Leading the world in signage design are our friends, and two school-yard mates across the Tasman Sea, George and Willy of their eponymously named business.
We stumbled upon them and their work and quickly became customers followed by loyal brand fans because of their ability to link heritage product ideas to modern design and synchronise it with the art of surprise. It’s been years now and we’ve admired watching the business grow from a start-up into an established brand that has a place in the hearts and minds of design-lovers around the world, including ours.
I would describe George and Willy (the humans, not the brand) as multidisciplinary product artists who re-appropriate everyday and often over-looked objects into luxury product items that make your world better. Not just any product makes the edit of their collection; but the ones that elevate and inspire your creative studio, retail, hospitality or home space and the rituals that are part of the everyday within them.
From studio rollers, to menu boards, external shop signage and A-frames George Wilkins and Will McCallum based in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand, together with their team design, develop and curate a product range where each item brings life to their shared values of adventure, innovation, fun and quality.
As product PR specialists we often inherit a product, place or thing to PR that is at the end of its product development or point-of-sale creative process. The job for PR Pros around the world is to bring the story to life and work with the retail or café space or product as it is. The impact of PR is limited when that person, place or thing is bottled in a user experience with bad design.
It’s for this reason (among those aforementioned!) that we appreciate George and Willy’s work and vision so much. You can see their values come to life in each product they bring to the world. And it dovetails into our own ethos that if the design of something is beautiful it is on a naturally good PR trajectory.
Their good-taste aesthetics, over-engineered approach to produce incredible, high-quality design items and planet-friendly-buy-well, buy once ethos collectively position the businesses they collaborate with by very nature with excellent word-of-mouth PR-experience foundations. Dare we say; what they do with each company they serve is save one business at a time from an unpleasant user experience. This matters to great PR. And taps into our sentiments around the importance of beautiful design to power high impact PR.
So for this edition of Press Circle; it’s with great pleasure we spend some time with Will McCallum, co-founder and one half of the visionary, product design business – George and Willy.
What are you reading, watching, listening to or loving right now that you’d recommend to a friend?
I have just finished reading the Netflix book, which I really enjoyed – it’s called ‘That Will Never Work’. I don’t usually engage with business books very well but I could hardly put it down. I’ve loved Planet Earth by David Attenborough – the behind-the-scenes episodes about how they actually filmed it; it’s amazing. In terms of podcasts ‘How I Built This’ which is about the journey to success for different founders and their organisations – inspiring.
When you were younger what did you imagine you’d be doing for work, are you living up to your career dreams?
When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect, I’ve always loved homes and buildings. Then I wanted to be a product engineer, but I am not very good at maths and numbers. I ended up studying marketing and design at university. I love making products, it’s my passion but I also really enjoy the marketing aspect as well. I get so much satisfaction from creating things, seeing something move from a sketch to reality and then into market is a dream for me. So as long as I can do that, I am happy.
Name three of your most favourite music tracks right now. What’s high-rotation on your playlist right now?
We have just made some G&W playlists on Spotify for us to listen to in the workshop. I’ve been enjoying Khruangbin when I’ve got my legs under the desk.
Tell us about your childhood; where did you grow up? Were you always into design? When did your appreciation for good design start?
I always appreciated design but never really got into practising it until I was at university. Then I got a bit obsessed and wanted to make everything. Since then I’ve made lots of things – I would like to basically design/make every element of my life. I’m very picky, in a good way haha.
Did you go to uni, or what did you study or pursue that helped lead you to the business you’ve created?
University was more about networking than learning to be honest. Studying design at uni gave us access to the workshop, which was the best thing – we could finally bring our ideas to life. Marketing and design are kinda funny to learn at uni – I feel like they’re kind of things you either have within you or you don’t. Some of the best marketers in the world don’t even know they are good at marketing.
Who has had the biggest impact on pursuing the career and business that you have?
Definitely George. We have worked as a team for the last eight years and never have any trouble – we compliment each other quite well. I kind of decide how things will look and he works out how they’re going to work. George is the man – I love him.
You met George and Willy co-founder George when you were 12; tell us about that; were you always an inventive partnership?
We got up to a lot of trouble when we were young I guess you could call it inventive trouble haha. We went to boarding school together. It never crossed my mind that we would start a business together but we always got on well.
In 2007 you decided to team up as business partners; what was the lead up to that; what were you both doing before that?
We were together at uni in a group project – that’s how we started working together. Before that we were not up to very much to be honest – just student life, partying etc. We had been partying for a few years and had nothing decent to show for our time in Otago – that’s what inspired us to make something of our final project – which was to bring a product to market.
Who plays what role in the business? Are you both creative directors or is one more creative and design driven and one more finance and business development focused?
George is the business head, I look after the products. Neither of us would want to do this on our own – it just wouldn’t be fun. You have to have someone to share the wins with and get excited with. I think we make a good little team, but our staff are a huge part of the story – we have an awesome crew and have heaps of fun at work.
Are you both product developers and makers?
George is way better at making things than I am. He probably would have been a builder is he wasn’t doing G&W. I love the way things look and the vibe they give off.
What are the core values of the George and Willy brand? Were these organic or set with intent from the very start?
We never decided on a particular style or values – we basically just started making things we thought were cool and this is what we have ended up with – it has been very organic! We basically just made things that we wanted for ourselves and thought that other people might like them as well.
Has developing values been prominent in creating the G&W culture? What advice do you have for other businesses when it comes to leading with values to impact and build positive culture in a workplace?
One of my pet hates is junk. Things you buy knowing they will last a couple years max. I always like spending a bit more, doing your research and getting something epic that will last for a long time. I think that is the core of G&W – making awesome, solid, timeless products and there is something very satisfying about that. We make high quality products and that breathes into every aspect of the business.
It’s the very nature that running your own business throws all sorts of challenges and curve balls at you; highs lows and everything in between – how have you navigated that together and remained friends through it all?
I think that is one of our greatest achievements – we’re still best mates. We think the key to that is communication – if something is annoying you. Just say something. That’s the key to a good relationship.
Your studio rollers have a place in creative studios around the world, did it start with the rollers?
The rollers were the first product to take off – thanks to Pinterest I think. People love things which remind them of the good ol’ days and I think that’s why the rollers have worked – kraft paper makes people feel good!
One of the things I love about your business is the focus on doing things well, ‘buy well, buy once kind of ethos’, what’s the process you go through to make sure everything in your range is produced with quality in mind?
It all comes down to using great materials – then you can’t go wrong. Secondly we tend to over-engineer things. Which has become part of our aesthetic, naturally.
Another thing I’ve noticed as I’ve watched your business grow over the years is to stay in your lane and artfully move forward with restraint? While your product range has grown and continues to evolve you’ve mastered the art of micro niching and shown how important it is to become known for something.
It’s tempting to make everything but if you look at lots of great companies around the world they stick to what they know. There is a saying ‘find your niche, nail your niche’ It gives you way more clarity and the chance to genuinely become the best in the world at something.
Whether you realised this or not, it’s a clever and organic approach to PR, to micro niche a business and become known for a hero item first and forever before expanding into other streams. Can you shed some light on the product range and its expansion/depth?
We used to make more of a range of things but then we looked at what was selling – which was business menus, signage and display products. So we decided to hammer down on that. Our slogan is ‘better ways to display’ which works well. Over lockdown we designed 40 new products – all in the same niche and we are excited to roll these out. There are some really cool ones in the mix.
How often do you typically add a new item to the range?
We used to do a couple a year but this year (rolling into next year) we plan to do 40 – which is crazy for us but super exciting. We have been talking to customers lots lately which has been really helpful – and gives us great ideas for new products.
It’s easy to see that each product is made thoughtfully, with design and function front of mind; and the result is a product range that stays and not goes. Or in other words your range doesn’t move at the pace as a typical retail calendar with fast seasonality. Tell me about that. How has that worked for you? What’s the thinking behind that?
Our range is still relatively big compared to someone like Casper Mattresses. But very small compared to a fashion brand. Making the same product for years on end allows us to always improve the product and make it better every order.
How can other product-based businesses learn from that?
Something that has worked for us is selling things which no one else is selling. Which sounds hard but if you put time into thinking about it, it might not be too hard!
Did you ever consider that you would end up in what is essentially a product retail business? Will that change in the future?
We find joy in making and selling our own products (our babies) so we have no plans to sell other people’s goods – that would also go against one of our values. We try to sell things you can’t get anywhere else.
Tell me about the George and Willy journey so far; has it felt like a tug of war and in the retail business trenches or small business at times?
We jumped on the ecommerce thing at a good time and we have managed to see growth year-on-year consistently. Obviously we have made some terrible decisions along the way and learnt from them but I think we have made a few goodies as well. The whole journey has just been fun. Definitely doesn’t feel like work!
What advice can you give to others considering a product based retail business?
Never make something you wouldn’t want for yourself. Start simple. Start selling as soon as possible. Consider kickstarter.com to get the ball rolling. Spend money on epic branding. Don’t bother selling something you’re not passionate about.
You’ve made (and continue to make) an incredible contribution to creative studios, cafes and boutique retailers around the world; how far and wide do George and Willy customers stretch? Highlights or notable mentions? (café in Japan, yes!)
We have now sold to over 90 countries, which is cool. Jamie Oliver bought a paper roller recently!
Because we do a lot of work in retail marketing; it’s a breath of fresh air to come across a business that is helping to de-ugly retail interiors; where does this passion come from?
We felt as though the signage industry got left behind and no one really focused on it – the amount of ugly sandwich boards on the footpaths is a bit of a worry so we got stuck in. People who own a cool little store care about their space – after all it’s a representation of them!
We’re super passionate about the power of considered interior and exterior/façade design to fostering creativity and to customer perception; in your words, why is this important?
People want to be inspired by the space where they drink their coffee, we’re here to make it easy to create an inspiring space.
What should cafes consider when they’re creating menu boards?
It must be something they love and are proud of. Menu boards are also handy is they are changeable. People generally have quite messy handwriting – our menu board make it easy to make your menu look great.
Talk me through the process of product development George and Willy style?
We talk to customers and keep our eyes open and before we start to think too much we get a sample made and live with it in the studio for a few months. Then if we love it – we make a sample batch and see what the customers think. We don’t actually have too many systems. Just a fun team of young people in a studio making what we think looks cool haha.
Because your range is beautifully edited and curated; how do you decide what’s in and what’s out? What makes the cut?
Each design has to get past every team member and we are all quite picky. If we all like something it passes the test. We are generally all on the same page!
The culture you’ve created is one we very much admire – dirt bike bonding experiences in the mountains, a studio that thrives on good design and good vibes. How do you keep the fun?
We keep the fun by getting the right people on board, the rest looks after itself! You spend so much time at work so it’s important to make it fun.
What’s your approach to social media and digital marketing? Any advice here for other small, creative business – what has worked for you on this front?
If your business is online, your products are only as good as your photos. We used to take all our photos of film cameras so they looked cool and old.
What does a typical day in your world look like?
Everyday is different. Focused around growing and refining the business at the same time. Photoshoots, samples, marketing campaigns, website changes, brainstorms; you name it.
Which of your clients has the best studio roller game? Who’s the best list maker?
We get some pretty cool photos from our clients. We also have some pretty cool clients – New York Times, Microsoft, Nike, Wholefoods etc. they all use them in their offices
Do you update your studio roller list daily or weekly and what’s typically on the list?
I personally use a daily roller in the kitchen for our shopping list. I also like the wooden letter board and other rails products being used in houses for fun little quotes. We are actually currently making a wooden whiteboard which will be cool!
How has the wild of Covid impacted your business? Have you experienced up-turn or down-turn and how have you managed the past 12-months? What’s been the biggest challenge?
It’s been a bit funny, stores seems to still be purchasing our signage. Maybe storeowners are spending more time at home?
Shed some light on your global fan-base; Japan, UK, Australia; with your biggest customer-base coming out of USA; how did this come about? What do you think was pivotal in growing your business in overseas markets?
The internet opens up so many possibilities and turns the whole world into one country. It’s cool to see people from all over the world taking a liking to our designs. We want them to appeal to everyone – not just a specific group. USA is our biggest market, it’s a crazy place. I personally love selling to the USA for some reason.
Do you create 30, 60 and 90 day business plans or just roll with the punches?
We have a 100 day plan, which cuts the year up nicely. A year is a very long time! You gotta have goals and then you gotta celebrate when you hit them. There will definitely be business that are more structured than us though!
What’s the 2021 vision for George and Willy? What about the ultimate vision?
Keep doing our thing for now. See how the new products go and then re-asses. We want to grow in the USA – that’s a big goal. And keep having fun.
Reflecting on your career and the George and Willy business so far; what impact are you ultimately trying to make? What legacy are you hoping to leave personally and with the business?
We hope to inspire others to start similar businesses and show them they can have fun while doing it. Our products will be round for years and years – long after us. For our grandkids to tell their mates ‘my Grandad made this when he was 22’ that’s the dream.
Interviewed by Jade Roberts.