Business Time

Five minutes with: Chris Baxter from Abstract Designs

Ever wonder what it takes to make a living out of your creativity? We caught up with Chris Baxter, owner-operator of Abstract Designs and the creator of the iconic wooden Kiwi that we feature on our Personal Banking webpage.

Chances are you’ve seen some of Chris’s work without realising it. He designs eye-catching art, building animals and objects out of flat wooden pieces. Those wooden moose heads and native birds that you see in bars, gift stores and the homes of your hip friends across New Zealand? That’s Chris.

The good news is that not only is he good at what he does, his business is booming too. Chris, along with his wife Jane, operates out of his shop on Cuba Street, Wellington, but sells to retailers nationwide. Chris designs every piece they sell, and the large majority are manufactured in-house. Chris maintains a simple philosophy to how he approaches his designs and business: “We sell what we make, and we make what we sell.”

Starting out: From market stall to retail shop

Chris and Jane started selling Chris’s work in 1992 from a stand at the Wakefield Market. Back then, Chris was an industrial design graduate working at a signage company. When that company closed down, Chris and Jane decided to take the leap into creating and selling the designs fulltime.

Within a year, Abstract Designs was a business and Chris and Jane were “able to survive” off the income. It didn’t happen quickly: it took about five years before they were able to make a living, and Chris reckons about ten before they were able to “make a good living”.Personal_Banking_Kiwi

The model of the business evolved over time, most significantly when they started wholesaling about eight years ago. Chris reckons that wholesaling is all about relationships, and it took a long time to build up trust and credibility with potential customers. The investment in time and effort paid off, however, and wholesaling now makes up the largest part of their business.

Despite the strength of their wholesaling arm of the business, Chris sees that maintaining a physical shop still offers a lot of value. “We test all of our new designs in our shop first,” says Chris. “That way we know what’s working and what’s not straight away.”
Keeping the ideas coming, and the lifespan of a new idea

When your business is based around creativity, the pressure’s on to keep the ideas coming. Chris says he used to “lie awake at night” worrying about running out of inspiration, but after years in the business, he now knows that new ideas will always come.

Which is a good thing, because new ideas are the lifeblood of any creative business. In fact, it’s this constant innovation that Chris credits with the success of Abstract Designs. “You have to innovate and continually evolve. The days of having one good idea and then living off it for the rest of your life are over…the lifespan of a product is getting shorter all the time.”

So what’s the secret?

When asked for what advice Chris would give a young designer starting out, he doesn’t take long to come up with some tips he’s learned along the way:

  • If you’re a retailer, invest in your physical location. Remember that shopping is a leisure activity—people want to feel good.
  • Similarly, make sure people have a good experience. Word of mouth is your most effective marketing tool—especially if your marketing budget is tight.
  • Don’t be scared of debt when you’re starting out—you need to grow your business. But don’t be flippant about it either.
  • You need a good head for both creativity and business. If you don’t have a business background, invest in your own learning and expertise early on.
  • Be ready to make compromises—both creatively and in business. If an idea isn’t financially viable or popular with your customers, ditch it and move on.

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