A conversation about creativity, obscure podcasts and working under pressure
Sophie started Grain & Knot, her wooden kitchenware company, just over a year ago. She hand carves each spoon, knife and board from reclaimed timber, keeping her hands busy whenever possible, putting her love for the wooden goods before splinters and cut fingers.
According to her own website, “she always searched for new and exciting artistic outlets” after graduating and wanted to get away from the constant glare of the computer screen.
Sophie’s one of these positive people that seem to get along with everyone, always up for coffee – as long as you’re real and up for having a chat. So that’s what we did, drink coffee and talk about running a creative business, random podcasts, and the blessing and curse of pushing further.
There are quite a few interviews with you out there already. Most of them start with your story and your background. Let’s start with your story too, but a slightly different one. What drives you? What was it that really made Grain & Knot happen?
I was just so bored in the job I was in. One day I told a friend that I was really interested in how to carve spoons. My friend told me about this guy who offered workshops. Three days later I was on his course and I absolutely loved it. Never really intended for it to become a business, it was just something I really enjoyed doing. When I came home the next day I bought an axe, I bought all the different knives I needed. It just kind of grew from there really, giving spoons away as presents to friends and family. People I was giving them to wanted to pay for it. So I made a brand and it just started to grow really quickly, it’s kind of unbelievable how quickly it has grown. When it came to the point where my job was just so unbearable I knew in the back of my head that I have this thing that I’m doing. I always knew that I wanted to work for myself. I work really hard and I really love working. But you know when you just feel like ‘I wish it was for me and not for someone else’. So I gave myself six months - ‘if it doesn’t work after six months I’m going to get a job’. I went to The Prince's Trust, got on their course, and I launched within four months and got a mentor for the next three years. He’s got a business mind and helps with things I sometimes don’t think of.
There’s the very practical side of the business, finding wood, carving spoons and knives, and then there’s the theoretical part of business development and visioning. What have you found most challenging over the years, and how do you make sure you have the right steps in place to grow both sides?
It is really tough. I find some of the marketing side of things quite tedious and it is a little bit boring sometimes, especially when it's so easy to just put everything down and move to the creative side and just start making. But it is about balance I guess.
When it comes to the beginning of the week I just write a list of everything I need to do and try to stick to it as much as I can. If I get bored or start to struggle with it, I just go make something for an hour, two hours, and then come back to it. I find the same thing with my wholesale orders, for example if someone’s asked me to make some specific items, I find it a bit tedious as it’s more like work. So I go off and do something that no one has asked me to do, just to enjoy making. I don’t see making stuff as work, I do enjoy it so much. It’s only when it gets really busy and I think ‘I have to do this, I have a deadline’ that it becomes harder.
How have you found your mentor has helped you grow the business?
I’ve worked in a few different retail environments, so I have seen the backend side of things. That’s always at the back of my head, thinking ‘every month you need to be doing better and you need to be doing more’. This background has helped massively, something that as a creative I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of.
But my mentor suggested for example to send out an email to people every month and update them on what I’m doing. Just little things. He always pressures me to get all my accounts in order. He’s not involved in what I’m doing at all, but his experience is invaluable with things like VAT and tax, things that I don’t understand and that no one teaches you how to do. He’s just completely honest with me, if he thinks something isn’t a good idea he tells me. He’s kind of reining me in a little bit, which is good.
Talking about plans, ideas, and making decisions - how do you make decisions, and how do you follow your gut (if you do)?
Most of it is just what comes naturally. If I get a bad feeling about something I won’t go ahead with it. There are a few stockists I’ve worked with or people who have asked me if I’d do workshops with them. And some people I just don’t have great feelings about. A few times I have gone against my gut and they’ve been the worst decisions I’ve made. I’m a people person, so I can kind of tell if I’m going to get on with someone or not. If it’s going to be something that stresses you out it’s just not worth it.
I feel like the people who really get what I’m doing and who love what I’m doing, the ones who are going to be advocates, those are the sorts of people I want to work with. You want people who are going to be fully involved.
But making decisions is hard, I’m really indecisive anyway. On a daily basis making decisions is my main struggle in life - endless possibilities of what to eat… But I try to just focus on what I’m doing and rein in my decisions and see what’s best for the business.
I guess it is about trying different things out, see if they work as well, seeing what direction things could go in. For example I started turning bowls, it’s an absolutely scary process for me, I really struggle with it. This chunk of wood spinning against your face and you’re putting really sharp tools against it. It doesn’t seem natural to me, I need way more practise and go on a couple more courses to learn how to do it properly. But that’s a decision I made, to stop and leave it for a while because it was taking too long and I was focusing so much time on it, not getting anywhere with it. So I put this on the side for now and focus on other things, then come back to it when I’ve got more time.
What’s one skill that you believe has helped you grow immensely both in business and life?
I’ve always had a good eye for design. I did interior design at uni and then going into visual merchandising. And I’m also good at problem solving. If I see something and there’s something wrong with it I’m always thinking of ways to either fix it or work it out. Even when I was little, I would take things apart and put them together again, just for fun. Taking stuff apart and then rebuilding it into something else, I think that’s really cool.
I’ve always had an interest in photography as well, which has helped massively with the social media side of things, and I always look back at things I’ve done and go like ‘that was absolutely rubbish’. I’m quite self-critical, which can be good sometimes, but it can also be stressful when you’re always having a go at yourself. But it’s good to be able to go back and re-evaluate what you’ve done and figure out what you can do better.
What are your daily routines? Is there something that you do that you couldn’t do without, and that’s proven incredibly valuable to you?
I always take time out to cook a meal. I’ve got a lot of vegetables in my garden too. First thing in the morning I always make myself a cup of coffee, sit down, check my Instagram. I normally try to do a post in the morning, then make a nice breakfast. I always listen to podcasts as well, then get on with it and start creating.
What’s your favourite podcast?
99% Invisible. It’s amazing, it talks about really random things, such as flag design, just really obscure but beautiful stories. Then there’s No Such Thing As A Fish. All the obscure, strange ones.
Back to the question - I find I work better in the evening. So if I have anything that I need to do, I try to do it in the daytime, and then I’m most productive between 3pm and 9 or 10pm. In between I’ll stop to make dinner. Sometimes I find that even when I take time out to just sit and watch something because it’s the evening, I’m just sat there and my hands need to be kept busy. So some days I work 16 hours, just because I love what I do.
It’s getting to a point now where I’m not stopping, I’m constantly working, and I think it’s a little bit unhealthy. You need to have an end. Because I’m always on email, I’m always on Instagram and everything I’m doing is always around me, I can never just take time out for myself. I actually really need that now, having times out and having a good balance. Otherwise it gets to a point where I’m not enjoying it anymore and I don’t want that to happen. I need a bit more of a routine now, having a studio to go to. But when it gets too much I always think about the fact that at least I’m not sat at a desk in that office that I hated going into every day. So yeah, actually, I’m having a stressful day, but it’s cool because I’m not working for someone else.
I can tell myself to have a week off, but even three days into it I’m starting to make stuff again. I actually have to stop myself from working.
There’s this fun illustration of an entrepreneur’s emotional journey - it starts way up there with feelings like ‘I’m amazing, I’ve got the best idea, I’m going to take over the world’. Then it goes down to ‘ah, this sucks’. Somewhere in between you’re like ‘just keep working’, and then it’s up and down again. How do you deal with these emotional ‘imbalances’ of being an entrepreneur? Have you got any practical tips, and go-to practises that help you when you’re feeling down, when doubt and fear and all the common entrepreneur struggles seem to come together?
Teaching the workshops really helps. And having people come and visit and talk to me about what I’m doing. It’s nice to teach people who really want to learn. During the weekend I go and visit friends as well, so I try to do the whole thing of Monday to Friday I’m working, and then on the weekends I try and have as much time off as possible.
Now that I’m searching for a studio it gets really exciting. There’s the possibility of having a really cool place and taking that next step, pushing my business further, reaching something that’s just out of my grasp. There are always things I want to do, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a point where I’m happy with what I’m doing. I’m always going to think ‘what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?’, which is good, but also a little bit dangerous because I am so critical of what I’m doing. I’m always like ‘I need to be doing more’. Then again, if you constantly have something new to look forward to and work towards, you never stop for too long and don’t allow yourself to become too critical.
Alright, let’s have a bit of fun - what’s one random thing not many people know about you?
I gave up coffee for a year. I found that I was drinking it all day, so I told myself I needed to stop. When I became self-employed I was like ‘right, I’m going to drink coffee again’ - I was out with some friends at a really nice coffee place and it was awful, I hated it. Then the week after I tried it again and it was the best thing ever. I was like ‘what was I doing for a year, why did I give it up?’. It was good though, I found that I was being way more productive without it. Now it’s more about the enjoyment rather than doing it as a break from something else. I can’t believe I didn’t have it for that long to be honest, considering how much coffee I drink now and how important it is to me.
People talk about competition a lot. Especially in London you’re surrounded by so many creatives who sometimes all seem to have the best and most unique ideas. On the one hand that shows there’s a market for what you do. On the other hand, comparing and competing can be pretty tough. How do you deal with it?
There are a lot of people who are doing what I do in the more traditional way. I have a huge respect and understanding for that side of things. Whereas I found that when I first started doing it I really struggled to be able to find anywhere that was willing to give me freshly chopped wood. So I started looking into different ways of doing it, found so many timber yards that offered a huge range of all these amazing timbers. I thought that was interesting. I do focus more on the design side of things as well, how it looks as well as how it feels in your hand is important to me.
There are a couple of people who do something very similar in the UK and they happen to be girls as well, which is nice. I went through a phase of stalking people and being like ‘oh, why did I not think of this, it’s so good’, but it’s just turned into a mutual respect. We all follow each other, it is cool, but that also pushes me to continue. Because I know that if I stop someone else could take over, someone else could start doing more. It comes back to being really self-critical, thinking ‘why did you let that happen?’. That kind of forces you to keep going, you can’t be lazy, you have to keep going.
There are a few women who I’ve been meeting recently, we all go for pizza and wine, they all do creative things. It’s just nice to be able to speak to them and at the same time be able to disconnect from work. It’s really nice to be able to chat to them on a social level, but then at the same time, if someone needs someone, we connect each other with people. Building up a network of creatives who are really good friends, and at the same time have my own separate social group is really important. Everyone’s so nice who I’ve met along the way. There’s always that thing - they might not be able to do anything for you now, but in the future they may be able to help you out with something, or you might be able to work together on something.
How do you get the daily tasks done?
I find that I work best under pressure, I find that I will leave something until the last minute, as late as possible. I kind of know how long things take. It always gets done. I don’t like letting people down, so I’m always really conscious of that. It is my brand and I am a representative of my brand.
Thanks for your insights, Sophie!
Sophie’s done a great job in creating and representing her brand. She designed her own logo and marketing materials, and if you meet her you’ll find that her personality beautifully reflects Grain & Knot. And so does her Instagram account, which she puts a lot of effort into. All of it comes down to loving what you do, and you really get to feel that vibe with Sophie. Give her lovingly hand-crafted wooden spoons a go with your next morning porridge, or maybe even create your own. You might find a new love too.
For issue one we’re looking for people and businesses who care and create positive change. People who do good. Good that goes beyond just business, but has a real, lasting impact on the world, drives global change, and encourages sustainability, social and environmental growth. Know someone? Let us know.