Clare Marshall and Stuart McLaughlin are sea changers with a vision. After 15 years as Directors in the advertising industry they now funnel their creativity into their online business Curious Columbus; One of Australia’s hottest preschool educational and sensory toy brands. They’re also members of WorkLife. Clare and Stuart can often be spotted in Berry sneakily brushing away crumbs from their shared Milkwood lamb sausage roll habit, checking out the toys in Goldfish toy store and juggling their two young kids. Here they sit down for the first coupled-up WorkLife Balance chat; letting us know how important coffee is for morale, why a friendly chat at the post office can transform a day and how a membership to WorkLife has given their international business new wings.
How and when did you choose life? What’s your tree change story?
Stuart I guess our sea change has two parts. The first was coming to Australia from London in 2010 and thinking that was going to be sunshine, surf and early finishes. But It wasn’t. Sydney was full on and we were really just doing the same long hours in similarly stressful roles that we’d been doing before. I guess our real sea change came when we had our first child Wilber, and realised that because of our long working hours we weren’t living the Aussie dream we moved here for at all. That’s when we decided to swap Sydney’s inner west for the south coast.
Clare: Yes, Sydney was tough, We lived in Stanmore, underneath the flight path and had a newborn baby with reflux who never slept. Then the planes would fly overhead every 10 minutes. I nearly lost my mind. That was the catalyst for change. After a trial move back to the UK for six months didn’t quite fulfil us, we took a beautiful holiday rental in Werri Beach, and we basically never left.
This is when we started our business. We made our first product, a childrens’ fabric activity book directly inspired by some horrendous flights we’d endured on the way to and from the UK! We recognised its potential immediately and we literally couldn’t keep up production with demand. We were off to a flying start and right then Curious Columbus was born in earnest. It just came together.
Stuart: Funnily enough our company name was actually decided during a car journey trying to keep Wilber asleep driving loops between Gerringong and Berry! Quiet moments during travel like that became our very unique style of board meetings.
What was your greatest fear about making the leap?
Stuart: For me it was about leaving the stable roles we had in Sydney. Clare and I have both always been in advertising, and this whole venture seemed a bit of a pipe-dream at first but I was determined to try.
Clare: I’m a city girl, I grew up in Johannesburg, and then London and Sydney. Gerringong seemed like a sleepy town that didn’t even have a theatre!!! I was worried about small town mentality, and whether I could even get a decent flat white. Stu was so focused on being here and I’m glad he was now.
What’s been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome?
Stuart: Setting up a new business as a couple is hard enough, but add to that a move to a new town, two kids under five and no family support. Well I’m kind of amazed we’re still functioning!
Clare: We do just fine! But yes I agree that’s the biggest personal hurdle. Stu’s my husband, the kids’ dad and he’s also my business partner. Things can get pretty emotionally charged and complicated at times, but we’re getting on just fine right now, and without those A380 planes skimming the roof it’s a lot less mentally tiring!
How does it work for the rest of the family? What’s been the impact on them?
Stuart: If we hadn’t made this move, Clare and I would have been working 12–14 hour days in Sydney, and just wouldn’t have been such a huge part of our kids’ lives growing up. Also I sincerely doubt we would have such deep insight into their development, wants and needs to be able to design and develop such relevant kids’ toy products.
Interestingly our kids have grown up here and this magnificent farmland, meets sea landscape is really their only reality. Sometimes I sit with Wilber down at Werri beach, taking in the magnificence of it all and I say to Wilber ‘isn’t it amazing’ and he just says “Hmmm Daddy, when’s that ice cream coming”. To them this is just normal.
What’s the biggest cliché of country life that’s turned out to be true?
Clare: It’s the connections with people. The minute we moved down here the lady in the post office knew me by name. I can call her up and say “Stu’s forgotten his wallet, can you put it aside?” And she will. I’m blown away by that. I’ve never had that. People are a lot kinder, more trusting.
Is there anything that’s been a surprise to you?
Clare: I’m surprised by how many people I’ve found that I have things in common with. I had this idea that I wouldn’t make connections because people would be from such different backgrounds, but in reality half of the mums I’m friends with are from creative backgrounds and many from the UK too.
The hundred thousand dollar question. When it comes to money, how do you make it work?
Stuart: We set up a business that was intended to be a remote business so that we could live anywhere in the world. Much of our business is based in the US, but we can work anywhere, so long as we have a reliable internet (thankfully the NBN is down here) a good productive space to lay our laptops and we’re away. It’s really motoring now and products are selling like hotcakes in the the US, UK, New Zealand and now here in Australia too. The feedback we’re getting is outstanding and we’ve become a go-to gift for so many people. We’re expanding the range now and looking to do that fast to keep up with demand.
What’s your passion project/side gig? Is there anything that you’re hustling on?
Clare: I’m always hustling, I’m the creative one and I would love to be involved in some of the craft markets down here, with some new kids products. I think at the moment we’re so focused with the huge US and UK markets, but I’d like to be more home grown in the future too.
Stuart: Clare can’t sit still. She has heaps going on all the time. As another side business she also does furniture restoration, but I’ve made her promise she’ll finish my office desk before she takes on any other projects!
Picture your book shelf at home. What’s the one book on it that everyone should borrow?
Clare: Stuart is obsessed with the gut at the moment. Everything is about gut health to him. Every moment away from the children he is spending reading about it.
Stuart: ‘Obsessed’ is a strong word… But it is fascinating. Such clear links to good mind health too. I genuinely believe good diet helps promote a positive mood, and a stronger personal frame. I’ve recently finished revisiting ‘Gut’ by Giulia Enders and am currently starting out on ‘The Clever Gut Diet’ by Dr Michael Mosley. I find it healthy to break away from just business reads and am loving the rabbit warren of this ever-evolving gut research.
Clare: This is going to sound terrible, but I’m much more of an Instagram Queen. Every night when Stu’s reading about the guy, I’m on Instagram, which is where I get my inspiration. I am still reading, just in a different format. It’s hard to narrow down just a few good ones, but some of my go to crafty accounts are @Where_Learning_Meets_Play, @cintaandco and @crafttherainbow.
What piece of furniture in your house that makes you the happiest?
Stuart: I know how Clare is going to answer this.
Clare: Yes, this one’s easy. I bought a 1950’s Danish style desk back in 2010 from a house clearance in Sydney
Stuart: It was the heaviest thing in the world, on the top floor of a 16 floor block of flats in Brighton Le Sands. Getting it downstairs alone was a nightmare.
Clare: I’d been planning on restoring it for years. I went to ‘This Old House’ in Berry to get the paints, I was inspired by the beautiful leather handles near the printer at WorkLife and it took me about 2 months of working on it- I had to sand it about 50 times, but now I’m so happy with it and I just love it.
If people come to Berry, what’s the one thing they should eat?
Clare: The lamb and pine nut sausage roll from Milkwood. I have seriously had one of these every lunchtime when I’m at WorkLife. Is that wrong??
What’s your go-to listen for your trips up to Sydney?
Stuart: ABC Kids, Bananas in Pyjamas if the kids are in the car.
Clare: You’ve got your misery music. What is it… Iron and Wine? I’m not a music person. I like to talk.
Stuart: If I’m by myself I have my go to podcasts. TED always has some great content, HowStuffWorks is good, plus one of the guys at WorkLife put me onto ‘How I Built This’. There’s one about a toy company that I listened to the other day. They’re huge now, but started from similar humble beginnings. Pretty inspiring.
What’s your best productivity hack to get the most out of each work day?
Stuart: Coffee. A rolling supply of decent flat whites. Good coffee is good for the soul. My favourite spot is Nourish in Berry. They make a cracking coffee.
Clare: If I can avoid business meetings with Stuart I’ll get a lot of work done!
Stuart: Also if I’m struggling with something or lacking focus a quick walk down to Werri Beach which is two minutes from our house instantly clears my head. It’s so different from Sydney just going from meeting to meeting.
What’s the best thing about your membership to WorkLife?
Stuart: Clare and I come from agency life where we’d work with huge teams of people. You’ve got banter, discussion about work problems and there’s always someone around. Go from that to your home office where it’s so isolating. You’ve got nobody to break out and talk to about a work problem. At WorkLife get greeted by friendly faces, get to have a short friendly discussion, then everyone goes and gets on with their work. That human connection is super valuable.
Clare: For me there have been some great connections made. Just a meeting that Kate set me up with another WorkLife member gave me some absolute gems on how we can get products into physical retail and what trade shows we should aim for. But it’s even just those little chats on the balcony or the kitchen that can make a real difference.
Clare: It’s funny, our current life is actually a really good reflection of our best life. A perfect day would include: Drop the kids off at Natural Play Children’s Centre in Berry where we know they love their educators and they play outside all day. Head straight to Milkwood Bakery for coffees and morning catch up in the sunshine. Then I’ll head over to Worklife for a productive day working on new product development, or packaging design. Grab a lamb and pine nut roll for lunch (obviously) and then pop into Blowbar on Queen -the brand new blowdry bar that’s opened for a fabulous blow dry and cheeky chat with Kyra and the team. Take an early finish, pick up 2 thoroughly exhausted, happy kids, and take an early evening walk down at Werri Beach. Then back home for a healthy home cooked dinner, baths and down to sleep. That just leaves enough time for us to say hi to the babysitter before we head out for a beautiful dinner watching the sun go down at Silo’s Winery in Jasper’s Brush.
You can check out Clare and Stuart’s products at https://www.curiouscolumbuskids.com