Friends, business partners and occasional housemates, Carla Erasmus and Christa Botha met each other through mutual friends at a braai one Friday night in 2014. Less than a week later they had established Bofred – the name a quirky combination of Christa’s surname and Carla’s second name, Frederika – a boutique art, furniture and design business based in Cape Town.
The birth of Bofred
Finding something of a kindred spirit in each other on that fateful day, both Carla and Christa, respectively a photography assistant and owner of a boutique online baby store at the time, were creatively frustrated and looking for an outlet – to create something, but also to enjoy themselves. “We both studied art but we weren’t doing anything that stimulated this interest. In Bofred we saw an opportunity to do that,” Carla explains.
Christa elaborates: “We started without any insight into any market. Carla and I literally said to each other, ‘let’s just do it, let’s just start’. I think we thought it would be a side project but right from the start we handled it as if this is the real thing, and [Carla interjects] that it is going to become this huge business!”
So with great expectations (how else?) they launched head and heart first into this new venture. In hindsight, they both feel, it was selfish in the way it affected their husbands. “We quit our jobs cold turkey with the announcement ‘I am following my dreams’ and proceeded to pour all our savings into this idea,” Carla laughs. But this also served as motivation to Make. It. Work.
Bofred started as a furniture remodelling and restoration business. The duo would scourge markets, auctions, thrift shops and the like to find forgotten and neglected gems, which they would then breathe new life into.
“For the first six months the stock stood in my lounge so it looked like an AA meeting room,” Christa adds. But then they did some styling, took some photos, made a website, created a newsletter – all themselves – and started approaching media and potential clients. “We did all of this and thought ourselves very fabulous… and then somehow the sales just started happening,” Carla says.
What they discovered almost immediately is that their market in Cape Town is really small and that people are rather desperate for something new. What they also found is that it really helps if one is able to supply good images to relevant media. Carla’s experience as a stylist and photographer came in useful here because she understands what makes a good image, and magazines and online publications are able to pick up on that.
Christa muses: “It’s amazing, whenever Bofred is featured in a magazine it leads to a sale or a project.” In fact, their first big lighting project came via a woman who saw their work in a magazine. “We had no idea what we were doing, but she allowed us into her home and asked our opinions,” they explain, incredulously. “And then we did her whole house’s lights!”
Say no to say yes
Bofred’s focus has shifted quite significantly since they started. “We started off doing furniture restorations and remodelling but it is not really viable as a business model because you don’t know where your next product will come from,” Christa explains.
The decision to stop the restoration and remodelling speaks to one of their fundamental business beliefs; that it is not a good idea to say yes to everything. “When you say yes to everything things can only be ‘semi successful’ because you don’t focus on the right things,” Christa says.
Today they are in a position where they won’t do something unless both agree that it’s a good fit for Bofred. “The piece is going to stand in somebody’s home and other people are going to ask who did that and then we want that to be a true representation of what our company is,” Carla elaborates.
And exactly what the company is is best epitomised in their new range, which launched recently. “This is what Bofred does!” they agree delightedly. The new range, the Clay Collection, has strong ceramic and pottery influences, with something of a handmade feel. A key benefit of this range is that the pieces can be produced in multiples but each will still have a unique look.
The ideas and inspiration for new ranges tend to be a collaborative process. They brainstorm, look at where there are gaps in the markets, think about products they would like to see in their own homes or the homes of their clients, and work from there. Carla and Christa do all the sketches and CAD drawings in-house. It’s a back and forth process between the two of them that starts with a concept, from which everything then flows. Much of their aesthetic can be traced back to art. For Carla, especially, art plays an important role in her creative approach to Bofred. “I draw inspiration from the shape, colours and textures of the work of fine artists.” From day one art has been a part of what Bofred does and they’re keen to incorporate a more extensive art selection to their offering. “Not ‘affordable art’, per se, it’s more that we want everybody to have a nice piece of art in their homes,” Christa explains.
Close to home
An interesting dynamic to this duo’s partnership is the fact that they live in different countries. Christa is based in the Middle East, thanks to her husband’s career, while Carla lives in Cape Town. They insist that the logistics around this arrangement is an “in-house issue” but that it works very smoothly.
In fact, the geographical distance has seen them put dynamic systems in place that actually help them run the business more efficiently. Carla and Christa check in with each other on Skype every day, and at the beginning of the week they share their task and goal lists. They see each other every three months, when Christa comes to Cape Town and moves in with Carla and her husband (hence the housemate reference above!).
Like all colleagues and business partners they have the odd argument – of course – but, says Christa: “Our friendship is important enough that we have put structures in place that protect our friendship. There is never a grey area and that keeps us safe.” Carla adds: “We still want to be able to go out for dinner together and have a good time.” They agree that the secret to a successful partnership is that both must work equally hard. Similarly, they are grateful for the privilege of having found in each other a friend and business partner that shares their individual style, work and personal philosophies.
Empire in the making
As enthusiastic as they are about the creative, fun aspects of running a business, so too are they frank about the challenges.
Christa and Carla are both very aware of the fact that Bofred serves a small market, in which they have a very small niche. As such, they understand the need to have products that make money (the so-called “cash cows”) so that they can do the products and projects that show off their creative ability in the best possible way.
As it happens when a business grows, the two find that the management aspects tends to override the creative aspect of the work they do. Christa doesn’t mind this too much: “I love a spreadsheet. I am always the downer in Carla’s day when I say ‘let’s talk about money’” Her response, in her own words, is usually: “Leave me alone, I’m busy making something beautiful!”
And they have never wanted to give up, though Carla adds that they have often said to each other that “if next month goes as it did this month then I am getting a waitressing job”.
Luckily that hasn’t happened yet and isn’t likely to, if their enthusiasm and commitment is anything to go by (which, of course, it is). Combine that with hard work, vision and tenacity and you’ve got a very impressive business. Christa laughs: “People sometimes think Bofred is this empire, but actually Carla duct tapes the boxes. Shh, nobody knows!”