Voted Best Shop in Soho at Time Out's Love London Awards and continuing to revolutionise London's Souvenirs by collaborating with local creatives; We Built This City are settled into Carnaby Street after transitioning from an eight-week-long pop-up shop to a fully fledged resident of two years. A fittingly creative location for the artistic community WBTC are supporting.
into_view Magazine caught up with the brains behind We Built This City, Alice Mayor. Find out what inspired her to change the face of London souvenirs, getting experience in other start-ups before leaping into her own business, walking the streets on the hunt for the perfect location and what we can expect to see next for London's creative community:
Please, can you introduce yourself and your business We Built This City?
I’m Alice Mayor, founder of We Built This City - a retail destination on a mission to revolutionise London souvenirs.
We believe that everyone, whether a visitor or local, should have the opportunity to take home a unique piece of London that supports our creative community at the same time.
What were you doing prior to launching?
After six years working in PR, I was itching to finally start a business of my own. To get some hands-on ‘business-side’ experience, I took a pay cut to work with a number of creative start-ups on a freelance basis. During those projects, I kept meeting London artists and designers who were finding it difficult to find new audiences for their work. I could see real potential for a new platform that helped them drive sales and commercial opportunities.
When did you first have the idea? And what were your next steps?
In 2014, London was basking in the glory of the Olympics and had just become the most visited city on the planet with the annual tourist footfall figure at over 16 million. With so many international visitors heading to the capital for creative and cultural experiences, my lightbulb moment was passing one of the many souvenir stores in London and thinking ‘surely we can do better than that!’
My overriding priority in bringing the concept to life was to find the right location for the store. I really wanted to avoid a scenario where we had the very best artists & designers on board but didn’t have the footfall to prove it a success.
I was determined that it should be established in the West End. I walked the streets on the weekends to try and identify the best location but each time got more fearful about the barriers we were going to face with rents and rates. At the end of what seemed like a very long four months, I finally tracked down a landlord on Carnaby Street.
I created a detailed pitch outlining my vision for the product, interiors and marketing campaign. Within a matter of days, they offered a two floor - 3000 sq ft store on Carnaby Street with just one caveat… we only had three weeks to bring it all together and would need to launch for Christmas.
Had you had any experience in running a business before (education/family background?) or was it a matter of learning along the way?
This is my first business venture! Working for start-ups during the 2-3 years preceding the launch of WBTC provided invaluable insight into just how much you have to put in to make it work - but all of the learning beyond that has been done on the job!
Can you tell us about some of the artists that you work with at WBTC?
We work with a mixture of both emerging and established London-based artists, designers and makers.
We’re obsessed with finding new work and aim to curate quarterly collections for the store. Our curatorial team go to great lengths to find new talent, scouring London grad shows, markets, galleries and trade shows - as well as using online search tools and blogs. Some of our greatest finds though have been artists walking into the store to show us work - something that we actively encourage.
We’re really excited by the latest additions to our collection, which include work from the likes of Hattie Stewart, Trafford Parsons, Zoe More O’Ferrall and illustrator Alice Bowsher - who recently completed design and install of our new storefront!
How has the business developed since your first pop-up back in 2014?
When we launched the first store, we represented around 85 artists and designers - which today has now grown to 250 at any one time. Since launching, I’m really proud to say that we’ve worked with over 650 London creatives in total.
We Built This City started life as an eight-week-long pop-up shop on Carnaby Street. Two years later, we’re still here(!) and are proud to call ourselves ‘Best Shop in Soho’ as voted for by Time Out readers.
Could you tell us some more about the creative workshops and live events that you host in store?
We’ve hosted everything from paper cutting classes, chocolate skull decorating workshops & jewellery personalisation lessons to live art installations and a performance from a 40-piece male voice choir!
Committed to offering more than just a transaction our series of regular in-store events give our customers the opportunity to meet - and learn from - our creative community face to face!
Can you tell us about your overall mission and aim for WBTC and your long term plans?
We’re currently working on our full e-commerce offer that is set to launch this autumn. Beyond consolidating our London flagship on Carnaby Street, we’re also now looking at how we can reach our audiences at other parts of their journey through London such as airports and major attractions. Ultimately, I’m keen to see the We Built This City brand reach international shores.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt over the past couple of years of running a business?
Don’t overthink things! It’s completely normal in business to not know the next step to take. Don’t let fear stop you from moving forward - trust your gut instinct and be ready to make (and learn from) your mistakes. That’s what business is all about - there’s no perfect journey to success!
What advice can you offer to others setting up and running a business in London today?
I would highly recommend creating a pitch presentation to set out your vision and to share it with anyone who can help you make it happen. It’s easy to become scared of people stealing your idea, but I found it incredibly helpful to get early stage feedback and access to new contacts - many of whom ended up becoming our artists, advisors, partners and even our shop team!
Having a unique point of difference is also critical for a new brand or business - especially if you’re joining a competitive market (fashion, food, etc.) You need to work out the one thing that’ll set you apart and work out how you can tell that to your customer at every part of the journey - and even before when selling the concept to a landlord, investor, etc. Then you have to repeat and repeat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written or said “Revolutionising London Souvenirs” - it’s so key to drill home one message loud and clear.