Hi Aime! How would you describe your business, Studio Cotton?
A website design company for the loveliest small businesses.
How did your career begin?
I left uni in 2008 with a degree in applied genetics, knowing only one thing: I didn’t want a career involving genetics – however they were applied. After a couple of years in retail management, a chance encounter with someone who worked in healthcare communications revealed a whole industry dedicated to helping the public better understand science – that was right up my alley. I started applying for graduate roles and quickly landed a spot at a healthcare marketing agency. I fell in love with marketing and not too long after, dropped the healthcare part.
What inspired the idea of setting up your business?
Oh, it was a total accident. I’d worked my way up through a few marketing and web design agencies in Bristol and Bath – I’d always loved the creative parts of my roles but had the worst luck with pretty toxic workplaces. After a particularly awful experience, I decided to leave the industry for good. Except, I literally can’t sit still. I tolerated about one week figuring out what I wanted to do with my career, and then jumped on the opportunity to help a close friend with a website for her cycling clothing company.
And then I jumped on an opportunity to help a friend-of-a-friend with their jewellery business website. Next, I jumped on an opportunity to help another friend–of–a-friend with their eyewear business website. I thrived with the autonomy that came with self-employment, and grew my business from there.
What’s the story behind the name?
I really wish I had a cool story here, but I picked ‘Studio’ because it sounded fancy, and Cotton was an amalgamation and tidy-up of my surname, Cox-Tennant > CoTen > Cotton.
Where do you find creative inspiration?
No matter the project, I find myself coming back to the same selection of design and branding books from indie publishers, Gestalten. Start Me Up, Upstart, Brand New Brand, and my favourite, First Things First – they’re all chocka with creative brand examples from small and independent businesses around the world.
It’s so easy to get sucked into the minutiae of a website design project, that every now and then I need a source of inspiration that forces me to take a step back and look at the brand as a whole.
How would you describe your style?
A mix of pragmatic, considered and contemporary. As a website designer, the aesthetic is only a small (but very important) part of each project. We’re constantly balancing small business website essentials like search engine optimisation (SEO), user experience (UX), and accessibility with a modern and clean website. After all, what good is a beautiful website if customers can’t find it, or buy from it?
Are there themes that run through your work?
As a business we only take on website design projects that pique our curiosity. Whilst it’s hard to define our niche, some qualities we look for are craftsmanship, kindness, creativity and a whole heap of whimsy.
Tell us about your work, projects, and creative process…
A whole heap of planning. Studio Cotton is a strategy-focused website design studio, which means we focus on the website as a small business tool that helps achieve the small business goal. That’s why our projects start by digging into what that goal actually is, and what the website needs to do to achieve that. The short version of this is probably that I just ask I tonne of questions.
What alternative career would you pursue?
I want to be a shopkeeper. I really loved my time working retail; the customers, the merchandising, the lining up a flawless bay of boxes to the shelf edge.
Describe a typical working day…
I head to the studio between 8 and 9.30am, depending on what time my cat decides I need to wake up. The first 30 minutes is usually spent waiting for my morning latte to settle whilst I catch up on emails and overnight Slack messages. The rest of my morning is small website amends and additions, as well as new business meetings and consultations.
Our studio is opposite Bristol’s legendary St Nicks Market, so I have some of the UK’s best street food on my doorstep. Lunch is a highlight of my day. Afternoons are when I’m most productive, so I try to set these aside for bigger projects like new website builds, reviewing and upgrading our systems, or writing my workshops.
When I run out of steam, I usually spend some time creating content for Instagram, where I share heaps of advice for small businesses. If I don’t catch a second wind, then it’s time to head home.
What is the ethos behind your business?
Smart, creative, kind. We never do something for the sake of it, which means making sure the ideas we propose to clients are the most logical, sound, and specific to their needs. We always prioritise kindness. Working with small business owners (and being one myself) we understand that it’s rare to have a clear divide between personal and professional. We like to think we approach every client and project with empathy.
Tell us about the space you work in…
Our studio is in central Bristol, at the heart of the Old City. We occupy the third floor of a former post office and business chambers built in 1746, and get to enjoy a couple of lovely original features like the parquet flooring we had restored. Previously a call centre, we took on the space when it was a tired, grubby and fluorescently-lit office. We think we transformed it into something pretty sensational (you can read about it in Volume 9 of 91 magazine).
Unfortunately we’re coming to the end of our lease, so we’ll soon be looking for something new. Fingers crossed we can create somewhere as charming and comfy as where we are now.
Is there an element of your work that you love the most?
I’m a total cliché because it’s just helping people. For most small businesses, their website is the most important business tool; it’s their shop floor, window display, checkout, enquiry generator, PR piece, product display, and front door.
When a website isn’t performing as it should, it can have a disastrous impact on revenue. Website platforms like Squarespace and Shopify make it easier than ever for small businesses to make their own websites, but the reality is that a lot of DIY websites are not good tools for a small business. The websites we build at Studio Cotton can make a colossal improvement, but I often get just the same buzz from the Instagram DMs I get from people who see improvements after implementing my free advice.
How valuable is the online community to your work?
Social media platforms like Instagram have been a part of our marketing activity since we formed back in 2016. At first it was very calculated – I’m sure most small business owners have read that the best way to grow an engaged audience on IG is to nurture a community, but a community isn’t nurtured if you take out more than you put in.
I started by sharing titbits of small business advice; like quick guides to SEO, demystifying commonly misunderstood marketing terms, and highlighting issues within the small business and creative industries. I’ve recently started to appreciate that our online community stopped being a pool of potential clients a long time ago – it’s now a core part of our business.
What’s been the biggest eye-opener in running your business?
The relentless bombardment of challenges I could never have expected. I used to think “Well, once we weather this storm, everything will be OK”, but sometimes those storms are relentless – so now I’m working on a stronger boat.
What’s one thing people would be surprised you do in your job?
Struggle. I try to be careful not to share anything on Instagram that’s boastful or inflates my success because as beneficial as social media can be, it’s also an absolute fiend for brewing comparison syndrome and making people feel a bit rubbish. Our human brains are terrible for filling in the blanks with assumptions that everyone else is thriving. I know, because I do it myself all the time. I think people see our Instagram follower count, see the place we work, and get the impression that everything is beyond hunky dory. Here’s my official statement: my things are rarely hunky dory.
Do you have any creative pastimes or hobbies?
I love crochet and knitting projects, but never finish them. Apart from stylish jumpers for my cats, who do not appreciate my efforts – maybe that’s why they insist on waking me up so early. And I’ve recently taken up roller skating again, both inline and quad skates. Strapping some wheels to my feet and bouncing around Bristol and seafront Weston-Super-Mare brings back all the joys of going out to play.
What does the next year hold for you?
I’m in the process of turning the expertise in my head into a series of online workshops, covering topics like web design, SEO, website accessibility and ecommerce. I’m at the stage where I’ve asked everyone to force me to speed up getting them launched!
Books I love: Yes Please by Amy Poehler, and I’ve read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank more times than I can count.
Shops I love: Mon Pote in Bristol, Sancho’s in Exeter, any garden centre (Burford Garden Company is exceptional), and Full Court Press Coffee in Bristol for my morning latte.
Inspirational places: Anywhere I can see the sea, and you can’t beat a swim in Clevedon Marine Lake.