By Christina Atherton
With so many of us are searching for that illusive work/life balance it’s refreshing to see someone who has been able to achieve that while creating a thriving small business from her passions. Based in Redhead, south of Newcastle, Melanie Muddle of HoutenPlank has managed to create an inspiring business that combines her love of food styling, woodwork and Dutch heritage while allowing her to spend precious time with her family. Here she shares an insight into her fledgling creative business and how she got to where she is today.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I’m a small town, big family kind of girl. My dad, a scientist come oyster farmer, moved the family from Sydney back to my mum’s hometown on the Tillegery Pennisular when I was young. I spent a lot of time outside, building bush cubbies, riding repurposed bikes from the dump, eating wholesome food and hanging out at the oyster block.
I’m a third generation ‘Dutchy’. My Oma and Opa came to Australia in 1952 and have been a big part of my life. It was my Opa who started the family oyster farming business and even in his nineties, he continues to demonstrate that working hard is in our genes. My family heritage is something I cherish and it was important for me to incorporate this into my business.
Inspired by a 1980’s food styling video at school, I decided I wanted to be a food stylist. After chatting to my science-loving dad, I shifted my focus to becoming a dietitian and took myself very seriously at uni. Soon after graduating I was surprised to find that typical dietetics wasn’t for me. I spent the next decade working in corporate dietetics, I enjoyed a stint in private practice, I met my husband at ‘The Worlds Biggest Disco’ and eventually returned to a management position in the Health and Wellbeing division of Sanitarium. And then came our babies.
What made you want to start your own business?
I loved my corporate job but motherhood has a way of changing your perspective (often without your permission). I tried to balance everything when baby Eve arrived, but it was impossible. I found myself without work and I knew that I had an opportunity to rethink and reshape my career, a moment to pause and contemplate.
Like many mums, I wanted to find the elusive balance between work, mothering and life in general. I wanted to do something was fulfilling and fun, that was aligned with my passions and that positioned me to continue to learn and grow.
How did you come up with the idea of HoutenPlanks?
I have always loved food. I think about it A LOT. I find food photography mesmerising and adore quiet time with food literature. I had watched that the ‘serving board’ trend become entrenched in food styling. I noted that recipe books, food magazines and cafes where using serving boards frequently. Food commentators were talking about the popularly of share-plates and the decline of entrée-main-dessert dining. Jamie Oliver centred his styling on painted serving boards and people couldn’t get enough of it. I knew that with time, the serving board trend would permeate households, generating demand for such products. I knew that ‘fashion for food’ was on the agenda and that HoutenPlank, which is Dutch for ‘wooden board’, could meet this growing market need.
How did you get started?
My husband Brad often scoffs at the depth of my research and detailed documentation. He’s a ‘get-in-there-and-get-stuff-done’ kind of guy. I’m the opposite and don’t mind generating a spreadsheet or trying to articular market insights. My second baby Esther arrived and I’d spend nights dreaming and working on my business plan. On weekends, in between breast-feeding, I’d slip down to the workshop to start prototyping. Brad was incredibly patient and supportive. He had a few doubts about my woodworking capabilities but nonetheless allowed me to use his tools. He always believed in what I was trying to achieve. He collected discarded workshop furniture from construction sites until we had built a functional little workshop. One sleep-deprived year later, I finally had a plan and the confidence to launch my business.
What are the pros and cons of running your own small business?
HoutenPlank provides me with a platform to do what I love. It seems that I’ve finally found my ‘groove’. After previously struggling with work-life balance, I’m happy to be able to control my workflow and how work impacts my family life (well, most of the time). More recently, I’ve relished the freedom to support my friends and family when they’ve needed it. I’ve enjoyed connecting, supporting and being inspired by local creatives. I’m also thrilled that spending hours on Pinterest and Instagram is now considered productive market research!
Business administration is my foe! Lauren Hung from The Black Line penned my new motto “face it or face-plant in it”. Bookwork, quoting and filing are not my favourite things but I’m learning how to effectively manage these tasks. I also find it difficult to manage growth with limited capabilities. There’s a constant re-evaluation of how to increase production without stepping outside my brand values. Growth is exciting, but also anxiety provoking. Most of the time I am ‘one-girl-in-my-garage’, both a pro and a con on many levels.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
I wish I could tell you about my proudest achievement, but it’s still under wraps. What I can say is that I have won an unearthed competition and have developed a collaborative product, which will be available Australia-wide later in the year. This is groundbreaking for my business and I am preparing for a crazy, busy, exciting few months. I can’t wait until I can share more about it.
Has social media played an important part in growing your business? If so, how?
Social media has been an essential tool to create buzz about HoutenPlank. It’s been a cost effective way for me to increase brand awareness, encourage word of mouth, expand my reach, share my story, show my products, develop my style, engage in conversations and build relationships. I’m constantly amazed at the connections, opportunities and friendships that social media can forge. It’s a daily thing for me and I’m now at the stage of developing a social media strategy and calendar to help ensure it’s easy for me to reap the benefits of this medium.
What advice would you give someone thinking about starting their own creative business?
I’ve mentioned that I’m partial to research and planning. I believe that a well thought out business plan is an excellent launch pad for a creative business. I’ve recently looked back at my initial plan and while much of it now seems irrelevant, it was critical in the beginning. Don’t make the mistake of planning yourself in circles. There’s a time to plan and a time for action. A good business plan forces you to think differently, to stretch your ideas, to anticipate the challenges, to understand the market place, to be realistic in your financial forecast, but most of all it gives you confidence to take a chance to be successful at doing something that you love.
Now that I’ve rabbited on about planning, I’ll sum up a few other thoughts…be open-minded, invest in building relationships with stakeholders and customers, embrace collaborations, have a ‘roll-with-it’ attitude, don’t put all your eggs in one basket and never forget your raison d'être (reason for being).
On a quest to live a more creative life, Christina loves any type of crafty project and has tried everything from watercolours and flower arranging to paper craft and calligraphy. She has an unhealthy obsession with Instagram and when not working in freelance travel and lifestyle PR, spends her time as a mama, wannabe photographer and magazine junkie. She currently coordinates CWC events in Newcastle.
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