Cat How on changing direction, moving to Lisbon and starting a new international agency

Do you remember Howkapow? That wonderful online shop full of creative goodies, stationery and products? It still exists, it's just that its original founder, Cat How, has moved on.

She and her husband and business partner, Roger, have sold it – embracing a new life in Portugal where they have changed direction and launched a new creative agency.

After seven successful years running an online business, we were curious to find out more and chatted to Cat about this new adventure.

Howkapow is no longer. Tell us more

Howkapow was the first business Rog and I set up together, and it was sort of like our first child. We ran it more like a creative agency than a shop and were more in love with the art direction and communication than the products themselves.

That said, there were a few gems over the years! After the birth of our actual, real-life second child we decided that it was time for a change in direction.

During our time running Howkapow, we realised we really enjoyed collaborating – and came to see it as the first foray into setting up businesses together. We had a great time and had a superb team, but after seven years we hung up the branded packing tape, copper stickers and addictively-poppable bubble wrap... and sold it.

So what's happening now?

Our branding and design agency Polleni is happening now! It really feels like our true calling – and we again have been blessed with another great co-founder and excellent team of collaborators. In fact, we began working with our design director, Neil Quinn, from collaborating in our co-working spaces, Pollen Place.

It helped to inform the agency's name too. But Polleni really feels right. As creative director, it draws on my journalism and arts background; while Rog enjoys marketing and sales from his time working at the BBC and in radio. Neil is deeply creative and produces stunning work from his many years of experience in the design industry.

As directors, we are all pretty honest with each other, and we all have our own skills sets and strengths. So there is a lot of respect there. We also collaborate on projects with different designers, illustrators and developers depending on the nature of the work.

What were you doing before Howkapow? Can you tell us more about your background?

I originally studied English Literature at Bristol University. It was either that or a Fine Arts degree, so I suppose I went for the safe option! I always told myself that I would continue my art alongside it, but the reality was that I sort of lost the routine of drawing and slipped out of the habit. A real loss.

After that, I worked as a journalist for several years before Rog and I moved to Melbourne to do something a little different. Back in the UK, I was an art critic, so it didn’t sit right with me that I was assessing other people’s creative endeavours without doing it myself. As Matisse said, creativity takes courage, so these artists were already being far more courageous than me, so who was I to judge?!

In Melbourne, I retrained in graphic design and started work at a big studio. Rog and I got engaged and the UK started calling us home again. We moved to London where I completed an intense MA in Communication Design at Central Saint Martins – we got bollocked a lot and people cried in tutorials, but it was "character building" and what I learnt there I value immensely.

Rog and I then got hitched, bought a house in Bristol and moved back to the West Country. At the time, there were no suitable jobs there (Rog was working at the BBC doing radio production), as it was just after the recession and things were a bit choppy. So we decided to roll with an idea that had developed when we were in Melbourne, selling stuff we had made at a beautiful market called the Rose Street Artists Market.

One of our friends had suggested we get a stall there. I had been making big bits of jewellery and Rog was taking lots of photographs, so we got a pitch, would rock up every Saturday, polish off a bottle of wine together in the sunshine and sell some stuff.

The idea for Howkapow was to give a platform to the designers whose work we were coming across, but who didn’t have the means of promoting themselves or having their own online shop. Crazy to think of this nowadays but it wasn’t a big thing almost 10 years ago.

We also just wanted to work on something together. For ourselves, not for The Man. So I designed the logo and website, and Rog taught himself some basic coding skills and Howkapow was born.

What lessons from Howkapow will you consider for your new venture?

Probably that selling products has a ceiling in terms of revenue, but that imagination and experience have no limits. We’re also really enjoying not having 'stuff' to worry about. Towards the end of our time at Howkapow we had a vast stockroom of products that started to weigh on my conscience. Lots of money tied up in stuff.

Now, we're generating revenue purely from our experience, and the size of this is proportionate to the strength of our ideas. All we need is a laptop, an espresso and a pastel de nata. It’s a nice feeling.

Do you feel like the weight has lifted? Do you feel many people are searching for change right now?

Yes, I do. I think technology is enabling us to be more free with where we want to be, how we work and what we can do with ourselves. Our team works remotely, and it doesn’t feel the least bit different to when we worked next to each other in our co-working space in Bristol. I’d go so far as to suggest it has even made us a bit more efficient! I think people are beginning to see that tech is allowing the future of work to evolve… and that they can be a part of that.

Do you think it's more challenging for people to start an online shop these days, compared to seven years ago?

It depends who is setting it up. As a designer-maker, there are a stack of sites you can use to build your own e-commerce platform, but if you’re wanting to curate your own shop and hand-pick your designers then there is a lot of competition out there now. It can become all about Google ads and SEO, and that’s not even to mention having to compete with behemoths like Amazon.

Was the decision to change easy for you? Was it a quick decision or one you agonised over?

It was a quick decision. I can remember exactly when it happened – on the TGV going to a design fair in Paris. We had a coffee, looked out the window and said: "Right, let's do something different."

I bought Rog a hand-made print for Christmas the following year at a letterpress studio in Bristol… it was of a train rushing through the water-coloured countryside with a caption that simply read “Allons-y” (let’s go). It captures that moment perfectly.

Why Lisbon?

Did I mention pastel de nata? Ha. Well, why not Lisbon? It is a stunning city and came in fourth in the Startup City Index according to Forbes last year.

At Polleni we're developing a really exciting programme, Branding for Startups, so this was an important reason for us moving here, too. As well as Lisbon being very international, it's also the same time-zone as the UK and is packed with beautiful architecture, wonderful food, great beaches with excellent surf and over 300 days of sunshine a year. Which helps.

Web Summit is here for the next 10 years and there is a real buzz about the place. As well as that, office and house prices are up to 80% cheaper than in London, there are great art hubs and a giant startup centrality (Hub Creativo Beato) opening soon. I’m also half Portuguese, so we wanted to teach our kids the language and make them feel like proper Europeans, too.

And what about the timing? Did you want to make it happen before Brexit?

To be perfectly honest, yes. Rog and I both grew up in Europe and went to international schools, so we were sad when Brexit happened. Applying the same philosophy we have in our work, we believe we are better together. It was an incentive for us to move over before the vote and possible red-tape complications and start to develop the European offshoot of Polleni.

We still have half the team based in Pollen Place in Bristol, but this way we can also internationalise the company. We also travel to and work from London various times a month for client meetings. Funnily enough, there are quite a lot of us Brits out here in Lisbon!

Is it easy to set up a business in Portugal?

It's certainly easier than it was, but it is still more complicated than in the UK. There are big tax advantages (20% flat rate for 10 years!) for foreigners setting up in Lisbon (called Non-Habitual Resident Scheme) so that is a real draw. Things run on a different time-scale here, but once you get your head around it, it’s actually all good.

What's the work/life balance like in Portugal? Is it different compared to the UK?

Um… the work/life balance here is quite incredible, actually. We love Bristol, but it is very different from our reality in Portugal. We’re fortunate to work in the spectacular Second Home Lisboa workspaces just above the Time Out Market in the centre of town in Lisbon.

So we pop down to the working market every week to do our fish and veg shop or have a beer after work in the food market next door. Several times a week we pick up the kids from school, and all go to the local beach for a surf. We’re very happy.

You also run Pollen Place back in Bristol. How's that going?

Yes, really well. The UK arm of Polleni works from Pollen Place – which is the company’s own co-working space.

We have a little event space where we host meet-ups and networking nights too. We branded it all ourselves, and have some lovely coworkers to hang out and eat Penguin bars with.

The plan is to grow the UK branch of the Polleni team into the space over the next few years. The sky is the limit!

What advice would you give to your younger self?



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