Henry Pilcher: The design entrepreneur

Image credit: Henry Pilcher


This story was first published on the Optus Business Think Tank on December 9, 2013. Image supplied.

“I think when you start up a small business you have to keep a close eye on everything,” says industrial designer Henry Pilcher, who set up his business, Henry Productions, in 2010. “I didn’t really study things like accounting or business statements at university, so I threw myself into the deep end and learnt pretty quickly – by asking people, reading about it or whatever else was needed. You just have to put yourself out of your comfort zone and learn.”

It’s a philosophy that’s served 28-year-old Pilcher well. After studying industrial design at Canberra’s Australian National University and completing a Masters at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in America, he started his career at FORM Midland Atelier in Perth.

Outside of work hours, Pilcher began making his own products (among them the acclaimed Block 2, an industrial lampshade encased in a geometric timber frame that won him various design awards and strong industry interest), which he later marketed and distributed, before leaving FORM to branch out on his own.

Operating out of a single-garage studio/office in the Sydney suburb of Rose Bay, Pilcher is a self-proclaimed “one-man band”, overseeing all the creative, business and administrative aspects of his work. This encompasses everything from designing products and building prototypes, seeking out the right manufacturers and collaborators to help create his pieces, and dealing with a network of international distributors to sell his made-to-order products. Then there is the day to day, behind-the-scenes work like marketing, sales, managing finances and IT.

Pilcher’s approach to business is one that emphasises knowledge, practice and planning.

“I think to an extent creating a product as a designer there is a certain element of responsibility towards making something that is viable. You should know about the manufacturing, the costs of transport, marketing and know exactly what you are competing against.”

And while he has had more than his share of successes on the design front, he adds: “There are some products that I have designed that I wouldn’t look at as failures, but I do consider them as a learning curve. You just have to think, ‘How can I improve the next one?’”

Four years in, Henry Productions is progressing steadily under the guidance of its young founder, but Pilcher is always looking ahead. A desire to grow his distributor network – particularly in the US – is at the top of his to-do list. He has also returned to study and is currently undertaking a Masters in Property Development. An appropriate choice considering his recent foray into a second business – a newly established residential property development company named Quambi Group, which he runs with his architect brother.

“A couple of people have asked me, ‘What does property development have to do with industrial design?’ I say – because I don’t know if they can see it – you’re still dealing with materials, just with a bigger product, more finance and more responsibility. So in terms of where it fits in, it’s just a bigger scale of where you started.”

It’s this capacity to look at the bigger picture, coupled with hard work, ambition and a genuine love of his trade, that is sure to serve Pilcher and his businesses well, both now and in the future.

Pilcher’s top tips:

  • For new industrial designers: “Don’t start off by creating an exhibition or art piece products. Study the market, find out what is needed and see where you envision your product being.”
  • For new small business owners: “It’s just a matter of time at the desk really. The more you put into it, the more you’ll learn. Also, running a business isn’t just about profit. It’s also about expenditure. It’s a 50/50 power so be aware of both.”