House of Coco caught up with Alice Mayor, the lady responsible for kicking our London souvenirs into shape with the innovative We Built This City. Be gone snow globes and magnets and hello limited edition prints and, er, pigeons!
HOC: Hello Alice! Welcome to GBOGB – our series about ladies doing it for themselves. Something we’ve loved about our interviews so far is how so many of our GirlBosses are queens of reinvention – where you are in life or what you do for a living now doesn’t define you! How did you come to setting up We Built This City?
AM: I started life in PR and marketing for an agency with Arts clients. After being in the Arts industry I decided that I wanted to get more of a hands on feel for business. I felt there was a distance between being in an agency and actually in a business and I wanted to get involved in a start up. So, after 4 years of working in an agency I went to work for an online art and design retailer. It involved taking a pay cut but it was a lot of fun. I met a lot of artists and heard them all telling me how tough it was to be an artist. They had to do tonnes of admin and trade shows which meant they didn’t have time to get on and do what they did best!
I’m really passionate about creativity and felt sad that art wasn’t getting to a wider audience. It soon became my mission to help artists and designers with their careers through opening up and democratising art and design – so that artists could find new audiences and customers could find new products in a different way.
HOC: What was it about souvenirs that attracted you?
AM: Post the Olympics, London was in ascendency as a city. I remember reading an article that we were the most visited city in the world. Suddenly it didn’t seem right that people visiting London would always stick to the central tourist areas and rarely see the cooler sections. At the same time, London-related pieces were selling very well at the online retailer I was working for. I think that people feel very emotional about London; they come on holiday here, fall in love here, live here – there’s something for everyone in this city.
Typical souvenirs are so outdated and there’s a huge gap between what you can buy in a traditional souvenir shop and what the city represents. Typical souvenirs also tend to be cliched, generally not made locally and don’t represent an experience of contemporary London. There’s a lot more to London; you don’t even need to a be tourist to want a souvenir; many Londoners are very tribal about their areas!
It was surprising to me that this idea hadn’t been done in this way before. Of course, you can find good London inspired products in museum & gallery gift shops and places like Selfridges and Fortnum and Mason. However, no-one was doing it with a proper design-led approach. I realised that so many of the artists and designers, being based in London, had pieces inspired by the city. And even better, they were quality products and artworks with an affordable price tag, so perfect for a diverse customer in central London.
HOC: Your store couldn’t be more central in London (on Carnaby Street); how on earth did you get that to happen?
AM: Finding the right space was definitely the toughest thing. I literally walked around for 6 months banging my head on the walls looking for property! I couldn’t end up in Shoreditch, I knew I needed to be in central London for the shop to work. There were plenty of people who said that it wouldn’t work in a traditional retail environment as rents are so high.
In my 6 months of looking for the perfect space, I lurked around London; lots of lingering outside traditional souvenir stores, ringing estate agents, pop up managers etc. I finally found a contact who dealt with leasing around Carnaby Street and Soho; two areas where I thought the shop could work really well. The area has such heritage but you also get a lot of fashion and design in the area.
I pitched with a keynote presentation with the name ‘We Built This City’ and some example products. The team loved it but had a caveat – we would have to open in the next 3 weeks in a 3,000 sq ft space on Carnaby Street. It was crazy and utterly exhilarating and we opened on the 21st November for 8 weeks, it was really popular, so much so we were invited back in time for Summer 2015 and we’ve just moved to a new space right in the middle of Carnaby. We’re not really a pop-up anymore, I call us a ‘stay-up’!
HOC: Wow, it happened so fast. How did you manage the transition from working full time for someone else to working for yourself?
AM: During the time I was lurking around London I left my job at the online retailer – the business was being sold to new owners, so it was the right time. I then did some freelance work with Pip Jamieson – she’s a massive inspiration and a great female entrepreneur. I worked with her to launch The Dots but the day after the launch party I had an emotional reaction that, after helping another business, told me this was my time. It was a real guttural instinct that pushed me on to get the meetings that led to the launch of We Built This City.
HOC: And who makes up ‘We Built This City’ now?
AM: The ‘we’ of ‘We Built This City’ has been important from day one for me. When we first opened I already had a retail analyst friend of mine on board; she had been working for 10 years and wanted to do something else. She’s been instrumental to our success; she has been incredible at setting up the store and all of the finance side of things. I never dreamt of having a 3,000 ft shop at Christmas and I honestly don’t think I could have done that without her!
In fact, as everything moved so fast with the first opening – almost everyone in my life has been involved with We Built This City in some way. I had been trying to get a start up loan from the government but that takes around 6 weeks and I only had 3, so I did a big ring round my friends and family telling them I’d pay them back at some point in the future!
For the first opening I was in the shop every day for 8 weeks and I had a team of 5 people who also did shifts. It was like having a baby; I just couldn’t leave the shop; I had the key and was in first and out last. It got to a point that, in order for the business to have a future, I needed to come out of being full-time in the shop. Now we have a great team in place: Olivia runs the Carnaby store and does all the product buying, Katy takes care of all the artist liaison and art buying – they both have great commercial eyes and are instrumental to our success at making sure there’s something for every taste and budget. We are also now very lucky to have Adam who has 10 years experience in creative marketing and PR – support in that area is vital in the early days to build a strong community and brand. We also have a really talented shop team. Above anything else, the most important thing for me is our customer relations with our shop customers and the creative community. From my time working with Pip at The Dots I was very aware of what it takes to make a business run and that’s why I’ve taken the decision to build a solid team across the board early on. My advice to anyone starting out is to be very honest as early as possible about your strengths and what you can offer the business. Then plug the gaps and build a really strong team around you to share the weight.
HOC: Is it all about London, then or would you consider other locations?
AM: London was the starting point for me. In fact, a friend of mine came up with the name ‘We Built This City’ over a pint – I didn’t want London in the name as I didn’t want to be restricted! Tatty souvenirs are a problem the world over. There’s great homegrown craft out there but there’s always the standard souvenir store. I’m sure there is still a place for a snow globe souvenir but we can do more!
We are really ambitious to grow outside of London, whether that’s around the UK or beyond, will have to be seen. We’re still learning so much from our experience on Carnaby and need to spend some more time consolidating our offer here first. It is though very important to me that We Built This City is not just about London and we take this opportunity to more creatives around the world.
HOC: Our series is in part inspired by #GirlBoss movement and something they celebrate are Girl Boss Moments – do you have a recent experience that made you feel like a real Girl Boss?
AM: I’ve been asked to do a lot of talks recently. When you are invited to speak about your experience it really makes you realise that you’ve nailed something! It’s also a great opportunity to stop and reflect on what you’ve actually achieved, as well as what’s working and what’s not. I was first asked to speak at the Pulse trade show and was inundated with questions – it’s then that I also realised that I can now share my story and help others in the process. I was quite humbled by it all! More recently, I’ve spoken at Guardian Masterclasses and SohoCreate festival.
HOC: So what’s new for this new phase of We Built This City?
AM: We’re launching our online store later this summer.
We also have loads going on in our new space at 46 Carnaby Street; events and workshops that bring our designers into the store. For me, it’s so important that the store is about more than the transaction; we recently invited an artist called Rugman to design our third storefront which is a bold & colourful geometric design with a vinyl of the Queen as the centrepiece.
HOC: Sounds awesome, Alice! Thanks for sharing your story with us and we can’t wait to pop down for a workshop soon. Make sure you check out We Built This City, now at 46 Carnaby Street. They represent over 250 London artists and so far have supported over 600.
Do your part and support local artists and their creativity when you travel. We hate to break it to you but no one really wants an ‘I’m with Stupid’ t-shirt from your next city break!