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Dinosaur Designs’ new era of business

Dinosaur Designs’ Louise Olsen and Stephen Ormandy are both business owners and husband and wife but perhaps more importantly they’re artists. So when you’re ‘creative types’ how do you go about the more formal side of running a business that exports to 20 countries, has a New York store, employs 70 people and is an iconic Australian brand?

The couple founded Dinosaur Designs 26 years ago alongside Liane Rosler, who has since moved on to other projects but remains a shareholder. They met at Sydney’s City Art Institute (which later became CoFA) and opened their first studio in Kings Cross in 1987. Fast forward to 2011 and so much has changed but everything is still designed and handmade in Australia; something they’re very proud of.

Dinosaur Designs produces distinctive homewares and jewellery, best known for being made from hand painted resin. These days they also use glass and silver. Olsen and Ormandy are very much still hands on designers. So how have they juggled the business with the creative side and what have been the challenges?

Creativity versus business

“We started as a very small business and we were lucky that we learned a lot, and made a lot of mistakes, while we were still small enough to be able to do that,” says Olsen. “We really grew into this company. We now have a really good idea of how it operates and how it works best for us.”

Ormandy explains that the decision to employ a business coach two years ago was one of the best things they ever did in terms of getting the structure right. “Until that point the business had grown very organically; we’d done some things intuitively but didn’t realise that others were causing us problems just because of the way things were structured.

“What our coach did was give us a basic corporate structure which you could use to run anything from a corner shop to Telstra. We divided the business into four [sales, production, creative and business] with a head of each. It was a fundamental shift but so simple.”

Olsen says the shift in mood throughout the company was dramatic, with people clearly knowing what their responsibilities were and no longer passing the buck.“It took all the complexity out of it and gave everyone a sense of purpose,” adds Ormandy. “Our staff all need to have an investment in us outside of just getting a pay cheque. Nearly everyone here is very creative.”

The pair think it’s important to get to know their staff as people and have informal Wednesday lunches where everyone sits down together and has some down time.

Australian made

They’re as passionate, proud of and driven about their business now as they ever have been. “It is a wonderful feeling to be manufacturing in Australia,” says Olsen. “It’s really important for us as designers to be close to the manufacturing. A lot of design decisions get made during the process. If you just draw something and send it away to be made in another country, you don’t have that same involvement, you can’t.”

Dinosaur has a classic range running alongside its new collections designed with longevity in mind. “We’re designers, not fashion designers,” she adds. “We want people to keep our pieces for years and still love them and feel they’ve transcended a trend that’s come and gone.” They recently loved spotting a piece for sale on eBay labelled ‘vintage Dinosaur’.

There is one very big downside to creating beautiful pieces which people love however, especially when they’re distributed overseas: people will try and copy them. As artists, Olsen and Ormandy can’t help but take this personally and they are prepared to take intellectual property (IP) cases to the courts.

Ormandy says: “With IP, you have to have a Doberman ready to go and there’s no point in taking someone on unless you’re prepared to go all the way.”

IP and exporting

So far they’ve won most of their IP actions, whether they’ve had to go to court or not. “It’s a bit like a game of chicken,” says Ormandy. “It can take a lot of time for the other guys to blink.”

He adds: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a multinational or a corner store. We usually win because they copy us directly and, because we hand mould everything, it’s easy to prove.” But it’s not worth getting too caught up in, Olsen says. “As a designer, you have to keep moving on and keep one step ahead.”

Olsen says IP is a major consideration when exporting. “All of a sudden you open up the floodgates to the rest of the world and you’ve got to be prepared for that.” The ease with which they can protect their work varies from country to country but it’s easiest and cheapest in the States and Ormandy says Australia could learn a lot from their system.

Olsen adds: “We come from an artistic background and we treat our work like artists. This has really given us a point of difference in the market, especially in New York. Of all the places you have to have something different, it’s there.”

Exporting brings with it all sorts of other challenges, many of which are overcome through trial and error. A shipment to Japan containing resin jewellery marked ‘tortoiseshell’ and ‘ivory’ indicating the colours was once held up in customs. “You have to think about packaging, price point and shipping. There are a lot of things which chip away at your profit margin,” says Olsen. “Australia is still our core market.”

The GFC cloud’s silver lining

They know how lucky they are to still have a New York store following the GFC. They opened their first store there 10 years ago and eight of 10 of those years have been “fantastic” but during the GFC, says Olsen, sales “fell off a cliff”.

Compared to most businesses in New York at the time, however, they got off lightly. And just as every cloud has a silver lining, Dinosaur was able to rent a new and improved store, twice as big as the previous one, for the same rent, which opened last year. Ormandy says struggling through those dark days rather than shutting up shop is all part of being an entrepreneur. “You have to back yourself and in the last month we have started to really turn corners.”

Today, business is about trying to get sales back to the glory days of 2007/08 in an increasingly challenging retail environment. The pair, who have a 12 year-old daughter, agree this has made them take a really hard look at their business. They know their systems, what works and what doesn’t and what should be invested in. While Ormandy describes it as taking a broom through the business and Olsen compares it to taking a microscope to it, the sentiment is the same.

Dinosaur Designs opened a new store in Sydney’s prestigious Strand Arcade this year, in addition to another in Paddington and a seconds store at its Strawberry Hills headquarters. A second Melbourne store will open at the GPO building this year, to add to the existing one in South Yarra, and a selection can also be bought online.

Retail struggles

Keeping people coming into their bricks and mortar stores is challenging but important to the pair. Ormandy says: “People are time poor and they have to make the effort to come back into your store. You have to give them a reason to do that and it’s a challenge. It’s even tougher with online. You’ve got to make going into a store a wonderful experience.”

They even went as far as employing a retail guru on a consultancy basis. “It was fantastic training for our staff,” says Olsen.

Selling what is effectively plastic jewellery for hundreds of dollars can’t be easy with so many cheaper, mass-produced alternatives, a strong Aussie dollar and online sales from overseas, so why should people spend the money? Because it’s made by hand in Australia and, most importantly, because of the value in the design.

“Often people think of the value of jewellery being in the materials (like gold or diamonds) but our value is in the design.” Ormandy says it can be a hard concept for people to get their heads around but that Australians are quite forward thinking when it comes to valuing design. “Our pieces are all different and they’re not made in the hundreds and thousands. Only a few are made and they’re collectable.”

“We are blessed to have this company,” says Olsen. “It’s everything we ever dreamed of having and we’re looking forward to taking it into new chapters. It doesn’t feel like work.” They’re grateful too, to their Aussie customers in particular. “Australians like to support an Australian company,” adds Olsen. “It took less than two years for Australians to start embracing Dinosaur. We have a lot to be thankful for. They gave us the launching pad for the company we have today.”

And their gratitude is part of the reason they like to give back. They strive to be carbon neutral and they like getting involved in “the cultural fabric of our city”, producing the trophies for events including Sydney Film Festival, Sculpture by the Sea and Tropfest. A percentage of the proceeds of each collection is donated to a relevant charity. $10,000, for example, was given to Cancer Council from 2009’s Sun collection.

Do they ever get sick of living and working together? It’s a convincing no. “Both my parents were artists who worked from home and it was always very harmonious,” says Olsen. “We’ve created that here as well. We have a certain style we’ve created together; we have a basic philosophy. But we can be critical of each other’s work and not take it personally. It’s really healthy to have buoyant discussions and it’s important that we have those. It’s not a power struggle.”

The most challenging thing about running a business is the responsibility for their employees, says Olsen. “I feel very responsible for these 70 people who give us their time to help create what we love.” Ormandy adds: “A lot of them really give us their all and we want to make sure they get looked after.”

Jen Bishop

Jen Bishop

Jen was the publisher at Loyalty Media and editor of Dynamic Business, Australia's largest circulating small business magazine, from 2008 until 2012. She is now a full-time blogger at The Interiors Addict.

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