I INTERVIEWED TARA BENNETT, AN IMPRESSIVE YOUNG CREATIVE WHO IS MAKING WAVES IN ECOMMERCE WITH HAND MADE AND ETHICALLY SOURCED HOMEWARES IN PROVIDER STORE. DRAWING FROM THE PRACTICAL AND THOUGHTFUL ETHOS OF JAPANESE DESIGN, SHE HAS BUILT A SMALL EMPIRE BASED ON SLOWING DOWN AND APPRECIATING THE QUALITY OF THE THINGS WE FILL OUR HOMES WITH.
Lilli : We’re here today in Surry Hills with Tara from Provider store for The March Series, celebrating women in business in Sydney! Thank you for having us!
Tara : Thank you for including me!
L : We’ve been fans of Provider for a while, we love your Instagram, but for those who might not know who you are, can you give us an elevator pitch?
T : Sure! Provider is an online destination that specialises in things from the home. Everything is hand made by me, or handmade by other local or International creatives, with an influence from Japanese design. Everything we sell is ethical, sustainable and recyclable, in a nutshell!
L : So that’s the short version - can you tell us the long version of how you got here?
T : I actually started Provider in 2012, it was a vintage store in Surry Hills with my three other housemates. It lasted only a short amount of time before we shut it down, and I put Provider aside for a couple of years. It wasn’t until I went to Japan four years ago for the first time, when I saw how the Japanese live their lives - the amount of respect they have for all their belongings - their design is paired back and practical. It made me realise how we live our lives in Australia, where everything’s so disposable, so fast paced and very trend driven, here today and gone tomorrow. We want something now and as soon as the next thing comes along we throw it out. So I came home from Japan with this inspiration of wanting to educate people on buying more intelligently and teaching people that good things take time, that when we buy something it can tell a story that makes us want to keep it. And that’s where Provider started.
L : I love that philosophy. So what does a day look like for you?
T : Every day is very different, which is why I love it so much, it’s never boring! Especially starting out on your own, you have to learn to do everything. A normal day would be coming in around 8:30, checking emails and orders, sending out customer and wholesale orders. Mainly I’m focusing on wholesale orders, producing stock for stores, or researching.
My favourite days are when I’m in product development, which is now, where I get to spend the days being creative, I get to draw and sew and paint - and it’s work!
So the days are very different. But it’s not always fun, a lot of the time doing finances, emails. But for the most part, it’s creating, which is my favourite thing.
L : I remember a mentor of mine once saying to me - whoever you think you are as a ‘creative’, that’s just a hobby unless you’re also a businesswoman and you learn to do the business side too.
T : I’ve heard that a lot! I’m lucky in the sense that I am quite entrepreneurial - I can thank me Dad for that, my sister and I both are! But, I’m definitely more of a creative person, business comes second and creative is first. But it’s not enough - you might have the most amazing product, but how are you going to market it? Because if no-one knows about it, no-one is going to buy it and you don’t have a business. So it’s about finding a balance, between that and not getting stuck down in focusing on getting stock out there … and also controlling the creating, as in, I could spend hours just looking at fabric!
L : Me too..! So if Japan was the driving influence for reviving the business, is it still? You’re in product development at the moment, are you still drawing from Japanese influences or has it shifted?
T : Not really! I’m definitely inspired by Scandinavian design, and I know that gets thrown around in Australia a lot…
L : Ikea…
T : Yes, even Kmart, makes it really accessible. For me, it’s not the aesthetic trend of Scandinavian design, it's the philosophy of how it's made. I was in Copenhagen last year…
L : … I know that because I read you blog all the time..!
T : Oh really?! Well, they had a whole exhibition about learning from Japanese philosophies, and the Scandinavian design draws from the Japanese design, and they actually go hand in hand. Everything ties back to that Japanese philosophy and paired back style. But I’m also influenced by a lot of other styles, I love Australian ceramics, but if I could live anywhere in the world it would be Tokyo, I think I’ll always have that special connection there.
L : I’ve never actually been to Japan! I really want to go now!
T : When I got back to Australia, I was adamant that I wanted to go back! But not speaking another language, it would be really tough. I came back and started learning Japanese.
L : What inspired your original trip to Japan?
T : I just love it! I’ve always loved Japanese design, reading Japanese authors, but going there, I didn’t realise how much it would blow me away. I went there, came back and quit my full time job three days later. And I’ve never looked back!
L : Amazing. So you’ve always been creative then? What did you study at university?
T : I’ve actually had many jobs! My creativity, I look back now and growing up, my Nan and my Mum would always be sewing, my Mum had her own label and make our clothes. When I was 15, I used to go to the local Vinnies and re-sew things. I never really saw it as being creative, but when I look back, I think, no-one else was really getting a ‘Nanna skirt’ and putting darts in it and making a dress.
But I actually was obsessed with journalism and all I wanted to do was host a Kids TV show or be a news reporter! So I studied Journalism after high school but I hated it in the end, so I put that at rest. and went back and studied Fashion and Business. and then worked in eCommerce for the last six years, and I still consult in eCommerce in fashion and help small businesses grow their online presence. So that's not the creative side, but I ended up studying two different things and then having a homewares brand! But it's all the path that lead me to where I am...
L : Us too, we both studied different things than we're working in now at Uni! It's definitely a journey.
T : I think so. If I had studied product development at Uni, I probably wouldn't be doing it now. Provider was natural, it was just a hobby that I made my full time job.
L : Me too... So as a small business owner, can you tell us about how you financially funded your business?
T : So I started Provider with no financial backing at all. Not even savings in my bank account, and I've still never had financial help. It's been hard, very hard. But I look back now and I think it's the best because it's helped me make really smart business decisions because I don't have money in the bank to play with.
L : You have to get creative...
T : You do! You have to really back what you do. So if I design something and I want to put it into production, I have to make the call to send it to production and put my cash flow into it. So you have to REALLY back it. And sometimes, you know, you think somethings really great but not everyone love it... But it's taught me a lot about cash flow, money in, money out, I might get a big wholesale order - but then you've got to pay for your stock. So it's about understanding that process. I'm at the point now where I'm starting to look at financially growing my business, it's the natural next step, I can't get too much growth now unless I have some sort of financial backing. It's in intimidating process! Especially when numbers come second, words come first for me. But I'm finding out that there are alternative ways to get money, it's not just going to a bank - because if you're a small business and you have an idea, no chance. I learnt that the hard way. Even banks that would lend me money would offer me a personal loan.
L : Even though it's for a business....
T : Exactly, it's a business! But there's lots of different ways now. My thing is I'm not going to loan money unless I know exactly where to put it. It is in bulk buying stock, is it in marketing... So I'm finalising my plan for the year.
L : That's such a huge step in a business, congratulations!
T : It's scary but it's exciting! I'm at that point where I need money now to grow.
L : Change of pace - what are you most excited about in life right now?
T : Yesterday was my 29th birthday...
L + E : Happy birthday!
T : Thank you! And I stood in the kitchen with my boyfriend, and it sounds so cheesy, but we were standing there in our beautiful home with Pocari and I'm in such a supportive relationship and I come to work happy every day. If I look back to when I was 21, to where I thought I would be at 29 - maybe not financially! - when you actually think about it, I'm pretty stoked. Things are pretty good.
L : I love that, those are the moments, right? All the cash flow shit, it's all worth it!
T : Definitely! As someones who's very work focused and driven, it's so important to stop and celebrate the small successes, even if they're like - you're first online sale, or coming up with a product, or just getting to have a nice meal together at home. You've got to stand back and smell the roses. Because you have to realise that we are quite lucky.
L : It seems like some of that is influenced by the Japanese philosophy of slowing down and pairing back and taking stock of what's around.
T : Definitely, the slow life. Even, I remember being in Kyoto, the first time they made a coffee pour over, I was watching them and it was taking sooooo long to do it! And I was so hungry, and by the time I got it, I was like, oh wow, that was a really nice experience, to take time to do things, to appreciate, not everything has to be rush, rush, takeaway and on to the next thing.
L : So do you follow design trends? Like, do you read design magazines?
T : Not really. I'll have a flick every now and then, but not really. I find it quite hard being, it's my job to be a bit ahead, but reading Australian design trends as we're a season behind. I need to be a little further ahead. I get most of my inspiration from travel. So whether it's meeting a creative on the other side of the world, or architecture, or even a good meal, that's where it comes from. But I do read Monacle religiously. And I feel like that's where a lot of my inspiration comes from there.
L : So we were talking before about your scents. So you only ever had two scents until very recently.
T : I've always been very receptive to scents, and I'm really worried about, you know when you eat something or smell something and it immediately sparks a memory, and it brings back memories! Like I can smell a perfume and it takes me back to house parties, or a nice dinner with my Nan. So I aim to create scents that aren't too familiar, that aren't too potent. So I started out with Cherry Blossom, which is in theme with what I do, it's quite subtle, I always recommend it to someone who isn't into overly scented things. And the other is Leather, tobacco and cardamon...
L : My favourite, I think. It's hard to choose...
T : That's for the more masculine side, so there was a feminine and a masculine, because I have a unisex brand. So I kept it that way for ages, no-ones ever asked for anything else, it's made stock very easy. Just 2 really great, premium scents. Why have 10 average scents when you can have 2 premium ones? So last year, I started working with a new scent company, and they took my into this little room and for 2 hours, I had to go through everything about my brand, what I like, what my customer likes, and break it down to what you love and what you don't. And in the end you come out with such customised scents of your brand.
L : Does everything start to smell the same after a while?!
T : It did! And I had a very bad headache and felt a bit dizzy! But it was such a cool process. And the story of the is that they've been around for over 100 years, they're not allowed to disclose who they work with and it's very secretive. So Hikari and Daku are the new scents, Daku is the more masculine one, designed to be burnt at night and Hikari is the more feminine, designed to be burnt throughout the day. I love it so much I actually rub it on my skin!
L : Is there a expansion into perfumes, different lines?
T : Not perfumes, but I'll continue to expand, there'e always opportunity to expand when you do things for the home. I'm collaborating this year with a few amazing people which I can't talk about just yet...
L : Stay tuned!
T : Stay tuned! Ideally, my next step will be to open a physical store.
L : Talk us through the cushions you handmake. Is this Shibori?
T : All the cushions are either hand painted or hand dyed by myself - So I hand dye them which is an old Japanese technique. So you bind the fabric and dip it in the dyes and end up with blue hands! I hand dye and hand sew them all. Or these are from a Japanese mill.
L : How did you learn to do this? Did someone teach you?
T : Everything I do I'm self taught. Self taught sewer, candle maker, dyer, everything. But you don't just do it over night, it takes a lot of practice. I remember the first 8 Shibori's that I did, the dye didn't stick to the fabric. So it's a long process.
L : Is it a special Japanese dye?
T : It's a natural plant dye, but you mix it with different things to make the dye stick to the fabric. But the way you get the darker colours is by oxygen, so when you pull it out, the air is what turns it blue. So you have to keep dipping... And don't wear white!
L : So you're obviously self taught in what you make, is there anything you wish you knew how to do?
T : I often think, I wish I didn't go to uni and I wish I got a trade. I wish I was a carpenter! I want to be able to pick up a hammer and build and make things. Should have been a tradie!
L : What's your favourite piece in the studio? Like, if there was a fire, what would you save?
T : This is the first prototype I ever got from my Thai ceramicist. So I flew to Bangkok and went to her shop, and built this beautiful relationship with her, she's my age. It's so cute, her and her boyfriend have a little cafe and we worked together there. This is the first piece she set out and it's the first time I actually imported things as well, with my logo on it. So that kind of started the whole, I'd been doing the Japanese candles for a while, but I feel this was a synergy between two creatives on the other side of the world. I've never put a candle in it and I'll never sell it... Don't drop it!
L : So you said you take a lot of inspiration from travel, where's your next travel destination?
T : This is very boring, but I'm actually going back to Japan in May!
L : Obviously!
T : I'm going back there for 15 days...
L : Work or pleasure?
T : Bit of both, my boyfriend and I are going, but I'm also sourcing new creatives. Which I'll have to brush up on my Japanese skills. And then, for my 30th, I'd like to be sitting on an Italian beach!
L : So what's you're biggest pinch me moment in business so far?
T : It's funny, when you have your own business, you don't really stop and think 'I've made it', you just keep rolling with it. But one thing I do really pinch myself is that I look around and I created this workshop, it's my lease, I took the risk of outlaying the cost and creating my own space that I love and that I can come to everyday. And I'm also now leasing the space to other creatives, so it's really rewarding to come in and seeing us all starting and building creative businesses in here. It comes back to supporting each other, and creating a supportive community. So that's pretty special.
L : Definitely! Congratulations on Provider Store and all your hard work. We can't wait to see what you do next! Thank you so much for having us today.