Tess Robinson, the woman behind boutique brand and design agency Smack Bang Designs, isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. Jumping in deep, Tess started Smack Bang at 22 years old, while still studying at university, today it is an established agency with an incredible team of creatives working to redefine brands and bring new ones to life. Tess invited the Sitchu team into her Bronte home to talk about what it takes to build a successful business, and to have a work life balance that fuels your creative energy.
Q&A with Tess
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into design?
From a very young age I have always been making and creating, turning my wild ideas into works of art. My initial Clag glue and kraft paper addiction evolved with age into a more refined obsession with scrapbooking and later in life turning drawings into digital illustrations and so, a life of graphic design seemed like the only choice. Design has been an innate part of me since I could use my hands, and to be honest I’ve never really imagined myself doing anything else.
You founded the successful creative agency, Smack Bang Designs at 22 years old. How did you know it was the time to venture out on your own?
I would love to say, that it felt like the perfect time to venture out on my own, but the reality looked awfully different. I couldn’t have been more unprepared had I tried. I was a uni student, with about $300 in my bank account, a pocketful of dreams and not much else. But, in classic Tess style, I decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a red-hot shot for no other reason than to challenge myself.
What was it like in the early days? How have you built Smack Bang to what it is today?
The first couple of years building the business nearly killed me. There were long days, sleepless nights, teary eyes, countless dinners at the desk and so much hard yakka. For the first two to three years I worked my butt off, pulling 60-70 hour weeks most weeks and not once taking a holiday. I relied heavily on the support of my amazing partner, the love of my family and the continued advice of some great mentors. But as time passed on, things became clearer and I was able to bring together an insanely talented team who continue to ease my load each and every day. I’m very lucky that I have such an amazing support network who believe in my vision and are passionate enough to help me bring it to life.
You work with a lot of creative people, what is the collaboration like in the office?
Collaboration is a light term to describe the camaraderie of our Smack Bang gang. Our team is my second family and I’ve been very lucky to pull together a great bunch of genuine, fun and spectacularly talented peeps. This gang is a collective of some of the sharpest minds and brightest thinkers I’ve ever met and we all bounce ideas, inspiration and a serious zest for life on a daily basis.
How have you kept challenging yourself in the workplace? What’s in store for Smack Bang?
When I started the business, I thought it’d be a couple of years’ hard work and then everything would be sweet ‘n’ easy. I’d sip margies from the Maldives and have everything under control, along with flawless skin and Beyoncé’s get up and go. What I would soon learn, was that every day would bring with it a new challenge. Yes, even six years down the track, I still face hurdles on a regular basis. Of course, I’ve learnt to deal with them a hell of a lot better, and I’m no longer so emotionally involved in every problem and its solution, but I am continually challenged and pushed to be a bigger and better business woman every day. Although sometimes tiring, I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.
What is your advice to others who want to take the leap and go out on their own?
It is so cliché, but ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. There will always be scary moments and the life of an entrepreneur is one fraught with risk. You sign your life over to jumps, leaps and bounds into unexplored territory that is often full of danger and mistakes. And quite literally, every day your business is open is a risk. But I can honestly say that it is worth every sleepless night.
Work / life balance is important to you, talk about this and how you instill this in your workplace?
I juggle a few businesses, so I’ve learnt to just try and take each day as it comes and not overwhelm myself with too many grand future plans. When it all boils down, you’re not going to care about your task list on your deathbed. A work life balance is great aim to have. Although it often feels very much out of reach, I think it’s important to continually strive for this so called ‘balance’. At Smack Bang, our team is never in ‘crunch mode’ and we have a strict policy that no-one stays back past 5:30. For us, the answer’s pretty simple - The thing we work hardest at is hiring good people, so we want them to stick around and have a good balance between work and family and the rest of the important stuff in life. Giving our team a healthy balance of work and play is not just a bonus, it’s a priority.
Smack Bang has a beautiful office space with plenty of greenery. What inspired your work environment?
Our studio is our sanctuary. We invest a lot of time and resources into our studio home to make sure that it is a beautiful place to hang out all day. The studio always has the gentle hum of busy, the scent of countless coffees, a trail of jokes, good vibes and plenty of tunes. Always tunes. Our brand has a fresh and simple aesthetic which carries through to our workspace, with clean, fresh styling, natural light, raw textures and plenty of plants. My partner and I also run a business called Urban Growers, which is all about bringing more green back into the modern-day life, so the studio resembles more of a jungle than a place of work.
Outside of work, what do you love to do creatively? How do you unwind?
When life is so busy, I crave the simple things. My downtime is usually spent at the beach, walking the dog, drinking chai in the backyard, cooking new things or, when I’m lucky, holidaying to faraway places. Of course, downtime is best spent with those you love, so the special people in my life get a fair share of me when I’m not in work-mode. And sleep… I seriously love sleep.
How have you styled your Bronte home to be a place that reflects you and your partner, as well as being a place to be away from it all?
We’ve made ourselves well and truly at home here, with a veggie patch, chooks, a beehive, a cute-as-hell Kelpie and a gazillion indoor plants. I was born and bred by the beach, so my aesthetic is reflective of my laid-back lifestyle, keeping things simple, beautiful and most importantly, comfortable. Bronte is our favourite Sydney suburb and we’re so lucky to live in a place that has such a welcoming, warm community and beautifully inspiring coastline.
How long have you been living in Bronte / Eastern Suburbs?
We’ve lived between Bondi and Bronte for the last 5 or so years.
Describe the vibe of the local community.
A warm, welcoming community that feels more like a small-town vibe than a city suburb.
What are your local haunts when it comes to coffee / brunch and exercise?
Iggys bakery on a Sunday morning for some crusty sourdough and by-donation coffee (pictured below).
Three Blue Ducks for a Friday night vino and delicious dinner with my lover.
Orchard street for a morning smoothie and arvo snack.
Samambaia Flowers for a bunch of eccentric florals to adorn the home.
As a creative, you sometimes need to get away from it all. Where do you go locally to get work done or to just be you?
I love taking a picnic rug and thermos of chai up to the top of Bronte cliffs and just taking the expanse of it all in. Seeing the horizon and the limitless blue ocean out in front of me calms my crazy and settles my mind.
Complete this sentence. The first thing you do when you get home from work is …
Boil the kettle, pull up a chair on the balcony and debrief to either my boyfriend or dog, (whoever will listen).