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Built to last




“We went through waves of thinking about what could happen - how can we keep our staff? How can we stay where we are, and not go backwards? Can we actually excel in this environment?” DesignbyThem owner, Sarah Gibson.

The DesignbyThem team.

  • Sydney-based furniture design store DesignByThem were nervous about the future of their business when COVID-19 struck


  • The team, led by co-founder Sarah Gibson, utilised government incentives including the Government Guarantee Scheme, part of a $250 million COVID-19 Creative Economy Support Package


  • ANZ helped Sarah secure further funding with a business overdraft


For Sydney-based furniture design company, DesignByThem, 2020 was looking like a good year. They’d just moved into a new showroom and warehouse in Ultimo, and were preparing for a big year showcasing the very best in Australian furniture design to local and international audiences.


But when March rolled around, with word that COVID-19 had reached Australia and the majority of the country would be going into lockdown, everything changed.


Worst case scenario


“I freaked out!” says Sarah Gibson, co-founder and director of the 15-year-old company, recalling the moment she knew coronavirus would impact her business. “We definitely had a few days researching everything, thinking of the worst-case scenarios.”


Along with trying to determine what to do with all the stock they had on the floor, and the stress of cancelling a show in Milan, their biggest concern was how they could retain their staff – a team of seven full timers and three workshop casuals.


“We went through waves of thinking about what could happen,” Sarah remembers. “How can we keep our staff? How can we stay where we are, and not go backwards? Can we actually excel in this environment?”

Sarah Gibson and Nicholas Karlovasitis


Help from the Australian government


Sarah and the team quickly swung into action, utilising government incentives including the Government Guarantee Scheme, part of a $250 million COVID-19 Creative Economy Support Package. Under the scheme, the Australian government guaranteed 50 per cent of new loans to eligible lenders, meaning small businesses like Sarah’s would have access to additional funding to help them manage the impacts of COVID.


Sarah worked with her ANZ manager Amir to secure the loan, as well as further funding with a business overdraft. “Amir’s really gone above and beyond to help us,” she says, reflecting on the time they met in a car park, masks on, to sign the documents required for the overdraft. “We were on a deadline, and we really needed to ensure that we had funds secured to weather the storm. Quick action was essential as we had no idea what to expect in the coming months.”


They also applied for JobKeeper, which they didn’t end up needing. In fact, Sarah says they were able to keep on all of their staff.

“The extra money has been really helpful,” Sarah says, “It was good to have the assurance that if we used it to purchase items, we had some extra stretch in our cash flow.”


They used their overdraft to continue to purchase stock, which Sarah says was extremely beneficial to the business. A couple of months later DesignByThem no longer need the overdraft and it has been paid back in full.


On the up


After an initial drop off in sales queries, Sarah says they’re seeing an influx in orders again. The showroom and warehouse have reopened, and the team is talking about hiring another staff member.


“Things have changed from how they were in March and April, but we’ve been able to continue with our product releases, orders have continued and stock has continued coming in, so that’s good!”


International orders have started coming in too, particularly from the United States, says Sarah. “We have been working with a team of interior designers in California, supplying Australian-designed and produced furniture to Spotify, Netflix, Nike and Google.

It’s really exciting.” 


A global interest in Australian design


“Australian furniture is very much appreciated overseas,” Sarah says. “People want to buy products that have an Australian feel.”


When Sarah and her business partner Nicholas Karlovasitis co-founded DesignByThem, their goal was to work with Australian designers dedicated to creating unique products with a timeless aesthetic and a distinctly Australian quality. Then it evolved to promoting those goods and turning them into something coveted by international markets. Fifteen years later, it’s paying off.


“It’s been a great story of growth,” she says, “Not just for us, but for other Australian furniture brands as well. It’s just a really nice trend.”


Sarah’s feeling optimistic about the next 12 months, and is convinced her small team can take the business in another direction, if need be.


“We’re fairly nimble, we don’t have too many overheads, and we’ve got a good team with positive attitudes,” she says.


Flexibility is key


These days, while the showroom is open for business again, flexible working arrangements have been implemented. Sarah spends most of her time working from her home in Canberra, and Sydney-based staff have the option to work from home, particularly if they’ve got anything remotely resembling a cold. “We’re definitely more aware of how quickly viruses can spread, that’s for sure!” Sarah says.


Running a business during a global pandemic has made Sarah realise a few things: personal circumstances can change in an instant, and the importance of a great team, who work well together and can think on their feet.


“We’ve always really valued our staff, but we’re so much more aware now of the importance of keeping them happy and healthy. Our business is like an extended family – when we all need to band together, things just work!” she says.


If you’re a small business owner there’s a variety of ways ANZ can help. Talk to an ANZ Banker or use Business Planner to help plan your next step  



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