Common Circus founder, Lauren Henry chats about interiors, hospo life and how she maintains her mental health.
For those who love to browse beautiful homewares with a quality coffee in hand, the name Common Circus will be more than familiar. Owner Lauren Henry first launched her unique retail/coffee store in the lakeside suburb of Belmont in 2014, and whilst she may have had her critics initially, Lauren never doubted her business concept.
Speaking with Lauren for our International Women's Day Series at the beautiful Common Circus in Hamilton, Lauren chats about why a 40 page business plan was necessary, how she has navigated her business life decisions with her mental health, here’s the chat…
You’re originally from Sydney, what brought you to Newcastle?
I grew up in Western Sydney and moved to Cronulla when I was 19. I lived there for about 10 years, but my mum’s from Newcastle so I would visit during the school holidays. I’d bring my friends with me and we’d sleep on the floor at my nan’s house, we’d go out, and that’s how I met my husband Scott, literally in the line up to King St Hotel.
At the time he lived in Newcastle but worked in Perth, and I was living in Sydney. Eventually we decided to move to Newcastle as both our families were here, and I had the business plan in my head at that stage and realised we could do it in Newcastle.
What type of work were you doing in Sydney?
I studied fashion, business and design, as well as some retail study. I started working at Sportsgirl then at One Teaspoon, designing their fashion range. I then worked for Insight on the women’s team, which is a surf, street label, before I moved to a women’s fashion label called Cassette Society, which doesn’t exist anymore, as the head designer.
I loved the work, but it made me really, really sick. It was such a competitive industry, lots of work and deadlines, for not a lot of money, and I eventually realised I couldn't sustain that sort of job.
I then had what I call my ‘quarter life crisis’ and became quite sick, mental healthwise and I decided to go to New York for a couple of weeks. I quit my job, started freelancing and at the time I was going to a gym in Cronulla and I eventually convinced the owner that I should be the brand manager.
So fashion and graphic design are my trade, but I realised fashion wasn't for me, whereas homewares and spaces are where I feel safe. I like the space around me to feel a certain way, and that really grounds me and helps my anxieties.
You opened your Belmont flagship store in October 2014, where did the idea of coffee and homewares come from?
For me, working in retail I’d always found it quite boring, when I shop I’m mostly doing it to get out of my own head, and have my own me time. So I wanted to create something that reflected that experience, and was more than just a retail store, otherwise I’d go insane. I saw coffee as being a part of that experience as it creates a relaxed environment, and I’ve always loved coffee.
Was Common Circus the business you always saw yourself owning/running?
Yes, I recently found a photo from 10 years ago in my Cronulla apartment. I’d taken a photo of the 40 A4 page business plan I’d put up on my wall. I did a course on how to write a creative business plan and the teacher was amazing, and that gave me a lot of push and drive to get things done. Having the business plan helped prove to certain people, like my mum, the bank and accountants, I was legit and I’d thought about it.
When you’re a creative person, people think you float through ideas and back out again, and you’re quite airy about it, whereas when you put it in writing it really shows someone how much you’ve thought about it.
Were locals initially on board with what you brought to the area?
The concept of a retail store with coffee was quite a new one for Lake Macquarie at the time, and I’d get asked questions like ‘do you actually sell any of this?’ which I obviously did because things kept changing. Being consistent was one of the biggest things when I opened. I tried to maintain being open 7 days of week, which was super hard, but coffee is a seven day a week habit so that was a big point of difference, that people knew we would be open.
There is so much to learn when you start a retail store in terms of buying and what you want versus what the community wants, so there were a lot of stuff ups initially.
Was it mostly yourself running the business?
My mentor or the person who would keep me grounded was my mum, and Mum is still a silent partner in the business. I remember always explaining things to her like, ‘I need to make this amount per week to pay the bills’, by saying things out loud to someone meant I couldn’t lie and get out of it, and Mum was that person for me.
Glee Coffee Roasters were also a massive help and they’ve been with me from the beginning, as was my first employee, Laura Higgins, who had a lot of cafe experience. So I did rely on others because I'd never worked in a cafe or even made a cup of coffee up until that point. There was also a lot of Googling, asking questions and not being scared to say ‘I don't actually know what I'm doing here’.
I read an interview where you mentioned mental health played a big part in starting your own business. Small business can be such a challenge, how did you see running your own business would help with your mental health?
Saying it out loud, that I left the fashion industry to have my mental health back but now I own two businesses with 38 staff does sound funny. However, working for myself and being able to control certain things like growth, who I work with every day, and having the ability to change things almost immediately is what I love.
When I am working on something that I am really passionate about, I can work on it 24 hours a day and rest later, because you're so excited and it gives you energy and I find that’s what helps my anxieties and mental health.
Would you say you have succeeded in this part of the business?
Yes, it has definitely helped with the way I am wired. There are always days you aren’t excited about certain things, or jobs you don’t look forward to.I tend to get super stressed about staffing, which doesn’t happen often but when it does it really affects me as it’s a people thing, and I like to be liked all the time which doesn’t always work out when you run a business.
At the end of last year I found myself quite drained and exhausted. I realised I needed to go back to what brings me passion and joy, which is creativity.
So being able to make subtle shifts, and have control overall has definitely helped with my mental health, I would be a much different person if I hadn’t started this.
When the anxiety/stress levels start to rise do you have ways of managing this?
I am a big carrier of stress and anxiety, my body absorbs most of it and something in my body usually breaks, so to relieve this I get regular massages, and I play a lot of netball, 2 or 3 nights a week. Last year I even played first grade in Newcastle. I am a very competitive person, it’s the only place I don’t think about work.
I also talk about everything with Scott which is a massive help, and I like to go shopping, not to buy just to wander.
You opened the, much bigger, Hamilton store in March 2021, was this part of the plan?
The only reason I wanted a second store is because the Belmont space will eventually get knocked down, which I knew when I took on the lease, but the plan is always to be there, so the idea of a second store was so we wouldn’t lose everything overnight, rather than trying to take on the world.
After Scott and I were married in 2016, we said it was either a second store or have another baby, and we realised we couldn’t control when either happened so we started looking, but it was a long journey to get the Hamilton store open.
Was it easier the second time round?
In terms of fitting it out and opening, I would say the Hamilton store was much harder, there was so much more at stake, financially, and when we opened we went from 10 to 40 staff, so it was a lot more pressure each week. The space didn’t look anything like this, there was a lot of money outlaid to get it to this point, a lot of detailed planning was involved and I was super hands-on, which I really enjoyed, but made it difficult to be in two places at the one time.
The Belmont store was a very organic slow process, it built and grew as I wanted to grow and it was all about relationship building with customers, which was so nice and why it has been so successful, because of that community.
With two successful stores and a growing family, would you say you are content with where you are at or do you have bigger plans?
After the last few years I do feel quite drained, we’ve been running really fast for a really long time, through Covid we’d been trying to stay ahead of the next outbreak. I’ve also found buying patterns and spending habits have shifted, so trying to understand all of that has been hard, but I have been trying to slow down, especially now I have a baby on the way.
There's still lots of dreams for the business, the whole reason I started was because Circus represents constantly moving and evolving so whilst it sounds selfish if I want to move into different areas, and what my role is, it's really exciting to have 38 people downstairs running things so that I have the freedom to do whatever I want as well.
A big focus for me has been about getting creative again, and getting back to the why I started Common Circus, being more than a retail store that sells coffee, how can we be that community space that everyone needs for their mental health and lifestyle, as well as looking at the bigger picture.
But at the same time, Lottie starts school this year and I am having a baby in July so probably slow down a bit too and enjoy what I have and change the way I look at things. Gosh I sound like I am maturing (laughs).