My podcast interview with designer Atul Bansal on his journey to co-founding Sheila Bird Studios, an award winning interior design and property placemaking agency in Manchester.
Host: Shiraz Anwar (@madeinmanc)
Guest: Atul Bansal, Co-founder of Sheila Bird Studios (@sheilabirdstu)
Listening Time: 38 mins
Sponsored By: Alpine Creative
A special thank you to Aaron from Alpine Creative for all your podcasting advice and guidance
Quick links to
Quick links to transcript of our podcast interview
I’m a morning person
Dyslexia is my superpower
What we do
What Manchester does well
Can we employ you to be the troublemaker
Atul, first of all, I just want to say thank you very much for taking the time out to come and speak to me.
We’ve known each other for a while now and what’s interesting is that we’re having this conversation at 5:09 AM 🙂
I’ve just had my lunch 😀
So you’re a bit of an early riser, arent you?
Yeah, I don’t like being asleep. I think I’m missing something, if that makes sense. So I tend to get up at two o’clock, 2:15 to 2:20am most days. Yeah quick shave and a shower into work. It’s not really work. Seems quite fun.
The world’s at peace, the air’s fresher, the air smells beautiful and it’s quite nice to come into Manchester from all the traffic going the other way.
I have to say driving into Manchester at that time. It feels like you’ve got city to yourself. Yeah, very atmospheric.
It’s really, really good and it clears your mind. I put my roof down in the car and I drive in and it’s really cold, but it sort of clears your mind and that makes you ready for the day. That’s great. I recommend it you try every day.
Yeah, I would definitely recommend it, but perhaps maybe build up to before trying it every day 😀
That’s cool. It’s cool 🙂
I’m curious when did you start getting up so early? Was that from a younger age or…
I think, I did it when I was, I was very young. I was, always used to get up very early, early and, apparently I was quite happy sitting in my bed playing with myself and rattling etc, whatever, you know.
So yeah, I’ve always liked the mornings. I think, I became obsessed with the mornings when I had so much to do and not a lot not or not enough time to do it. And I thought hang on a minute, I can actually do this if I actually spend an extra two hours in the morning. So I’m a morning person, not an evening person.
It was just something that was kept naturally sort of occurred within, within your lifestyle?
Yeah, I think so. And, I think it’s something that I’m really lucky that I enjoy, you know, I love the early morning. Your brain is so much clearer. It has this downside. I mean, between what, 14:30 and 15:30, my brain goes to jelly.
I’ve got a time, a time slot when nobody asked me anything meaningful in the office cause all I reply back is with jibberish usually. So I body resets itself about an hour a day and that is the time slot. So, but as long as I’m aware of that, it’s fine.
What time do you go to sleep then?
It varies. Normally I’m in bed by about 21:30, 22:00, Fall asleep within about 15 seconds and nothing can wake me I don’t have an alarm clock wouldn’t, wouldn’t wake up if it went off anyway, so I deep sleep and wake up at two o’clock.
I guess you’re a bit ahead of the curve because in the last 10 years, you’ve got all of these productivity gurus, they state the benefits of waking up early and some of the things that you’ve just mentioned, you were just just doing that sort of naturally…
I think so. I think it’s just your, every, everybody’s time clock is different, isn’t it? Yeah. Some people love, love the evenings because it gives them quietness at the end of the day and the whole world’s asleep and you can get on and do what you do. ButI think is interesting and evening internet is busy but in the morning. It’s not right. So the world is asleep.
If that makes sense. So I prefer the morning. I think you’ve got, you’ve got a better chance of discovering things in the morning.
I think it’s cool.
What’s interesting to me is you mentioned the sort of quiet time…
And I think that’s sort of one of the key benefits, isn’t it really of you being up that early where it allows you, it gives you that space to think and, you know, digest and think about the day ahead or perhaps maybe what’s happened in the past.
I think it depends on how your brain is wired up. I mean, a lot of people, you know, I’m hopeless at numbers, so I’ll never even attempted numbers. Right. I try in the morning, it’s gibberish and garbage. So I think a lot of people, tune their minds to think in a certain way and I think that’s the issue.
I think the eyes are better in the morning. I think there were more wide awake your brains wide awake. You can see lines, lines on a piece of a peice of paper more clearly. But you still can’t see Excel spreadsheets. Yeah, they should be banned.
I’m with you on the numbers. You know, I’m dyslexic, so look, looking at numbers, it’s, it’s, yeah, not, not my strongest.
I think dyslexia is a gift. Look I’m dyslexic as well. I think dyslexia gives you true freedom and I think, it’ll be a gene that everybody wants in the future. Yeah. So much rubbish…
That’s an interesting take …
Well, I think it’s true though because I think you’ve got so much pressure on your brain to absorb all sorts of rubbish that’s around you. Dyslexia just basically filters it straight away. And, you know, there was a time when people who are dyslexic were never ever discovered it.
So people then thought it was a problem. Some people thought was an affliction and I think we’re moving into the world and generation where actually they’re the special people, you know, there are people who’ve got real skillsets their brains were tuned to do certain things. Think in a certain way, you know, and my dyslexia gives me strengths and certain things somebody else’s gives them strength and a different thing.
You know, and I think, I think you aren’t in a balanced world anymore. I think. I think being different is actually what makes people interesting. So I think dyslexia is a big thing.
And speaking of differences, Sheilabird Group, that’s the name of your, your company.
Well maybe it depends when you, when you post this really…
Yeah. So the, ‘The’ is being dropped and the ‘Group’ has been dropped, It’s not going to be called Sheila Bird Studios. And the name actually reflects how we’re changing as a business. I’ve got a new partner, called John Humphreys, ex Neighborhood. He’s joined us about two months ago.
It’s all official. The paperwork’s been done, solicitors have been charging us for all sorts of different advice. And he’s now partnering in what we do. So I’ve got, I’ve got an equal partner, which is fantastic. And so he started to make some changes to the way we talk to our customers and our clients and our other partners.
So ‘The’ and the ‘Group’ was a hangover from, a very, very long time ago when we were, you know, part of lots and lots of different companies. So I’m, I’m really looking forward to, yeah. So that’s, so the name is slightly changing but only the add ons, so its going back to what it already was.
So it’s interesting, isn’t it like the word Sheila Bird, and I can see why you have so changed the name to add Studios cause it better reflects what you’re doing.
I think so, I think so
One of the things I perhaps maybe I should have done earlier is, asked you what exactly it is you do. So I obviously I know and some of the people who will listen to this podcast who already know you will know, but those who don’t…
What do we do? Okay…
Sheila Bird, We started some 35 years ago, started off as a design and build company and it became a monster, a very large and slowly I became disillusioned with the fact that, you know, the business driven by margins about what products you specified, and less and less about design and design thinking.
It happened at the same time as the world wanted more and more thinking about spaces, et cetera. So the business changed its way in that, that happened because Jeff, my partner died and Sheila died as well. That’s what I call Sheila Bird it’s named after her. It went from this very, very large organisations down to two people. And that was nearly 15 years ago.
And we’ve slowly grown what we do and, and, and we try to create spaces that people and businesses want, not follow trends.
I think that’s a big thing. And, you know, fast forward to where we are today. I mean, we were known for trendy, the most trendy office, all that sort of stuff and those sorts of things were a reflection of the time at that time and now things have moved on. And we do lots of work for major organisations and small organisations and really tiny organisations all with the same desire.
And that is to create something that their staff want. And that’s now changed slightly where we’re not just helping businesses move into spaces and create spaces that reflect what they’re about, but we’re now being asked by landlords to help them to design the building.
That was last year or the year before. Now they’re saying, look, can you help design what the building stands for? You know, what is its personality? Where’s does sit within the community, what is it’s culture?
And that’s been driven by developers understanding that clients and tenants and people who want to be in buildings are no longer making decisions purely on square footage, costs, where it is?
Not on the design, but actually what does the building stand for? Culturaly is it a fit for our organisation? Does it reflect the personality of our staff and what we believe in?
Is it green? You know, does it love the planet? You know, all those sorts of things. So really, really important. And there’s actually not a lot of skillsets out there that can understand that.
And then, you know, this year we’ve been pushed into spaces where actually we’re not looking at buildings, we’re looking at the spaces outside the buildings. We’re looking at gateway projects where you’re coming into cities.
So all those sorts of things, are taking our expertise and developing in a way. I’m really excited about, Where we’re doing a lot more placemaking where and what was the place making me not God knows another one of those buzzwords. So we’ve been asked to, to create something that supports the thinking around, a piece of land or an area and more importantly, how that is connected to the people around it and existing communities around it.
So we’re not landing a big spaceship in a glass box in the middle of nowhere. We’re actually trying to build something from the ground up and that’s really, really exciting. And that’s one of the reasons why John Humphreys has joined us because his expertise is in that larger piece of work. And also clients are saying to us, well, you know, this is fantastic.
And we’re saying to them, look, if we want to just to do this, we’re not interested in doing X, X and Y, then handing it all over to a production house or a design studio or a graphics or branding organisation to take the messaging and turn it into some visual content that people would show and we want to do all in one go, it makes it more powerful because you can influence how something looks and feels, but understanding who it is and what it is and that has to be created.
It’s not just about an interior. It’s about, you know, how that space is communicated outside, visually, with moving images, still images with sound or music, smells. So I think, I think that’s the world that we’re slowly moving into.
And you know, it just seems like a natural step forward for us and it’s been really exciting because in the space of three months, since we started to talk about this whole way of looking at things, the type of work that we’ve been asked to do is just absolutely mind boggling and it really is mind boggling.
It’s super interesting. The area that you’re in and it’s sort of, you know, an extension of the, what they call the experience economy. Sort of people are, you know, you mentioned about sort of culturally what does a company stand for and it’s sort of move beyond that because companies have to exist within a space.
Yeah they do. And you know, that’s where I think you have to give credit to landlords and developers that are starting to understand that and looking to see how they might be able to help companies who stand for particular values, make sure that those properties also aligned to that, but then also challenge the ones that perhaps maybe, haven’t already sort of switched to this perhaps maybe new way of thinking
I think. I think, I think, I think that’s true, but I think also it’s worth bearing in mind that, you know, communities exist and cities exist, partly because of our variety. It’s not everybody has to do it.
Basically everybody right?, I think sometimes some people feel really, really safe wearing a suit and why can’t they?
Some people love wearing skirts blokes as well. Why can’t they?
Spaces are just the same. So not, it’s not one size fits all. You know, people, are striving and this is in everybody’s focus is on generation of a certain age group. You know, we must sort of support what they’re doing, et cetera. Appeal for new people, lose sight of the older generation, the millenniums or whatever you want to call them.
That’s not the right word actually, but older people who are so, so clever, so, so wise they’ve done it all, gen Z whatever you want to call them right.
I mean these people, a lot of them, want to get involved. So I think, I think the age is coming where older people are going to start coming back into business and actually start influencing and, and also helping people. So it’s not about young things all the time. So variety is really, really important. And some people might think, Oh God, that’s really boring, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not for them. Yeah.
Yeah. They will be something for you. But that might not be for you. What do they say, variety is the spice of life.
Well, variety’s, everything. I mean, you know, why do you go and buy a loaf of bread from a supermarket? It costs you less than 50p and then somebody and the you go and spend on one that costs £3.50 because you’ve got a choice. Yeah. And that’s the same way in terms of where you want to work, and where you want to live.
So you have to have choice. That’s what gives you, gives you power. And that makes a democracy, isn’t it? I think design can, if you’re not careful, end up being a dictatorship where everything is about Pinterest, everything’s about instant, instant gentrification or instant pink or instant blue, et cetera. And, that so, so wrong.
So, what have you seen that Manchester is doing well from some of the projects either you’ve worked on or other projects you’ve seen?
I think what Manchester does really well is, it supports all the good stuff and really shouts out about all the rubbish, you know, Manchester’s not shy about saying, why are you doing that? And I think, I think that’s really, really good. But over the last couple of years it’s been really interesting.
What Manchester is doing really, really well is its really proud of what it does. Okay. So, and you’ve got lots of varied lots of different types of developers doing amazing things and, and it actually all started to talk to each other, which is really encouraging. Where they’re saying, well how can we join up? How can our boundaries become a little bit less less firm? And I think that’s really interesting.
But I think the biggest thing about Manchester, it hasn’t lost this. I mean I came to this city 33 years ago, and somebody asked me why I stayed in Manchester now from down South, from down South. And this is really strange. I was actually telling this story to you yesterday.
Two things happened when I came to Manchester, and when I was a student here, the first thing is I walked into a pub and I got served. I didn’t have to wait cause you know, cause already knows, I mean not white I’m Asian. So, you know, discrimination was something that I grew up with and I’ve accepted as being normal. And I thought, wow, this is weird. I got served, didn’t have to wait for ages.
Was that when there were like signs like no, no blacks, no dogs, no Irish?
Oh, that happened when I was living in other parts of the country. In Manchster I didn’t see those. Right. I was in the city center. I think I was actually in Piccadilly gardens. Right. And I went to have a drink somewhere there and I can’t remember where it was.
And I got served straight away. I thought I quite like this place. And then, and then, and then also the other thing that happened when I was in Manchester as well, that same week, I think this was, I think it was freshers week.
And I was walking with somebody, I can’t remember her name. It’s terrible, isn’t it? And she was behind me, for some strange reason. And this guy, an Afro Carribean guy on a, on a bike, sped back and sped past her, grabbed her handbag and carried on.
And I actually shouted, Hey mate, what’d you do that for? And he turned around to me. So he said actually, is she with you? I’m sorry, brother and handed me the bag back and then went off and I thought I’ll have this place.
So, so that’s why I stayed in Manchester., I think it’s got a lovely cultural honesty about what it is and it, and it gives people space for who they are and that hasn’t changed, you know, and it’s immensely proud of what it believes and stands in. So, I’m very lucky to be here
Yeah, it’s, it’s a special place and it’s the people, isn’t it? It’s the people in the community that helps make that.
Yeah, what is a city, but it’s people.
That’s always a phrase I just love, you know, and the people out there and they can’t be heard more importantly than it’s no longer a city.
Exactly. I mean, you can have these amazing, beautiful designed spaces, but without the people there to populate it
And do all of these amazing, interesting, crazy, experimental type things. Then what’s the point?
There is no point. There is no point.
So we’ve touched on some of the things that like Manchester does well. What are some of the things, that we’re not so good at or where we could improve?
Oh God. We could sort our roads out, sort our transport out, the basics, you know, at the moment it creaks and it groans.
It’s interesting, isn’t it
And it’s even beautiful when it groans and creeks, you know,
I mean it’s, you know, it’s high on the agenda at the moment. But I wonder if they’re even thinking about placemaking or bringing that sort of experiential side to the whole sort of transport infrastructure and experience of, of that journey.
I think they are thinking about it to be honest to them and it’s a really hard thing to do.
You know, I mean one way of solving the problem of, you know, transport is not actually rely upon bringing everyone into city centers, they should encourage growth outside of the city.
And that’s actually starting to happen. And that’s not because, the city’s making out, its becuase people are saying well actually, I don’t need to travel in to do my job. I can do it from here, from Altrincham from other areas to Stockport and you know, and I think more effort should be given to support that sort of thinking. But you know, the roads are terrible.
I mean, you know, the pollution is getting worse and worse and worse. If we had a great transport system, people wouldn’t have to drive into work and they can convert every single road into parks, it’d be be amazing wouldn’t it?
You know, that would be brilliant
And I guess, you know, it takes sort of a bold ambition and vision of the people who are in charge of, you know, making decisions on that sort of level to think more holistically.
And sort of big picture around actually, you know, what, what can we do practically? But actually what could we do that allows us to perhaps maybe be a little bit more bold, a little bit more imaganitive.
I think it is difficult because people aren’t empowered long enough. Right. Somebody’s sitting there and they’re elected for the next three or four years. I mean, you know, that’s all the time they’ve got.
So they go for big pieces of work, that get them noticed as opposed to some long term thinking, but hey ho, let’s not get into politics.
Yeah let’s not do that.
It’s too early in the morning for that, it’s a dangerous world
I’m curious to get to know, how did you get into design and interior design? Is it something you were thinking about as a kid
I think it was, I think I got into it cause of drugs and lets to be honest about this I mean, I did art art in an art college, which was a boy school and the art, the art room was in a hut at the bottom of the cricket pitch.
And Mary, our art teacher, used to hand out joints whilst we were learning draw, you know, it was a really sort of surreal place. So I think it’s, I think I discovered, I discovered that I was not, I was not good at anything and I didn’t know why. I didn’t know I was dyslexic.
And then I discovered I could draw, and I enjoyed it. So that’s actually how I got into art. And then the rest of it was a happy accident. Yeah, I did my BA in Wolverhampton, got a first class in three dimensional design, which is wood, metal, plastics. And I specialised in doing that with interiors towards the end.
And then I came to Manchester to my MA in Interiors. And it was just a way of generating income out of something that I enjoyed doing. And that was drawing. I didn’t really know much about interiors and I don’t think knowing how to do interiors is important. I think you can learn, learn all about that sort of thing. But the basics of everything and my life has been about drawing.
So if you want to be a French poet, right?
The first thing you need to be is fluent in French and then you can be creative with the words. So if you want to design something, the way you communicate is through drawing.
So you have to learn how to draw. Same sort of analogy. And then I get frustrated when people come to us and say, can we do with the placement with your, can we come work with you? And none of them could draw, you know, they’re very, very good on computers, etc and the processes.
But it just focuses your mind in a different way. And I think I find it quite frustrating. So I think drawing is the key. That’s why I got into one day.
Yeah. That’s really interesting. I have to say, you know, you’d quite regularly post your little doodles and sketches and yeah, it’s, it’s nice to see because I guess it’s related to some of the projects that you’ve been working on.
They’re all related
See everything I draw in the mornings or whenever I do it, was all the thought process. So some people make notes, some people, and these are the sad people. Get a book out and put a highlighter pen through the middle, right. And plot all these things so they have to go back and read it again. And that’s a sad existence. So I make notes.
But remember that might be in your perspective as a sad existence but for them, it might be..
Yeah, no no I agree with you. I’m just sort of, they’re my yellow notes they’re my highlighter pens. So when I’m doing something or working on something, sometimes your brain goes in a different direction end up doing a scribble, which you don’t think actually is related, but actually it is.
And it’s a part of the thought process that we’re constantly going through when we’re looking at a piece of work. So if I’m drawing a flower, it’s because I’m doing a space where, light or texture is important. And so that’s my way of animating my brain, if that makes sense.
It’s really interesting when you’re trying to push a piece of color around on a piece of paper and you’re trying to blend it with another color and you can do it and, and it actually gives you freedom.
So you don’t actually think about a fabric as such. Think about what tones can sit next to each other and, and how a color changes when it becomes transparent. And I think that’s really interesting.
I mean you mentioned that you’re Asian. And the industry that you’ve, you’ve come into, it’s not a traditional sort of industry, that’s promoted within the Asian culture.
And again, being a bit more stereotypical here, but it’s a sort of a common experience.
In that community
It is and I had to lie to my mother
To tell her what I was doing. She never really understood I told her I was an architect. She thought once she understood that I design buildings, if I told her I was an interior designer, she’d ask you, well what’s that? So, yeah, but tradition is traditions aren’t they?
Some are good and some are bad. So I think being Asian has helped me in my career in that world. I’m working because I’m different. I stand out and people want for a strange, some strange reason to work with people who want different, whether it gives them confidence or I’m not sure, but you know, so being non white in a totally white world was really, really helpful.
You know, people thought, you know, oh wow, look at him sort of thing. You got noticed and it was great.
I think, it comes again down to the talent that you have. but also it’s, you know, it’s your background, your upbringing, just the way that you view the world is maybe slightly different and you’re able to bring sort of a more unique voice and attention to detail to the projects that you work on. Which again, combined with that talent, you know, is valuable in the marketplace.
I, I think, I don’t have a talent. All, I’ve got this ability to connect to our customers
That’s a talent
Well, I suppose so. I mean, you know, I’m a good listener. And also I’m really good at understanding what people don’t want and what they want. And sometimes what they want isn’t actually on the surface.
You have to dig deep for that. And I think listening to people and having a passion about what you believe is actually what makes things happen. You know, somebody love loads of instead of, no, we can’t do that. That’s never, it’s never, you don’t stop there. You keep pushing and pushing. You may not get to the final outcome you want, but you get very, very close to it. So I think people want to be pushed. People want to be challenged.
And, most people have boring lives. Okay, let’s be honest about this. And you know, I’m very fortunate. I’ll really love what I do and I don’t think, I, I can’t believe I get paid for doing what we do. But most people haven’t got that.
So when we work with people in businesses, we try and make the whole thing really, really exciting and positive and energetic, and that gets them excited and why wouldn’t it? You know? And that opens up doors in their brain and it allows them to do certain things. And I think that’s really cool. You know,
That was one of the things I was going to ask you as well because you’re, you’re quite well known for, being bold and ambitious, but also challenging your clients in terms of perhaps maybe perceptions in their own mind of what they think they want, but then also helping them along that journey to be a bit more bold and ambitious in terms of what they could do.
Yeah, it’s interesting, you know, quite a lot of recent appointments last year and some of this year where we’ve been, where we know, well…
Can we employ you to be the troublemaker?
And you know, what’s that mean? You know, and they’ve got ’em but they don’t know what it means. You see and I think that’s what’s interesting, which is why, I thought really hard about where we’re going as a business and why I asked John to come and join us. Right. So what’s that mean?
Well look, you know, they’ve got architects, they’ve got a development plan and they’ve got a scheme and they’re going to start. But they think something’s missing. And I said, can you come in and just actually just look at what’s happening and just, you know, push us and cajole us infact cause trouble. I mean, I don’t like the word. I do like the word troublemaker.
But you can’t actually put that on a feed document can you?. So, so you know, please employ me. I’ll cause trouble. It doesn’t work that way. So we call it making noise. Okay. So, you know, and we’ve done quite a few successful partnerships with developers and owners of buildings, where we’ve created some noise. I think we’ve helped hugely to push that building into a place that it wouldn’t be before.
We get lot of satisfaction out of that, and it’s interesting for customers that know us really well. They’re not too concerned about what the deliverables are. People who don’t know us they’re really concerned about what, what the deliverables are.
So we tend to put together proposal documents based upon something that they want to hear, not what we want to do. And then we just throw it in the bin and then we take them on the journey, which is actually what they want us to do and to date. So far it hasn’t gone wrong.
So, so, so causing trouble, making noises. I think what we’re really good at doing, and that’s the bit that gets us noticed, but we do lots of other things that are super sweet for young businesses who knock on our door where there’s two people, three people. And say, can you help us with our space?
Yeah, we’d love to and haven’t got the money to pay us, but we’ll do it anyway. Because that’s sort of doing that sort of thing for young people is it’s cheaper than buying face cream. It keeps us young. Yeah. You know, and it allows you to do things with people who haven’t got any inhibitions they haven’t got a set way thinking and that’s liberating, so what, where was the question starting from? Feel like, I’m just rambling on now.
No, actually, no, I’ve forgotten myself. It’s just that time in the morning, isn’t it? But what I was gonna say is, you know, we’ve talked about, some of the great things you do and why you do them and some of the benefits around that.
But from the actual business point of view, you know, you actually set up a business, so that allowed you to do what you currently love doing. So was that just learning on the job, setting up the business, doing the finances, you know, you said you’re not very good with numbers…
No, I mean, you know, I had a great teacher, you know, Jeff, set the ground rules up, set some, set some spreadsheets up I could understand. When he passed away, he handed me those spreadsheets, you know, and I think he almost knew he was going to die. I learned a lot from from him and that was not to be afraid of numbers, like, not to be afraid of finance.
He said, look, you know, people talk about business plans and working out what the future is. He said, you know, all it is is about predicting things. So he said, money is the only business plan you need, right? If you’ve got lots of money, it doesn’t really matter.
Cash is King
Cash is King. So he said, if nothing, he said, he said, so basically I know, now, I know I’ve got enough money in the bank to run my business for the next two years, so pay my ovehead and do I need to do.
So that’s my business plan. Right? So I’m not too concerned about growing my business. I’m not interested in that. I’d want to employ lots of people. I want to encourage lots of people. So when we know we, we, we partner with people who are brilliant lighting designers who are amazing, sound engineers who people who understand things much better than us.
And sometimes those businesses are really young businesses. So we might employ 10, 15, 5, 4, 3, whatever, outside consultants who are young businesses, to work on a project for us. So we may have an internal teams, only five of us remember, we’re so tiny, we may have an external team of say 30 or 40 on a project. And that way you pick the right partners per project cause they’re not always the same for every single project.
And getting customers to understand that is, is actually was a challenge. Not anymore. You know, why am I going to Liverpool today, you ask. Well, last week I got asked to go to meeting for a client client that we’ve only just worked for once before and he said to me, Atul, you’ve been explaining lots and lots of things.
We’ve learnt a lot about how you work and the sort of things that you do over the last two years on this project work together. So we bought a building in Liverpool. Nobody knows about it yet. It won’t become public till next week when it will hit the news. It’s 60,000 square feet and becomes vacant at the end of October. We’ve got a budget, you know, 3 million pounds. Go pick the team. You go and pick the team that you want to work with.
And you tell us what you want to do. You explained to us what you see the vision is, we want you to handle the branding of it and how it will talk to its community, how it talks to the people in the city, and create a space, that you’re proud of and we know it will move, and we know it will let. You know, and that’s amazing.
That is amazing.
We know, you know, obviously your fees are important but not important at this stage. We have an overall budget. You know what that is. We think we know what it is, but we’ve learned while working with you, that’s not actually always the right thing to do.
I mean that trust, that trust that they’ve given you.
It’s huge, it’s huge and I’m honored, honured. And I wish I could say who they were, wish I could say where the building was. Maybe that’s another time. But for them to say that is just lovely and really worked with them once before, you know? And that’s as I say, incredible.
It’s an amazing testament.
Yeah, I think so. And I think that sort of work that we really like. And then once you, you see, if you get that culture right, out of that space that you’re designing and the people who move into it will automatically find it.
You know, and that’s the key, isn’t it? You’re not actually selling a commodity. You’re selling a, a ticket to a world or to a community. And I know it sounds really cheesy, but actually, it’s what people they want to be part of something.
Something that’s right. You know, whether it’s left, whether it’s right, whether it’s gay, whether it’s normal, whether it’s looking after planet, whether it’s destroying the world, you know, it depends.
You know, there’s those, those spaces are available for everybody, you know, and people have a great way of understanding what something stands for and whether it’s honest or not, and whether it’s trying to be honest, which actually is enough for some people, you know, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I do now sort of thing, thats cool
Very cool. You know, these are all real, really positive and, and really inspiring. But I’d also like to know, you know, maybe professionally and personally. What was some of the sort of the biggest challenges that you faced and how did you end up overcoming them?
Oh God, I’ve had a few of those. I think the biggest challenge is saying no to client. Yeah. When you said sticking to your principles, yeah, I decided a long, long time ago. And it’s easy to do when you’ve got small business in terms of overhead right. No, we’re not going to take that job on.
Why? Because it’s not right for us. I don’t believe in what the client is trying to do. Like the briefs, rubbish. I think the end product is focused in the wrong direction. It doesn’t excite us. So I spent a lot of time saying no to pieces of work. Purely because it didn’t think it was what we wanted to do also…
Was that something you learned the hard way by working with those quote unquote bad clients?
No. Have, and I’ve not had bad clients. Right. I think that don’t think that’s the issue, all clients are good sometimes they don’t know what they want. Right. And whether it’s the right thing. So, so we have a test, is it going? Does this exciting? It’s interesting. Right? And if it doesn’t pass, those two points it never gets any further.
Right. So if it’s super, super exciting and we say to customers, we’ll how, how do you charge? I said, well, if it’s, if the work is really boring, we’ll charge you a lot of money. Right. And if the works really interesting, we charge you less. And that actually is true. Yeah. Right. So we priced ourselves out of work because it’s…
Oh, that’s interesting 😀
… Boring. Yeah. And sometimes they actually say yeah okay. And then, then you’ve got a real problem on your hands, and that does happen. And then you have to make that project interesting. So if we not interested at all or energised about the prospect, then don’t take it on.
And we get offered to do work that we know we can’t do. So we say no. If your rubbish at something, don’t say yes because it will be rubbish. You know? And if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. So those have been the grounding principles.
That’s really interesting
And if you’ve got a business that’s got 20, 30, 40 people, you can’t afford that comfort. So it’s your fault. It’s your fault if you set your business up to run that way. Yeah. So I set my business up to run with very, very small number of people.
So I’ve not got the pressure to say yes, to everything that comes to the door. And if anybody is setting up business, I’d give them that advice. Stay small, do the things you’re passionate about and you believe in and don’t do anything that your rubbish at.
And you know it’s wrong. It’s simple, you know, really is not rocket science. Now that’s what I think is a good business plan, you know, and make sure you, you know, you get more money than you need to spend and you get those two balances. Right.
Get the fundamentals right.
And the rest is fun actually. Yeah, the rest is just fun, you know, otherwise it becomes really boring, laborious and you don’t want that shit. I tell you,
I’ve got to say, I love that strategy of pricing in a project if it’s boring and then lowering the price if it’s more interesting just because of what you get out of it and what you’re able to give back 😀
And also lets be honest, you know? And sometimes we don’t get it right all the time. I had loads of mistakes.
I mean, I remember we did a piece of work for somebody, for an old building in Northern Quarter. We got to different parts of the project and we do something and then we bill and we do another stage and we bill and we got to a third phase. And the guy, I’m not going to go on any further. And I said what? He said, yeah, I just don’t think you’ve got it right Atul.
I mean, we’ve gone, I know we’ve got to this stage, etc, etc. And, but I don’t want to carry on because I don’t think what we’re trying to do is right. I was shocked, it was the first time in my life where I’ve had an experience with a client where he’s said yes to us and he said, and it hasn’t carried, all the way through but stopped because he thought we’ve got it wrong.
So I said to him, I’m really, really sorry and we should have known. And I said to them, no problem. I said, tell you what I think, I think, I think he paid about 15, 16 grand, I think at that stage. I said send me an invoice and I’ll send you all your money back. He said, you what? I said, no, seriously, I, we should’ve known that this was a problem and we didn’t. So we got carried away.
So I apologise. And he said are you being serious I said yes, yeah, just send me an invoice and I, so he sent me an invoice next day and I repaid him in full. Right. He found that quite difficult to take and you know, I felt right doing it cause we should have known, and the guys in the office said why are we doing that? I said because it’s the right thing, you know.
OK, fair enough. And it’s interesting, about four months later I was asked to go and see somebody to do a piece of work, which ended up being one of our best pieces of work. And as I was waiting to go into the office to meet this guy for the first time, the owner of the business, out walks that client.
And he said, wow Atul how are you doing? So, I said, how are you doing what you’re doing? Oh, well I do lots of work with so and so and so and so. So, and there’s, my client sat in the room, future client, and he turned around to me. He said, you have to use him.
Yeah. So that little bit of honesty. And the guy says, well, you’ve got the job before we had talked about anything else that turned into a lovely, lovely piece of work.
That’s a lovely story
And you know, and, so other challenges in my life, I think the other challenges of my life is, is, when things go wrong is when you’re too arrogant. Yeah. And it bites you and you got to be humble.
Yeah, I think, I think, I think those are the only two things really. I think there are no other big challenges. You make your own problems and just go with the flow. Don’t have any to pre pre preconceived ideas, you know, and don’t worry about things. It’s not difficult really.
Yeah. I mean, the more complexity you add in your life, then the more more things you potentially have to worry about and solve.
Things go wrong.
Yeah. Don’t let it happen. Like it’s simple
Well, I think on that note, well we’ll bring it to a close. So I would personally like to say thank you very much Atul.
It’s been complete honor to listen to your journey and I hope it’s inspired others who are, who are listening on their own personal journeys and yeah, make sure you give a Atul a follow.
So I’ll put that in the, in the show notes and a little bit more background information because I should have done a bit more of a proper introduction to who you are, but hopefully if you’ve listened through the episode, you’ll, you’ll have a much better understanding.
Thank you very much.
You’re more than welcome, have a naughty day all 😀
Thanks for sharing your Dream 2 Venture Atul
You can find Atul on Twitter @SheilaBirdGroup and at Sheila Bird Studios
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