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Julie Nichols and Rachel Evangelou, Handmade Canberra, 20 February 2015

FRANCES BALDWIN: Thank you everyone for attending our first Landmark Women for 2015 and to my knowledge our first duo, which is exciting. We have been looking forward to this for some time. Before we proceed, a reminder if you could turn your phones to silent and that the session is being recorded so if you could wait for the microphone for questions. We’re going to keep it a little bit more casual today.

Just to introduce Julie Nichols and Rachel Evangelou, who met by chance about six years ago and apparently within minutes they knew they were on the same page. Today they are the forces behind Handmade Canberra and a multi-award winning business that supports Australian handmade products and designers. Today they’re here to talk to you about the ups and downs, the challenges and the love they have for all things handmade. As I said question and answers but I will pass over to Rachel and Julie. Please join me in welcoming them to the Museum.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Thanks very much. Julie and I were saying, it’s so nice - because clearly I like colour; so does Julie - to see so much colour. Quite often we come along and we talk and everybody is wearing black and it’s a little bit scary. You’re making me feel very comfortable, so thank you for that.

JULIE NICHOLS: When we were invited today we were very excited and we had a bit of a think about what we might like to hear about our story. We thought we would tell you a little bit about ourselves, our background, how we got together and where we’ve gone since then.

Myself, I have been creative for quite a while. In my younger days before children et cetera, I was in the Air Force. I was the Prime Minister’s flight attendant. But on my days off I would study millinery so I am actually a milliner by trade and I have always loved making things. That was my background in being creative. I was able to work and be creative at the same time.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: For me, I’ve always been creative as well. My mother was a seamstress and she had her own sewing label. She taught me to sew from a very young age. But as a young girl I was a very high level gymnast. Basically I got into sewing because when it came to my year 10 formal and I went shopping for formal dresses, there was simply no clothing that would fit this girl with shoulders out here and a teeny, tiny waist. My Mum and I sat down at the sewing machine and we made myself a formal dress.

Shortly after that I had quite a horrific injury and my gymnastic career was over. Then I had to start college where I didn’t need to wear a school uniform but it meant that I had to regular clothes that didn’t involve lycra. I did have to learn to make an entire wardrobe of clothing because truly our clothes didn’t people like me. Anyway, I then hit the sewing bug and I continued sewing clothing for myself and I loved to make formal wear.

Then I was working in hospitality for many years and then I was a tax officer - don’t hold it against me - and then I had my two beautiful children. When I was on maternity leave with my second child. I had already decided that I desperately didn’t want to go back to tax but I didn’t know what I could do. But I was happy to sew and I was sewing clothing for both of my children. I decided to just hold a market stall one day, because my sewing was taking over. So I started a children’s label, and I went to my first ever market. And then I met Julie on the very first market stall I ever had.

JULIE NICHOLS: I guess where we’ve come from sums up pretty much that everybody seems to be creative in some way, shape or form. It doesn’t matter what you do or what you start out doing, the capability is there and usually the passion is there. We have a lot of closet crafters that do everything you could possibly imagine but they love to craft in some way. If they don’t love to craft, they love to see it, touch it or do something, which is fabulous and really inspiring for us.

So yes, we did meet. I did get out of the Air Force eventually. It was a little bit hard to fly everywhere at the drop of a hat and not really know what was going on. So I also had a market stall. My family is still a defence family, although we’ve been located here in Canberra for quite a long time and intend to stay here. Having a market stall and selling things that I made allowed me to be a little bit more flexible.

But I found that moving around Australia and coming back to Canberra that a lot of things hadn’t changed. So that’s when I decided that Canberra probably was in need of a marketplace or a market that could be just for people who did create. Here in Canberra you can learn to make anything. There is every single course known to man here in Canberra. It’s fabulous. We have some great markets, don’t get me wrong, that’s not what I am saying. What I am saying is a market that was completely dedicated to people who created their own product and that was marketed in a way so that, when you came along as a customer, you knew what you were getting, you knew that everything had been made. We have it that everything has to be made in Australia as well, although you can purchase beautiful linen tea towels - the best linen comes from Russian. So we allowed our designers to purchase the blanks from Russia but then they must screen print their own product. There is a bit of grey area, but the passion and creation needs to be here in Australia. That’s what I decided we really needed to do.

On Rachel’s first market, I sort of wandered up and went, ‘Oh my God, guess what I’m going to do - lovely to meet you but guess what I’m going to do. We’re going to create a market. You have to come along.’ She didn’t have any chance, she had to come along. She said, ‘Yes, I’ll come along.’ From that, I think it took me about eight months to work it out.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: The other thing – and you keep forgetting this – is that you said to me on that very first day that we met that not only did you want to start a market - because Julie had lived all around Australia and had seen incredible talent with what people are making in different parts of Australia - Julie was like, ‘I really want to build a market that doesn’t just support people that create and hand-make their own goods, but I want to bring these people from all over Australia to Canberra. I want to bring these Melbourne designers and people from Mornington Peninsula, from all over the place, I want to bring them to Canberra. I want to bring the tourism in. Canberrans, being passionate and educated, are going to love this.’ That was one of your other very early seeds which you sometimes forget. That’s gold. It’s part of exactly what we do and why we do it.

JULIE NICHOLS: It is. It’s part of where we started it and where we decided we were going to do. The first event was held at Albert Hall and we had 35 or 36 designers. It was 22 November and it snowed. It was horrific. It was the most horrible weather but it was a fantastic market. That hall was packed from the minute we opened. You could not fit another soul into that hall on that day. And from then we went: yes, Canberrans love handmade; they love seeing what people can craft; they have a great appreciation for what people can do.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: How many people came through that day?

JULIE NICHOLS: We had 2000 or 3000 people roughly. At some stage we just went, ‘Oh my God, I can’t count any more people.’ It was amazing. We were overwhelmed. Albert Hall isn’t huge so it might not sound like a massive amount of people but it was a lot through that hall over a couple of hours. So we went from there.

We have had a few locations since then. We grew out of there quite quickly. We also had them tell us that they were renovating quite quickly - gave us a few weeks to move. We found the Yarralumla Woolshed, which was not ideal but delightful. We spent a long time cleaning that place. Anybody who has been to a wedding or anything since we moved there, you are welcome, because we did scrub every inch of that place.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: I have scars. The 25-year-old poop. Have you ever seen that? It’s concrete - 25-year-old poop in little slats.

JULIE NICHOLS: It was sparkling by the time we held it and it was fabulous. It was a great venue as well. We had two there and, once again, it got out a little bit out of control and we decided it was time to move on. Everybody followed us again to the next venue, which was at the Canberra Wine Company, which was lovely as well. We stayed there for about a year so we had about four markets there. At this stage we were using the indoor part of the area and the outdoor part of the area as well. I know there are a lot of events in Canberra that are held outdoors, but it scares me. Our weather is so unpredictable.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: At this point Julie’s market is now generating close to 150 stallholders and she has achieved what she set out and she has got people travelling from all over Australia. There are people flying from Brisbane and travelling up from Adelaide and from Melbourne. At this point the market at the Canberra Wine Company - in fact even the back of the woolshed – is generating customers with 16,000 to 17,000 people coming to this market. Not only is it just Canberrans but, again, these are customers that travelling from Sydney, Melbourne. Adelaide - all over Australia - to visit the market and to attend the market as a stallholder. When Julie says that it gets scary having an outdoor event in Canberra where our weather is so inclement and you don’t know if it’s going to be snowing in November. And then we had a market in December where we had that torrential rain for the full week. There’s nothing that is going to make you fit - but it didn’t rain on the day.

JULIE NICHOLS: No, it didn’t. We made it through, but at that point in time we decided enough was enough and we needed a completely indoor venue, which is where the lovely Convention Centre came in.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Cindy.

JULIE NICHOLS: Lovely Cindy up there. She took us under her wing and said, ‘I will help you do this,’ and to her credit she did. So we moved to the Convention Centre and we had quite a few successful years there. It was fabulous and the event has evolved.

As you might know, we also have a shop front. Where that came into was our stallholders were starting to have a real opportunity to be able to make some very good money from their passion. We have stallholders that work full time and create items and we have stallholders that are full time in their creative business, so we have all levels. We started running some business courses as well, because all markets aren’t created equal. Our stallholders can go to a market and they might see 400 or 500 customers over the space of six or seven hours and that is quite achievable; they can handle that well.

But we were finding when they came to one of our events, we were putting 10,000 to 15,000 people in front of them and that is very daunting. Some of them all of a sudden started not doing very well. We thought about this and thought - what’s going on? We’re putting the customers; we’re surveying the customers; we’re making sure that they are the right people who are appreciating these products; why are our stallholders all of a sudden saying, ‘I am not really doing as well as I did 12 months ago. Is it me?’ We thought about it a bit and we started doing business courses for them.

We would do the occasional business course that would allow them to look at their business and look at the structure of how they are running the business. Having a market stall is not the same as selling it to David Jones or not the same as just having a website. There is a bit of a science to it. If you’re going to pay that much to be at a market stall and have that many people there, you should make the most of that opportunity.

From those business courses, one of the things that came back to us constantly was: the market is fantastic, you’re really helping us grow our business, we want it more often. We’re like: we’re not running it more often. How this works is that it should be quarterly. If it runs more often, then we just don’t think it will be the same. That’s not going to fit our business model.

From that we thought: how can we help solve that problem? That’s where we got the idea of the shop. We’ll open a shop front, we’ll base it somewhere amongst a couple of million public servants so that they can shop at lunch time - or if there are any bosses out there, they only come at lunch time – they don’t come any other time during the day.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: They don’t wag during the day - ever.

JULIE NICHOLS: They never come in any other time. We’ll open a shop front where the designers don’t have to be at the shop. They can just send their product; we will sell it for them; we will run it on the same business model where they can rent a space. So based on what they sell they rent a space within the shop. It’s merchandised beautifully and it’s sold on their behalf. That is where that came from.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Importantly, this is a space where they have control of the pricing of their product. One of the things that we identified through the business workshops, and I certainly was going through it myself, was that I was in a position where I wanted to get out into the retail world but I wasn’t in a position to wholesale my goods because everything I made was one of a kind and I didn’t mass produce things. So I couldn’t wholesale to other businesses. Giving my goods on consignment where you hand over your goods to a business and you have your $40 dress or whatever and the business then puts $95 on it and the dress doesn’t sell for $95. Then they go, ‘We can’t sell it,’ and they give it all back to you. So you go, ‘I’m not making money there.’ There are all these business models out there that were simply not fundamental or friendly to somebody who has an idea and wants to get it out there in the marketplace affordably and test it. Does it work? Is my price point good? Will it sell? Without having to chop off your left arm and have a whole lot of risk involved, which is why we set it up that way. The designers rent their little space. It starts at $31.20 a week so it’s not too bad. They set their own price which we do not mark up. So many customers come in and go, ‘It’s really reasonable in here.’ That’s because as consumers we are so used to paying 150, 200 or 300 per cent mark-up on everything. But that’s not how we roll. That’s how we came up with that.

JULIE NICHOLS: The shop opened in 2010. The markets started in 2008. So by 2010 we had come the full circle of - how do we expand? How do we make it a little bit better? As I said previously, the answer wasn’t more markets, let’s not flood the area there. Let’s do something based on the same principles but answering the questions now of the consumer - we want to see this more - and of the designer, who is also our customer. We always have those two lots of customers. So answering the questions of the designer as well: how do we get them into the marketplace a bit more? That is basically what we do it. We did do it because we love it. We really enjoy it.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: When we went to set up this shop Handmade – I have to say this because this is my little happy dance. You know, we all have one of those moments where we go – one of those [gestures] – like when you turn up to your high school reunion and you look awesome and that person who was mean to you doesn’t look so awesome. We had one of those moments when Julie and I - we have had a few of those but this was the big one. When we had our idea that we want to open this shop, we spoke to so many real estate agents and nobody would rent us a space. Lonsdale Street back then was not the Lonsdale Street of today. They were empty shop fronts all over the place, we went to all of them, and nobody would rent us a space. Nobody would rent us a space - not that we wanted to be in the Canberra Centre but there were parts of Civic we were looking at and nobody would rent us a space. It won’t work; it’s too different for Canberra; that’s too unusual; Canberra won’t get it. We were told that over and over.

JULIE NICHOLS: One real estate even said, ‘I am not even ringing the landlord. That was it.’

RACHEL EVANGELOU: You’re wasting my time. Anyhow, we then found the place that we’re in. For those of you who don’t know where we are, does everybody know where the Electric Shadows cinema was? So we’re there; we’re along the City Walk boulevard down there. It’s the old Tandy Electronics shop. We turned up and we knew that it had been empty for five years. So we phoned and said, ‘This is who we are, we’re not taking no for an answer. This is what we want to do.’ They said to us, ‘Ah, well, okay, you can have an 18-month lease. We think we’re going to rip the building down so we’ll give you 18 months.’ We went ‘Gold, we’ll take it.’

Within 18 months, we were clearly killing it. The shop was doing really well. It was bringing lots of people to the area. They decided not to tear the building down. In fact, the shop next door had vacated so we said, ‘Can we have that shop front too? Can we knock the wall out and double the size?’ They said, ‘Yes, you can.’ And they developed upstairs. Now the building is not going to be demolished. But this is where the moment comes in: I had this suave gentleman come in in a suit. He walked through the doors and the shop was packed. He looked at me and he said, ‘You’re Rachel.’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ He said, ‘I am so and so. You’re not going to want to talk to me anyway but I’m just going to tell you because I just should.’ I said, ‘Okay, spit it out.’ So he said, ‘I am from blah blah and blah in such and such area in Civic’ - this is one of the people who didn’t want to talk to us. The penny had dropped for him when he walked through the door. He said, ‘You look like you’re probably doing pretty okay here.’ I said, ‘Yes, we’re great. We’re really happy here.’ He said, ‘It is just that we’re really struggling at our end of town. Can you come and open a shop?’ I was like: are you serious? He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘We’ll give you free rent; we’ll do this, that and the other. We just need somebody to drive traffic to us. We’ll do anything.’ I said, ‘Do you know what? If I could clone myself I would consider it. But I absolutely cannot juggle one more ball.’ And that was the happy dance because truly it was heart breaking to have everybody say ‘no’.

JULIE NICHOLS: It really was. For us to go from a market to a shop, double the size in the shop, and that sounds like very rapid growth and it is rapid growth - it is something that all small businesses really need to keep an eye on. It can be a big killer when a business takes off and really goes gangbusters. We’re aware of our capabilities; we’re aware of what we can and can’t do. Every now and then we chew off a little bit more than we probably should, but it usually gets followed up with a bit of a ‘here’s a reminder that you are only human’ and we come back to earth -

RACHEL EVANGELOU: I get out of hospital.

JULIE NICHOLS: Something like that. That’s sort of our story. Along the way we have entered a few awards. We’ve thought: this is a very cool idea. We should put it out there and see how we go. We have won a couple of tourism awards because we get some pretty cool tourists come to town - some big numbers. We have won some Telstra business awards which we were very proud of because not only is it gorgeous, pretty craft and people doing great things but also it was a really good business model and it was doing well.

Every time we go into one of those meetings they go: ‘You do what?’ We go, ‘Yes, these are the figures.’ They go: ‘What? That’s great.’ That’s makes us feel really good as well. Canberra business point awards as well. It has been lovely because not only are we doing well in that you lovely people shop with us a lot but also we can support lots and lots of designers. We probably have 500 to 600 on our books at any one time that we are helping out along the way, which is just fabulous. Every now and then it’s also lovely to have somebody say, ‘You girls are doing all right. Here is a little certificate that says “We think it’s a good idea.”’ This year will be no awards taken. This is another one of we’ve reached our level. We don’t need any of that this year. So this year is going to be concentrating on doing some of the more fun things that we really like. We’re going to develop a very cool souvenir line for Canberra. You may have seen the Canberra bus mug.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: There is Effie.

EFFIE: Good thanks.

JULIE NICHOLS: Rachel scared Effie a little bit that night. I didn’t think that was possible, but she did. Rachel busted out her good Greek -

RACHEL EVANGELOU: I do an all right Effie accent. I am pretty good at the vigrations disco. She complimented me on my hat in the bathroom.

JULIE NICHOLS: That was a good night. You may have seen the Canberra bus mug up there [on the screen] scroll past, and I wish I had shares in that thing. There is a designer, Trevor Dickinson, and he printed 16?

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Six.

JULIE NICHOLS: Six of these bus mugs, brought them in and said, ‘What do you think?’ We went, ‘How many did you print?’ He said, ‘six.’ We said, ‘What about 600?’ He went: ‘No, six.’ We put them out there and I put it on Twitter and on our social media, and it went zoom. Then one of the journalists picked it up and went: Everybody should get one of these mugs. So 270 orders later, we’re going perhaps you could stop spreading that you’re getting Canberra bus mugs. The other day Hugh Rimmington goes: ‘I need one of these bus mugs.’ I thought: ‘Dear Lord, please no.’ We’re now ordering another 270 bus mugs. This year I think what we’re going to concentrate on is to get some cool Canberra souvenirs that aren’t too daggy and just have a bit of fun. This will be our year of fun, keeping the processes going but having a bit of fun with it as well.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: There are a few ideas. It’s a gem. It’s a ‘watch this space’ kind of thing.

JULIE NICHOLS: That’s pretty much our story in a nutshell. I hope you found it all right. It’s just our story. I wonder if you have any questions or if you need to know anything about the shop.

QUESTION: Do you still have time to do your own craft work?

RACHEL EVANGELOU: That’s a good question. No, not anywhere near as much as I would like. I am a sewer and I don’t have a sewing room any more. So in order for me to sew, I have to clear the kitchen table and get it all out. Although all the awards outfits that you have seen up there, I have made all of those. I am a bit egged out about not entering any awards this year because I like to frock up. It’s my only time that I get to sew. I go: ‘Right, okay, I have to do this. I am under pressure and it’s going to happen.’ So that’s it. I get a bit jealous from time to time someone might do something like maybe knit in bed -

JULIE NICHOLS: We do the occasional things. There is where our range of souvenirs - we will be creative that way.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: And creative creating other ideas and things but our millinery and sewing - not so much any more. It’s sort of sad but happy.

JULIE NICHOLS: We get to be creative – we’re always designing the art work, how things will look and merchandising the shop, and that is very creative. I guess maybe the question was yes, but just in different forms.

QUESTION: You are famous for supporting the crafts people that display at the markets and in your shop but you also support charities. I wonder if you could speak a bit about that commitment, how you make those decisions and what that support entails.

JULIE NICHOLS: Thank you for that reminder. We do too. One of the things we always said - and one of the reasons what we do is so successful is that we have been on the other side of it. We have been customers; we have been stallholders. One of the things we always said we would never do is charge people entry to come to the market because we don’t think that’s cool at all. Don’t get me wrong - 20,000 people walk through the door, if they threw me 20 cents each, that would be great, but that’s just not how we roll. We always said we never would.

One of the ideas we came up with early on was: wouldn’t it be lovely if we could support a charity in one way? Our market is you need to make handmade products so we can’t have a charity come along and do a raffle or something like that. When we were thinking about it, we thought it would be lovely if we could offer a charity the opportunity to stand at the door and offer information to people and then take a gold coin donation. So we have been able to do that.

We started off supporting motor neurone disease which was very close to my heart. I’ve had a family member pass away from that. We started there. Then we thought it was probably time to share the love a bit. So for the last couple of years we have been Dragons Abreast and Bosom Buddies as well. They have been a fabulous mix for our market seeing that predominantly we attract females to the event. It’s been wonderful in that they have been able to connect with a lot of people that could use their services well and raise some money at the same time. That’s been amazing.

This year we are going to change it up a bit more. Apart from having grown out of the Convention Centre, although we will be sad to leave there, we are moving on to EPIC which will allow us to have a bit of a bigger space, more parking, we’ll be able to mix up the event a bit, change it and stay creative and make things look a bit better. So that’s good. We are going to be supporting Men’s Link at the next event. Rather than have the same two charities on each show, we’re going to give one charity two days but change it each event. We have Men’s Link first. The second one we have had some lovely ladies who are raising money for cancer support by doing a big bike ride. This will tie in with their event. Then we’ve booked in Dragons Abreast and Bosum Buddies for the end of the year. It’s been lovely to be able to do that as well.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: The shop has community spaces as well. Currently we have the Red Cross and we have Painting with Parkinsons in the store, so they don’t pay rent or anything like that. They just have their space in the store, and we sell quite a lot of goods. The proceeds go back to them. Over Christmas we had another one, we had a calendar for that young Canberra man who was run over by a taxi cab. He still hasn’t received any insurance payout or anything and he has no income at the moment. Some of his work colleagues got together and put together a saucy calendar.

JULIE NICHOLS: That sold well.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: That sold quite well. We did that through the shop as well.

QUESTION: I don’t know whether you have seen this creative capital book by Peter Dawson. It is called ‘Bureaucrats, boffins and businessmen’. There are 37 chapters about different organisations that have set up in Canberra, but of those only two women are mentioned. Now Peter is planning to have another edition, and I would like to see you two mentioned -

RACHEL EVANGELOU: On the cover. Well, thank you.

JULIE NICHOLS: I’ll be interested in having a look.

QUESTION: I will get your details after and pass them to Peter.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Thank you so much. There are so many creative women in Canberra - it blows my mind. Thank you for that.

JULIE NICHOLS: That is greatly appreciated.

QUESTION: Were there any legal wrangles you had to go through to set up your business - or government stuff? Have you thought of selling coffees and stuff - or don’t you need to do that?

JULIE NICHOLS: There’s about 15 questions in there. As for the coffees and cafés and things, that’s more legal type - your business has to be zoned for that particular thing. So even if we wanted to, we couldn’t in the location that we are in and no, I don’t think we want to do that.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: We talked about getting Lindsay and Edmunds in and having a little chocolate corner -

JULIE NICHOLS: They might want to set up next door, that would be great, a little chocolatair shop or something. That would be awesome. As for the legal stuff, you have no idea. We had this idea: Let’s open a shop that would be awesome. How hard can it be?

RACHEL EVANGELOU: That would be fun.

JULIE NICHOLS: There is a lot of red tape, a lot of insurance. You need to be insured for breathing.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Oh, the insurance.

JULIE NICHOLS: We quite often joke that you’re not a real business until someone threatens to sue you for looking like them or something -

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Which happened before we had even opened the door.

JULIE NICHOLS: We hadn’t even opened and we had our first letter of: ‘You’re copying our idea.’ Could we open first before you say we’re copying your idea?

RACHEL EVANGELOU: This was a dude from America.

JULIE NICHOLS: Yes, there was somebody that wanted to sue us before we opened who had an online craft supply shop. Because we were Shop Handmade, and he had - what did he have? I can’t remember now; it was that long ago. It was something very similar: Shop Handmade Online or something like that. It was very successful, very big, and he was just about to sell his business. So he had found a buyer. They had done the contracts, blah blah. Part of his contract of selling his business was that he was the number one ranking Google search for Shop Handmade.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Here’s another happy moment -

JULIE NICHOLS: A couple of Mums who didn’t really know what they were doing at the time decided to open a shop and call it Shop Handmade, which may have bumped him off the ranking. So these people have gone, ‘I’m not paying that much for your business any more now because you’re not number one.’ He thought that wasn’t very good. In the end it was as simple as us adding ‘Australia’ to the end of that registration at the time. But we had to pay some lawyers for that, we spent a couple of thousands dollars for that, we had some international phone calls - ridiculous stuff. Behind every business there are some crazy stories -

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Especially for what we are doing for the shop because essentially we have made it up. The insurance form – no, we don’t fit in that box, we can’t tick that box, we can’t tick this and we can’t tick that. There are so many boxes that just don’t apply to us in terms of software and how we operate. Software doesn’t comply. MYOB cannot understand what we do. So in terms of selling the goods and then having an accountant - we have an amazing accountant, thank God. So we have an accountant and we have all these things and all these people that do all this stuff to make it all happen. So we sell the goods and we’ve worked out where the goods go, who we pay and when – and all that sort of stuff. It is extremely complex, and no system in the world can actually do what we do. We did try to build one, and that was no fun. That was hard.

JULIE NICHOLS: We actually had a lovely little run in with the tax office not this Christmas but the Christmas before.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: That’s dead to me. I hadn’t thought about that.

JULIE NICHOLS: What you said just reminded me. This was just before Christmas so we’re just coming into the crazy Christmas period.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: 18 December it was.

JULIE NICHOLS: Our accountant rings us and she said, ‘The tax office want to audit you.’ That’s fine. ‘They are going through everything with a fine toothcomb. I don’t think they understand what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘Okay, what do we do?’ She said, ‘Nothing. They’re going to ring you. Just explain how you do things.’

So I had this lovely gentleman on the phone and he just kept saying, ‘But you give the money back.’

I would say, ‘Yes, we give the money back at the end of the month. We sell their goods. They pay for a space in the shop. Then we transfer the money to them.’

‘Why do you do that?’

Because that’s what we do.

‘I don’t believe you. You’ve got all this money going through your EFTPOS machine and it’s going into your account. Where is it going?’

‘It’s going back to the designers.’

‘It disappears every month.’

‘I know. It goes back to the designers.’

‘Take me through the process one more time.’

‘This is what we do. They pay for their rent. We say, “Yes, Mrs Jones, thank you for your rent. We sold all your goods. Please give us more. Here’s your money.”

‘But you give it all to them?’

‘Yes, we do.’

We went over and over it. In the end he said, ‘I’m going to tick this off. That’s all right. I am happy that it’s right.’

But we ticked the wrong box so it went to the next level. So then we had a lady go:

‘But you give it all back?’

Yes. That was a little bit of fun, I must admit, because we had a lot of money coming into our account but every month it was just gone. He couldn’t see what we had spent it on, because we didn’t spend it. We only have what we get from the rent of the designers. All the other money is kept in a completely different account that goes back to the designers. That was another great challenge.

QUESTION: Congratulations. I think what you have achieved is absolutely wonderful and to go into your shop is a pure delight, which I have done many, many times. My question is: how is the shop staffed? Is it by designers themselves? How are they paid? How does all that work?

RACHEL EVANGELOU: I’m at the shop pretty much, every day except Wednesday is my admin day at home. I’m just me. We have an incredible team of girls who work for us - and I say ‘girls’ because they are girls but not because we don’t have boys. We just didn’t have any boys apply.

JULIE NICHOLS: None have asked.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: So it’s not a girl only zone but it is a girl only zone. We have gorgeous Robyn and we have Rommina [Rommi] and Jen –

JULIE NICHOLS: And Ella.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Ella is Julie’s daughter. Ella comes in and she helps out.

JULIE NICHOLS: Ella thinks I’m going to give her the business one day but she’s wrong.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Jen, Robyn and Rommi, they are all designers, but Jen isn’t a designer in the shop. She’s a graphic designer and a creative person. Robyn has been on staff for us for a about over two years and she started with us as a designer. Back in the day it was just Julie and I manning the shop and then we went actually, we really need a bit of help and we just put it out there. I think Robyn came in one day and she said, ‘Do you need a hand? I don’t work. I could work here if you like.’ We went, ‘Okay, let’s do that.’ And Rommi or Rommina, she is also a designer in the store and she just gets what we do. They understand what we do. I am lucky to have these amazing women that are creative and vivacious – and that’s the staff.

JULIE NICHOLS: The staffing costs and all the running costs for the business come from the rent. So it’s a very safe business model in that we know how many spaces we have at the shop; we know how many people we can have located in the shop; and we know how much that is going to add up to every month. We actually know what we are going to make every month, so it’s a very safe business model that way, which is why we do things like create our own souvenir range so that we can make a bit of money on the side. All our costs and expenses and everything come from -

RACHEL EVANGELOU: From the rent. We pay higher than the award rate, so our girls are very well paid and looked after - they get a lot of love.

Just on that point, here we were five years ago trying to open a business in Canberra and going along to these people saying, ‘We have a bank account full of money, we’re not a new business that has taken a loan. We are a business that has money in the bank ready to open its doors.’ That’s how it was going to be, and that is how it was. When we found a place and somebody agreed to lease it to us and we put it out there to the world, we opened on the first day having never loaned not even one cent from the bank. But all of that money - the designers have paid their rent, paid us money. We haven’t had to pay for the stock. It was their stock, so we didn’t have to shell out $200,000 for stock, We didn’t have to do any of that. It’s all there. And nobody wanted to rent us a space. I don’t know why.

JULIE NICHOLS: We got there in the end.

QUESTION: (inaudible) take up the space permanently or are you constantly changing?

RACHEL EVANGELOU: The designers start in the shop for three months to begin with, and three months is a good time to test your market. You have your first market when regular customers come in and want to scope you out and see what’s new. The second month, you are really in the zone and start to see is your pricing structure good. From that second month we can generally start to tell - we are hearing from customers; we’re providing feedback to the designer - and at that point we can talk to the designer and muck around if it’s too high we can reduce. By the third month we should well and truly know whether this item is working within the store. Then after that it’s a month-by-month lease. So nobody is locked in for a long period of time. We do have some designers that have been in the store since the day we opened. In fact, we have quite a few that have been in the store from the day we opened and they’re still with us today. Some people are seasonal.

QUESTION: (inaudible)

RACHEL EVANGELOU: And unfortunately sometimes I have had to say to people, ‘You’re just not keeping up.’

JULIE NICHOLS: What was the original question?

QUESTION: How long is their original commitment to the shop?

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Then it goes on a month-by-month lease, because some people are seasonal as well. People that have knitted goods. It’s no point selling those in summer, so they have a break and they come back.

FRANCES BALDWIN: I was going to ask if you feel that it inspires other people to create or if you have ever had an issue with people competing with each other and you have to choose a mug from a mug or necklace from a necklace?

RACHEL EVANGELOU: That’s one of the hardest things about what we do, both for the shop and for the market. For the market Julie allocates approximately 150 spaces. Each market will receive over 500 applications, and these are amazing applications. The shop is the same. The shop is chocker block and jewellery is the most competitive. You have people coming to you with these amazing goods and sometimes you simply don’t have the space to offer. The other thing is that people come in and they’re are creating things. They have put their heart and soul into it; they really believe it in it; it’s come from them; it’s come from this place. But sometimes it’s just not going to sell and sometimes we have to say no. It’s hard to say no to people who have really put their heart and soul into something. That’s difficult.

JULIE NICHOLS: It’s harder though if we go, ‘I just can’t say no to that person so I will take their goods,’ and three months later you haven’t made them any money.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: That’s the worst bit.

JULIE NICHOLS: But we make sure we know our customer as well. It’s not just about what we like; it’s not about us; it’s about people who love to shop with us. We have learnt over the time what is going to sell. Every now and then we get taken by surprise. Somebody will go, ‘I just want to give it a go. I’m not holding you responsible for anything. I just have to give this a go.’ We’ll say, ‘That’s fine. We have had this conversation. We don’t think it will sell but we are happy to give it a go.’ It’s not that it’s a bad product. We wouldn’t take something that was a bad product.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: We can’t sell men’s leather belts. I have had the most beautiful men’s leather belts in the shop that you could ever hope to see. People go, ‘You don’t have anything for men.’ Well we try, but you don’t buy stuff for men. Beautiful leather belts - they don’t sell. So if somebody comes to us saying, ‘I have made these beautiful leather belts,’ I have to say, ‘I am sorry, darling, they’re not going to sell.’ But they’re beautiful. ‘I know they are beautiful but I’ve tried to sell men’s leather belts and they don’t sell.’ I can’t sell mosaics in the shop. Give me a beautiful mosaic pot plant or mirror – I can’t sell it. But it’s beautiful. Yes, it’s beautiful but I can’t sell it. It won’t sell. I’m really sorry but it won’t sell. It’s hard.

FRANCES BALDWIN: It’s a shame. One last question -

RACHEL EVANGELOU: What do you mean? I’m just warming up.

FRANCES BALDWIN: We can go back to the Friends Lounge for more after this.

JULIE NICHOLS: She likes to talk.

QUESTION: (inaudible) things you really like and can’t resist.

RACHEL ROMERO: There’s a rule for me at the shop. It must live on the floor for one week before I’m allowed to take it home because I’m terrible. I want one of everything. I’ll have one in every colour, thanks very much. You don’t want to know. And my husband -

JULIE NICHOLS: He doesn’t want to know.

RACHEL EVANGELOU: I have black market money that I hide. You know how people have that little envelope in case you need to run away from home? No, I just have that so I can shop.

QUESTION: I was interested in how items are priced because with anything that is handmade, of course it’s very time consuming. Do the designers have a percentage for the materials they have used and their marketing because you can’t cost your time, I don’t think?

RACHEL EVANGELOU: Well, you should.

QUESTION: Do they set the price or do you negotiate this for them?

JULIE NICHOLS: No, they set the price. Every now and then we will get something into the shop and it will be beautiful. We know the time that will have gone into it, and they want $7 for it. We’ll go, ‘No, that’s not going to happen. It’s $27,’ because we know it will sell for that. Every now and then we will say to somebody, ‘You’re doing that wrong.’

There is a bit of a magic formula about how you price something. We have secret Facebook groups, newsletters and things that go out to our designers and we help them with all of this as well on how they should price things. But we really encourage them to price it at what they need to get from it. If it’s a $5,000 floor stopper or something, then we probably won’t take it in the shop and we’ll take it at the market because we know the market wouldn’t purchase it.

We work really hard. We make sure that, by the time they get to the market or the shop, we know what they’re selling, we know what they’re selling it for, and then we make sure the customers that are coming along are going to appreciate and be happy to buy that. Yes, you can still buy earrings for $5. It doesn’t mean that they are garbage or anything like that, it means they have simply purchased a beautiful fitting and a binding, put them together, and it’s a nice easy gift. Then you can have one in every colour, take them home and not break the bank. But if you still want to buy a $3,000 diamond ring, you can do that as well. But it’s up to us. It’s our responsibility to make sure we get the customers in that will purchase all of those things as well.

We make sure the designers have the information on how to price things. We will quite often say, ‘We have had 17 people pick that up and love it but then comment to us that perhaps it’s more than they like to pay.’ That’s when we will have a bit of a talk to them about it. If they still say, ‘No, that’s what I have to charge, then so be it.’ We would never say, ‘No, you need to lose money on that item to sell it.’ What would be the point?

FRANCES BALDWIN: Either way you look at it, it’s a breath of fresh air for Canberra. We congratulate both of you on your success. Please join us back in the Friends Lounge and thank Rachel and Julie for a fascinating chat. [applause]

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Date published: 12 March 2015

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