Newcastle design studio Neon Zoo on flying the coop from Renew Newcastle and building a brand.

Newcastle design studio Neon Zoo on flying the coop from Renew Newcastle and building a brand.

RISKS: “It was about one year before we were able to work in the business full time and could let go of our part time jobs,” says Neon Zoo co-founder Abby McCarthy. When did you realise that design was for you?

I’m the daughter of two art teachers, so a love of art and design was instilled in me from a very young age. In high school I learned about the Bachelor of Design Visual Communication degree. Once I learnt about this, my focus in my HSC year was to get into that course and eventually become a designer.

How did you meet your business partner Clare Gleeson and when did Neon Zoo come about?

Clare and I both worked at the same café when we were at uni and discovered we were both studying Vis Com. With our shared love of design, our friendship grew and we started working on some freelance projects together. We both travelled overseas for a gap-year and when we came back to start our honours degree, we realised how well we worked together. Once we finished Honours, we kept freelancing and were a bit disenchanted with the job opportunities out there for graduates. We then learnt about the NEIS scheme and decided to make a go of it and turn our freelance business into Neon Zoo – a fledgling little design studio.

There are a lot of small graphic design businesses in Newcastle. How did you seek to differentiate yourselves?

There are and it’s really great to see the creative community in Newcastle come to life! As a design studio, we just try to be ourselves and hope that it attracts like-minded clients. So far, this has worked well for us.

What inspires your designs and is it tricky to keep abreast of trends in the rapidly changing digital landscape?

We design to brief, so a client’s business, market and environment is really what shapes our designs. If anything, being so digitally connected allows us to keep up with trends via Instagram, Pinterest as well as design blogs.

How quickly did the business build and how?

We took our time to build the business organically through referrals and word of mouth. It was approximately one year before we were able to work in the business full time and could let go of our part time jobs. That was a big step for us.

Once we were a bit more established, we did some more targeted marketing but we’ve found our best clients have been through referrals.

What were the challenges you faced as it grew?

So many, it’s hard to pinpoint a few! I guess the main one for us was that we were trained designers who had no idea how to run a business. We highlighted this fairly early on and engaged a business coach to help steer us in building our business.

What were the biggest lessons learnt in your first year of business?

I’m happy to admit that we were fairly naive about what was involved in running a business when we first started Neon Zoo. In fact, it would be safe to say, we had no idea! So the biggest lesson we learnt in that first year was that we needed to expand and develop our skills as not only designers, but as business owners in order to survive.

Have you changed your offering as far as more or less services?

Our business has definitely changed in the last two years as both Clare and I have welcomed little cubs of our own.

Since we’ve become mums we’ve adopted the new motto of ‘adapt or die’, which is what we’ve had to with our business structure whilst being both mums and business owners. As a result of this we’ve scaled back some our previous service offerings.

You shared your former office space with fellow Renew Newcastle participant Zac Zavos, who sold his Conversant Media business for $11.6 million last October. How important has Renew been to your business?

Renew was probably the best business decision we have made. Through Renew, we had the opportunity of working with some really talented and interesting people like Zac.

But also, it meant that we were part of a big cultural shift that took part in our CBD and what I firmly believe was the catalyst to reshaping our city. It was truly a privilege to have been a part of Renew.

Both you and Clare have become mums in the past year. How tricky has it been to juggle work and motherhood?

Super tricky! I’m not going to lie, it’s a constant juggling act. I don’t know if I’ve found that magic balance yet or if it even exists…I hope it does.

Where do you hope to take the business in the next few years?

We’re going to continue working with the same great clients that we have been for the past 10 years and if we’re lucky, maybe a few more! There are some side projects that have been in the wings for a while, that Clare and I are really keen to get ‘out there’ so over the next few years we will be looking at launching these.

Abby McCarthy

Which design companies you admire here or abroad?

We’ve always really loved the work of Pearl Fisher in the UK and USA. Also, Tin and Ed who are based in Melbourne – I’m always impressed by their approach to design.