Interview 22nd August 2018
Meredith O'Shaughnessy, founder of Ohlala Macarons
"I have a thirst for sourcing new information, for trying different things"
Meredith O'Shaughnessy, founder of Ohlala Macarons, on her ever-hungry approach to learning and how this fed into the launch of Ohlala Macarons.
Meredith O’Shaughnessy is a tour de force. Not content with shaking up the world of pop-up events, this self-proclaimed creative powerhouse also runs the acclaimed Ohlala macaron business.
We caught up with Meredith (and Phoebe, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel) at Charlotte Street Hotel, where Meredith shared her story and explained how — for her — being a successful entrepreneur is about never doing the same thing twice.
A Studio of Our Own (ASOOO): Can you tell us a bit about your story?
Meredith O'Shaughnessy (MOS): I was studying a bio-medical material science and engineering degree when I arrived in London and I got a job at Bagley’s [a club behind Kings Cross] at night and weekends. I absolutely loved it. It was pure escapism, pure hedonism and I realised — through meeting the people I met — that I had a thirst for sourcing new information, for trying different things.
So, I set out to learn about as many different industries as I could: I’ve made shoes, I’ve made jewellery, I’ve taken A-level Italian, gone on TV and radio presenter courses. But all the while I was constantly gathering information. That was by day. By night I was working in clubs, meeting people and learning about what turns people on when they’re away from their jobs. I got to see how people want to spend their time and got to see the contrast between the corporate events that happen during the week, and how bored people were with having canapés shoved in their face, and how they spent the weekend. I just couldn’t understand why people were using this format to communicate important messages because it didn’t translate in any way. That’s what gave me the impetus to set up my own events business. The first events I did were private parlour parties, with all-female DJ line-ups. And baking and handing out cupcakes at the same time!
ASOOO: Tell us about some of the events you’ve masterminded...
MOS: I worked on an event with the Russian Space Federation and the British Council to celebrate the unveiling of a statue of Yuri Gagarin on The Mall – with live feeds to the Russian cosmonauts up on the space station – and two years ago I approach Manolo Blahnik with a proposal to launch their second ever store in Burlington Arcade. They then brought me in- house to oversee the entire project, culminating in two huge events in conjunction with Vogue. In 2014 I ran a 21-night Nordic Yule Fest in the run up to Christmas – a corporate party that I designed and which went on to run for three years, getting bigger and bolder and ultimately featuring the world’s first indoor alcoholic snowstorm. In the first year I lost a lot of money, but I learnt so much. It was my first pop-up, and I knew it was what I needed to do. It was heavily creative, and it was the spring board I needed.
ASOOO: And Ohlala — how did you go from brand activations to macarons?
MOS: I needed a product, a physical thing, that was independent of me, that would bring in a revenue stream in and around the event work. It was 2012, cupcakes were dead so I looked around at what was next and hit on the macaron (which they were at the time). I went off and bought a cook book, learnt how to make them and then approached an alcohol brand to sponsor me so I could buy professional equipment, build myself a website, design a logo and run my first macaron workshop. I sold it to 22 of my friends at half price, and that was the start of Ohlala.
"I’ve made shoes, I’ve made jewellery, I’ve taken A-level Italian, gone on TV and radio presenter courses. But all the while I was constantly gathering information."
ASOOO: We love how Ohlala is more than just macarons, but an avenue for creativity. Can you tell us about the collaboration with Bloody Good Period?
MOS: Macaron are all very cute, sweet and lovely but I wanted to do something with them that could benefit somebody and through which I could apply my creativity. And that’s why I went to Gabby [Gabby Edlin, founder of Bloody Good Period. Ohlala's tampon-shaped macarons were launched to raise awareness of and funds to fight period poverty.]
ASOOO: How do you remain relevant?
MOS: I’m not interested in marketing an old idea over and over again. I never do the same thing twice. For me it’s about looking at how I can do something different — my thought process is, this looks interesting, now how do I bring it to life?
ASOOO: You’ve taken quite a few risks, what would you say to corporates wanting to take risks?
MOS: The glib answer is you should take lots of small calculated risks. But, as an entrepreneur, you don’t always have the time to sit around and calculate. We’re increasingly getting to a point where if brands don’t take risks, they’ll be left behind. I’m not talking about risk for risk’s safe — I don’t want to get on a risky airline, I just want to be safe. But how airlines communicate that they’re the safest could be done in a more innovative, braver way. I think some brands could be more courageous.
ASOOO: How important is it for brands to create real-world experiences for customers?
MOS: There was a point where everything had to be digital and, don’t get me wrong, I fully embrace and support innovation in tech. But, I don’t think it should be about one or the other, the on and offline worlds should be fully integrated. The whole point of the events I create is to build emotional engagement and conversation.
ASOOO: We've known you for a while and we're always bowled over by how wonderfully confident you are. What would you say running a business has taught you about yourself?
MOS: I think one of the interesting things I’ve learnt about myself is that I don’t think of success as a huge office with loads of people working for me. I also didn’t think I was creative. I was told I wasn’t creative by my art teacher when I was about 10. But I love making things and I problem solve. Being perfect from the get-go isn’t important. You don’t need to be on six different social media platforms just because they exist.
"The whole point of the events I create is to build emotional engagement and conversation."
ASOOO: If you could give your younger self some advice what would it be?
MOS: Connections are pivotal. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The other thing I would say is that being perfect from the get-go isn’t important. You don’t need to be on six different social media platforms just because they exist – pick the ones that are most relevant to you and your audience and stick to them and do them really well.
ASOOO: How much hard selling have you had to do and how do you feel about that? Do you feel comfortable with it?
MOS: I’m a born hustler and yet, at the start, I found it really difficult. I have to push myself to be better at it. It’s a lot easier when you know what you’re selling!
ASOOO: How important do you think it is for companies to give something back?
MOS: I think it’s important to genuinely care. If you’re raising money via a champagne lunch, it feels disingenuous. I work with brands I like, care about and am passionate about. If a company is questioning what it is they can get behind, then it’s wrong.
ASOOO: If you could start any other new business what would it be and why?
MOS: I come up with business ideas all the time. One of my biggest challenges is wanting to do everything when instead I should just be focusing on one thing at a time! Life is never dull.
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