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Photographer: Yetunde Dada (…and Selfie-Nick)
Nicholas Christowitz at Father and The Bread

Interview: A company as a portfolio piece

Design a Company will publish interviews with people from the creative industry who have started a company using design processes.

Nicholas Christowitz is a designer from Johannesburg who has ventured into cofounding Father Coffee, an espresso bar beside running the brand consultancy The Bread. Nicholas admits he is working with entrepreneurial tasks differently than his non-designer partners.

What made you start on your entrepreneurial quest?

I have always been entrepreneurial in spirit I guess. I started working when I was only 15. I got my first job at a computer store and then moved onto the Apple store two years later. I loved making my own money. After college, I started a small illustration house with some friends. When I left the company, I went on with a career as a freelancer and started a coffee shop called Father Coffee.

I carried on freelancing and then decided I know too many other talented designers and copywriters and content producers, it would be great if we made a company that connected all those people. That is what we are busy with now; running The Bread. It has allowed me to broaden the scope of work I’m involved with, in terms of clients, and in the type of projects.

Was your education to become a designer or an illustrator?

Vega, the college I went to is highly regarded, but the course that I took was grooming you to be in the advertising industry and it was not what I wanted to do. I learned art direction, but I was more fascinated with being a graphic designer and illustrator. The unseen benefit of being at a school like that is that when I started my design career, I noticed that I was winning a lot more pitches against other designers who were just as good as me, but they didn't know how to make a concept or how to speak to businesses. I didn't enjoy it at school, but it paid dividends in the end. It allowed me to think a bit differently.

“I learned how to make a concept and how to speak to businesses”.

Why did you start a coffee place?

South Africas' coffee culture is years and years behind what it is in Oslo for instance. I knew a friend who started a café, and I thought it would be nice to have another business on the side that could act as a portfolio piece for what I could do, not just as a designer but as a conceptual thinker. Because I am quite young, getting the trust of the people who have the money to spend on good projects is quite difficult at my age. Father is one the places in South Africa helping to change the coffee scene. It gets a lot of publicity and has brought me quite a bit of international work, which is usually very hard to come by in South Africa.

Do You work at the espresso bar now?

For the first year, I was there every day, but now I come in early in the mornings to help open the store and get it all ready, and then my partner and our team run it. I work there on Saturdays. I enjoy working there, and it is nice not always to be doing design. If I get stuck with a design issue, I can go there and make people coffee and take my mind off design stuff for a while.

When did you first feel that because you are a designer you could start any company?

In college, by my second year, I met a guy named Jarred. He was a much better designer and illustrator than I was, but he inspired me always to be better. We started doing stuff like drawing on our sneakers. We’d draw and paint all over our Converse All-stars or our Nike Air Force 1’s. Before we knew it, we would be selling them to kids who wanted the same look. We would get a few orders a month. That was my first experience of making money through a skill that I had.

“A portfolio piece for what I could do as a conceptual thinker”.

If you look at your practice as a designer and as an entrepreneur, how much is devoted to the entrepreneurial pursuit and vice versa?

It's very much fifty-fifty at the moment, and I am trying to keep it that way. In the first year of The Bread I got very involved in the entrepreneurial element, and as a new business, you have admin stuff that takes up most of your time. But design is my passion, and I wasn't getting to do as much of it as I did before. So now I have struck that balance of running a business, and still taking on a lot of the design. I am not a businessman by passion, but I do have a drive for it – it just seems like a convenient thing to do.

So you feel it's easy to start your company both as a designer and as an entrepreneur?

It’s not easy at all. The day to day stresses are unparalleled but they keep you incredibly motivated. Not to say we’re doing bad, but it's the massive issues that keep you up at night for weeks on end that takes their toll. When you are working as a designer in an agency you are completely oblivious to most of that. It's stuff you don't think about when you start a business, but it is something you have to deal with once you are in it. And if you don’t deal with it, you’re going to fail. I guess people who are solely entrepreneurs are better geared for the stresses that come with running a business, but that’s not to say someone with a design background can’t figure them out too.

Has there been a moment that you felt that you were succeeding?

In my eyes, the clients that we have worked with is the success. We haven't even been around for three years, we have worked with clients like Vans, Levi's, RedBull, and Vice Media. Some of our favourite global brands are working with us – a new company full of young people. To me, that's a sign of success. If we can do that in our first two years, what can we do in the next five?

South Africa is quite a volatile economy. To be a business that is almost three years old that didn't have to close down. – that is quite an important thing in this country. We are still here!

“My first experience of making money through a skill that I had”.

What brought you and your partners together?

I was in Berlin when I got the idea for The Bread. I think I was inspired by German creative agencies as well as the German affinity for bread. I had the structure of the company of the way we could outsource and work with various people. Immediately, I registered the company and set up bank accounts. I phoned Andrew, who is one of the smartest people I know. He studied economics and ended up dropping out because he started one of the most successful lifestyle blogs in South Africa. I just called him and said I wanted to start this thing, and if he wanted to do it with me. He said yes and we realised we needed Anthea. Her nickname is “Anthea-knows-best” – she knows the answers to everything related to youth culture and street culture. Her day to day job here is going for coffee with people, hanging out on the street, and watching kids: It is qualitative research that is invaluable to clients.

What's the thing with Johannesburg and Cape Town?

Cape Town is beautiful, you are by the ocean, but it's like it is the last European enclave that somehow managed to maintain the spatial divides that tore the country apart during Apartheid. It is a nice town, it's filled with creativity, there is a lot of talent. But ultimately, it is just not as important as Johannesburg is to South Africa. This is obviously just my opinion. Johannesburg is a real African city; it has got people from all over the world and from all over Africa. Johannesburg has got it's problems, but it is a fantastic place to live and work.

But they have got the Indaba conference. There is a lot more design things happening there? Yes, purely because it is a more accessible city to international guests and it is perceived to be safer. Design Indaba has been going on for years. It is one of my favourites. Lately, there has been a lot of talk from some of the international guests/speakers, saying: Why isn't this in Johannesburg? Why is it in Cape Town? Indaba has changed in the sense that they are focusing more on African issues, African art, African design and thing that are relevant to South Africa.

“As a designer you do notice you end up thinking about stuff slightly differently”.

Have you recognised any entrepreneurial processes where you have been working like a designer?

I have noticed that working with my partners that aren't from a design background I see how differently we look at issues. As a designer I go much further into each detail. For example when working with the espresso bar, I focused heavily on the layout of the tables, whereas some people would just be like: “put them where they fit.”

As a designer you do notice you end up thinking about stuff slightly differently: You look at the logistics, you think about the human interaction and the user experience. Design is looking for solutions. That is my favourite part about design; It is solutions – human solutions. Obviously it’s not the only right way of going about stuff, but having designers involved in an entire process from strategy to whatever it is you are doing, is quite important in my eyes.

Do we as designers go into the details while simultaneously looking at the whole thing?

I do find that sometimes it can irritate people who work with me. Say – we are doing costing for a client, and I am concerned about what we are going to make this out of, what are we going to print this on, and they are like – That doesn't matter yet, it will matter at some point. Still, I am thinking about it from the beginning. Haha!

With the espresso bar; did you test anything on the market, or were you just intuitive?

It was intuitive; we went in semi-blind. What we wanted to do was to take a concept through to the end. Deciding on the name, we must have gone through 200 names, and all partners were from the creative industry, so picking a name was extremely tough. When we landed on “Father” we decided that we wanted the bar to be the authority behind coffee, but without being pretentious and annoying, as most trendy new coffee shops are. That was the concept and every element in that shop are considered, and that is design thinking.

People ask us why is there only nine seats. We don't want more seats because we do not want people to hang out all day in our small space. – You are more than welcome to open your laptop, but there are no power plugs. The seats are comfortable, but only for about an hour before your bum starts going numb. We want to be as specific in our design and layout as we are about our espresso and our roasting process. One of my partners, Chad, had experience in roasting and brewing coffee. He lead the coffee side of things and together we all put huge amounts of thought into the space. The logo was fun to create and having people ask about it all the time feels good.

“Every element are considered, and that is design thinking”.

Has your partner won any prizes as a barista?

We don't want to. When we where starting the company we did some research. What we realised very quickly is that the coffee industry is quite niche, and I don't think any of us wanted to play a massive role in it. To us, our customers matter most, not other coffee nerds. We are coffee nerds ourselves and we are not ignorant of what is going on. We look at the latest trends, we consider them and then we say: “Cool, we are going to do it this way, and we believe in it.” Our customers are happy, and as long as we are getting consistently good ratings, we are not too interested in being part of the niche coffee scene.

Tell us about your worst entrepreneurial moment?

It probably is what has landed on us in this tough cash-flow situation right now. Last year, a client asked us to throw a big event, by bringing an international musician over. It is a difficult thing here in South Africa because our currency is extremely weak. When you get a quote from an international artist it gets more expensive every day you waste, and due to some completely unforeseen events, we lost the job and had to give a whole lot of the money back. It was extremely unlucky. We couldn't be angry at anyone. We were angry at ourselves, but we realised it's just the way it works. This made December very stressful. We are on the road to recovery now, and it seems this client still wants to work with us, so it has worked out for us.

Tell me about an epiphany moment you have had?

For Father it was when we landed on the name; it sounds like such a silly thing to get stuck up on. We met every single Sunday for half a year and had breakfast together and discussed everything about how we were going to do this thing. We agreed and disagreed on a million things. And then the name came up, and we realised – This is it! It gave us the opportunity to work with the core concept of “Father” from the attitude which we speak with on social media to how to roast the coffee. It all grew out of that moment.
Christian Leborg

Christian Leborg

Christian Leborg is a visual communicator and branding consultant. He specialises in building brand strategies and brand identities. Christian has worked with several specializations within visual communication as well as teaching and being an author. Christian now works on his third stint as an entrepreneur.