Smug is a shop and curated space for homeware in Islington, London. Plus How To Curate Your Life, a podcast about creative entrepreneurs, The Smuggler blog and Lizzie for Smug range of patterned products.
Interviewed in London, May 2019
Lizzie: “SMUG is 10 years old this month. When I opened it there was very little comparable. There was a place called Merci in Paris selling clothes and homeware mixed together that inspired me and another place in New York called Apartment (now closed) like a real-life house where you could buy anything from any room! Seeing that blew my mind.
I originally planned to skip Uni but I studied Interior and Spatial Design after seeing a cool exhibition by the University of North London (now London Metropolitan University) and applied for the course. I never wanted to be an interior designer, I knew I wanted a space of my own. I went to Melbourne and worked in a design practice, then at branding consultants, Wolf Olins. Knowing the theory of branding has been invaluable in building SMUG, because you need to have a clear vision of what your brand stands for in order to make decisions. That has filtered into our concept as I’m always designing for our brand.
2009 during a recession was an interesting time to open a retail business. I designed the interior, then worked with builders to execute it. I started small, splitting the rent of the property overall with my dad and brother who used the upstairs for office space. Over the years I’ve added other floors – a café downstairs and a workshop/gathering space upstairs with merchandise on both. We have an online shop as well – which we are re-working. Over time, competition has increased with many more interior and homeware shops opening up. I’ve always worked with designers to create exclusive products you couldn’t get elsewhere and now I’ve formalised that unique element with a collection of patterned products under my own name; Lizzie for Smug.
In some ways, I envy brands who took investment and grew rapidly but I am the only investor and sole owner of the business. I don’t mind the pressure of being the final port of call, and I like the freedom it gives me. What’s harder is having a bricks and mortar space open every day, as something’s always happening – you have admin just to keep the lights on; from PCI compliance, reading the gas meter, to dealing with shoplifters. It’s all-encompassing, so we always close over Christmas and NYE and two days a week which has been good for my mental health. There are no resources that I’m aware of on how to deal with the practicalities of shopkeeper life so I’m actually building a concise guide on this very subject. Not sure if it will be a blog post, an online course or a podcast episode, so watch this space!
I’ve coined the term ‘cluttered minimalism’ to describe the aesthetic of SMUG – I grew up with it at home; modern furniture mixed with antiques and curated ‘gallery walls’ – before it became a thing – and piles of books everywhere. The minimalist aspect was white walls, modern furniture and organised order, even though everyone in my family is a hoarder. I’m a big colour fan, right now in an earthy palette with rusty red, teal, peach and pink, which is reflected in the products we sell. Current brands include Ferm Living, HAY, Cantine, Sticky Lemon among others. I’ve built relationships with many designers over the years through trade fairs, in the early days designers popping into the shop who’s work I loved, and now I find people through Instagram but I also like to travel – mostly around Europe to find the best ‘local’ designers.
We used to sell the vintage furniture used to display items as well, though we let go of that because it started to become the norm. We’ve recently introduced plants, I’ve always loved them so it’s cool to have them for sale. The shop is a life-size moodboard that I work in – this way I can design products that fill in the gaps in our inventory. Lizzie Evans for SMUG are original patterns I design that translate onto textiles for bags and cushions as well as gift wrap, cards and trays. Soon we will wholesale the collection so other shops will stock it.
Over the years as SMUG has become successful my profile has grown which has allowed me to diversify. The blog, podcast, workshops and coaching are a way for me to capitalise on what I’ve learned as a creative entrepreneur and pass that knowledge on. It’s also enabled me to step back from full-time shop work. I used to obsessively do every single window display but I’ve now delegated that, which was satisfying when I saw someone else do a great job. The podcast, designing the brand, Instagram, accounts, newsletter and planning for the future are my main priorities. I contact potential sponsors for my podcast and give them the stats and info to create that revenue stream. I do influencer work and coach clients which all makes money, to the extent that I’ve stopped paying myself a salary out of the shop takings and re-invest that money instead.
Because I have so many projects, I have a philosophy of time-management to fit everything in. It’s called; ‘how to curate your life’. I find pockets of time to be productive; you might think if you haven’t got three hours, there’s no point starting a task, but there’s no time like the present. I’ll look at the year as whole and plan that way. The podcast goes in seasons so I’ll focus on that for a period, then switch to something else. Closing on Monday and Tuesday frees up time for my personal projects. I teach workshops in mindful goal-setting to help people realise their priorities and how to fit them in – you have to identify what do you really want to do then do small things regularly to get into the habit.
I don’t work all day and all evening – although I did more of that before I had a baby. I would never spend all night doing something because I’d be scared if I didn’t do it, but I might just get really absorbed by something and time would just fly by.
When I had my baby, Stan, it was a good opportunity to see how delegating would go. I was in hospital pre-birth for 4 weeks which undid my carefully planned mat leave for 6 weeks. I took 10 weeks off apart from doing my accounts. Yes I do my own books! I realise not everyone does that but it helps me feel in control of the business and I admit I can ring my Uncle, who is qualified – if I need help with something.
Since becoming a parent, there’ve been moments when I’ve considered whether it would be easier not to have the shop and just be a yummy mummy blogger and work from home; it would be so easy. But it’s nice to have a balance. I’ve wanted to be entrepreneur ever since reading Mrs Wobble the Waitress when I was a kid.
In choosing to run my own business the main sacrifice I’ve made is money. If I’d worked my way up in a large company I would I would have predictable pay cheque but you can’t put a price on the freedom I have. I also lived at home for years at the beginning and didn’t get my own place for a long time. My son Stan is my biggest achievement and the fact that because I’d built this business and curated my life means I’m able to see him as much as possible and even keep breastfeeding because it’s given me flexibility.
Sustainability is something I’m more aware of than ever. It’s only baby steps as there’s potentially a lot of waste running a bricks and mortar store but we do recycle and use recycled paper and biodegradable plastic where possible. I’m sure there’s lots more we can do and we’re adding new practices to our day-to-day running of the shop each month. I’m drawn to products that are sustainably made and am aware of choosing items that packages in card or paper and avoid plastic.
In terms of advice to other small business owners I’d say – work out your why – you have to know why you want to do it – and be honest with yourself. One of my goals for this year is to work less hard and earn more money. Having identified that goal it’s easier to start making decisions to bring it about. You need to know you are the right person to be a small business owner – it’s not for everyone. Some people need the structure of a 9-5 but I like the freedom and in some ways, you have to enjoy the pressure and thrive on it. In terms of your mentality, I love the book and online course by Tara Mohr called Playing Big – I recommend it to everyone – or listening to business-related podcasts. Oh yes and curating is everything.