May 8th 2011
22 year old me drives into the city to register my business name. Like, literally in-person, at a stale government office wearing my Sunday best. Little did I know that I could do it online, from the comfort of my own lounge. This would be the first of many, many mistakes to come.
‘Smack Bang Designs’, aka, me, myself and I, operate from my dimly lit apartment in Clovelly. It was an old art deco apartment with a quasi-illegal bathroom, suspected rodents in the kitchen and displaced floorboards that let the cool winter air whip itself around my frostbitten toes. ‘Humble’ beginnings, alright.
I complete the branding for my biggest client so far; Orchard St. who I randomly meet on Gumtree, of all places. Orchard St. is the first project that I am able to really show my capabilities across an array of touchpoints. A big thanks to Kirsten for believing in me, this project put Smack Bang on the map for the very first time.
Smack Bang pulled up her big girl pants and moved into her very first office… Well, a shared office, where we won’t even allowed to play music or eat tuna. But it was great, I even got dressed most mornings. Smack Bang now consisted of a 2 metre squared space mapped out by masking tape on the dusty floor. We were official. Sometimes, when I was feeling rebellious, I would rest my foot outside the tape line and not even pay extra rent for doing so.
By March 2013, almost two years after my rendezvous with the government office and the official piece of paper that said I was a ‘business’, I was so busy I barely had time to scratch my nose. I had a list of clients demanding work, a list of clients waiting for me to start on their projects and a list of client enquiries sitting in my inbox who I hadn’t even had time to reply to yet.
Things were really heating up. I hadn’t left my desk in what felt like years and was barely eating enough calories to sustain my 16 hour workdays. I had three options; a). Go to sleep and never reemerge from under my doona. b). Start turning down projects even though I really wanted to do them. c). Hire a designer to help me get through the work.
As appealing as option A was, I went with C and hired my very first designer, Maria! Apart from having no idea what superannuation was or how to pay it, my first foray into employee-dom was pretty sweet. I was very lucky Maria thought my jokes were funny, otherwise she might have picked up on the fact that I had no clue what we were doing.
Maria and I were getting a little too cosy sharing our 2 metre squared masking tape cell. It was time for our next big move – our very own studio in Chippendale. Our new studio was a whopping 30 square metres. It was expensive, and I remember feeling the sudden urge to vomit as I signed the lease. But by this stage, I’d become fairly accustomed to biting off more than I could chew – a habit that would see me through the next 5 years and beyond.
On a threadbare, shoestring budget, we made a trip to Bunnings and built our own desks in my garage at home with my boyfriend who didn’t realise it at the time, but was about to become Smack Bang’s very own handyman, gardener, building, electrician, plumber and therapist all wrapped up into one.
I hired two people that would change the course of Smack Bang forever.
- Erika, the uber talented designer that helped me establish the Smack Bang signature aesthetic, our brand DNA and an impeccable filing system. Erika still holds the best interviewee gaffe award to this date; on arrival to her interview, she fell down an entire flight of stairs, landing in a pile on the floor. Maria wasn’t sure whether I hired her on merit or because I was too scared I’d be sued for OH&S reasons.
- Ryan, the incredibly smart and hard-working wing-man that worked alongside me to transition the business from a flailing hot mess into an actual company with paying clients.
After hiring a few more staff and growing the business like wildfire, I hit a big road bump in my journey. I had to fire a staff member for the very first time. It was single handedly the most horrifying experience of my life and still to this day, firing is my absolute least favourite part of being a boss.
2014 kicked off with a bang after meeting, by chance, a woman named Pru. Pru became my business coach, confidante and eventually, great friend. As a mentor, she helped me play to my strengths, hone in my vision and kept me accountable to my passions.
By this stage I am working 70-80 hours a week and continually telling my partner that I’d ‘be home for dinner’, which I seldom ever was. Luckily he’s a patient man.
We’ve now grown to 6 staff, have about 200 clients on our books and have somehow already outgrown our Chippendale studio. I set my sights on a beautiful space above an art gallery in Woollahra, and we move in 5 days later!
The new digs are legit. We even have a meeting room for the first time. Well, ‘legit’ apart from the slow, sometimes absent wifi, no kitchen, no air-con and no heating. But we were happy, and were producing some of our best work yet.
A big thanks must go to El Topo for keeping our Fridays lubricated and for Bondi Junction Westfield for keeping our wallets far less lubricated. Speaking of which, high-fives to Westfield for giving us the opportunity to rebrand your rooftop in Newcastle! It was a thrill to score the contract as the smallest fish in the pond at the time.
The first half of 2014 featured a very burnt-out Tess. I was completely overworked, stressed to my eyeballs and falling into a pit of despair. There was even a moment where my hair started falling out. I mean, I’m not surprised, at this point, my mobile number was still the only contact number on our website. #idiot.
Much to my disbelief, yet again, we quickly outgrow our new office space far too soon. We’d also outgrown the joy of washing our dishes in the bathroom sink and bringing hot water bottles to work to keep warm, but that was another thing. We install air-con and expand our team to the suite next door. We have our first official meeting room and a kitchen. Things are looking up!
We make our first million! I celebrate by pulling an all-nighter on a tight deadline. There’s no time for champagne.
Elodie and I become a solid team and begin pulling in some amazing clients together. A big thank you to P.E Nation, Elle Macpherson, Pampa, Bec & Bridge, Tuchuzy, Nakula, Blaq, and SO many more that take a chance on us.
We transition from MacMail to Gmail and from our Kikki K diaries to Google Calendar.
We test-drive a gazillion platforms for project management and CRMs.
We stop tracking invoices with a pen and paper, and upgrade to Xero. (Cue the confetti, am I right?)
We take on a bunch of projects and offer services without knowing if we can do it. But we were up for the challenge and had a passionate team ready to learn and tackle whatever came our way.
We confront our first and only ever (fingers crossed) legal battle, and begin greeting all the Smack Bang copycats that come our way.
We cheers to our biggest Christmas party yet at the cheapest venue we could find: my house!
As the end of 2015 hits, so does my adrenal fatigue. I now understand that you can only drive in the express lane for so long before the wheels start turning to mashed potato. I spend summer in the foetal position.
I hire my first CFO which means that I no longer have to spend 8 hours a week pouring over numbers and budgets.
We hire our 12th staff member and start to feel cosy in the studio again. I hold off moving for as long as I can.
Although still as busy as ever, my incredible team grant me the luxury of some psychological bandwidth and I could once again begin dreaming up new possibilities. Instead of zipping off to a retreat with my newfound time / headspace, I launch another business! We launched our little sister company, First Flight. First Flight is an online store selling website templates that are both affordable and drop dead sexy. My concept was to bridge the gap between those stock standard world-over template libraries and full-service agencies. And voila, my third business took its first flight!
I enjoy my very first holiday laptop-free and struggle to know who I am without my inbox.
We can’t handle the dodgy Woollahra WiFi any longer and decide to make the move, yet again. This time to the most beautiful studio in Surry Hills. Our now home. Its huge, glamourous and we have plenty of room to grow.
So far we’ve had over 30 eager-to-learn interns through our studio – to all of you out there thank you for being such superstars. We hope you loved the experience as much as we did.
Now that we’ve got our clients and projects swimmingly under control, we branch out to try something a little different – we launch our very first products. Along with some incredible contributors, I write a 40,000 word ebook, Calling The Shots. And, we delve into the world of publishing with Baskk, our bi-annual print magazine curated, written and photographed by the Smack Bang team.
Tomorrow, we celebrate our 7th birthday with the best team we’ve ever had and the most relaxed version of Tess we’ve all seen for all while. What. A. Result.
So, there you have it. This is the cliff notes of a seven year long narrative that contains far more ups, downs and inside-outs than I have time to write. It’s been wild. It’s been fun. And it’s been a very steep learning curve. And the best part is, there’s so much more to come! If you want to know how my team and I made it through alive – and continue to thrive – we explain the entire nuts and bolts, (alongside our favourite business experts we’ve worked with along the way) in our Calling the Shots ebook. It’s the kind of guide that would have saved me many of these mistakes and more, including that very first blooper back on that very first day.