for men only and showcasing innovative, even avant-garde designs in unique retail space that recalls more an old curiosity shop or natural history museum than a showroom.

Lord Coconut is the unique vision of proprietor Mark Boldiston, who is driven by a passion for local artisan craft and a strong desire to support fellow small and micro operators in Melbourne. In fact, most of the jewellery and accessories sold at Lord Coconut are produced by local micro operators.

We recently caught up with Mark to see what makes him tick and what advice he has for other small operators.

What made you want to set up a business that specialises in men's jewellery and accessories?

I was working in a job that I hated and had a very understanding wife who said I could leave the job and take six months off as long as I came up with a business idea!
I have always respected and supported local talent, and when it came to deciding what type of business I was going to open it was always going to specialise in Australian made. I then looked at what I loved, and apart from my handcrafted cufflink collection I noticed that I had also purchased for my wife quite a large collection of locally made necklaces.

This led to the realisation that as a collector at heart; I was drawn to pretty, shiny little things like jewellery. I was already aware of the extensive female contemporary jewellery stores in Melbourne, which I did not want to compete against, but I soon realised there was a gap in the market as there was nowhere specialising in jewellery for men.

Many friends and family thought I was crazy. Others, who had run businesses in the past, felt that it was a silly idea, but after six years in operation I have developed the market for men's jewellery and accessories.

This, of course, has occurred on the back of the rise of the urban dandy, the steampunk ethos which has had its day and the acknowledgement that commercial TV shows such as the Footy show and Footy Classified have shown that it is okay for even the most blokey blokes to take pride in their appearance (not just on Brownlow night). The odd accessory here or there just completes the look you wish to portray.

When you were setting up Lord Coconut, what things do you find unexpectedly easy? What things were unexpectedly difficult?

One of the most difficult things I encountered when setting up Lord Coconut was finding the right premises.

There was a lot of choice at the time, but they all came with pros and cons. Do I open on street level and commit to a high rent when the business was unproven or open upstairs (vertical retailing) at a far lower rent (but less or no foot traffic) and take a more conservative approach?

After I had chosen to open upstairs, I then needed to decide whether to open in an established shopping centre (such as the GPO in Melbourne at the time) where my opening hours would be dictated by centre management, or open in an office building where I could set my own opening hours.

Finding the right premises took four months longer than expected, which resulted in the business opening later than expected.

One of the easiest aspects was successfully obtaining a $30,000 start-up grant from the City of Melbourne. That was a week of my time well spent. It helped that I was aware that they wanted to push vertical retailing as a concept to a greater level as well as my business model supported another 20 micro businesses (the jewellers) some of whom were already present in the City of Melbourne. The stars aligned on that one.

I'll be forever grateful for the financial assistance the City of Melbourne grant provided me. It meant that upon opening I was probably six months ahead of where I wanted the business to be in terms of structure, fit-out, website and the like. It also opened me up to key stakeholders within City of Melbourne, like Susan Riley who chaired the five-year strategic retail initiative from 2011—2016 and enabled Lord Coconut entry into several exclusive events. This also introduced me to Melbourne Spring Fashion Week organisers and I’m proud to say that for three years running, we supplied all the international speaker gifts for MSFW.

There seems to be a collegiate small-business community in Melbourne, particularly in fashion and beauty retail/services. What are the some of the events you run together? How do you all keep in touch?

Being a small or some might say micro business, I understood that it was important to form relationships with other small business owners to bounce idea off, offer support to and of course discuss issues in relation to owning, managing and running a small business.

The City of Melbourne provides a lot of support in this regards with their Precinct program. I was one of the founding members of City Precinct which is a Council funded organisation representing about 100 small businesses based within the Hoddle Grid.

Apart from a small membership fee, the Council funds most of its activities through a yearly grant program, which allows us to run monthly networking meetings, special events, promotional opportunities (The Melbourne Groom flyer) and the like.

But like anything in life, you get out what you put in, and over the six years running Lord Coconut I have been on and off the executive committee, which has allowed me to form lifelong friendships with other small business owners. These personal relationships have allowed us to run events between ourselves outside of the precinct structure.

Our main fashion-related event through City Precinct is the Festival of Steve, which started as a one-day festival showcasing businesses that catered to the discerning man, but has expended into events such as holding a pop-up at Motorclassica and Collins Square.

I have also actively participated in larger events and festivals such as One Fine Day, Midsumma, Melbourne Fringe, Vintage Bride, Melbourne Spring Fashion Week, Victorian Seniors Festival, Craft Cubed and the like, all of which provide small businesses an opportunity to reach a wider audience as well as network with other small business owners.

I find small business owners are also happy to refer customers to other small businesses that we like and respect. We all usually feel that if someone has taken the effort to come into your own little unique store that if you don't have what they want it’s better to refer them to someone you know and trust rather than leaving them on their own.

Within the contemporary jewellery scene Pieces of Eight, Gallery Funaki, Corky Saint Clair, Arbour, Studio Ingot and ourselves all support local jewellery designers and artisans so are always happy to refer customers to each other when needed. It’s a truly collegiate industry.

A big part of your business is working closely with local artisans. What do you find the most rewarding aspect of this? How do you find your artisans in the first place?

The store currently represents over 40 local jewellers, designers and artisans and these individuals are a big part of what makes what we do so special.

In a world of fast fashion and disposability it’s a privilege to work with individuals who are following their passion and hand making what they love. My wife and I try to support local artisans as much as we can; the world would be a poorer place without them.

Within the store, it has been great to work with people over time, see their work develop or take a different direction, sell some of it for them but overall contribute to enabling them to do what they love either full or part time.

When we first started I visited the other jewellery stores in town and as many design markets as I could to see which artisans could convert their work into male jewellery and accessories as there weren’t that many specialising in the men’s market to begin with.

Over time, we have become known as the pre-eminent men's jewellery store in Melbourne if not Australia so potential suppliers tend to find us (although we keep an eye out for someone special).

What tips would give you to young entrepreneurs who are passionate about fashion and beauty retail/services and want to start their own business?

•    Take a chance but think outside the box. With the right publicity, promotion and word of mouth you don't need to be on street level if you are opening a retail store.
•    When someone offers advice, listen carefully and say thank you; after they walk away, digest what they have said, ignore 95% of it, but take away those magic little snippets of wisdom they may not even realise they gave you.
•    Be prepared to hear “No, you can't do that,” and “It will never work,” usually from people who have only ever worked from 9 to 5 for someone else.
•    Have a go as the longer you wait, the older you are and the harder it is to give up your current salary for the unknown of small business.
•    Get involved with as many external events as possible that fit your business model as they are usually a cheap way to reach a far wider audience than you could afford on your own. Have confidence in yourself.

Finally, because it's topical, what difference do you think marriage equality will make to your business? Do you think it will have an impact on other small businesses in Melbourne?

There is no denying that the recent Yes vote will be a positive improvement to my business, but I believe that the improvement will be because my store is already part of the LBGTQIA+  community.

We have been supporters of JOY FM and Midsumma since opening and will be seen as a supplier who already has a relationship with the LBGTQIA+ community rather than someone who will be purely chasing the extra dollar.

We take pride in the fact we already have many same-sex couples as customers already and we have already been involved in their wedding (sadly mostly overseas) so in one sense it will be business as usual.

Other businesses will have a very mixed experience as the LBGTQIA+ community can tell the difference between someone who is a long-term supporter as opposed to someone hoping to jump on the bandwagon.

I am also beginning to hear once the final legislation goes through there may not be the big immediate rush everyone is expecting. Couples are beginning to realise if they get married straight away their wedding may not be unique or special and there is a real worry that there will be a wedding every weekend to attend, much like when we all turned 21 and had those parties every weekend which we soon got sick of! It may be more prudent to delay the wedding so that it stands alone on its own date and thus becomes a little more special for all involved.