I started studying secondary education in Brisbane where I grew up, and then my husband got a job in Sydney (we weren’t married at that stage). I couldn’t really afford to do full time study in Sydney so I went straight into recruitment and studied marketing through correspondence. I started working in marketing and brand management for Mirvac Hotels and Resorts and went on to Amex as a marketing manager. My career moved along well but it was a really hard adjustment moving from Brisbane to Sydney. Recruitment’s a particularly vicious industry so it probably wasn’t a good start for someone new to Sydney. I’ve always been a face-value person but landed myself in professions - recruitment and marketing - which are particularly catty and manipulative, and it’s really hard to know who your friends are. So it was a very tough transition for me. I grew up in a family that was very work-focused where you stick things out, so that was more important than the enjoyment of the job. As kids we all worked from the legal age, we all had jobs through high school so working hard and showing commitment was very much a part of my upbringing. I did love the content of the jobs, and I did make some really great friends, but neither of those careers were the right ones for me.
My husband works in finance, and in 2009 he got a job in London. It was at the peak of the recession and I just couldn’t get a job that paid a decent wage, so that’s when I decided to study interior decorating. It’s what I had always really wanted to do but it’s one of those pipe dreams and you really don’t know if you’re going to be good at it until you’re working in it. I still believe it’s something that can’t be taught, it’s something that’s innate. There are definitely tools you can learn, like lighting and how to enhance features, but it’s just like the clothes you wear – it comes down to taste. The only part I don’t like about being an Interior Decorator is that you kind of become an accessory for people. There’s almost a level of ownership, and I’ve always had an intolerance to anyone thinking they’re better than anyone else. You become an accessory like a nanny or a house-keeper, and you’re not treated that well, like a member of their household staff. But now I’m in a great place – first of all I’m a mum, and I also do interior decorating which helps to stimulate me and I can be really selective about the people I decorate for.
When I was studying in England I was also pregnant with my son Morgan who’s now nearly five (my daughter Willow is nearly three). We moved back to Sydney a few years ago, and I still didn’t feel like I had enough experience to start charging people for my services, so that’s when I started Designed for Smiles. Designed for Smiles is not for profit - we do bedroom makeovers for children selected by the Sydney Children’s Hospital. They choose children who they think would be a good recipient based on the family’s financial circumstances and those who tend to spend a lot of time in their rooms by the nature of their illness. So they recommend children to us and we go to their homes and redecorate their rooms - it’s about a six week process. All of the products and services are donated. Because I’m working in the industry, I liaise with Suppliers that I have a good relationship with as well as constantly meeting new Suppliers who want to be involved. And I have made contacts though my husband’s work. Initially it was difficult to acknowledge the kindness and support of the amazing companies who donate products and time because we didn’t have a following or a platform to thank them all. The larger retailers are still not interested in donating as it’s all about marketing for them, but the smaller companies are really supportive and the tradies are incredible. I’ll put a message on ‘Service Seeking’ and explain what I’m doing, and I’ll have 10 painters responding within an hour wanting to help. And it’s their time and effort they’re offering.
We did our first room in 2013, and we soon realised how flawed our system was. It was clear that I need to create a website – and that was does pro-bono. It took a year to create. I collect all the donations and whatever we need that hasn’t been donated we create a gift registry for – we email supporters and they can choose what to buy and donate to the room, and we put stickers on each item so they know who donated it. The wonderful thing about Designed for Smiles is that when people donate they get to see exactly where their money goes. And the child gets to experience the kindness of strangers. There’s no hidden agendas and no-one wants anything back. We get a professional photographer to do a photo shoot of each room (we’ve done more then five now). We can really see a difference in the lives of the children we have worked with. So much healing is done when you’re in a positive state of mind. So if these kids can be in bright, uplifting space where they are spending the bulk of their time, it’s really helpful for their recovery. We had an amazing journey with Ethan, one of the special children whose room we redecorated. When I first met him he was 14 years old and he was changing schools because he was being bullied so badly. He stopped growing at the age of 11 and his peers continued to grow so they thought it was cool to bully him about it. They’d pick him up and throw him down and throw rocks at him. He didn’t sleep, waking up multiple times every hour with restless leg syndrome, he had problems with his kidneys that were keeping him awake and he had an insane amount of anxiety because of one particular child who would follow him everywhere and taunt him. It was heartbreaking to hear his story. In the six week period that we worked with him, he changed schools and we redecorated his room which included a brand new double bed and a top of the range Sealy mattress. His mum emailed me a few days later and said Ethan was almost sleeping through the night. Of course it wasn’t just the room or the mattress, changing schools played a huge part – when a child has health issues it’s hard to know if it’s the anxiety or the illness, so you eliminate what you can to filter out the parts you can control. Other kids have emailed us with pictures of their room and how they’re using and enjoying them. It feels good! It’s hard to go back to regular clients because these gorgeous kids are the best clients you could have.
When I founded Designed for Smiles I was pregnant and when we did our first room, Willow was about five months old. I have an insanely supportive husband which really helped me to get the business off the ground whilst looking after two little ones. When he comes home at night he is so engaged with them and he basically takes over looking after Morgan and Willow while I start my work. I look after the kids during the day and work at night, and one day of the weekend I’m running around meeting with suppliers and going to shops, and he totally looks after them and does a better job than I do. He’ll plan a whole day out with them and he has tremendous energy and patience. But then again, he only needs to do that one day a week. My husband’s also a much better cook than I am! Like my brother-in-law summed up, when he took his three girls to a birthday party and all the mums were so surprised he was on his own, he said “Well I’m their dad as much as my wife’s their mum, why should it be any different?.”
It’s challenging raising children and running two businesses, but it’s also really good for me. A lot of people start a business and expect it to be instantly great, and immediately offering a return and getting lots of social media followers, but for me with so much going on with the kids I was never really in a rush for people to be emailing me and contacting me. It is really slow, but it’s building. Now that we’ve done a few rooms we can show people photos of what we’re achieving and creating, and the story behind what we’re doing.
While Designed for Smiles is not for profit, I formed The Design Spot - which really started with doing decorating for friends. I developed the business so I can make money myself and contribute to running the house – I’m sure a lot of mothers feel the same way, that they want to contribute financially. Again that’s a part of my upbringing, I don’t want to just be reliant on my husband. What I can contribute won’t impact our lives, but it does help my self-respect. I started designing for kids bedrooms because there are so many products out there and it’s great to be able to focus on one thing. Building up the confidence to back yourself can be really hard. I’m so passionate about design and I have a huge propensity to shop! If I see something beautiful I want it to be in someone’s home, so decorating gives me a chance to shop for someone else. Our house is bulging, I cannot add anything more to it, so finding the right clients and decorating their homes fulfils my desire to let beautiful things find their place. I just want to be good at what I do. I’m not looking for any level of notoriety and I don’t necessarily want to be someone that people seek out because I think that’s when you attract disingenuous people. I just want to work by word of mouth and take on projects that fulfil my passion.
My children are my priority, and I have another baby on the way, so life is going to get even busier! But having a balance with running Design for Smiles and The Design Spot is so important for me as a person. A friend wrote a really interesting article about ‘stay at home mums’ being ‘bored busy’. There are all these tasks to do all the time, it’s ground hog day. You clear up the toys and then 2 minutes later they’re in a mess again, or if you don’t do washing for two days you feel like you’re buried in washing, and I just wanted something outside of that. I needed some stimulation just to feel like an adult. For me The Design Spot is about me having my own spending money, and exploring my own passion, but I’m not looking to be the next big thing. The beauty about both my businesses is that the overheads have been low, so I’m not putting pressure on myself to make money immediately.
I think a great scenario for starting a business is to start it off as a hobby. It’s important not to put too much emphasis on the business rather than focusing on the kids – if you do then something’s going to fail. It’s so delightful when you have a day with the kids and there are no conflicts. When you’re not trying to get anything done the kids are so lovely. Whereas I’ll get to the end of the day when I’m trying to work around the kids and I become impatient with them because I want to get through everything quickly. Hurry to the park, tick it off the list, but your heart’s not in it and you’re looking at your phone all the time. I think for any mum, you need to separate out your time. For me, the mornings are for the kids – we do something together that’s completely uninterrupted, the phone’s away so there’s no conflict going on. Then we come home and we have lunch and then they’ll sleep or watch tv and I can sit on my laptop working for a few hours at peace. So I really believe that if you block your time, so you’re either with the kids OR working, things will work in your favour.
The Design Spot is constantly inspired by amazing designers, from the crafty ETSY mums to the perfectly restrained Scandinavians, from the superb Italian craftsmanship to the meticulous French artisans. They love helping clients to redecorate in a style that suits their personality, home and lifestyle.
Designed for Smiles is a not-for-proﬁt organisation that recreates rooms for little people in need of cheering. They aim to create exciting spaces for little people that are not only captivating, but also contain a few of their favourite things. They rely on the support of the community to provide goods and services at nominal cost and they also provide an outlet for skilled tradespeople to volunteer their expertise to create furnishings and help execute the makeover.
To donate to Designed For Smiles, or to become a Supplier for the cause, you can contact Amy via the website:
If you feel ready to build your business dream, and contribute to your household financially, contact Business Mamas. We’re here to help you make your business dream come true.
Copy: Melanie Quirk Photography: SomedaySomehowStudios
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