Arriving at their warehouse, I was immediately struck by the relaxed and fun environment, despite the ever growing nature of the business which now has over forty-five employees and thousands of clients. Founders and directors, Luke and Charlotte Hodson, appear thrilled and amazed by how far their business has expanded since Luke first started making badges for his band from his uni halls. With the independent and alternative scene in Leeds continuing to flourish and sprout up new talent all the time, merchandising has increasingly become an innovative and engaging way for small time indie businesses or artists to get their name and brand out there. The success of Awesome Merchandise, in part, spurs from the way that they have tapped into a unique business approach that both has time for the small fish and start ups but also the capacity, manpower and equipment to cater for bigger demands. This allows them to remain true to their roots and ethos, taking on interesting indie projects, while still holding their own in a competitive market.
Meet Charlotte and Luke Hodson – Directors of Awesome Merchandise.
Photography provided by Tracey Welch
Where did the idea spur from and how did it all get started?
L: I had a gap year before I came to university, did a bunch of various crazy jobs in factories, working on the M6 toll roads and in pizza shops. I decided a few weeks before I came to Leeds for uni that I didn’t want to do those jobs again next summer so I bought a badge machine for a few hundred pounds off eBay. I was in a punk band at the time so had a few friends that were in bands so I just wanted to do something related that would earn me a bit of pocket money.
So how has it gone from a single badge machine to the warehouse and forty plus staff you have now?
L: We were always doing it out of our student houses through university and it started becoming a bigger thing over our time there. After doing that for two years it got to the point where we had outgrown doing it from a shared house and we were in the position to take on part time staff. We got a little unit down in Holbeck and around the same time we started getting really big orders. I’d say the tipping point was when we got an 80,000 unit badge order from Bill Bailey the comedian. We’d had a couple of 25,000 orders which was a bit of a push but with the 80,000 to do as well as other orders it was crazy. That was the point when we had to start taking on people properly and I ended up quitting university.
What sort of clients do you tend to work with?
C: We always say we don’t really have one typical client. We think one of the main reasons we’ve grown is because we’ll take on any order. You want one singular product - we’ll do it. You want a hundred thousand of something – we’ll do that too. We do a lot in music and those sorts of areas. In Leeds we work with a lot of small, independent businesses, as well as charities and artists.
L: We are definitely strong in music and art areas but we really are open to anything. We looked at the stats the other day, with it being 10 years since we’ve started, and we’ve made items for over 50,000 businesses now. Anything from anarchist book fairs to churches to be honest - there has been a real mix but that’s what makes it interesting.
I’ve seen that you’ve worked with a lot of the independent businesses. What do you think about the boom within the independent scene in Leeds?
L: We definitely agree there has been an uplifting in the things that people are doing. It’s definitely a good thing and people are branching out a lot more.
C: I think it’s one of those things where just because there are loads of people doing small businesses in one place it doesn’t mean there is no place for you. If you’ve got a unique idea, there is room for everybody. For example, there’re new bars opening all the time but they are all getting business - people want variety.
L: The good thing about Leeds is it is a major city and there is a lot going on but it’s relatively affordable. Five or six years ago was the point when we were thinking: do we need to be in London where there’re more things happening? It’s infinitely cheaper to be in Leeds and because it is a little bit smaller it’s easier to get to know everyone and there is a good scene of people into similar things as us.
Do you think the open and supportive nature of the Leeds independent scene makes it a good place to have or start a business?
C: I really think it’s a great place to come if you want to start up. We know people who have moved up from London or from other areas because of that scene in Leeds and they are thriving. Everyone is open to working together… and really friendly.
L: The Leeds Indie Food has been really great in that sense; that helped bring a lot of like-minded people together and collaborations have come out of that. That, and the Leeds Indie Bike project, actively encouraged people not only to do collaborations but also to see the business benefit of getting involved. The co-work spaces available are a great thing too, places like Duke Studios and Hello Work.
Merchandise is a way of getting your brand and name seen. What advice do you have for companies, illustrators and designers who are just starting out and want to get their stuff out there?
L: My advice would be to get a simple, good design or two to start with. Things like badges and stickers are a cheap way to get started. If you’re a bar or a restaurant leave your badge on the bar or with the bill. It’s a really cool, cheap way to build up a little bit of an interest with people. People love freebies! The main mistake people make is overcomplicating it and trying to do loads of different designs. Increasingly, we’ve been doing a lot of work with the Brudenell [Social Club] and they’ve just got the two T-shirt designs but you can go to a festival pretty much anywhere in the world and you see people walking round in them. It works really well as they’ve built up the brand of the Brudenell through that, as well as it being a cool place to go.
What lies ahead for Awesome Merchandise? Any interesting projects coming up?
L: Our focus is trying to become the best business we can. We have a long list of things we want to improve on – internal improvements such as making it a better place to work. We also want to double or triple the product range in the future so new products but also variations. More interesting collaborative things and outreach stuff, working and supporting charities too. We are collaborating with Leeds Arts Hostel, a social enterprise project East Street Arts are heading up. The idea is ‘What if a hostel was designed by artists?’. We’ve supported the Indigogo funding campaign and we are going to sponsor a unit for two years. Artists are going to go in and hopefully make a crazy, interesting hostel. It’s going to be an affordable place to stay and I imagine very immersive in a cultural sense. Also we’re working on a new maps project in connection with all the Leeds Indie stuff (Food and Bikes) to launch Leeds Indie Maps - an illustrated map by Leeds based illustrators - a free guide. The idea is also when things like Leeds Indie Food or Bikes happen in the future we can do special additions. A lot of people in that community know what is going on but it would be good to reach out to more people.
Meet Michael Dixon - Screen Print Manager at Awesome Merch
Photography provided by Tracey Welch
Michael came into AM for a day to help out as a favour and after one day he knew he wanted to come back. Luke asked him to come in the next day and four years later he manages a team of ten people across the screen print and embroidery process unit.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
It’s fast-paced and challenging. It’s something you could never get bored with and I’m constantly learning even now. Working here you see direct appreciation of the work you’re doing. It’s so great to see the business grow, for example the screen print process developing into what it is now. We work closely with our clients so we get to see the impact of our work which is so rewarding.
Over the four years that you’ve worked here, how has AM developed and changed?
When I came here four years ago there were around sixteen people working here. We were in a small unit and now there are nearly fifty members of staff and we have this huge space. We do twenty more processes than we did before and so many more products. In terms of growth it’s been really crazy.
What’s been your favourite project to work on?
We did some t-shirts earlier for a band from America called American Football who are a band who I’ve liked since I was fifteen. They reformed recently and did a U.K tour so we did their merchandise for it. James, our Business Development Manager, also promotes gigs and he knows a few record labels. Their Tour Manager is actually a friend of his so that’s how that came about.
Meet Casey Dickinson – Art Work team member at Awesome Merchandise
Photography provided by Tracey Welch
Having started at Awesome Merchandise in summer after studying Graphic Design, Casey has quickly slipped into the Awesome way of working and got stuck into her work with the Art Work team. Here she alters the art work they receive, setting it up for the machines and ensuring all elements of the designs work together.
How did you find your first couple of months at AM?
When I came to first look round, the working environment alone sold it for me. It’s really different from the job I was doing before which was in a very corporate office with a really small team of five and I was the only creative. When you come in you’re instantly in a creative environment and everybody is always excited about new products and designs. I’ve never worked in a place where there is such a mutual appreciation for making nice looking things. Everyone knows each other too which makes a really friendly working environment. Everyone here has lots of interests outside of work too – people are in bands or there are lots of illustrators or photographers – so there is always something to talk about.
What are your favourite aspects of your role?
I find it really rewarding, especially when you get something that isn’t quite right from somebody who isn’t necessarily a designer but they really want it to come through and look good. We always work closely with the client to ensure it looks the best it can. When we get really positive feedback – it’s nice to know that you’ve managed to get their art work to a place where it looks really great on a t-shirt or tote. That’s the best thing about our art work team - most of us are graphic designers so we don’t turn people away if their design won’t work; we help and advise them as much as we can.
The Awesome Merchandise family (including Dolly the adorable French bull dog who stole the show during our photo shoot) have shaped a workspace which is at once creative and challenging but at the same time incredibly warm with a workforce who thrive upon their roles and celebrate the working atmosphere they have created. I find it no surprise after meeting Luke, Charlotte and their Awesome team that this business has grown hugely over the last ten years and continues to flourish – these people are passionate about what they do but also where they are doing it – in a working space which celebrates the alternative and is excited by the unconventional.