Having spread their graphic and horticultural designs throughout South Africa, Sera Holland and Alexandra Learmont have decided to put their brands together and open up a shop in Cape Town.
Being entrepreneurs since the age of 16, both Sera and Alex have seen the ups and downs that come with being your boss. Eventually, after years of part-time jobs to pay the way, studying full-time, freelancing for peanuts and still finding time to socialise, both Sera and Alex are proud business owners. Sera is the founder of Handmade by Me that specialises in custom-made fabric patterns, among a variety of décor items, and Alex is the founder of Windowsill that supplies clients with designer landscaping services and coveted plants and flowers.
‘When me and Sera found this space and sat down with our financials,’ says Alex, ‘it literally came down to the fact that–’ ‘We couldn’t afford not to do it,’ completes Sera.
Setting up a new business anywhere, especially in Cape Town, can be a daunting experience. Things don’t always work out, budgets are constantly strained and the market can be as bipolar as new age housewife. Sera and Alex dove into this new endeavour with no budget to speak of, but in its place they had moxie, an entrepreneurial drive that helped them to reach their goal of opening the Handmade By Me + Windowsill Studio/Showroom/Shop.
What inspired you to put your brands side-by-side and open a store together?
Alex: We’ve been friends since we were 12 and grew up together, and I think that our brands aesthetically just work very well together. We have also, for the last few years, collaborated. We tend to collaborate when it comes to big markets, like KAMERS Vol Geskenke, and even some smaller markets. It really boils down to understanding how each other works. We’re very conscious of each other.
Sera: There’s not that many people you grew up with that you still actually like enough to go into business with, but we’ve had lots of practice, and we even ran The Shoestring (Collective) together. We’ve seen each other’s dark side, so we know how to handle each other.
Alex: We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses very well, we’re not afraid to admit those. I’m not good with maths, but Sera’s is. Small things like that.
Sera: And Alex has a lot more retail experience than I have. We did KAMERS because we needed the money, but we couldn’t afford to each have our own space, so we both put our brands together because we could take turns manning the stall and we could easily combine our products, which actually work well together. So, because we’ve done KAMERS, twice, it was incredibly natural that we’d want to expand. We talked about opening a shop for years, we just never really had the money, the opportunity or the place. And this venue, it was a little opportunity that just popped up.
Alex: We weren’t looking for it, but it just came at the right time and it happened to be that all the cards fell into place. There used to be a little garden shop in this space that I worked at, so I knew this space well. I discovered my whole career by working in this shop at that time, so for me it’s also been a full circle, coming from this space where the seed for the love of green was sown to now be back and start up something new with someone I know very well.
Sera: This happened at the beginning of the year (2016). We just saw the opportunity and we had to make a decision, otherwise someone else takes it.
Alex: It also is very much a studio and a showroom, in the sense that we both need an office space where we can work more efficiently to make more money. Like, for me, my boyfriend would come home and say, ‘I need to take a shower, can you take these ferns out the bath, please?’ It was becoming quite encumbering at home.
Sera: That was what made this an affordable move. If he had taken this space just as a shop, we’d be a little more nervous, but because we’re also using it as a studio and a showroom for interior people just to come and look, we feel more at ease.
Alex: Just as a side note; if you have no budget, spend what you can on quality paint. We spend most of our money on paint. We created a whole new space.
Sera: We fixed everything with paint.
Why did you choose Tamboerskloof, Cape Town as your location?
Sera: We both live in Vredehoek, and we wanted to find something in town. We didn’t want to go to Woodstock, it’s not the right place for us. We also wanted somewhere where we can be close to, so if there is anything that you need to do you can easily nip out. You’re not driving half an hour to your shop every day, just to get there and realize you forgot something at home.
Alex: This is our hood. Also, businesses creep when they see other businesses creep. It took one person to decide Bree Street was cool and suddenly, within ‘x’ amount of time, you cannot get property in Bree Street anymore. The smallest coffee shop is rented for R70 000. People like the idea of being able to pop out of their house and there’s a quiet little coffee or a deli shop two doors down.
Sera: We didn’t want to be in a shopping centre, because in shopping centres you’re stuck with hours. You have to be open for like 12 hours a day, every day of the week. Here, we can open the shop at times we feel it should be open. So, we’ll open it at times we feel people are around, and if we both are dying of sickness, we close the shop for the day…obviously we will have set hours that we’ll keep.
Alex: If Tamboers Winkel is having a wine tasting and it’s a beautiful summer night, we can stay open until 9pm.
How did it feel when you finally opened the doors for business?
Sera: I was so excited, especially about this wall hanging (see centre image below). Since the day we said we would open the shop, I decided I need to do something with hanging fabric. This was just something I really wanted to do to celebrate. When I woke up the next morning, I just felt so at peace.
Alex: When the shop was finished, I felt exhausted, I felt like emotionally I had been put through a giant washing machine with a bowling ball. But at the same time, I felt this immense sense of pride and gratitude.
What 4 characteristics, in your opinion, make a good entrepreneur?
- Perseverance. You have to persevere in this town. It’s so easy to quit, it’s so easy to stop, it’s so easy to take everyone’s advice and not push. You just have to keep at it.
- Be true to yourself and remember that it’s your business. People get advice from everyone, who’ll tell you what they think you must do, and I’ve seen people get very flustered in decision-making situations. Nobody knows your business like you do, you know what you can handle, how far you can push, and how much money you can put into things.
- Consistency. Especially in Cape Town, little ‘Slaapstad’, it’s a small town with a small community, so the way you handle yourself and the way you act spreads quickly. Be consistent with people, both with clients and wholesalers.
- Be nice to everyone. Half the time in retail, and I’ve literally got about 20 years of industry experience behind me, the people on the floor know more about your business and your stock than you do. Be nice and be consistent.
If you could travel back in time, what one piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Alex: In your 20s, please don’t get wound up about anything until you’re at least 30. In fact, just have fun!
Sera: Don’t study physio, do art, you idiot. I wish I studied art, but when I finished school there was no creative outlet. If you were going to be an artists, you were going to have to paint on the side of Greenmarket Square and sell your art, and that was your future. There was no talk of design.
What are your top 3 favourite spots in Cape Town?
- Milnerton Market, because I love 1960’s and 1970’s retro designs and mid-century designs. My apartment is full of old furniture and old retro stuff. Milnerton Market is the one place where I can wake up very early and go by myself and just do treasure hunting. I get a kick out of it every time.
- Chart Flower Farm, it is right in Constantia and it’s a huge rose farm. They grow old hybrids of beautiful roses and when you go there they give you a bucket and secateurs and you go into the big fields and can pick all your own roses. I love to do that. It’s these kind of small things that I like to do in the city, it’s ‘me’ time.
- South China Dim Sum Bar, I like them because they’re quiet and it’s a no-frills, good food experience. It’s one of those places where people just respect the quiet.
- Routes on Table Mountain. Often, Barry (Sera’s husband) and I go walking from our house straight up the mountain behind us. We go on these lovely two-hour paths. I love the fact that the mountain is at our backdoor and that we can go for a walk at any time, you get such a beautiful sense of space.
- Chef’s Warehouse, I absolutely love it! I have never had a bad meal there and the ‘Tapas for Two’ is amazing. It’s affordable and the food is beautiful.
- The Power and The Glory, with Hallelujah (next door) thrown in, it’s my favourite place in Cape Town for a beer after work. It’s also our local hangout spot.
If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?
Sera: Probably David Attenborough, he’s got such a nice voice and he’s just really interesting. Or someone like Jack the Ripper, for example, because it would be nice to solve a mystery by this dinner. I love mysteries.
Alex: Captain James Cook, or any one of the early explorers. I’m a bit of a history whore (laughs), and currently I happen to be very interested in how plant species were found and brought back to Europe. At the moment I just have an obsession with early plant hunters.
What special happenings can we expect from the new store in the near future?
- We will have an opening, of course. (Keep your eyes on the Facebook page.)
- We will be offering products you cannot get anywhere else, like rare plants and custom patterns.
- We are busy bringing in more collaborated products, like pressed and framed flowers, as well as a variety of décor products that we’re still keeping hush-hush.
Your vote: beer or wine?
Alex: Beer! I just don’t like wine.
Sera: I love wine. I have a love-hate relationship with wine, especially Haute Cabrière.
Besides enjoying one of my best interviews at their new store, Sera and Alex taught me enough startup business tips to write a book (which is not a bad idea). Both of them took the plunge into the harsh world of entrepreneurship and managed to emerge with their own Cape Town studio and store, not to mention an array of quality products.
‘Even if stuff is not working in the real world, you have to keep that business ball rolling in your head,’ says Alex, ‘In the beginning, if the work’s not there, just pretend. Wake up at 8am as if you still have a full day ahead of you, keep that energy moving, keep that routine. Going back to your bed and thinking of what worries you is not going to work, it’s not going to do anything. It’s about intention, keeping the momentum going.’
Next time you’re looking to spruce up your home’s interiors or the garden area, take a drive to the Handmade By Me + Windowsill Studio/Showroom/Shop for everything from custom-made fabrics and cushions to rare plants and beautiful flowers, all in various forms.
Text: Andy Moller
Answers: Sera Holland on behalf of Handmade by Me & Alexandra Learmont on behalf of Windowsill
Photographs: Andy Moller