Earlier this year I wrote a blog about my decision to leave behind a career in environmental law to pursue my dream job in sustainability. It turned out from the response that there were quite a few of you also feeling trapped in jobs that pay the bills but leave you feeling unfulfilled (and in my case weary of analysing sewage discharge permits). So this year I wanted to feature stories from some other career switchers to help inspire those of you harbouring dreams of handing in your P45 to print off that resignation letter and go for it
Step forward Emily Matheison: a travel and lifestyle journalist turned social entrepreneur who launched indie interiors business Aerende in 2016 as a way of raising awareness about ethical interiors, and providing opportunities for marginalised makers. She lives in St Albans with her husband and two kids and invited me over for tea, a cinnamon bun and her chat in her beautiful Edwardian house which the family have spent the last three years renovating. She was also kind enough to let me try out my fledgling photography skills on my newly purchased camera. Not everyone would have the patience to open their home to a modern rustic David Bailey who had to keep stopping to consult the operating manual every second shutter click.
On paper Emily was actually doing my dream job before she made her career switch. Having dabbled in student journalism at Uni, as a graduate she did a stint on a public sector magazine in Stockport (bear with me that is not the dream job unless covering the cut and thrust of the civil service is your bag). Eventually bidding the North-West farewell, she made her way to the bright lights of London and worked her way up the journalistic ladder carving out a niche in travel journalism. She has worked as both the commissioning editor of Conde Nast Traveller and the Travel Editor of the Guardian and Red Magazine.
In an industry where many still get their break by working for free to earn their stripes, Emily’s advice for anyone looking to follow in her journalistic footsteps is to consider routes like sub-editing as a way in as “it can be a great way to make contacts and learn how the industry works”. Her other top tip is to build up a specialism as you are much more likely to be asked to write about something if you are seen as an expert in it. Chose carefully though, as my brother-in-law (who is also a journalist) strongly regretted his initial choice of specialism when writing his 567th article about the price of kumquats for a fresh produce trade journal during his early career.
However, whilst she loved the travel and many talented people she worked with, once she became a mum the long hours and frequent trips away became far less appealing . Emily also “felt increasingly uneasy about the environmental and social impact of my work so started thinking about ways to balance a desire to make a difference with a love of life’s finer things”. Having considered a career in the charity sector or doing voluntary work she ultimately decided that she wanted to to start her own socially minded business so that she could see and feel the impact of what she was doing.
The idea for Aerende (an old English word which means care or message) was born when Emily bought an amazing wicker basket, made by people with learning disabilities, at a craft fair near her home in St Albans in Summer 2015. The makers had only sold one that day but Emily had a hunch that if they could reach a wider audience the baskets would sell really well and that there were probably other similar makers who felt passionate about the benefits of their creative work but lacked the skills or inclination to create a brand and sell online in a more organised and up-market way. So began the Aerende journey.
So how do you go from having a good idea to launching a credible brand with it’s own online store? I was expecting the answer to involve detailed business plans and acquiring a new found proficiency in Microsoft Excel (aka my nemesis). However, Emily confides that in her eagerness to get started she launched Aerende with a business plan that was just a couple of paragraphs long. Although she quickly learned how much she didn’t know, she cautions against getting too hung up on planning out every last detail as, in her experience, the business has morphed and changed so fast that a business plan would have quickly gotten out of date in any case.
To help with finances as she has built the business up Emily continued to take on freelance travel writing assignments with the time that she spent on Aerende gradually increasing and the freelance assignments decreasing. She suggests finding good mentors (some formal, some informal) to act as a sounding board and to make you feel less like you are slogging away on your own the whole time. Some of Emily’s inspirations when starting Aerende were Ecotricity and Patagonia for their ethics and Toast for aesthetics that make you crave the linen painters smock that you never realised you needed until your walked into the shop .
In the three years since Aerende began there have been some fantastic highs, like winning a ‘Spaces for Ideas’competition which saw the business come to life in a pop up shop for a month in Borough market. She has also secured funding through the WeWork Creator Award which has allowed the business to further develop. However, Emily is also refreshingly honest about the lows, “when sales are slow, as they are at the moment (thanks Brexit) it can feel deflating and like a uphill struggle being undertaken alone.” There are definitely days when she misses the company of work colleagues and the camaraderie of an office environment. Let’s face it we all need a good debrief of the previous evening’s Love Island around the water cooler every now and again.
However, most days she still wakes up excited to get to work, to have breakfast in a bowl created by one of her makers and to help people to embrace conscious shopping for their homes in the same way they do about the food they eat or the clothes they wear.
Her advice to anyone else embarking upon setting up their own business is to plan ahead and do the finances by all means but be prepared to ditch the plan and to drop an idea if it isn’t working. Have a story. Tell it confidently and regularly. Make this your point of difference. And, increasingly, have a vision. Knowing where you want to get to really helps to prioritise and focus on the day to day.
At the same time as developing a fledgling business Emily has also been building a beautiful home that reflects many of the principles she is trying to achieve with Aerende. Having upped sticks from Brixton to St Albans the family were renting in the area when they spotted a house for sale on their street that was a total gut job. It didn’t have central heating or proper eclectics, and the décor hadn’t been touched since the 60s/70s.
Because of budget and time constraints, Emily’s husband, Jon, took a leading role in the redesign creating both the building plans and layouts himself. You know you have found the one when he can design you the staggered back end of your dreams. It is this design feature which allowed Emily to have a window seat underneath bi-fold doors which open up in the Summer and create the perfect spot for sunbathing. Ticking all my Scandi cabin fantasy boxes they used blackened wood (pre-prepared from s FSC certified source) for the external finish.
With the structure complete, they were able to turn their minds to the interiors, sourcing many of the items on eBay including a stunning second-hand double sink in the bathroom (£38/$49) and gorgeous brass taps in the utility room (£23/$30). Most of their furniture is from eBay too with mid-century items providing a compromise between Emily’s love of the old-fashioned and John’s preference for the modern. Everything from the piano to the kitchen table is secondhand creating a home with soul , character and lots of stories.
Even though quite a few things went wrong in its creation (the units were hung on the wonk, the concrete floor coating didn’t really work) the kitchen is the heart of their home. Cool and light in the Summer and warm and cosy in the Winter thanks to rugs from Morocco. The family have their initials – JELO – carved into the floor of the room as Emily “really wants this place to be a place that bears the stamps and shape of us. Hopefully forever, or at least a very long time.”
In terms of changes, if they were to do the renovation again, Emily might have laid out the bedrooms in their loft conversion differently. They currently have two on the first floor and two in the attic but would have, in hindsight, made the attic just one room with a lovely en suite - to have a more defined space for guests and to rent out for B&B (one of Emily’s long term dreams from years of working in travel). Because the spare room, office and shed as have been commandeered as Aerende’s HQ, it can be hard to switch off from work so Emily would ultimately love to expand the shop outside of the house. Although for the record I would happily bed down in the rustic cabin at the end of the garden that currently acts as Aerende’s store room.
Looking to the future, Emily’s hope is that she can operate Aerende as a secure and fully fledged business which generates enough revenue for her partner makers so that they don’t have to worry about their operating future. She will feel she has succeeded if Aerende becomes a byword for beautiful products with integrity and pursue and the kind of business that others aspire to: which creates joy and purpose rather than just lining someone’s pockets. The challenge in doing so will be to find a way for Aerende to grow without moving away from it’s core mission or losing the strong ethical/sustainable element.
Thank you so much to Emily for sharing the story of your career switch and flourishing ethical business with me. If you would like to take a look at some of the beautiful, thoughtfully made products that Aerende sells and to find out more about the makers, please click here.