Walking into Daniela Wingate’s flagship Heirloom Treasury store is a wonderful experience, and a real celebration of lovingly hand-made, carefully selected and beautifully displayed stationery and gift items that reflect the art of fine craftsmanship in Africa.
LoA visited Daniela at her wonderful South African store in the bustling, trendy and highly popular 44 Stanley Avenue neighbourhood of Johannesburg to find out more …..
"The Heirloom Treasury sets out to create gifts that people would like to keep for a lifetime and to then pass them on to others. Each gift must hold some kind of real value through being handcrafted."
How did your entrepreneurial journey first begin?
It started back in 2009 when I used to work for a market research company. Having been in the bush and seeing how many rural people actually needed work, my real passion was working with people. When I was working with the market research company, I suddenly saw a gap in the market for an offline research panel, because research companies are always looking for people to answer questions for particular research projects. So, I had actually come up with a concept where we could start running communities of people that weren't connected with the internet, because obviously in Africa, and in South Africa specifically, the companies are wanting to go the online route with their research but the majority of the population is not connected. So the concept was to build communities around rural South Africa and in the townships that we could then access directly for market research and to start training up these communities as research interviewers themselves, allowing them to start generating an income by conducting the interviews right in the heart of those communities. So, I launched my market research business and I went out and started selling my research services to other market research companies, who all loved the idea. But at the time, the recession had just hit which proved to be a major stumbling block. However, even though I never got the research communities going, within a month I was up and running in the business and pretty much self-sustainable, and we focused the business activities on recruiting for market research companies and online market research panels and focus groups. I ran that business successfully for five years. I loved the work I did and the people I worked with, particularly as the majority of my research interviewers were single moms. Yet, the work was not creative and I increasingly found myself frustrated with working in the corporate world. I longed to start doing something more creative where I could really express myself and start doing things that I really loved. I realised that it was possible to make any business work, but if it is not your passion it becomes quite draining. So, I eventually sold my business in 2014 to a venture capital company, and it was wonderful selling it to them because they invest in young entrepreneurs, and today a brilliant young South African entrepreneur is running the business and doing well.
As a result of selling the market research business, I had the financial resources to do something else that I really wanted to do - I also had a baby at the same time, so this was a period of real change in my life, both professionally and personally. So, myself and my husband who is a goldsmith and runs Sirkel Jewellery, which has been running as a successful business for the past 10 years in Johannesburg, looked to do something new. He had always wanted to make other forms of jewellery that didn't necessarily fit in with his own Sirkel brand, and to branch out into other creative areas. So, together with his craftsmanship and my desire to be more creative and to run a business that people would just love, we decided to start The Heirloom Treasury.
"There are so many talented craftspeople in this part of the world, but the difficulty is that they are all making exactly the same things, which means they have no unique differentiators in the local marketplace and it is difficult to make a good living. By helping them to introduce something new and contemporary into their craftsmanship and their end-products, it means they can really showcase their talents more effectively."
What is the creative ethos behind The Heirloom Treasury?
Basically, we are tired of going out and spending hours looking for gifts and finding things that are quite nice but not meaningful. The Heirloom Treasury sets out to create gifts that people would like to keep for a lifetime and to then pass them on to others. Each gift must hold some kind of real value through being handcrafted. In addition, we are going to have certain pieces that perhaps someone wants to purchase for their company employees or their clients, for example a pair of handcrafted cufflinks but to give as gifts to 1000 people - in that instance, we would handcraft the original piece and then get that hand-moulded and cast the 1000 pieces. But currently, every piece is handcrafted and handmade, and you will see for example with our collection of wooden toys that many of them are one-off pieces.
Tell us about the range and variety of handmade gift items that make up The Heirloom Treasury, and how do you decide which pieces go into the collection?
We love classical things at The Heirloom Treasury, and things that are made from authentic natural materials and not plastic. We have a range of jewellery made from materials such as sterling silver through to white, red and rose gold, we also have platinum pieces. We have a range of leather goods which are produced in conjunction with another wonderful woman entrepreneur, Lisa Ackroyd of Colony, who is also based here at 44 Stanley Avenue. We are in the process of designing with her a range of handmade leather conference bags and folders with beautiful writing pads inside, and business card holders, all with hand-stitching. We have the most wonderful range of handmade wooden toys, a range of handcrafted wooden furniture including desks, and the most beautiful range of hand-made wooden rocking horses which are very different and which have been tried and tested out by small children who absolutely love them. We are also working with another crafter from the Midlands of South Africa who is a grandpa and who has a crafting business called Grandpa’s Workshop - he started out making little wooden toy cars for his grandchildren and then became really good at it and made a business out of his hobby. He makes one-off pieces for us and will never replicate something twice. We are now including his wonderful wooden trucks and cars in The Heirloom Treasury collection.
"When I started out everyone kept telling me that I was so brave, but the reality is that I was just really frustrated with where I was in my business life, and realised that I couldn't just continue as usual. I needed to just go out and do my own thing. So I would say to other women, just use that frustration and turn it into an amazing source of power to go out and be brave and do something that you really want to do."
How many pieces in The Heirloom Treasury do you design yourself?
Actually, my husband and I design things like the light fittings, a lot of the handmade wooden products, and then all the jewellery. We also have an incredibly beautiful range of sketch books and notepads which are handmade, tree-free, made from bamboo 100% acid-free archival paper, meaning that anything you put in there will last for ever. It will never fade. Those we design ourselves and we are in the process of designing beautiful covers for them. We also make a range of personalised stationery for clients that we design but have manufactured by the Letterpress Company in Cape Town. We also have a phenomenal illustrator working with us to create a number of new hand-illustrated items which we intend to sell as individual prints, and then to be used on the covers of sketchbooks. We are also working on a range of wedding books and journals, even baby books. We are constantly looking to create new items that are not only lovingly hand-designed and created, but will also hold sentimental value for the owner for years to come.
Tell us a little about your retail philosophy at The Heirloom Treasury.
We have started the business here at 44 Stanley Avenue in Johannesburg as a means of showcasing our products to the public, but we are also looking to grow another side of the business marketing our unique gift items to corporates and major eventing companies. There are therefore two distinct areas of the business in terms of retail. We are also looking to do a lot of business going forward online and our new website is going to be launched shortly, but in the meantime you can find our products on the 44 Stanley Avenue website - www.44store.co.za
We also have a dedicated Facebook page but the big news is that we are setting up a fully fledged e-commerce store on our forthcoming website, so that is really exciting in the retail space. We intend to do so much more selling via our online platform in the future. That is where we see exciting growth coming from for the business going forward.
"We are constantly looking to create new items that are not only lovingly hand-designed and created, but will also hold sentimental value for the owner for years to come."
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced in setting up the new business?
Because we are working with a lot of craftspeople, it is sometimes quite difficult to manage the production process. We will have a meeting with our craftspeople and say that we want a certain selection of pieces to be produced to a certain timeline, but then they will have setbacks in their own crafting processes or they are perhaps experiencing backlogs in their own small businesses that have to be attended to first. Another key challenge is obviously having the necessary capital to get the business launched in the early stages, and as a result, we are growing very organically. I sold my first business but not for a huge amount, and it really was just enough to set up the retail shop in the beginning and then getting enough products on the shelves to market to clients, and getting the samples produced by our craftspeople. But a lot of progress has been made in the last year and we are getting a lot of commissions now, so that is a growing part of the business too. So, the good thing in terms of organic growth is that our product range can be custom-made to tap into a whole new business growth area. If a client comes into our retail shop and likes a particular gift item but would like it to be custom-made slightly differently, then we can do that for them. Our range of cygnet rings and cufflinks are produced as plain items and then a client can tell us what design they would like to have custom-engraved for them, for example, a family crest. We are currently working on a large commission for a luxury lodge in South Africa where they have asked for a range of jewellery to be made for their guests, so we are doing much more of these types of things in the business.
Where would you like to see the business going in the future?
We would definitely like to open another retail store in Cape Town and we have already had requests for us to do that which is wonderful, and fortunately our designer is based in Cape Town, making it much easier. So the plan is that hopefully our designer and his wife will set up the next Heirloom Treasury store in Cape Town for us. Outside of that, we are really looking to take the corporate gifting and personal gifts market by storm here in South Africa. Also, if people are looking to organise their weddings and want to create some really special hand-designed and crafted wedding stationery, then we would love to do more of that type of work. Also, to design and handcraft their wedding gifts for their bridesmaids etc. I think that retail and design space for us would be truly amazing. Also, I think the business conference and eventing market is one that we could really do some interesting work in. I am so personally tired of seeing people coming back from attending various conferences and events with dreadful plastic pens and folders, and I just feel that we can help event organisers to take their events to the next level and give their delegates a really unique corporate gifting experience. Again, I can see this being another key element of our business growth strategy.
"Understand that there is always a time for everything, so if you start out in business and it doesn’t work out perfectly the first time, don’t shelve the idea for ever - put it on hold and work on it over time to develop it further until the time is right - don’t give up on a good idea for ever."
Do you see The Heirloom Treasury differentiating itself in the marketplace due to its genuine celebration of African hand-craftsmanship in the true sense of the word?
I really do see that and our chief designer Jan is a true craftsman. Also, another key motivation for starting up The Heirloom Treasury was stimulated when we went into Swaziland a couple of years ago and we saw the most incredible craftsmanship there, with pieces all beautifully made yet selling in those small communities for just a few Rands. So our designer Jan said he so wanted to return to those Swaziland communities with some unique new contemporary designs for them to work on, and to help them to improve their skills in interpreting these new designs, and then utilising their amazing craftsmanship to make each of these new design pieces. The concept was to then be able to pay them more for their work in crafting these new pieces and as a result start to make a better living for themselves and showcase their work to a larger audience. There are so many talented craftspeople in this part of the world, but the difficulty is that they are all making exactly the same things, which means they have no unique differentiators in the local marketplace and it is difficult to make a good living. By helping them to introduce something new and contemporary into their craftsmanship and their end-products, it means they can really showcase their talents more effectively and get the quality of their products right in order to achieve a better price point for them.
What advice would you give to other women entrepreneurs who may be looking to startup their own businesses?
When I started out everyone kept telling me that I was so brave, but the reality is that I was just really frustrated with where I was in my business life, and realised that I couldn't just continue as usual. I needed to just go out and do my own thing. So I would say to other women, just use that frustration and turn it into an amazing source of power to go out and be brave and do something that you really want to do.
Also, don’t underestimate yourself and don’t let other people who tell you that you can’t do something entrepreneurial get to you. I read a wonderful Chinese proverb that says “The person who thinks it can’t be done, can’t interrupt the person who is doing it”. I think this is a really important message because everyone operates from their own personal level of fear of the unknown, but remember that it is their fear not yours, so just be strong and know what you want, and keep focusing on that end goal.
Understand that there is always a time for everything, so if you start out in business and it doesn’t work out perfectly the first time, don’t shelve the idea for ever - put it on hold and work on it over time to develop it further until the time is right - don’t give up on a good idea for ever.
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Why LoA loves it….
At LoA, we love the real passion that Daniela Wingate has for her business, her wonderful handcrafted and designed gift items, and above all her philosophy of celebrating the art of real craftsmanship and the creation of genuine heirlooms for people to treasure for a lifetime, and beyond. In a country like South Africa where craftsmanship is at the heart of traditional culture, she is proving to be an inspiration to new generations of crafters who are interested in seeing their work not only reaching greater and more sophisticated audiences, but also their craft skills being elevated to new heights. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and editor-in-chief of Lionesses of Africa