Rhonda and Lulu are the founders of Dark Room, an amazing concept store and online shop, based in Lambs Conduit Street, in London. Zu Rafalat, a previous interviewee of Masters of Many, introduced me to them but I'd been aware of their business for some time, through a personal fascination with concept stores. It's always been a business model that I saw myself developing at some point, as I think they're the ultimate 'Masters of Many' - drawing on numerous personal passions to provide a curated set of product that they really believe in. I was therefore fascinated to find out how they'd made Dark Room a success, and the pitfalls along the way...
Tell us a bit more about how Dark Room came to life?
[Rhonda] Dark Room was a little bit convoluted in terms of how it started. Neither of us has a retail background. I worked in design and Lulu worked in fashion. We've been long-term friends and about 6 years ago, we did a textile project together, with our partners at the time. We designed a print and created some soft furnishings, cushions and some rugs, and wholesaled them. They were stocked in Liberty and a few places in Europe and around the world. It was a sideline to our main jobs, but we really enjoyed it and decided we'd like to take it a bit further, continuing to create ranges and designing, but having a vehicle to sell them to the public as well, so we thought about the idea of a shop.
It was meant to be a part-time venture, with a design studio and a part-time shop, whilst keeping our jobs. We looked around various locations, but it's actually quite hard to find a shop in London, and at that point it was a very different climate. We found this unit (on Lamb's Conduit Street) and it had been empty for about 2 years at the time.
The unit was about 4 times bigger than we were looking for, but it was at a price that in our naivety we thought we could sustain. We put an offer in and managed to negotiate a decent price for it, despite getting gazumped.
[Lulu] We had been working on the concept for quite a while beforehand. We always knew that we wanted to mix fashion and interiors and the focus was going to be on accessories. We didn't want to be dealing with clothing too much, as it has issues with stock and being seasonal. We wanted to sell products that had a bit more longevity, and our passion for interiors worked with that. We did more fashion to begin with, but it's got a bit smaller over time, although jewellery is still one of our biggest areas.
[Rhonda] It started off just being our products, and then we quickly worked out that we would have to bring in products from other people because of the size of the space. That was where our different backgrounds became useful. Lulu was much more aware of the original fashion brands that we got in, and I knew the interiors space. We both brought things to the table that we liked and were into. We opened with what now looks like a very empty shop looking back and for a few months we managed to run it part-time.
[Lulu] But...we quickly realised that when you have a shop, you really have to be there every day. This was a shock to us, but other people we know who have opened shops have said the same thing, especially if you're moving to a different industry. The shop is now open 7 days a week.
It was such a learning curve - having a business, learning what to do and generally getting the shop set up, that we didn't really have much time to work on our own products as much as we wanted to.
Now there's a lot more shops doing similar things, buying similar brands, so the only way to stay ahead is to develop our own products.
When you started looking at bringing other brands in, how did that work?
[Lulu] It's quite difficult, as you have to sell yourself to these people. Rhonda did loads of marketing to sell us, which really helped. We had visuals of the shop, and curated shots of stock, which made us look quite professional.
It's difficult to negotiate on payment terms and discounts at the beginning because you haven't established any standing. We had to pay for everything up front, which means our margins were quite small, although at that point we probably weren't thinking about margins, just getting a good selection of stuff.
[Rhonda] We had a good mix of other peoples work and our own, enough to get us started and be taken seriously. We had some more radical stuff in those days too, which was great to get us some attention at the start. Unfortunately, you have to become more commercial, so it becomes harder to buy into those pieces over time, but we still have some radical pieces to set the scene.
We've always likened it to a fashion show, where you have the hero pieces and then what actually sells. It's about getting that balance right. The way we design now is more focused on seeing a gap and understanding what would actually sell and what might get coverage.
Is that disheartening or are you enjoying that part of the process as well?
[Rhonda] It's up to us to find that balance really and to make sure that we have enough of the things that are really exciting. In order for us to sell something, we both have to really like a product.
[Lulu] I think it's a function of the industry. There are people with similar product ranges, and therefore you have to keep it fresh, even if it's a commercial range. You have to continue to seek out new ranges. The chances are that we'll have a range for about 6 months, and then you'll see it in about three other stores, at which point you realise you have to get rid of it and find something else.
Where did you both work before you started the shop?
[Lulu] I worked at Paul Smith before I came here, doing product development, but you designed with lots of other people, and you were part of the big cog of how things work. It was a very different sort of environment. I've worked at smaller places too.
[Rhonda] I did a graphic design degree, and when I graduated I worked for a year at Elle Decoration, and then an events company. I knew quite quickly that I wanted to work for myself. I started a business with my then partner, which was a design consultancy, looking at branding, packaging, eventually moved to more spatial stuff like exhibition space. We ran the agency for about 15 years, and it was still going when Dark Room started. It ended about a year in, but it was about the right time. We were married as well and that broke down, so it was a perfect time in my life for this to take over.
What made you both take the leap to launch a design range and then to open the shop?
[Lulu] For me, the fashion industry was definitely something that I wanted to get out of. I wasn't happy, I had a child at the time and felt that I needed to make a change. It was a lot of travelling and long hours, I felt that moving towards interiors was a nicer industry, and that it would give me more time. It obviously doesn't, but that's what I thought!
[Rhonda] For me there was definitely something about creating your own brand. After creating brands and spaces for so many years for other people, there had always been that dream of doing it my way. Having a space was then a way to do something really exciting long term.
I think I was also experiencing a need for something different, as things in my life were coming to an end, and so this felt right. I don't think we really thought about how all consuming it was going to be, just that it was going to be a nice thing to do - and it is, but it's also really hard! There's definitely a level of naivety in there and a romantic idea of having a shop, so it has been a journey!
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in your new venture?
[Lulu] We quickly had a great response from press and things like that, but that's a different level of success. The second Christmas after we opened felt like a really good time at the shop, it was buzzy, people were coming in due to recommendation, you could feel it growing.
[Rhonda] There was a steady incline, which was really good. It got harder as the recession kicked in. Our lack of knowledge of retail and the business side of it has been something we've had to work a lot on.
What were the biggest challenges on the retail and business side?
[Lulu] The cash flow part of the business is the hardest thing to manage. A huge part of our revenues are at Christmas, so you have this big cash injection and then you have to sustain that until October / November the next year, when you're trying to get stock in for Christmas and you have to buy it in without any money.
And then keeping the shop floor fresh and new. It's getting used to the pace of it.
[Rhonda] A lot of the time it feels like it's one-step forward, two steps back. We've been open to new avenues and have tried a lot of new things out over the years, some of which have worked and some haven't. You need to keep that energy up after the ones that don't, learn from them, move on and work out what does work.
We're an established company, and we have an amazing reputation, and it's incredible how far that's gone and what the reach is. But the reality is that we're still a small team. It's very hard to concentrate on anything beyond just keeping this place open. Any plans or development have been hard to fit in during the day, but we're trying! We are always looking forward and trying to keep things moving.
Have you ever had investment from other people?
[Lulu] No, it's just been us. We're at the stage now, particularly because we have our own products, where we need to look at getting someone else involved. We want to expand.
We have about 3 staff who work on the shop floor, and 2 people who work on the business more broadly. We recently had a pop up in Selfridges, and at that point there were 11 people working for the business, which felt like quite an achievement.
Are you managing to achieve a work life balance with the business? Do you get weekends off?
[Lulu] Yes we do, from the start of this year we haven't worked weekends.
[Rhonda] We've also got to the point now with the business where we can work at home a bit more. When we're here, it's all consuming, whatever happens in the shop, you're roped into it because you're in the space. We learnt with the Selfridges pop up that the team can function without you and you don't have to be there 24/7. It's hard for you to let go, and it can be hard for them to let go of you if you're there. So we're trying to start to step back a bit. Sometimes just by working somewhere else you can be a bit more efficient.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
[Lulu] Truthfully - the whole time. Retail is exceptionally tough, and that's the nature of it - you're always dependent on the next person buying something, and of course you have quiet days.
Have you ever regretted doing it and giving up financial stability?
[Lulu] I had always worked in fashion anyway, so I was fairly used to not earning very much!
[Rhonda] It's the same for me, even though I've pretty much always worked for myself, it was a very small company that did very well, but there were times it didn't do so well too, so to some degree I was always living hand to mouth.
[Lulu] Neither of us had big, lucrative wages to give up!
You've obviously got a lot going on with the shop, the pop up you've had at Selfridges, and developing your own products. What do you find difficult about managing all of that?
[Lulu] You constantly feel that you're not doing things very well, your time is being stretched and although you try and do everything to the best of your ability, if you stretch yourself a bit thin, you don't have time and space to focus on one thing and do it really well.
[Rhonda] I totally agree, and that's part of wanting to work away from here a bit more, to have less distractions.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
[Rhonda] I think that's when it's good that there are two of us, we tend to usually gee the other one up. There are times when you are both a bit down, but on the whole there's normally something positive to off set it, and so having two of you is really important.
What or who do you find intimidating?
[Lulu] For me personally, it's dealing with the business side. The financial aspect has been a massive learning curve, and something that we've had to teach ourselves. Talking about that to other financial parties can be intimidating. We're at the stage of looking at investment, and so that can be difficult.
[Rhonda] It makes you feel a bit like an amateur. People tend to look at Dark room and feel that there is a professionalism here, because we present ourselves well, but it's like that metaphor of being like a swan - graceful on the surface, but underneath it's craziness.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
[Lulu] At Christmas, it's such a good time. It's busy, there's a buzzy feeling being on the shop floor and people have travelled to London from places like the US seek us out to meet us and see the store.
[Rhonda] It's also that we've started an aesthetic movement. You can see it in our friends’ homes, and people refer to a Dark Room style. That feels really good - we took the plunge and did something different, and that makes it worthwhile.
On the note of customers from the US, how has your global awareness grown, and is online a big part of what you're doing, or is the shop the main source of sales?
[Lulu] At the moment, sales on the shop floor are definitely more than online, but sales on the floor are stagnant, whereas the growth for online is in growth. We see the online part as hopefully taking over. The international awareness has come from press, and doing work with people like Selfridges.
How did the Selfridges partnership come about?
[Lulu] They approached us a year or two after we opened, and we kept in touch over the years. Initially we didn't really feel that we were ready for it, but last year they approached us again, and we decided to give it a go. It's difficult with these kinds of partnerships, as you need to be selling your own products to get the margins. It was good, but it pretty much paid for itself. It was a lot to take on, and staffing it was expensive. It drained a lot of our energy and our time, but being there for the Christmas period and the marketing side of it was fantastic.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
[Rhonda] We've been in the Wallpaper guide to London since we opened. They only have five shops in there, so being featured is amazing. I can't quite believe that sometimes, you're in one of the retail capitals of the world and that's really special.
[Lulu] Even being asked to go into Selfridges was a great compliment. We were around lots of other much bigger brands, as a smaller independent company.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
[Lulu] A bit of a balance of both to be honest. We've achieved so much, and at those times you think 'Fuck it, this is a nightmare, lets give it all up', you also think back to everything you've built up, and realise it would be such a shame.
[Rhonda] We're both really proud of what we've achieved so far, but we're also conscious of the fact that we need to continue to change - to keep us interested, and to keep the company on a level to continue to be profitable and grow.
How do you define success now?
[Lulu] The financial success of the company - we're used to not earning so much, but it's important. There's obviously your personal happiness and whether you feel pushed enough and creative enough.
[Rhonda] I feel like we've been successful in many ways, it's how we make it more successful which is the challenge. We're six years in and we're not the new people anymore, so it's important to move on. You get quite sentimental about what you've had, but you also have to think about an external perspective too about what people want and need from you too. They look to you for how to be, live and what to buy, so you have a responsibility not to disappoint people or let it get stagnant.
Where would you like the business to get to?
[Rhonda] There are areas of the business that have so much more potential. The online business is improving and growing with just a small skeleton team, so it's about how to we make that work harder.
[Lulu] There is a bigger picture to get some investment, grow the brand and potentially even sell it on and do something else in the future.
Would you look at opening more shops?
[Rhonda] Probably not for now - the Selfridges pop up demonstrated that it takes a lot of manpower, and the physicality of the space makes it quite rigid. Online in comparison has a lot more flexibility to grow and reach other locations.
We've been conscious for a long time that we want to increase our own range, (a) because it makes us different, and (b) because the profit margins are better. Last year we launched 5 products to celebrate our fifth birthday, with a view to wholesaling them. They have outperformed everything else in the last 5 months, which has been really positive, and shows that that's what we are good at and sets us apart from everyone else.
How do you start your day?
[Lulu] I generally get up at about 6.30 / 7am and try and go for a run most mornings and get my son off to school.
[Rhonda] In the past year or two I've been trying to get more structure into my life, I used to be a real late riser and now I get up at 7 and try to do activities like swimming and meditation. I've definitely realised the benefit of getting up earlier and getting more stuff done before you get in.
[Lulu] I think it's really important to have that balance of things like exercise or meditation with the rest of the business.
How do you organise yourself and structure the team?
[Lulu] We have one big meeting external to the shop weekly as a team, and then more regular meetings at the shop.
[Rhonda] Lulu is much better at instigating that stuff. It's so useful to do those meetings. As a team we're all communicating better, you're conscious of what everyone is doing, and you really see the benefits of it.
How do you balance time between things like sourcing new suppliers, designing your own ranges, and running the shop day to day?
[Lulu] It all just kind of happens somehow. Obviously there's a structure in terms of time of the year - for the last couple of months, we've been dealing with post Christmas, going through sales, and planning for the year ahead.
[Rhonda] I think it will be easier to structure our days when we're working away from the shop a bit more. Whatever your plans for the day are, when you're here at the shop, they go out of the window. You have an irate customer that comes in, or a delivery that doesn't arrive, and as much as you have the best intentions it's difficult to adhere to any structure for the day.
How does sourcing new brands work?
[Lulu] We've cut down on trade shows as you find you're sourcing the same things as other shops. There's a big trade show we go to once a year in Paris, so we go to that, and we get a lot out of it, whether it's finding new people, finding more commercial ranges etc. Online is so good now - Pinterest and blogs provide a lot of ideas. We also get people contacting us and although a lot of it is far removed from what we sell, sometimes you find some good suppliers via that route.
What's the biggest thing that your new way of working has changed about your life?
[Rhonda] I've been used to working for myself for a long time, and it doesn't stop really. You go home and it's still there with you. That's a good thing though, as it's part of who you are. It might drain you, but it needs to be personal and to come from you. With a shop it involves even more time, as there's the feeling that you need to be at the shop, whereas when it was more studio based, I felt I could leave to go and do a research trip, and come and go.
[Lulu] Previously you'd leave work, and that was it, it didn't matter. It wasn't my problem anymore, I'd go on holiday and it wasn't an issue. Now it's dealing with something that's all consuming. If you have a family, you have to put some boundaries in place. If you are going on holiday, you have to set aside some clear times where you will check your emails, and then keep to them.
How do you come up with new ideas?
[Rhonda] Developing ideas for our 5th birthday has been a great exercise. We always launch something new in September, but we also curate, commission and collaborate. This time we wanted to do 5 products, and have something visually that joined them, which was our floor patterns upstairs in the shop. We looked partly at what we needed in our range, for example we wanted to do scented candles. Then we looked at certain parts of what we already sell - so we wanted to include jewellery, blankets, rug, and underwear.
They were all working towards one collection that was being launched together, with purpose. Until then it had been quite loose, and that had been fine, a lot of those products have become classics, but a more concerted effort into one collection was really useful.
[Lulu] It's also focusing on what you've got available to you, and the skills that you have. So much time can be wasted in production and product development. I come from a fashion background where you've work with the same factories and the same materials, whereas here you're trying to source someone who can help with ceramics, someone else for textile items, someone else for jewellery, and that can be quite exhausting. We kept to factories we work with, people can we work with, and tried to keep it focused on that.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
[Rhonda] I wanted to be a pilot first of all. I always knew that I wanted to be creative, but it wasn't something that was promoted within my family really. From 16 I was sure that I wanted to work in a creative role.
[Lulu] My mum always had a shop when I was younger, so I guess there were parts of me that always liked the idea of that.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
[Lulu] My son is getting a bit older and taking his GCSE's and working this out. We all come from a creative background, both my family and my partners. My son is quite academic, so I guess it's finding something that has a balance. There is that part of you that wants him to get into an industry that means he gets paid well, and you have to stop yourself from warning him off the creative route!
[Rhonda] I guess in terms of life lessons, there's only so much that you can plan, and it's important to have things like a strong work ethic. Things will happen and take you on a different course; there isn't a job for life anymore, so not having it all worked out is ok. But knowing that you want to achieve something is quite important.
What's the single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
[Lulu] Not to be too caught up about the turnover - you need to focus on the profit.
[Rhonda] Sometimes it takes being told that you're good at something to know that you'll be good at something. When I was at school a tutor said to me that they thought I'd be good at graphic design, and I didn't even know what it was! Someone later on told me I was good with colour, and then you believe it. That's useful as it makes you realise that you need to do that with others too, to tell them that they're good at things.
To find out more about Dark Room, check out their website, or follow them on: