Small Business

Amy and Joel Malin of Modern Times

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
14th of August 2014


Beautiful Mid Century furniture at Modern Times in Fitzroy. Photo- Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

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Modern Times Fitzroy showroom. Photo- Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

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 Joel Malin at work in the Modern Times store. Photo- Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

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Amy and Joel Malin, the owners of Modern Times. Artwork behind by Lisa Lapointe.  Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

Last Thursday we launched a special content category for the month of August.  To celebrate Victorian Small Business Month, every week in August we will be shining our little spotlight on a different local small business, and asking some nosey questions which we hope will help other fledgling entrepreneurs! We’ve selected a varied cross section of businesses to feature, and today we’re in the RETAIL category.  Say hello to husband and wife team, Amy and Joel Malin of Fitzroy mid century furniture and design store Modern Times!

As you probably know, despite our love of all things internet, we have a real soft spot for good old fashioned bricks and mortar retail, and we are especially fond of creative retailers who think outside the box, like the clever team at Modern Times.  Having grown from an occasional pop-up shop which first launched in St Kilda in May 2011, to an impressive permanent store in Fitzroy in April 2012, Amy and Joel’s creative vision, hard work and attention to detail has made Modern Times one of Melbourne’s favourite furniture and design stockists.  What started as a husband and wife business, with Joel and Amy doing everything themselves (including the furniture restoration!) has now grown to incorporate two retail staff, three restorers and a bunch of other sub-contractors and collaborators such as stylists, photographers and more. Amy has recently taken maternity leave too, thought she admits, as a small business owner it has been hard to entirely switch off!

Amy and Joel have always invested in great branding, website design and photography – and it shows.  In fact, one of Amy’s top tips is to invest in these areas early on if you can – it really is such a valuable asset to have great imagery available for your website and for publicity, and branding is just one of those things that you just can’t fudge!  Hire a freelancer, people… you won’t regret it!

Modern Times strikes a brilliant balance between vintage and classic design pieces sourced in Europe, and an impressive collection of artwork and handcrafted accessories by local makers.  In recent years they’ve ramped up the local offering, and currently stock the work of over 40 Australian artists and makers.  The result is a shop with unique appeal, that really champions local design.

We chatted to Amy and Joel about the rewards and challenges of running their business, and what they’ve learnt along the way –

Can you tell us a little bit about Modern Times – how is your business structured, how many staff do you employ, what services do you offer?

What started out as a series of pop-up shops combining vintage Danish furniture with local art and homewares has now led to a full-time store.

Our business is kind of divided into three or four parts. Firstly there is the sourcing and importing of vintage furniture from Europe, then we have our restorers in Melbourne who bring the pieces back to their former glory, and finally we have the retail store and online shop where we combine the vintage furniture with contemporary Australian art and design.

We’re really passionate about supporting the local Australian community of independent artists and makers – this has allowed us to expand our art, homewares and gifts, which have become particularly popular online. Our customers definitely share our passion for nurturing local talent.

What does a typical work day at Modern Times involve?

Lots of phone calls and emails! I am on maternity leave at the moment so I am trying not to do too much, but not very successfully! Joel and I tend to take care of different parts of the business, he is the macro guy directing the team, importing the containers etc. whereas I’m more micro concentrating on the details like social media (read Instagram addict!), shop presentation and customer service.

In the morning we usually touch base with our team in the shop and workshop and discuss what needs to be done that day. It might be fielding website enquiries that have come through overnight, packing up pieces for delivery locally or interstate, and moving newly restored items from the warehouse to the store. Sometime during the morning we usually head to Everyday Coffee for a bagel and a coffee. We love it there!

The days vary a lot but at the moment we have some beautiful Italian pieces that need reupholstering, so we’ve been going through the process of selecting fabrics. Joel is always at our upholsterers dropping off and collecting pieces for the shop and custom orders. I am also busy organising our next exhibition with Sydney based artist Lisa Lapointe, which opens today (!) so I’ve been talking with Lisa a lot about the show, writing sponsorship proposals and liaising with our graphic designer on the invite and other exhibition collateral.

What are some daily office rituals and systems you employ to enhance your / your team’s productivity?

I love having systems and being organised but sometimes it is easier said than done! I wish we could say we have some cool Google style productivity initiatives going on but we don’t. I’m a big fan of the old GANNT chart which I find indispensable when planning exhibitions.

To streamline your daily tasks and keep everything running smoothly what computer programs, apps and softwares do you use?

We are always keen to introduce new technology to help us run the business. I don’t know how we ever lived without Dropbox. This makes working on the run or at home a lot easier as the whole team has a central point to access and edit files. Another program we’ve been dabbling with for team task management is Asana. It’s online and its free!

With the bonus of hindsight, what do you know now about running a small business that you wish you knew when you started?

Well we pretty much knew nothing at the start so in hindsight that was probably for the best as we might not have embarked on the whole venture!

What are your top three tips about running a successful small business?

1. Delegate! – This is definitely one of Joel’s strengths and without it we could not have grown the business to the same extent or ever gone on holidays.

2. Abide by the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Be friendly, helpful and be generous with your terms and when managing complaints. Sometimes it is hard but if a customer has an issue and you go out of your way to make things right they will actually end up happier than if everything went well in the first place.

3. Use a Graphic Designer – don’t underestimate the value of good design and brand collateral.

Who is a local small business owner you admire and why?

This might sound silly but my parents! I grew up in a small business in Ballarat, a picture framing shop. Just by observing how they run their business I have learnt so much, especially about customer service – they must know at least a thousand customers by their first name.

Another local business owner who always impresses us is Raph Rashid. His entrepreneurial record is impressive with successful endeavours ranging from the clothes label Blank, to his book Behind The Beat and now he’s the king of food trucks. All executed with style and attention to detail.

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Details of products at Modern Times. Photo- Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

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Amy and Joel Malin’s store Modern Times. Photo- Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

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Details at the Modern Times store. Photo- Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

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