Sisters bridge distance to launch art business

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Paula and Amy took their artworks to the General Collection market in Auckland earlier this year.

Being separated by 14,000km has proved no barrier to two sisters who have launched a business selling artworks around New Zealand.

Te Awamutu woman Paula Sutton and her Emirates-based sister Amy set up Ampa last year, and are selling their 3D relief Kiwi-themed works online while also eyeing the gallery market.

They came up with the idea six years ago, around the time Amy shifted to Abu Dhabi, and further impetus came from a work colleague of Paula’s at the Waikato Chamber of Commerce, an entrepreneurial soul who kept asking Paula: “what is your business?”

So the seed had already been planted when Paula attended a briefing about doing business overseas a couple of years ago and seized her moment to talk to the presenter. He gave her the contact of a Malaysian man, Peter Li, who ran a paper factory in the province of Johore.

That began an intriguing and instructive journey of communication, miscommunication and a Mercedes, and a steep learning curve for the two sisters as they built their truly global startup business.

Paula contacted Peter via Whatsapp, and the two sisters began sending him design specs, knowing that making the artworks in New Zealand would be unaffordable. He would then send a sample to Amy, who would send it on to Paula. It was a slow start, however.

“We would Whatsapp him a picture, but what we were trying to communicate to him wasn’t what was coming back on the samples,” says Paula, who is chief of operations at the Chamber.

They decided to travel to Malaysia in Easter last year to meet Peter in person. Paula says that was partly to figure out if the factory, which mainly makes cardboard boxes, could deliver what they wanted, and also to check that its workers were being treated fairly.

Peter organised their stay, and picked them up on day one in his Mercedes. He and his staff were open and hospitable with Paula and Amy, and the personal connection was key for them – as it has been with their other dealings with people.

“You know when you get that feeling that someone is just genuine and nice. We just trusted him completely.”

It also meant they could be clear about exactly what they were looking for, after the frustrations of messaging from distance. At one stage they ended up sitting at the boardroom table with pieces of paper, rulers, pencils and erasers, marking out the dimensions they wanted.

“That’s what he needed from us actually – the fine detail. Whatever measurements we gave him, he would stick to.”

A lightbulb moment came when Paula produced some test frames. Until then, Peter hadn’t understood what they were trying to do. “As soon as I put the frame on it, he was like, ‘oh’, and you could just tell that lightbulb went off for him.”

The supply chain that starts in Malaysia also takes in a “superb” framemaker in Kumeu, northwest of Auckland. He holds all their stock and monitors the online orders, framing the artworks and dispatching them straight to the customer.

The works consist of a paper backing, and glued onto that a geometric pattern of foam pieces topped by colourful paper. Of the three animal designs they offer, Paula says they have found the cows are more popular than the sheep. “But the big large round kiwi is what people really get interested in.”

There have been other learnings along the way as well – and other barriers, courtesy of the distances involved.

That includes  the freighting, which was up to the sisters after Peter made it clear his responsibility stopped at his factory gate.

“Through my lack of knowing what you required – bill of lading, all of these documents that have to be signed – it was the most painful process trying to get the goods across.” The resulting six-week delay saw them miss the Christmas market last year.

The frustration with shipping ended there, however. The artworks were being sent from Malaysia unframed and Paula says she and Amy had “guesstimated” a 10 percent allowance for damages. But when three pallets turned up at her house with 1000 artworks, not one piece was damaged. “I think that’s an advantage of using someone like Peter whose factory is about cardboard and boxing. They just package them amazingly well.”

The other steep learning curve, she says, was trying to become registered as a business. That was made difficult with Amy living overseas because of the money laundering laws, and Paula says they had to jump through hoops, causing further delays.

Add to that setting up a website, branding and the commission galleries will take if the sisters get into that market, and Paula laughs in disbelief when she recalls their original budget was just $7000.

Paula and Amy are meeting again this month when they return to the Malaysian factory to place another order with different designs. This time they are a whole lot wiser, and the process will be decidedly smoother.

– By Richard Walker

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