Earl of East on Starting a Creative Business
Partners in life and in business, Niko and Paul founded Earl of East in 2014 while still maintaining their professional careers, before making the decision to permanently set up shop.
We talked to Paul about how the duo balance work and life, running 3 stores and regular workshops, having their products stocked in over 230 stores worldwide, and writing and releasing a best-selling book.
Let’s start at the beginning – what made you take the leap and set up Earl of East together?
Before we founded Earl of East London, Niko and I would spend every weekend doing the typical East London thing of trawling broadway market and independent shops, cafes and restaurants – always wanting to get more involved in that community. We’d also spent some time in LA and loved the indie stores there, and it didn’t feel like anyone was doing it in the same way here. The initial idea was to create a lifestyle store, which we started as a market stall at Netil Market. We stocked everything from cacti to candles and curiosities, including mid-century ceramics. Soon after, we decided to launch our own line of candles. It took six months of making candles at home, and a lot of trial and error, before we launched the line in July 2014. By that point, we’d gone from being a one-off market trader to a weekly trader, to opening a 10ft x 8ft shipping container as a permanent shop. By September of that year we were working with Selfridges, and by the end of the year we had 25 stockists. We now have around 230 stockists worldwide, three stores (one in London Fields, one in Kings Cross and a pop up in Islington) and have extended our range to include bath and body products too. We also run workshops, events and have released our debut book, The Scented Candle Workshop, which has become an Amazon best seller. There’s a lot going on, so it’s funny to think that just four years ago it was an idea, and not even a fully formed one.
From market stall holders to international authors in just 5 years, Earl of East’s whirlwind rise is an inspiration to others thinking of setting up shop. What do you think have been the key factors to its success?
Working hard, taking risks, and finding a niche are probably the three main things. We’ve learnt that starting something is often the most feared part, but it’s by far the easiest bit of actually having a business. It takes a lot of determination and problem solving to keep it going. Personally we feel our growth came from the fact that we kept our day jobs for the first 5 years. It allowed us to take risks and to build an infrastructure before taking the leap to full time. We learnt a lot along the way, and became adept at problem solving all kinds of things. We also made sure our brand was built on experience and that we had more elements than just retail or wholesale to ensure each thing could support the other. Being an outsider in our own business also allowed us to have a more objective view of what was working and what wasn’t. It also meant we had to let go of certain responsibilities early on and build trust in our team to get on with things, which is often one of the challenges for business owners when it comes to scaling.
Talk us through a typical day for you guys.
There really isn’t one, and that is the beauty of it. We split our time between the shops, the studio and home, we tend to work long days, but have managed to rid ourselves of the typical London rush hour commute, in favour of a life that is more about work / life integration rather than balance. Weekends are our favourite days as we are always in the shops or teaching. It’s the peak time for the business and whilst our days start at 7am and finishes at around 9pm there is a real buzz that comes with seeing the business functioning.
Do you both play different roles in the business?
We do now. When we first started Earl of East we had to figure that out. It just happened along the way as we discovered the bits we were both good at and enjoyed. We are lucky that our skills are quite complementary and we have learnt to pick up the slack if one of us is really busy. Since both going full time in the business last September, there has become a clearer distinction between the retail side, buying, running the shops etc. and the brand, specifically wholesale and events but we both wear many hats and neither of us are afraid to get our hands dirty.
Being partners in business and in life must have its ups and downs. How do you navigate this?
We are lucky, not all couples work so well together or find it as easy to establish roles and responsibilities. We have different skill sets and interests and they compliment each other really well. Having the 3 locations also means that we can have solo time when needed but ultimately we have the same end goals and that means we both want to put the work in to turn our dreams into reality. The negative side is how the business creeps into all aspects of your life. It’s hard not to talk about it all the time, but it is our baby so it comes with the territory.
When and how do you have down time?
We really believe in work / life integration. We love our work, so rather than having out of work hours it’s more about trying to make every part of the day count and be as fun as possible. It’s really hard not to talk about the business at all times, but we are trying to establish some ground rules with down time at home.
What has been your proudest moment so far? And your biggest learning?
Writing the book has been an incredible experience, and opening in Coal Drops Yard, and seeing the response to what we created was really amazing. We have many facets to our business and we like that diversity, we really want to grow in other markets and are focussed on how we do so in an impactful way.
Connecting with your customers both in person through workshops and on social is a key element to your business. Why is this so important to you?
There is no better way to get instant feedback, to understand your customer and to quickly identify new opportunities than in real life. We think it is so integral to our business because we are very community driven. Real-life interactions have allowed us to build a strong and loyal customer base, and to tailor our products to their needs. Having physical Earl of East stores is so integral to our brand – which started as a market stall. Our own brand products are scent based and you cannot replicate that online. Similarly you can’t recreate the conversations you have with people face-to-face, or the multi-sensorial environment you can create in a bricks and mortar space. We very much believe in the future of the High Street and its importance in modern society.
What’s next for Earl of East?
This will be the first year that we have both been full-time in the business, which is super exciting. We are planning to do a lot more travel, which will be linked with workshops and pop-ups. This is our favourite way to travel as we feel much more integrated into the culture. We also have some new launches and collaborations coming up towards the end of summer.
What are 10 key pieces of advice that you would give to someone looking to start a creative business?
- Be prepared to sacrifice time-off for as long as it takes to get your idea off the ground.
- Accept you will work every hour to avoid working that 9-5.
- Don’t wait for everything to be perfect before launching your idea, it never will be.
- Find your community. Your friends are not always your best business advisors. Find people within your sector and bond with them.
- Test the market. A physical market stall allowed us to really see what people wanted before launching our own brand.
- Think about the bigger picture and what you want to achieve in the next 5 years and then work backwards to make sure it’s achievable.
- You can’t do everything. Identify where you need help and find the best people to do it, but do it little by little. You probably don’t need an agency from the word go, and it’s better to learn everything from the beginning so you have an understanding of all parts of your business.
- Celebrate the highs, but make sure you address the lows – you’ll learn more from the things that didn’t go well than from the things that did.
- Don’t give up. Often you have success at the beginning and then get annoyed when that initial excitement dies down. Keep pushing through.
- Refine your business as you go, don’t stop learning and absorbing new information.