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Interview: MirrorMirror

Paola is an international entrepreneur. She runs her online UK interiors and lifestyle boutique, mirrormirror while living in Seattle, where she moved when her husband came to work with Microsoft. Happily, the mirrormirror shop ships to the US. I first got to know Paola when I came across a mention on her site that she was moving from the UK to a neighborhood in Seattle I know quite well so I got in touch, and I’m very glad I did. She keeps track of what is going on in her life and the remodeling of her house at the mirrormirror blog.

You moved to the US last year, and managed to keep your online shop, mirrormirror, based in the UK up and running. How do you do it? What unexpected challenges have you encountered from the experience?

In some ways it’s not been as difficult as I thought it would be. It’s amazing how much of what I do is online and therefore not location dependent – I source products via the Internet, do a lot of online marketing, sort out finances via online banking and correspond with my colleague in the UK who does the actual fulfilment and customer service using email and Instant Messenger. Technology-wise I certainly couldn’t have done this even five years ago.

I’ve also been really lucky in having two fantastic people work for me in the UK whom I trust implicitly and whom I can rely on to get stuff done without input from me (UK working hours mostly coincide with my sleeping hours).

But obviously there are challenges. The time difference is a bit of a killer. Last Christmas I was often up at 2 a.m. (mid-morning UK time) answering urgent emails and sorting out last-minute journalist call-outs, customer queries and organising urgent shipments from suppliers. If I have to make phone calls, 1 am Seattle time (9 am in the UK) is the best time to make them and be sure to reach the person I want. That’s not so fun when you have a little girl who is often awake at 6.30 a.m.

It also adds a layer of complexity to a lot of things. For example, I do all the photography for the site, so boxes of samples for photography are always winging their way to and fro across the Atlantic.

Mostly though I miss the camaraderie and stimulation of working with somebody and bouncing ideas off them. Email just isn’t the same for that.

How do you source your goods for mirrormirror? How do you continue to source goods now that you live so distant?

‘mirrormirror’ has always focused on craft-made items from around the world, so even when I was in the UK we didn’t just stock British and European items. Again the Internet has been a fantastic resource. When we first started the company three years ago we sourced most of our products at trade fairs and through interiors magazines, now I would say that blogs like Design*Sponge are my no.1 source of new products.

I also get approached more and more by designers themselves, commission work through Etsy, scour the interiors mags (I now have to get all the US ones AND all the UK ones) and want to start going to more trade fairs in the US. I was starting to see the ‘same old, same old’ at the fairs in the UK so being on a different continent is refreshing. And the strength of the pound against the dollar makes it great time to be showcasing US designers in the UK.

My big dream is to open ‘mirrormirror:us’ sometime in the next year or two, and being resident in the US is a fantastic way for me to be able to get to know the US design scene.

It seems like everybody can fairly easily sell their own things online these days, and as a shopper I often recognize things that are carried in a few different stores. How do you find things that are unique? Are there conflicts selling in your shop and other sites? What do you do that would make a customer come back to your shop?

There are conflicts, but in general I think there’s space for everyone.

Customers come to ‘mirrormirror’ because, as a curated shop, they like the aesthetic that ‘mirrormirror’ has and know that they can find a lot of things in one place which fit in with that aesthetic. The things we sell don’t necessarily have to be completely unique but they do have to fit for ‘mirrormirror’.

We’re like that indie clothes boutique you’re always popping into because you love the sort of clothes they carry, not because you’re looking for a specific designer. We save you the trouble of trawling through the craft fair (Etsy), and we’re not as boring as the department store (Pottery Barn) and you may find an unexpected surprise that you won’t find in a shop dedicated to a single designer. You don’t do all your shopping at the indie boutique but it definitely serves a purpose.

Customers come back to us time and again because they know there’ll be more stuff they love every time they visit and because they can pick up a lot of things together rather than just individual items (quite a few people seem to do most of their holiday shopping at ‘mirrormirror’). And we also get a lot of male customers who have no clue about specific designers, but do know that ‘mirrormirror’ is a great source of gift ideas for the women in their lives.

Having said all that, I do tend to avoid stocking things from suppliers who have their own very successful UK-focused online business, because there is very little point.

Do you have any perspective from your side for small artisans approaching a business like yours in the hopes of having their things sold?

I love it when individual designers approach us, as it saves a ton of legwork. The most important thing for me is to see good clear pictures of their work as soon as possible in the process, either in an email or via a link to a professional-looking website. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who approach us with bad photos, or who don’t have photos at all.

Generally I can see a photo and have a pretty good idea immediately whether it’s a ‘mirrormirror’ item or not. Artisans shouldn’t be discouraged at this point, because generally it’s not a question of liking the product, but whether or not it fits ‘mirrormirror’. It has to look right, be of the right quality and price point, not be too similar to something we already carry and fit into our range.

For example I get approached by a lot of card designers. And most of the cards are gorgeous and would fit right in with ‘mirrormirror’ but I turn them all down because at the moment we’re just not doing cards (though we might well in the future). So if someone turns you down, just try approaching different shops and remember, in the words of your ex, it’s not you, it’s me.

If I do want to stock your product, then make it easy for me to do so. Get your pricing right. I’m going to want to mark up your prices by around 100%. Not because I’m greedy but because I’ve got to cover storage, website development, marketing, advertising and staff. Generally the more money I can spend on those things the more of your product I’ll end up selling.

Remember it’s not my first order which will make you money, but the orders that I’ll make from you again and again. So be flexible about things like minimum orders, be helpful if I’ve got any special requirements, don’t try to undercut us via your website and give us any marketing help you can, like listing stockists on your website or on your blog or mentioning us as a stockist in articles.

When you moved to Seattle last year your husband and yourself bought a house with a fantastic view in a very nice neighborhood. You keep track of the renovations you’re making on your personal site and you make it seem so easy. Please tell me it’s not all as perfect as it seems.

He he! You forgot to mention that the house has been painted by colour-blind people and there are still unopened packing boxes in the corners even though we moved in six months ago and we started stripping the fireplace about five months ago and it’s still not finished.

Oh and the fact that our sofa is about a hundred years old, but I can’t get a new one because my daughter loves jumping on the old one too much; and I’ve got some wonderful Emma Gardner rugs on order, but I don’t think I can put them down just now, because we are in the middle of potty training.

There’s literally not a corner of my house that I like at the moment, mostly because I hate the paint colours, but it’s got great ‘bones’ so I’m hoping it will turn into something lovely before too long.

In general though, the downside for me is the constant feeling of not having enough time. It’s a cliché’’ but I’m definitely that duck, that looks calm enough on the surface but is paddling frantically underneath the water. It sounds so cheesy to say it, but basically I’ve got two ‘babies’ and always feel like I’m neglecting one or the other.

You’ve admitted to me that you are the mom at the playground busily answering email on your Blackberry. Do you have any strategies for keeping up with work while dealing with all those extra things life throws at you? Any strategies for separating them so that work doesn’t overwhelm having a life?

Hee, I’m the mum in the wading pool with my pants rolled up past my knees, hoping the kids won’t splash my Blackberry too much.

My problem is that mornings in Seattle, when I’m generally out and about with my daughter, are afternoons in London, when any crises that have arisen during the day need to be sorted out. So yes, a Blackberry is worth its weight in gold.

In general, though, I’m very bad at this work/life separation business, so if you’ve got any good strategies I’d love to hear them. I have three days a week when I’m with my daughter full-time (the other two days she’s in daycare) and on those days I can only work at naptime even if sometimes I’m desperate to get to my computer and sort something out. So there’s sort of a forced separation there.

But because I only get two full days a week to focus on the business, I’m always trying to squirrel away bits of work time here and there – first thing in the morning, every evening, and every weekend. So my main strategy has been to marry a very understanding man and hope that things will get better when my daughter is in full-time education.

The good thing is we’re naturally quite sociable people, so I get lots of enforced breaks if we’re entertaining or going out or going away for the weekend and I make sure we do a lot of that – firstly so we can make the most of our time in Seattle and secondly just to switch off from the business a bit.

I do find it really difficult to take a break from work when I’m at home though, mostly because I really love what I do and am always wishing I could spend more time on it (also because I’ve managed to create myself a ‘job’ which involves reading blogs and design magazines.)

Please tell us a favorite anecdote.

It’s not really an anecdote but the thing I like best about doing this is that it’s like playing a giant and very complex online computer game, where my ‘score’ is measured by how many orders drop into my inbox every day.

And in this crazy, incredibly-interconnected virtual but-somehow-real world, actions which you think will have a huge impact sometimes have no impact whatsoever, while tiny little things will have big consequences. So everyday I wake up expecting things, but have no idea what those things might be. And I just love that unpredictability.

For example, I have no idea how I even came across ‘Not Martha’ but I started reading it way before it was ever remotely suggested that we move to Seattle. I started reading a bit more avidly when I knew we were going to relocate and posted a few comments, and was thrilled to receive an email from you full of fabulous advice about the area I was moving to, which was close to where you used to live (funnily enough I remember opening that email on my Blackberry in the playground and feeling frustrated that I couldn’t sit down to read it properly). And now here we are.

You focus on good design for you business as well as your home and when you travel. Do you have an aesthetic philosophy that you pursue?

I think beautiful things are good for the soul. I get a little frisson of pleasure every time I glance at something I find beautiful – not just big items like furniture or art, but small things like a nice notebook or cute pyjamas.

So ‘mirrormirror’ is really just an extension of that. The name came from the idea of living a ‘fairytale’ life and giving yourself as many treats as possible – why not eat your breakfast egg out of a pretty egg cup or use a beautiful tea towel to dry the dishes?

As for my personal aesthetic I love colour in all its forms, with the possible exception of mustard yellow. My idea of hell would be living in a tastefully beige room with lots of square brown furniture, though I’m quite liking the ‘white with splashes of colour’ trend that’s current at the moment. Of course this makes picking colour schemes for the house absolutely impossible.

I’m also thrilled that pattern is so big at the moment. I grew up in the seventies, so am no stranger to graphic patterns and just hope there isn’t such a huge reaction against them this time round as there was in the 80s.

I also love mixing things up. For me a good room should contain vintage finds mixed with new pieces, use different materials and textures, and pieces from different styles and eras – I like looking for the subtle connections in shape or colour or texture which pull a room together. I think this is a very European approach, but I’m half Italian and have lived for some time in France, so I think that translates into my thinking.

The ‘mirrormirror’ aesthetic is very similar to my own. There is nothing in the shop I wouldn’t have in my house or wear myself, though sometimes it gets a little bit kitsch-er than I usually like, just because those things seem to sell well as gifts.

Things for ‘mirrormirror’ also tend to be more visual, just because that’s the only sense available to people in an online context. We did have the most beautiful soft textured throws and thickly glazed ceramics with a wonderful matte sheen, that just didn’t sell well online, because it was difficult to appreciate them. I’ll just have to save those things for the first ‘mirrormirror’ shop!

What is next for mirrormirror? What is your ultimate vision for the business?

I deliberately chose the name so it could extend into different areas – it’s about a way of life, not a shop necessarily.

In the short term, I just want to make the shop bigger and add new pieces more frequently. I’m starting to build up a kids section and have just started working with someone in the UK who is going to help me develop the jewellery and accessories side of things a bit more, so I can focus more on interiors. And then hopefully the next big thing is going to be ‘mirrormirror US’. I also want to start working with designers to develop our own branded lines.

After that I’m not really sure. Maybe taking the brand into other areas, such as clothing or food -I won the Evening Standard’s (the main London newspaper’s) ‘Gourmet of the Year’ competition a few years back – or opening physical shops in the UK or US. I have this vision of a beautiful teashop serving delicious cupcakes and proper English afternoon tea, with a gorgeous lounge room at the back filled with beautiful objects that you can buy.

Oh and ultimately I’d like to live in Provence (I once lived in the South of France for a year and it was heaven), in a beautiful honey-coloured stone house with a vineyard and an olive grove and a walled vegetable garden, and a large outbuilding that will serve as the headquarters of ‘mirrormirror’ online and smaller outbuildings that I’ll turn into ridiculously luxurious, individually-designed guest suites…

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2 Comments

becky

Paola also has awesome taste in television shows and is super fun to dish about them with! :) Great interview!

Steve Pronger

I hear what you’re saying about the separation of work/life thing, especially when you’re working from home. You just have to remember that you’re “at work” and treat your home office like you would any other office.

Cheers

Steve

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