Spotlight on: Mark Callaby of Ohh Deer on building a retail empire and supporting illustrators

In 2011, partners Jamie Mitchell and Mark Callaby started their own online shop, Ohh Deer in one of their grandparents' attics to sell a small range of illustrated gifts and goodies.

Today, their little website has grown into a huge success story – boasting nearly 30 employees, representing nearly 50 popular artists (think Gemma Correll, Sophie Corrigan and Christopher David Ryan) and enjoying an exciting range of collaborations with the likes of Urban Outfitters and ASOS, and stocking their products in shops as big as John Lewis and Paperchase.

With an imminent move to a new 10,000 square feet warehouse, office and retail space – and an incredibly bright future ahead of them – we spoke to Mark to pick his brains on what it takes to turn a creative passion into a business and how to cope with all the associated growing pains of a fast-growing enterprise while continuing to support the creative community...

Tell us a bit more about you both. What's your background? Where did you study?

We’re both from different parts of the country (Jamie is from Loughborough and I’m from Ipswich) and met at Kingston University. Jamie studied Architecture and I studied Illustration – so we’re both reasonably creative.

I started to work in the Students’ Union as a sabbatical officer (within business management, media and marketing) before moving on to student support… so I’d gained more of an interest in how companies run – which I think is one of the reasons why (although not properly defined) I’m more the Managing Director of Ohh Deer and Jamie is Creative Director.

As a couple in real life, we live and breathe Ohh Deer and treat it like our child that we’re growing together.

So how did Ohh Deer come about? Where did the idea come from? Tell us more

Jamie was starting his first year in the architecture industry and it was clear that, although pretty good at it, it wasn’t the career for him. We both started coming up with ideas on how to make some money that supported our creative flair as well as something that would help Jamie get out of architecture.

With my job coming to an end at Kingston University we decided that it was too expensive to try setting up a business in south-west London, so we moved to Loughborough where Jamie took residence in his grandparents' attic to work on Ohh Deer while I got a stable job at Nottingham Trent University to make sure we had a safety net if we needed it. Within a year, the business was going from strength to strength, which allowed me to leave my job to also work full-time on the business.

We’re often asked why it’s called ‘Ohh Deer’… in truth, the answer is pretty dull. We just wrote loads of random words on a piece of paper and that’s the one that seemed to stick. A quick company check and domain name search made us add that extra ‘h’ to the Ohh!

How do you choose illustrators you're going to work with? And how does someone apply?

We’re constantly on the lookout for upcoming illustrators. We keep a good eye on social media, blogs and even try to attend degree show exhibitions. Now that we’re becoming more popular we get lots of submissions sent in via email or in the post.

We also hold submission competitions two or three times a year. This allows artists to submit their work based on the brief we’ve set. As the public start to interact with the work, we’re given a great indication of what could work for us on future products.

You love to support illustrators who are trying to break into the industry. How?

We like to think so. It’s important that we keep the company fresh and exciting – to do this we have to find the best up and coming artists. We’ve built up a strong following online and have a large (and ever-growing) trade customer base. We’ll showcase work with credit back to the artist and if we sell the work we give the artist one of the fairest licensing payments within our industry.

Some of our artists have started to become established within our industry and it’s great to see so many stockists now adding illustrated cards to their collections.

You've had huge success on social media. What's been your secret?

I don’t think we really have a secret other than the content we share. With a name like ‘Ohh Deer’ we feel that we can easily mix our illustrated content with other funny photographic content. We’ve always known that social media is the way to go as we’ve grown up with the internet and seen how these platforms form a vital part of people’s lives.

It’s definitely important to keep track of how different platforms change their policies. We’ve had many frustrated battles with Facebook who used to let us reach our following, but they now limit this which can be really damaging to smaller companies.

What other challenges have you faced running an online store? How have you overcome them?

With the Facebook example, it’s been important that we don’t put all our eggs in one basket. We have different people managing different social media platforms, so our content isn’t always the same, making them stale.

I think our biggest struggle has actually been growing and keeping up with it. As we’ve become more popular we’ve had to pull in extra resources which we’ve potentially not been able to afford, so that means pulling even longer hours and having an amazing staff who are completely dedicated to the brand. It’s only in the last year that we’ve managed to grow our workforce from 5 to 29… and it’s still not enough, so you can imagine how we’ve been ageing!

What have been your most popular products to date?

Without a doubt, it’s greeting cards. They’re our bread and butter. Over the last year, we’ve really focused on stationery and grown this area. We’ve worked exclusively with Urban Outfitters on some journals, which even they’ve admitted they didn’t order enough to satisfy their customer demands.

Do you have any of your products in your own homes? Which ones and why?

We actually don’t… we used to, but I think we’ve consciously decided that we’re so absorbed with the company that we need to make our home a little bit different. Don’t get me wrong, our home is still full of illustration works!

Videos are booming at the moment, even television is changing with more on-demand content with the likes of Netflix. They definitely help us; we get to tell a different story with video content.

You've been featured in Vogue, Elle and the Telegraph – what PR tips and tricks can you share that have helped you get such great coverage?

Building relationships is vital – that’s the same for our trade customers as well. We moved PR in-house at the end of 2015, which gave us greater control on where we’re being featured… Katie can also keep on top of what’s coming up in the company and has a real understanding of where we want to go with the business… something we didn’t feel a PR agency could really achieve.

You do some really cool videos, promoting your illustrators and products – have you found these to help? Do you see video content becoming more important for retailers?

I think this relates back to keeping up with online trends. Videos are booming at the moment, even television is changing with more on-demand content with the likes of Netflix. They definitely help us; we get to tell a different story with video content. We know that other artists have a fascination with seeing into the lives of other artists and it also reminds us of why it’s so important to support creativity.

Going forward, video is important for retailers, but it has to be backed up with all the other content as well. The younger generation have grown up with this type of content and it’s popular for a reason – even if the older generation can’t understand why. I guess if pictures paint a thousand words then videos must paint a ridiculous amount more.

So what's changed since you launched Ohh Deer? For better?

This is probably the hardest question to answer… nearly everything has changed, but we haven’t really noticed it. It’s like when you get a new kitten, you know it’s grown, but it seems to pass you by.

I can’t imagine life outside of Ohh Deer now. It's our life and our team feels like our family. It’s definitely better!

And for worse? Tell us more

Last year, the business grew so much that by the time Christmas arrived it felt like we hadn’t actually been able to enjoy the year. Finding time to have fun outside of work is probably still our biggest weakness as we know there is so much more that can be achieved with Ohh Deer. I think we just need to work a bit harder at finding the perfect balance.

Have you ever had any unusual orders or requests? Tell us more

I think being a creative company leads to unusual happenings. We’re often asked to pop a quick drawing in someone’s order – I think one was for an elephant eating a banana or something. We also get people to apply for jobs with a random drawing. One was with three people on a planet with a goat saying ‘job for me?’.

Have there been times when you've felt like quitting? What happened and how did you keep going?

Of course, but I think that’s where our relationship kicks in as we can talk it out with each other and find a solution. We’re both very different when it comes to things that make us want to quit.

I’m definitely more focused on making sure we’re not going bankrupt while Jamie wants the company to grow quicker than we can afford. By working together we find a happy medium.

What three pieces of advice would you give to anyone thinking about starting their own online shop?

Know your customer. If you’re trying to cater to everyone, you’re going to really dilute why people should shop with you. Don’t copy. You’ve got to give it your own personality. And get a grasp of your cash flow early on. Many people confuse cashflow with normal accounts and it’s your cash flow that ultimately determines how much you can spend and when.

Know your customer. If you’re trying to cater to everyone, you’re going to really dilute why people should shop with you.

Great advice. So what's next for Ohh Deer?

Our next venture is moving to a new headquarters in central Loughborough. We currently have about 3,000 square feet of warehouse and office space which we’ve quickly consumed. The new premises will be our first place that is only for Ohh Deer (we were only in our back-bedroom two years ago and now we’re in serviced units) giving us over 10,000 square feet of space for warehouse, office and our very first Ohh Deer shop!

We’ve always wanted our own shop and the new building will allow us to have one without it being too much of a financial risk, as we need the building for the rest of the business anyway. It’ll be great to see how we can translate our online feel to a physical shop. We’ve experimented with pop-up shops before and they’ve always been really successful. We’re used to displaying our products at trade shows and Jamie’s architecture background really helps us build visually beautiful displays.

Last year we signed Gemma Correll (pug and pun master) exclusively to the brand and we’ve been working with her to produce an exciting new range that will be launching later this year. Many of our stockists are already very excited about the range, including one of our new customers, John Lewis.

We’ve potentially been a little quiet over the last few months than what we could have done. I think because of how quick we grew last year we really needed to spend some time on regaining focus and making sure our processes are up to scratch so we can continue to expand in future.

Our web team is currently building a new website for us as well. However, we’re constantly developing our existing site as it’s our biggest marketing tool. Along with a new Ohh Deer site, we’re building a brand new online shop for Gemma Correll.

Our trade side of the business plays a massively important role for us. We’re looking to build upon our successes in the US market as well as expanding our global reach.


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