Most of the time a hobby stays within its set time constraints, but on rare occasions – when a love for something grows and a fine technique is established – a passion can grow into a solid business plan.
Lovin Malta spoke to five inspirational Maltese women who quit their day job to go at it alone. They’ve shared with us – in their own words – some of the struggles, and the high points that have kept them motivated to be their own boss.
1. Charlene ‘Charly’ Mercieca – Soap Café
My passion for natural and holistic alternatives fired up at the age of 16. By this tender age, I had already experienced various ailments including eczema, severe alopecia, IBS, extreme weight loss and weight gain, resulting in ill health. When all conventional treatments failed and I had nothing else to lose, I was introduced to the beautiful world of holistic therapies. Thirteen years later, and as a a qualified beautician, product designer, herbalist, make-up artist and spa consultant, Soap Cafe was created – bringing together holistic health, beauty, art and design.
I started out by making my own natural products for personal use, and would give them out as gifts. Then friends started to place orders. After that I started selling in markets and a couple of years later I decided to open up a shop, not necesssarily because there was a huge demand for it but because it was a dream of mine to do it and to share these beneficial skincare products. It took 5 years until I could break even! Nine years ago, things were very different. The word ‘vegan’ was something completely new for Malta and even though throughout the world natural cosmetics were the norm, we only started to see this interest in Malta in these last 3 years. So yes, it was tough, but I persisted.
Today we produce over 50 different handmade soaps for all skin types and ailments, and offer various lotions, balms and scrubs for healthier, more beautiful skin. Most of our products are made with local ingredients like olive oil, goat’s milk and purées of seasonal local fruit like prickly pear and pumpkin. Our ethos is – “Only produce and use goods that are beneficial for humans, animals and the planet.”
We send our goods all over the world via our website, including Europe, USA and Japan. We sell goods to spas, boutique hotels and anyone looking for a unique product to treat themself and their loved ones.
2. Yana Azzopardi – Yana’s Jewellery
Jewellery making has always been part of my life. It’s in my family history – my grandfather was a goldsmith. It was a hobby throughout my teenage years, I started taking jewellery-making seriously in 2010. Back then, handmade jewellery wasn’t popular in Malta so it took a while for people to appreciate handmade designs. I took part in every single artisan market that took place, and made sure my brand was promoted on the best local magazines, in fashion shows, and through photo shoots.
Facebook has been an important tool for exposure and growth. Branding was another important factor. Having no background in this field, I teamed up with 2point3 studio and they defined my image.
Back in 2013, when I was selling from home and local fairs, business started picking up very fast. I had no base or workshop, so I used to work from my bedroom. I was still working as a social worker, so I was juggling both at the same time.
My father came across a shop in Msida that seemed ideal because it was close to Junior College and quite a busy area. He encouraged me to open my shop and motivated me to take the next step. I took the plunge and started saving in order to set up my outlet. I spent a few months formulating a business plan and when I was finally ready – I opened.
Still juggling a full time job and working till 11pm everyday I decided that my jewellery business had become my priority. I quit my job 5 months later and Invested every speck of energy into it. Being your own boss is no easy task – it requires commitment, and a lot of investment and planning. I can say that the feeling is very satisfying when you realise that this only started as a hobby.
Last year I extended my shop and invested in my dream studio space. I now have a full timer and I’m in the process of employing a part timer too. We will definitely keep growing, and hope to launch our online shop in the coming months.
3. Nicole Vella – Bobs
I’m based in my studio home in Gozo, and paint murals, design logos and wedding invitations; but what I am most proud of are my Boblet greeting cards and my fully custom made to order, one-off teddies called Teddybobs. In the last year have I focused mainly on my art for my income. I actually studied Biology and Chemistry at University and worked for 3 years as a pharmaceutical lab analyst after finishing my degree. But after a year of travelling, I decided to focus on my art and try to expand my business further.
Boblets started off as doodles on my university foolscaps as tiny bubble headed creatures. After a good response to family greeting cards, I sold them at local artisan markets like Patches, and later in independent stores. The last step was tricky as vendors see it as a risk to take in small amounts from local makers, and there is also a lot of competition from international suppliers.
Teddybobs were also born from sketches that I figured would look cute if rendered. All I had was a €20 sewing machine, an old pair of jeans and a lot of patience! I sell the Teddybobs mostly via Etsy which is an online selling platform focused on artisan crafts. I work to customer specifications, and to keep the public (but mostly myself) intrigued, I never replicate a bear. That is my only rule and they are all consecutively numbered. I have just passed my 100th Teddybob. They most expensive Teddybob so far went for €170.
Product photos are very important as they have to catch the attention of buyers within a whole search of other similar products. I’ve had to learn for myself how to market my product, find and communicate with stockists and source and obtain affordable materials – the actual designing and creating my Bobs is usually the least of my problems. Also, sadly, it seems that artisan appreciation in Malta is still a bit lacking. At artisan markets where I used to sell my teddies at half the price of today, I would get people trying to haggle and others saying that for that price they would rather get a ‘Me to You’ teddy… Online platforms and social media allowed me to reach the right clientele.
The best part of my work is dealing with a new request. Understanding a demand usually goes above and beyond communication – it’s a matter of forming a personal connection and getting a proper feel for the person. I feel particularly proud and fulfilled when I get comments like “No offence, but I think mine is the best one you’ve made so far!”.
4. Sef Farruġia – SEFFARRUĠIA
After taking art at secondary school, I enrolled at MCAST Institute for the Creative Arts, followed by London College of Fashion, and completed my BA (Hons) at Ravensbourne University in London.
As part of my end of year collection for my degree, I produced silk scarves and this grabbed the attention of my peers, who suggested I pitch these products and see how it goes. Whilst still living in London, I gained quite a bit of interest and started selling a few luxury accessories, but after a while I decided that I needed to come back to Malta and base myself here.
When I moved back to Malta, almost 5 years ago, no one was really doing print professionally here, especially on luxury fabrics. I was quite surprised with the response I got locally, which encouraged me to settle in Malta.
When I first came back I started teaching in the Textiles workshop at MCAST. I did that for 2 years before deciding to take a break from it and work on my label full time. I am a risk-taking, “all-or-nothing” kind of person so I took a leap of faith. Hopefully I did the right thing!
I currently sell my products directly, and Camilleri Paris Mode also stock them. I’m looking to finally invest in an e-commerce website, where it will be used as a platform for me to distribute my brand worldwide.
I’m still a one woman show so far, so as well as money I am investing my life in general, waking up everyday to work towards one goal – to keep doing what I want to be doing. The bigger challenges so far have been financial ones and keeping myself going.
There are a few plans which I am working on at the moment, but the biggest one is opening up my own workshop and showroom space in Rabat, where everything will be done under one roof. I am also getting back into producing full collections as well as luxury accessories, which is very exciting for me.
I’m motivated by the love for what I do and I don’t think that will ever change. There have been quite a few small achievements along the way, from winning the ‘One To Watch’ award at my graduation show, to dressing saxophonist Greg Osby and pop star Eliza Doolittle on one of her South American tours. But I think the highest point will definitely be having my own space — my own little window in the world, where I will have the opportunity to contribute on my own terms.
5. Dani Von Brockdorff – Flora’s
Opening a tearoom has been my dream since before I can remember. When I was little I used to pile up boxes in our basement and pretend to serve my dolls tea over a makeshift counter, and when I was a bit older I’d sketch out plans of my tearoom on Microsoft Paint.
Flora’s actually came about when I told a colleague at my previous workplace about my dream of opening a tearoom. A few days later she ran to my office and said “I’ve found the perfect place for you!”. It was only up the road from my house so I decided to take a peek through the shutters while I was out walking the dog. As soon as I looked through, I could tell that it really was perfect. This all happened while I was completing my studies and it seemed liked ideal timing – I knew it was time to take the plunge. The name Flora’s came from my grandmother Flora, who besides sharing my love for tea and cakes, was hugely inspirational to me.
Getting from the point of initially seeing the place to actually opening our doors for the first time and starting to run the business was a real challenge. I had to learn everything from scratch, from making a cappuccino to filing a VAT return, and I’m presented with new challenges every day. But I was surprised at how much people are willing to show you if you ask; especially other restaurant and business owners, many of whom are happy to share tips and advice. I am also extremely fortunate to have a great team of remarkably talented and hard working people, without whom I would not have been able to come so far.
I have a marketing background so branding has always been a top priority to me. I entrusted Maltese illustrator Moira Zahra with the logo and other illustrated details. The brand is the core of your business and creating a clear and memorable brand identity which people are able to associate with our brand values is extremely important.
I have to admit that it does get stressful and tiring, and there are some bad days when you just don’t want to get out of bed – but isn’t that true for almost every occupation? And the good days really do make up for it, like when you’re out and you overhear a conversation about how much someone loves to visit Flora’s… it’s a feeling you really can’t replicate. Running my own business also means that I’m never bored, I constantly get to try out new ideas and changes to try and improve the business.
I like to keep myself busy and in the coming months we will be expanding and have a lot of exciting projects coming up including a new venue, a bakery and an online presence and I’m really excited to see what the future will bring!