Why does your business exist? It’s a question we often forget to ask, so concerned with what we all do, rather than why we do it. Yet, having a purpose is essential when starting or growing a small business. In Australia —where 97% of all businesses are classified as ‘small’ — a staggering 60% of businesses will fail within the first three years. Having a reason for operating, that goes beyond fame or fortune enables you to keep going when cash flow and customers appear low.
‘At its core, has a belief that there is more to business than just making money,’ starts Sasha Titchkosky, co-founder, alongside Russel Koskela, of the renowned Rosebery-based furniture and homewares brand. ‘This has driven everything we do, from deciding where we manufacture, what we design, what goes into our products and also how we can use our design skills to effect social change.’
Since launching 17 years ago, Koskela has been at the forefront of Australian home design and artistic collaboration, all while doing what they could to give back. ‘We started off with a company motto, which we still use today to govern the core of the business: Follow your heart, trust your judgment, do it with joy’. This concept led the company to support environmental causes like as well as work with Indigenous artist communities to collaborate on products that raise awareness of artists, while also providing employment opportunities. Earlier this year Koskela announced that they would commit 1% of its revenue (approx. 10% of its profits) into further developing projects with Indigenous communities.
‘I had always wanted to do something to address the disadvantage faced by Australian Indigenous communities,’ says Sasha, ‘This was sparked when I was a young girl and won a school prize, a book of Australian Indigenous stories. The older I got the more I wanted to do something but it took time before I could work out how in my life this would eventuate.’
A few years after launching Koskela, Sasha decided the time was right to build upon this desire. ‘I felt we needed to be reasonably financially stable before approaching any of the communities we work with…to make sure we could sustain a long-term commitment to the artists.’
‘I didn’t want to be another one in the long line of white people to go into a community full of the right motivations, but unable to sustain an idea.’
The result is consistent and successful product collaboration between Koskela and Indigenous artists that includes lighting, woven structures/meeting pods, cushions, scarves, fabrics, gift-wrapping paper and Christmas decorations. While successful, such collaborations were years in the making.
‘It took us three years of research before we could launch Yuta Badayala, our collaboration with Elcho Island Arts. We had to really understand how the women worked and, therefore, what type of product we could create,’ says Sasha. Travelling into remote communities, Sasha and her family met with artists and art managers who taught them about their craft, culture and community. In return Koskela provided employment opportunities, payment in excess of what they would usually receive and a chance to showcase artwork to a wider audience. Judy Manany from Yuta Badayala says, ‘The Yuta Badayala project is dhapirrk [fantastic] djama [work]. We do special djama with Koskela. They have new ideas and share them with us and we share our ideas and culture with them… It also helps us earn extra rupiah [money] to raise up our kids. I feel like I will work with them until I die. My family and their family working together.’
Being transparent about making money from these products is something Sasha says has helped them avoid any backlash from consumers or media.
‘We need to make a profit (although it’s a lower margin than our usual business) in order to make these products self-sustaining. Our model is always to work with Art Centres to ensure there is someone looking out for the artist’s best interests. We also use Arts Law contracts…and we are members of the Indigenous Art Code which ensures we act ethically in our dealings with artists.’
Nine years after launching their first collaboration with Indigenous artists, Koskela is continuing to break the mold in Australian homeware design. ‘We’d really like to develop more of these initiatives and dream of being able to take them overseas’. After recently working with Pinterest (US), Sky London and BHP Singapore, Sasha says, ‘there’s a big wide world out there just waiting to see what Australia can offer, particularly in the area of uniquely Australian products.’ Creating products that are ethically made and give back to the community is essential for future success.
‘Consumers are expecting this of businesses… I think there will come a time when it won’t be acceptable to operate in any other way’ – Sasha Titchkosky.