Lara Allport forms one half of creative agency The National Grid’s founding duo, alongside artistic mastermind Simon Barrett. Together, with a killer team, they mash, brew, grind and refine ideas – turning them into design that is potent (and pretty damn attractive).
A can-do spirit and fine nose for talent have been key ingredients behind their dynamic decade in business. As the pair celebrate their 10 years in co-entrepreneurship, we catch up with Lara to find out where and why it all started, how the landscape has evolved – and consequently their strategy.
Barrett and I both started life at the bottom of the publishing pile. We were both freelancing at a niche publishing house when we first met. We were often presented with seriously boring content for the magazines and we made it our mission to make even the driest content look exciting. We brought the pages to life creating illustrations to explain complicated new technologies, we crafted our own type faces, we orchestrated and styled our own photo shoots – it was hard work and a lot of fun. It was from those days that we decided, no matter what the work was, we could make it creative. We were a couple of passionate artists with a very strong work ethic – an unusual combination in a niche technology publishing house at the time!
Working long hours for ‘the man’ eventually took its toll. One sunny afternoon, sitting in the carpark having a ciggie (filthy old habit!), we starting looking at the split level warehouse next door to us and started visualising a really cool studio; lofty, open-plan, great art on the walls, big monitors, nice tunes playing in the background – an environment where the people working within were inspired, relaxed, well looked after, rewarded and incentivised. It was at this time we simultaneously decided we wanted to create a space we’d love to work in, with the philosophy “if it’s not there, build it!” So in June 2006 (10 years to the month), The National Grid, a creative thinking and design company was born.
After some fairly significant renovations, we started hosting regular art exhibitions which, really – let’s be honest – were big parties! People came from all over Sydney to socialise and be part of the hype and incredible creativity that filled the room. We held exciting opening nights, showcasing amazing work from street artists like Beastman, ApeSeven and Shannon Crees, fine artists like Bec Winnel and Simon Degroot through to international hitters like Fumi Mini Nakamura and Kristy Milliken.
The vibe was electric and having this hub of talent around us got Barrett and I thinking again. Most of these creatives were doing a bit of commercial work, but we felt they could do more. We were talking to one of our exhibitors – the fiercely talented Ben Brown, about starting an illustration agency. He loved the idea, so we asked a few more and the unanimous voice shouted “Hell yes!” So in 2011, we launched The Drawing Arm, a platform where we represent talent for companies looking to commission illustration. The Drawing Arm launch event – which included a highly motivating speech from all-time legend Reg Mombassa – was one of the best days of my life. The room was filled with executive creative directors and art buyers, sipping gin and tonics, getting really animated and inspired by the impressive illustrations adorning the walls – it was at this moment, Barrett and I knew we were on to something.
In a nut shell, I wanted to start a business I would actually like to work in. One business, organically became two, driven by circumstance, a shared vision and logical progression. I have always believed that a healthy culture starts at the top. Passion and purpose shape how we approach everything and we are constantly questioning: “Is what we are doing going to benefit someone, at some point, somehow?” If the answer is no, do we really want to do it? I love creating opportunity, steering a team of guns to do their best, showing the results to happy clients and seeing their worlds improve.
We had absolutely no business training at all when we set out. On most occasions, decisions were made purely with intuition and instinct. We wanted to build a business that was creative and authentic – one we could truly live and breathe in. Our intention was to create a place where our team could express themselves and be themselves. That desire to be creative and original almost courses through our veins and is still very much the culture and essence of our companies to this day.
A problem shared, is a problem halved and scenarios worth celebrating are best enjoyed with others. [A co-founder/co-partner] is not necessarily essential, but it helps. I think if you are going into business with someone, it has to be with a person you trust implicitly. It is essential that you regularly check in with each other and make sure that you share the same vision, otherwise the entity you create doesn’t know how to evolve. Barrett and I are almost like family now and have experienced extreme highs and lows together. I think sometimes people make the mistake of going in to business with someone who is just ‘like-minded’ and these business partnerships can occasionally end up like nasty divorces. It is essential to have complementary talents, open communication skills and possess the ability to alchemise and cement your visions collectively. Barrett and I are very lucky in that we have this synergy and get inspired by each other. Communication is key and it is something we continue to work hard on.
The biggest challenge is ‘Barry burn out’, as we like to call it. The hours, the work and the constant pressure to perform wears on even the most passionate of individuals. Barrett and I have (and sometimes still do) get stuck working much longer hours than our employees, possibly because we over-think. If you do get to ‘Barry burn out’ stage and the fatigue sets in, when challenges come up – especially around cash-flow and the responsibility of paying wage – doubt and fear can creep in, which in extreme cases can result in the desire to abandon everything completely! As luck would have it, Barrett and I have taken turns at this, fortuitously never at the same time, so our businesses have survived these dark patches.
We firmly believe that businesses that are people-focused and have a strong sense of purpose, are destined for success. Good relationships with our team, clients, suppliers, manufacturers and contributors alike, are the foundations of our studio’s culture. Growing a business takes patience. Focusing on quality relationships and producing quality work has been our mission from the get go and has kept us positive and aligned to our values. One of the most important lessons I have learnt is to not make it about myself and keep concentrating on my clients and my team, even if my bottom line is screaming for my attention in the wee small hours of the night.
Being a business owner and a mother is not for the faint-hearted. I have two beautiful boys (James is two and a half years old and Will is four months old) and there is not a day that passes where I don’t feel extreme gratitude for how lucky I am and thankfulness for the incredible support I have from family and friends. Sleep deprivation is something that all mothers complain about, and believe me, I have been know to complain (I’m really f*&%ing tired right now!). It’s exhausting and tests your limits, but there is something pretty amazing that you can draw from being in that condition. It is almost a bit of a ‘shamanic’ state, when your creativity can be more boundless, if your wheels haven’t completely fallen off of course! I think it is because you have to dig so deep to function, you find a level of courage and confidence that you never knew you possessed.
Being present with my family is really important to me and I am very comfortable setting boundaries around that, occasionally rescheduling an impromptu meeting in favour of taking the boys on a promised beach walk to explore the rock pools or whipping up a batch of chocolate brownies. I am currently on ‘maternity leave’ (which is a business owners’ metaphor for going to meetings with a baby in front pack, breastfeeding while on Skype and putting out fires). Would I want to have a complete break from the business? Probably not. As much as my son’s faces light me up, I feel keeping pulse with The National Grid and The Drawing Arm is also fulfilling my potential – that puts a smile on my face – and that lights them up!