Discovering a niche gap in the interiors market, that happily coincided with his passion for creativity, Rab Moghal of Light Owl made it his personal mission to create a lampshade making business that would stand head and shoulders above the rest. By applying his far-reaching business knowledge, principles and efficiencies and by having a positive passion for his lampshades, customers and team, Light Owl have recently sold their 4,000th shade - that's after just two and half years of trading!
In today's BEAM Meet the Maker, Rab takes use behind the scenes of Light Owl, from conception to today, and generously shares both his business and lampshade making knowledge, in this must-read interview.
How are you today and what’s on your workbench?
On any given day we’re shipping around 10 to 30 lampshades, today we have 18 lampshades going out, which are now all backed and ready to be rolled and tucked. Those shades range in style and colour dramatically from royal blue lined with a stunning peacock fabric to tangy orange lined with a tropical fabric.
How would you describe your style and how does that translate into the lampshades you make?
My own style is extremely eclectic, which has certainly translated into variety in the business. If I had to pick out a trend that I’m particularly fond of, it would certainly be the BOHO interior look. However, I try to not let myself get in the way of what fabrics we choose to offer as a business. Certainly some of the fabrics we have, I have picked out because I have a deep love for them, but in general, I try to remove my own ego and style from products we offer to not limit my brand's imagination.
We really aim to provide each customer with the exact product they are looking for without limit or constraint. Light Owl is about universal choice and we try to pack as many options, in terms of size, colour, shape and style into everything that we do. We also have a lot of customers who provide us fabrics to use and have seen some dramatic and stylish creations owing to our customer's creativity. Our shop, as opposed to online, is much more a creative playground than anything else as customers will explore the fabrics we have, bring in fabrics they love and each lampshade is more of a collaborative project.
Where do you get your design inspiration?
We track modern trends through a range of analytical tools and trend guides, focusing especially on those that are prominent with online searches and then find colours, patterns and styles that suit well into those specific niches. Sometimes we do limited edition fabrics that run for a short while and sometimes we add them into our core collection of lampshades and cushions that we offer throughout our sales platforms.
As an example, trends like maximalism have certainly shaped our colour offerings whilst grandmillennial style has led us into offering modern vintage-inspired pattern fabric options. The very nature of us being entirely made to order and the core flexibility of lampshades as a product allows us to react to changes in trend, lighting fast and we lean into that as a positive aspect to our business as much as possible.
When and why did you start making lampshades?
I certainly can’t qualify my love for textiles and soft furnishings the way I would like to, it's more inherent than anything else. Something about it just called to me at the right time. Having identified the market potential for the product in previous employment and with a strong background in sales and management, it was a natural leap for me to start a customer-focused interiors business with a niche offering of personalised lampshades and interiors.
My background in hospitality management has also not gone to waste as our production line works very similar to a restaurant kitchen, with the individual components of each shade working as the ingredients and the flow of our production operating like a well-oiled kitchen in a fully booked restaurant. As a mature student, I did a degree in creative writing and focused on online content writing throughout my time at University and afterwards, which has helped greatly in tacking the online market. My business has been growing steadily since 2019 and we see year on year increases in all of our major online and shop based statistics.
To be truthful, it’s one of those things where a personal lifelong drive to be my own boss in a creative field and all the relevant skills coming together at the right time has led me down this path.
What’s your favourite part of the lampshade making process?
Truthfully, it's the logistics & organisation. We produce a large volume of orders from a relatively small workspace so everything needs to be precise and organised. Finding ways to speed up our production line, better organise our workflow and identify cost and time-saving procedures in every step of the process is what truly titillates me.
We experiment with lots of different tools, organisation systems and procedures to allow us to create a fluent and quick service that does not hamper product quality. As an example, one of the simple procedures we implemented early on was using step counters to measure how much travelling was involved during a production run, and then reorganised the location of crucial tools and parts to reduce that number.
Other than that, I love to engage with our customers, we have hundreds of 5-star reviews and thousands of happy customers and that’s because we always go the distance with our customers. I absolutely love to talk with them as much as possible per order and offering free samples that we post out creates ample opportunity to talk creatively with our online customers as well as our local shop based customers.
You’re known for your double-sided lampshades. How did this speciality come about?
Oh, they’re just absolutely magnificent. There was no other way for me. Endless combinations for style, colour, silhouette effects, contrasting or matched style to produce different statement effects. Initially, we focussed on offering both styles equally but saw very quickly that customers were blown away with our double-sided shades and the unlimited variety that comes with making our shades to order and allowing customers to customise without limit.
How did your lampshade making business develop and when did you open the Light Owl shop?
I started the business around April 2019 aiming to be ready for June of that year. In those months I launched our website, Etsy account, Wayfair account and opened our shop in Darlington. At the time I was working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and that continued for the full first year of trading. After the pandemic hit… it just felt that we didn’t ever stop working, it was constant.
Our website has been a runaway success and hours of research into search engine optimisation (SEO) has paid off in dividends. In a very short time, we have gone from launching a brand new website into an extremely competitive environment, to that website generating 1000’s of sales and reaching people all over the country and the world. We never stop working on our website and our SEO.
Our shop is now a staple of Darlington where we welcome hundreds of customers old and new who trust our advice, skills and products. Last year we launched onto Amazon which has been very successful and we’re excited to continue growing our brand there, and lastly, our Etsy shop has likewise grown from being brand new to nearly 4000 unique sales in just a few years.
It’s not been easy and it’s been a lot of long days, long nights and hard work, but all that hard work has paid off.
In your online shop, what’s your most popular selling shade?
Any shades featuring greys, mustard yellows and cream tones with a nature-inspired theme have been exceedingly popular. Some of our limited run fabrics have sold out within weeks of us producing them and others we keep in stock for much longer.
What’s the mix of shades you make to sell versus lampshade commissions?
In our shop we do a lot of re-covers, customers bring us shades of all shapes and sizes or come in looking for something that they just can't find anywhere else, our shop is a highly creative space where we do the majority of our bespoke and custom work. Online the majority of our sales are done from our collection, but we still get a lot of customers requesting different sizes, shapes and colours. Per lampshade listing, we aim to offer at least 8 colour options and 4 sizes but advise customers they can get in touch and request anything they want.
Any tips for new lampshade makers in business?
Never stop analysing all of your costs and processes. It’s tough for small businesses and now more than ever being savvy with suppliers, learning cost-saving methods of production and streamlining the costlier aspects of your business could make all the difference. We never take a statement as a fact without examining everything that led to it being true. Often you’ll find just examining a process will show you ways to save money, time or add quality to a procedure, whether that's how you deliver information or options to a customer or how much you spend on fabric a month.
What other products do you stock?
Online we focus on lampshades and cushions, we have dabbled in the past in custom handmade lamp bases working with local woodturners and doing limited edition runs, we have also done limited edition runs of glass lamp bases. Our shop stocks a lovely range of unique imported homeware goods, but we try our best to source from obscure suppliers and provide our town with a range of products that they can't find elsewhere. We also have a lot of hand-painted work from local artists, as well as macramé.
How do you divide your time up when running your business?
I spend a day a week working 1 to 1 with my GM Daniel at our shop, on those days we really brainstorm new ideas for our web content and work together in delivering changes to how we operate and sell our products. We look over finances, online reporting statistics and we always try to find some time to talk about world events, history or our various hobbies outside of work. Daniel is a fascinating guy with a wealth of interests.
I spend a day a week updating our photography or creating new lampshade images, I taught myself photoshop which has been a fantastic experience and has allowed us to develop online at an unprecedented rate.
I spend 3 to 4 days a week working in production with my wife and production staff member Jill, which are certainly my favourite days of the week as we make shades, listen to music and put the world to rights around our big workshop bench.
My wife and I spend at least 1 day a week running our shop, talking with our customers and when were quiet we busy ourselves with lots of research and discovery.
When are you at your most productive?
When I’m working by myself on an evening, music blasting, 100’s of orders and the entire workspace to myself is when I would say I am most “in the zone”. I love to dance…. And that’s essentially all I’m doing, I just happen to make lampshades at the same time.
And your favourite sustenance when you’re working?
Oh my, I’m partial to anything quick and bad for you! That means a lot of trips to bakeries, sweet shops and all those good places. When I’m at my shop and working with our General Manager Daniel, we eat a lot of sweets. We even started tracking the quality of all the caramel shortbreads in Darlington. We evaluated them on the thickness of the top chocolate layer, the density and thickness of the caramel, the flavour and style of the shortbread and most importantly the crucial bite factor. This determined at what point you had to bite hard, either the chocolate or the shortbread, to break a chunk away from the whole.
Can you tell us more about the soft furnishing team at Light Owl?
My wife, Samantha, last year was able to leave her full-time job and join Light Owl full time which has been incredible. She has always been a central part of the business and her degree in fine art has been invaluable, however, she has been working in the background. Now that we’re both running the business together and spending all of our time together we are living a dream of ours that we have had forever. In a short time, she has been able to take over management of the heart of our business, our production line, which has freed me up to focus on other aspects of the business.
Daniel is our full-time general manager and has been with us since 2020. He has helped us revolutionise many parts of the business from sales, organisation, administration, accounting and more. His most recent project has been to launch us on Amazon, which has been an immediate and highly promising success. He is an invaluable asset to our team. Our customers absolutely love him and I get emails and phone calls weekly, purely about how much they enjoyed dealing with him and that they have never experienced such high levels of attention to detail and customer service elsewhere. Daniel is exceptional at going the extra mile and leaving our customers with a lasting impression.
Jill is our incredibly talented part-time workshop staff. Jill has been able to bring decades of sewing expertise into our business and her talents as a lampshade maker in both terms of quality and speed are simply unrivalled. Thanks to Jill we have been able to push into the cushion market in a way we had only dreamed of when I was running lampshade and cushion production by myself. She hates to stand still, filling every moment of the day with a task, job or duty and her love for classical music, show tunes and great films keep everyone chilled out and laughing any day she’s working. We also love a good beer when the suns out!
Most notably is our company morale officer Dee Dee, our small, yet tenacious, Jack Russell. When we started our business, for the first month our email signature read “Please buy our lampshades, so we can feed our dog.” Thankfully we no longer require this!
For me, the most important part is to let each of the people who work for Light Owl, shine. We all talk openly and honestly, try new ideas, admit when things go wrong, capitalise when things go right and most importantly understand that mistakes are sometimes inevitable but always valuable as an opportunity to grow. My team are all the reasons Light Owl is a success and has been able to grow enough to keep 4 staff employed in 2 and a half short years whilst enduring a global pandemic.
Could you let us take a peek at the Light Owl workspace?
Pictured is Sam, my wife, working at our workbench, our speed rail for the fabrics we use most frequently and our Juki industrial sewing machine
Where would you like to be in 10 years time?
With my wife making the first lampshades on Mars! Wouldn’t that be fascinating?
Truthfully, It’s hard to say if we’ll open more bricks and mortar shops or focus online more, the pandemic has certainly sped up the demise of the high street whereas back in February 2020 we were actively viewing new locations in Newcastle and Durham.
Right now, we're focusing on stability, I opened my business in April of 2019 and we have not had it easy in terms of life-changing world events. Our shop has not been able to be open to the public for a full trading year because of mandatory closures and our sales statistics looks like a roller-coaster because of the several lockdowns so it’s a little hard to make a 10-year plan amidst all this chaos. We’re hoping this year provides us with a bit of calm and we expect to put larger plans in motion going forward from 2023.
What have you learned that’s been invaluable to your creative process?
Learning to absorb data from all potential sources and how to interpret and utilise it to make changes to all aspects of our business including our creative choices. This may sound clinical, but I truly believe approaching creativity with a holistic approach that includes all aspects of your business is crucial.
If you're in the area, visit the Light Owl shop at 3 Bakehouse Hill, Darlington, DL1 5QA
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