Inspired by... blog

08 June 2012

Interview with Sarah Cole: From documentaries to Dickens

Sarah and I first met when she entered our competition to win a place at our Spring Market, as part of our Spring Festival. She won the chance to sell her mugs on our piazza for a day and everyone (including our staff) adored her history and literature-inspired range. She used the Library’s Business & IP Centre to research her market and get help with copyright. Following the market, we now stock her mugs in our British Library online Shop.

Tweet about this article with the hashtag #BLmugs to enter a prize draw to win two of Sarah's literature mugs. Deadline: 15 June 2012. 

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Image: Sarah Cole's mugs

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Image: Sarah at our Spring Market (photo: Luca Sage)

Hello Sarah. Tell us a little bit about your business and why you set it up.

I worked in television, shooting and directing documentaries for years, but when I hurt my back I had to change careers. The idea for designing mugs with history came from nowhere, but I knew immediately I was going to do it. I love drawing, I love mugs, I love things that make you laugh and I love things that are really useful. So I launched off into the blue. I really didn't know whether they were going to go down well or not, so when I won a prize at my first ever trade fair, Top Drawer in January 2011, I was stunned and very excited.

The British Library seems like the perfect place to stock your literature mugs.  Which other cultural institutions are you currently stocked in?

The British Library shop is a brilliant place for my mugs. Other cultural institutions that currently stock them include the National Portrait Gallery, the Globe Theatre, Royal Armouries, the Parliamentary Bookshop, various English Heritage sites, as well as quite a few other museums and bookshops across the country. I was delighted when Liberty started stocking them last year. And I was terribly excited when the London Museum called our Jubilee mug in for its 'At Home with the Queen' exhibition. The list of new contacts is ever-expanding and little by little more people are coming to me asking to stock them.

What have the been the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?

The biggest challenge I've faced so far is working out how to expand without going bust. I know it's the age-old problem that all small companies complain of, but it's true! I'd love to bring out thousands of new products all at once but of course that would be impossible, so it's a case of slowly, slowly. 

Having your own business means that you have to be good at a lot of different things and that is very hard too. As is knowing when to stop working and stop thinking about mugs. What I've found is that most of the clichés about starting your own business are true: it's very hard work, but very rewarding when it goes well.

You spent time learning about copyright at the Library. What advice would you give to new designers looking to protect their work?

What I have learned about the world of design is that it is full of copy cats. So many companies seem to be in the process of taking someone else to court because of design theft. It was the issue that most worried me before I launched. I was lucky because I won a prize and had some publicity and big customers immediately, which meant that my style was known and would be hard to copy. There are various trade organisations that can help with legal fees if you join - copyright protection is a big issue. 

My advice to those starting out is talk to someone in the Business & IP Centre. The issues are fairly complicated and I don't think that any one answer suits all cases. The advice in the Library is free and very good. And be careful. Inform yourself well about what your options are, and what to do if there is a problem. And be aware that it does happen a lot.

Last question. What’s next?

What's next for Cole of London? I've got so many plans! More mugs (composers, philosophers, artists, more kings and queens); more products (stationery, tea towels, all sorts of fun things). I would love to see Cole of London mugs being exported all over the world.

I would also love to get involved with school projects eventually and broaden the whole basis of the company. Education should be fun, whatever age you are, and it is great fun thinking of new ways to approach different subjects.

You can buy Sarah’s Cole of London mugs in our British Library Online Shop.

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