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Interview with a creative business owner: Fresh Retro Love

I love vintage. There’s a sense of fun, and design, and creation in a lot of vintage stuff that you just don’t see today. I’d much rather have bold ’70s floral patterns, almost anywhere, than the many shades of grey and cream and navy that you see on most things nowadays.

And I especially love when I can have something vintage that’s useful, not just looking pretty (though I like pretty, too). It’s why I use Crown Lynn dinnerware, and why I use vintage woolen blankets on my beds. And that’s why I really wanted to talk to Kathleen from Fresh Retro Love, because not only does she restore vintage blankets to give them another chance at life, she has her own line of brand new ones – as part of a mission to bring back that classic quality of vintage New Zealand woolen blankets.

Fresh Retro Love is a really cool business, doing something a bit different. Read on…

Walk me through your journey of growing your business. What was the thing that made you dive in?

It’s evolved a lot! I’m a collector, and I’ve got a big interest in retro and Kiwiana, that sort of thing. Some years ago I found myself unemployed and I started trading in collectables. I’ve always loved wool blankets, and I discovered that when I made them available to my customers they really resonated. Lots of people have memories of beautiful wool blankets on their beds as children.

That made me start to put value back into blankets – sometimes I’d get them in less than best condition but I could improve them, and I’d always be talking about them. It grew from there very slowly. Other collectable sales went by the by, and this interesting niche grew on its own!

The new blankets have come about in the last year. Prior to lockdown I was essentially a market-based business, though I did a few online sales through Facebook, but during lockdown my whole business stopped. I didn’t have a website going, but when my partner went back to work decided I needed to start making some moves again. I posted on the NZ Made (now Chooice) Facebook page, which exposed me to many new people, and they loved the blankets and connected with it.

It’s really difficult to buy New Zealand wool products that are made in New Zealand. Many of the imported products are not the quality that we produced. Back in the 70s there were 18 active woollen mills in the country, now there’s only one. So I started to explore the reasons we are not still making wool blankets and other products to that extent.

It was new to me having large amounts of people interested all at once. Restoring second-hand blankets is time-consuming and not easily scalable. It really pushed me to give people what they’re looking for and explore options.

So now we’ve just released our fourth blanket, and there’s other stuff in the pipeline!

What are the things you value most in your life and work?

I’m all about treating other people how you want to be treated. I make a point of putting real value into my products, and my customer service.

Flexibility too, and being able to have variety in my day – those things are really important. And being able to do something that feels really important to me and to others. My business is developing a little more meaning – sometimes I call myself a ‘crazy blanket lady’, but sometimes instead it’s a ‘wool advocate’.

What do you do in your business to make those a priority?

Sometimes I set my word for the year, which is easy to forget, but lately I’ve been thinking of a phrase: ‘do small things well’ and it’s stuck with me. If I’m always looking at how I can improve, how I’m giving value and contributing, those small things will turn into one big awesome thing. I’m very aware of what it’s like to be a customer.

‘Do small things well’ gives me an action. I find myself going back to it when I find myself getting overwhelmed, and it helps me to bring myself back into that moment.

What have you struggled with as a creative business owner?

Balance! Working from home means I don’t switch off. I might decide to finish by 6, but after dinner I’m always thinking about the next day. So turning off and taking separate time. It’s a seven-day week – taking days off is difficult.

How do you deal with that?

Setting end times does help, then I know I have to wrap up. It doesn’t always work, but at least I’m creating the intention. Certain activities help too, turning the light off in the office at the end of the day, going for a walk, and taking social media breaks.

It’s important to realise what can wait, and what doesn’t have to be done straight away. It’s probably because of where I am at the moment because I want to get ahead, but I also have to recognise that if I’m tired I won’t work as well, so I need to know my limits.

It’s not as simple as separating home and business – it’s better now not to have premises so it’s not just a case of closing the door, but I have to make sure I put things away so my lounge looks like a lounge!

What do you love most about your business?

I enjoy my customers a lot, and meeting people. That’s why the markets are so important – meeting people, and putting faces to names.

I love hearing how this ‘little product’ has impacted people – I’m blown away when I see my blankets used for important life events, like wedding or 21st presents, or just because they love it so much. Sometimes people overseas say that their blanket made them feel a bit of connection to home, that having that bit of New Zealand is comforting to them, and that’s lovely too.

What’s been one real game changer in your business?

Most recently I’ve taken on staff – that was a big step. I’ve also started outsourcing certain jobs I’ve always previously done myself. It’s not possible to scale a business and do everything.

There are lots of people who can do the things that I’ve been doing myself better. That gives me space to do the things only I can do better, so I can develop the business and take it to the next stage. So now I’ve got people to help with the new blanket completion, things like machinist work, and also people to help with things like copywriting and graphic designers for labels.

To take your business seriously, you’ve got to manage your time and delegate to people who can do a better job. It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve made that next step.

What are your aspirations? Short/long term?

My mission is to see wool on beds and see a wool resurgence in our beautiful country!! It’s a Kiwi staple and I’d like to see it more easily accessible and embraced again.

I’m also looking at exporting new blankets overseas – we’re already sending overseas through our ecommerce platforms, but I’d like to see the next stage involve further distribution.

What does success look like for you?

Success is loving what you do, enjoying it, and having it not send you crazy in the process. It’s seeing yourself develop along with your business – you want to always be learning and developing your own skills and feel like you’re moving forward. And of course, I love hearing about and seeing Fresh Retro Love blankets out there, it feels great when you see people using your blankets.

Top 5 Takeaways

  1. If something’s bothering you about the world, is it something you could do something about? So many amazing businesses have started because someone thought, ‘why isn’t there…?’
  2. ‘Do small things well’. I absolutely love this, and I got very excited about it. It’s a phrase I’m bringing into my business and my life, because it’s easy to get overwhelmed and think we have to do everything at 110%, but actually if we focus on doing the small things well it’s satisfying to see how much we achieve.
  3. Little rituals can help you switch off from work and life – especially if you work from home. And it’s important to do that, because nobody wants to live at work. Close the door to your office, turn out the light, even go for a walk round the block to simulate a commute.
  4. You can’t scale a business by doing everything yourself. Partly because you don’t have enough time, partly because you’re probably not good at everything. Finding people who can do certain things better than you can will free you up to do the things you’re really good at.
  5. Creative business owners need to grow and develop their skills to grow and develop their businesses. You’re not going to start at 100, it takes time and patience to get there, but everything you do should move you forward.

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