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Idealog's Most Creative: Paper Rain Project's Wills and Indigo Rowe talk creativity

Indigo and Wills Rowe were one of the People's Choice winners for the manufacturing category in Idealog and Accenture's Most Creative People. The Marlborough-based duo run a design and art social enterprise called the Paper Rain Project that creates, among many things, longboards made out of recycled wine barrels. The boards are sold mainly as artworks, but there are also plans in the works to develop a rideable eucalyptus board for commuters. Here, they talk creativity, resilience and bringing an ethos into your craft.

What does creativity mean to you?

Indigo: A lot! It’s in human nature - whether it be in the way you cook, write, live, dress or speak, I believe that everyone is innately creative in their own way. I create art, write short stories and music so it’s a large part of my life. In business though, we need to be constantly creative too - doing things differently can set you a part and there’s a lot of creative problem solving involved. 
 
Wills: It’s important! It means anything that is thinking outside of the box, no matter what that looks like. It’s the foundation of our business and the basis of every one of our products. We work creatively to make things that have a positive impact across the production, aesthetic and effect (to our artists, business and causes). 

What do you think it is about your nature/habits/interests that makes you creative? 

Indigo: I think my creativity lies in bringing a number of elements together to achieve the results I am looking for. This could be elements in my freelance graphic design - colour, texture, type etc - or skills and people within a collaboration. In terms of physically creating, I love making woodblock prints, black/white illustrations, painting and doing our store fit outs with Wills. I am a super visually stimulated person and believe that what we see around has huge effects on our wellbeing, purchasing and mood. 

Wills: Creativity to me is problem solving. I like making things and am constantly improving/perfecting them or the processes behind them. Maybe that helps me think out of the box but I just can’t stop thinking and making! 
 

What first drew you to your chosen field?

Indigo: I had really inspiring art teachers (Paula Somers - Graphic Design and Jacqueline Macleod (now an Auckland-based full time artist). I studied Fine Arts at University of Canterbury before leaving to start The Paper Rain Project. It was a hobby for a few years - painting old decks or those made by a friend from recycled waterskis. I love working on wood, so just continued to do so. I love art, I think it’s such a brilliant mode of communication and connection. The business side of things we have learned and made up as we have gone along but I enjoy that too. 
 
Wills: It was completely unintentional! Indigo wanted to grow her hobby into a business and I wanted to support that. I saw potential in it! I was an arborist and a massage therapist at the time - so I guess the combination of those two things and wanting to contribute to the business turned me into a board shaper! ;) For the first year, I just helped to support the business & Indigo but I wanted to be more involved and hands on. I’d previously been playing around with wine-barrels and began to develop our signature recycled wine-barrel boards. 

What was your upbringing like, and how do you think that led you to where you are today? 
 
Indigo: I grew up half in Scotland and half in New Zealand. In Scotland, we lived on a boat-access-only peninsula with no flush toilet, mains electricity or water. There was no paved roads or shops and us kids went to the smallest school in Scotland (5-11 pupils at the time.) So my roots were fairly sustainable, unusual and off-the-grid. We didn’t have TV so we had to be pretty creative with our time and spent as much as we could outside.  Later, in Picton, NZ, my parents began their own web development company 
(babelscribe.com) and worked from home so that they could be hands on parents. In this, I could see the ins and outs of small business. My parents have always supported me in what I wanted to do, studying art and even leaving University to start Paper Rain, so I owe them a lot of thanks for the values and confidence they have given me. 
 
Wills: I watched my parents build a business and work very hard at it. They helped me develop a good work ethic. I got to see the growth of the cherry orchard and business over my 31 years so I guess that gave me perspective on how much work and time goes into a successful business. 
It’s in human nature - whether it be in the way you cook, write, live, dress or speak, I believe that everyone is innately creative in their own way.
Where do your best ideas come from?

Indigo: I’m yet to know exactly what our best ideas are! But most of our ideas come when we step away for a bit. For me, that usually means running in the bush. When we take a break, we often come back early or start working because we get inspired in new spaces. 

Wills: I’m continually trying to make a better product so I do a lot of researching and trials in the development stages. Generally I lie awake in bed for a while at night or in the morning and work through ideas in my head until I find solutions. 



What does inspiration look like for you?

Indigo: Inspiration is what moves us forward, gets us to try harder and try different things. It teaches us to look in different places for the solutions we are looking for. It’s uncontrollable though, just like creativity which it’s such a part of - it never works on demand and for me, often comes when I am nowhere near the thing I am hoping for inspiration for - or in the middle of the night ;) 

Wills: It’s the drive to keep going - in many different ways - to get where you want to be, even if that ‘place’ changes over time.  

Is there an ethos/motto you abide by in your work?

Our work must be of a high quality, as ethical and sustainable as we can and unique. It must be in-house made, locally sourced or fairly traded - made without costing the Earth or compromising the people we work with. (There is always room for improvement with any decision though! e.g cotton, even organically grown cotton, is not the best environmental solution and nor is importing/exporting. We’d love to make our t-shirts from locally grown and sewn hemp fabric.) 



If there were a secret to success, what would it be?

We’re not sure how to measure success but the one thing we can credit to getting us as far as we have is the value of kindness. Our business is built upon relationships - with our suppliers, our collaborators, our guest artists, our (very few) staff and our wonderfully supportive customers. Kindness is free and the results of these relationships are what keep people talking about The Paper Rain Project. 

What were some of the challenges that you faced early on? What went wrong? Any regrets?
 
There are no regrets but we have made many mistakes. Initial challenges involved being completely unknown and having no cash flow. Finance and cash flow is a constant struggle for us as we have high cost prices and overheads but it’s something we’re trying to work through. One thing we have done wrong is offered too many variants in colours and designs at once. This means a huge outlay in blank fair trade/organic t-shirt stock which essentially locks up your cash flow and takes a long time to shift. We have a finance advisor now and he has helped us to reformat our pricing and look at areas which are causing us losses. He’s been awesome (Thanks Gary aka the accounting whisperer!) 
 
Do you work a lot? Do you have an obsessive part to your personality?
Yes, we do work a lot. Initially this was definitely due to our obsession with doing our work, then it was - for years - to make it work. It wouldn’t be uncommon to see us work a 7 days week with hours upwards of 12 hours in day giving us a wage of around $2 an hour - haha! But this year we’ve changed that as it wasn’t sustainable mentally. We’re learning how to work more effectively rather than more hours! Having hired Hannah Heslop, a talented and super-hard working University friend, almost-full-time early this year, we’ve managed to start taking the odd weekend and have stopped working in the evenings. The goal this Summer is to camp, surf, kayak, hike, bike and chill out with family/friends as much as we can. Life should be about living too. 


 
What’s the secret to resilience?
 
You have to be in business and doing what you’re doing for the right reasons. We have only been able to carry this on because we are set on the goal of doing as much good with our business as we can. If money were our driver - and we’ve been broke for five years (but living richly in other ways!) - then we would have given up a long time ago. If we had gone into business for business, rather than passion, we wouldn’t have lasted. A good mix of both passion and business focus - and a whole lot of hard work, open-ness to learning and being optimistic - is needed!  

What have been some of the highlights of your career?

We don’t really see it as a career, but the highlights of Paper Rain so far have been…learning how to screen-print our apparel ourselves (in our garage!), the relationships we have built with our first staff and getting 531 percent of our Kickstarter goal. The very best thing for us is the continually growing relationship we have with our “tribe”- our guest artists, suppliers, staff, causes and audience. 

What do you think New Zealand is like for creativity? Is there something about 'Kiwiness' that helps or hinders?
 
New Zealand feels, to us, like a really supportive environment to create. Art is innately part of our culture. It’s also a country that is super innovative and has people which like to support smaller business. As a nation which consistently punches above it’s weight, Kiwi kids should feel the potential to become anything! Sadly, we do have huge issues with our fast declining native species and social inequality which we really need to address as a whole. 


What would be the advice you’d give someone who wants to turn their creative passion into a full-time gig?

Go for it! Just be aware that it may not feel so good once it becomes your job. There is a fine balance and many times, we have felt so far away from the creative sphere we started because we have been chin-deep in accounts, staff and stock management, order fulfilment and financial planning.  If you want to sell your creative work as a job, you need to be prepared to really get behind it! This can be hard as it can feel like selling a part of yourself but if you’re not prepared to get behind your work and get it out there, you’ll really struggle to succeed. Learn to price properly - people will value your work when you do. Also, get a feel for the industry standard and rate; if you sell yourself short, you are also selling the industry short… Finally, ask ask ask. We have been blown away by the replies and support we have received when we have asked for it. In turn, we now take time to pass knowledge and connections on to those who ask us - it’s a big circle.  

What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

Enthusiasm and a gut feeling aren’t enough reason to do something. There is a huge amount to be said for getting third party advice and doing the proper research. We have committed to leases in places that almost killed us, sold stock to businesses that never paid us…. We now have a great financial advisor and are looking for the right business mentors. We say this in terms of finance though - generally we have a pretty good instinct with people and love those we get to work with! 

Where to next? Do you have a goal you’re working towards?

Hmm.. in all honesty, we feel like we’re at a point where our business could either tip (due to finance) or take off! We have been looking for the right investors but who knows where the business could go. We have big dreams of making clothing out of NZ grown hemp and fully manufacturing here….We want to be making quantifiable positive impact on the conservation and social projects we (and our artists/tribe) help to support. 

Personally, we are looking to increase the time we spend outside - rock-climbing, hiking, kayaking and surfing - spending more time in the environment we are trying to protect and the lifestyle we advocate. Oh, & building a tiny house!  Soon Indigo wants to hike a 2-3 month section of the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail in the USA next year while Wills wants to head to Thailand to learn Permaculture techniques. Watch the space! 

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