Space & design right by the Wasserturm
Business management, promotion, consulting: A five-child family is nothing you would see as a side-project, just as little as anyone would do so with a start-up. Dr. Uta Meeder, the founder of MAOMI, sat down with us in her popup-showroom, in Mannheims inner city, to explain just how to balance such a situation.
Uta, when and why did you decide to create MAOMI?
Things got going in 2011. At the time I bought a small flat, located in the Mannheim block U6, at an auction. The place was in bad shape, which was the reason for its affordable price. With a team of craftsmen I gutted, renovated and rented out the place refurbished – that was the beginning of MAOMI. As a start-up we’ve been around since 2015.
You are active as an interior designer. Did you study this at the university?
No. I studied business administration and worked as a business consultant for several years. I was on the road a lot. As a mother of five, this is a real challenge. It’s not that easy to jump in and out of work, and to balance family and work life. In the end things tend to become a strain for everyone involved.
So starting your own business was an act of liberation?
In a way, yes. I’ve always been passionate about photography, design and art, and have been more or less active in these fields over the years. The apartment renovation was a reference project for my business, and I have been pursuing it since I finished that project. Once I had finished up the apartment, the next gigs directly followed: renovating a bathroom for friends and redesigning an attic for acquaintances of mine. I commissioned professional photographs of the three finished spaces, and a website. In 2015 I then finally started my own business. MAOMI allows me to connect my creative side with my business, and balancing family life and work is a lot easier as well. With five kids you really profit from the flexibility that comes with being self-employed.
Is your main focus still on apartment renovations?
Yes, we still do those. We just finished a really nice project, together with our new architect Mr. He: an exciting attic renovation. In 2017 we were very active in consultancy, so we sadly weren’t able to realize as many renovations as we would have liked. But at the moment we’re back in action, and it’s great. Seeing your vision become reality, without compromise, is really fun!
Do you rather work alone or as a team player?
At the moment our team consists of Nicole Mrasek, who is in charge of graphic design and everything digital, our architect Xiayan He, and Lennart, who is an intern. Aside from this core unit, I like to cooperate with a number of freelancers: Jan Zeller is a concept developer and copywriter, Kathrin Schwab is a photographer, and I also have people for IT, programming and accounting. This system works great!
What does MAOMI mean?
For my doctorate I had developed a tool to measure the effectiveness of advertising campaigns. As part of this I had secured a number of domains. MAOMI was one of the them, and I just liked the way it sounded. The tool didn’t make the cut, but the name did. It fits what we do, and feels right. Read from the left, it stands for Mannheim; from the right, for “Immobilien”, which is German for real estate. The design was done by Manuela Stark, who I have often collaborated with. She created a really beautiful Logo.
How does one stay afloat in a competitive market, as a lateral entrant?
I was lucky to quickly find an office over at gig7, which is a start-up center for women, located in the Q7 block. It was a small room under the roof, with just a desk – that’s it. In the beginning I did everything on my own, but I soon needed some support with the accounting. Without any help, it would not have worked out. It’s always best to focus on your strengths, and to learn to delegate work. The first showroom opened in 2015, and it was a really exciting collaboration. We set up a small exhibition space in the entrance area of the “35” hairstylist shop. Since that time the owner, Nicola Touchemann, has become a friend. According to the motto “MAOMI in Advent”, we were able to exhibit our first products. All in all, there were seven furnishing objects, some of which we still carry today. This included the “Stool”, the woolen blanket, the bathtub, and a bunch of ceramics.
What would you say, distinguishes the products of the MAOMI portfolio?
It is very important to me, that all products are produced sustainably, socially and environmentally friendly. When selecting producers, this is of the highest priority. It will often require me to spend quite a while looking for the right fit regarding quality, but in the end it’s always worth it! Luckily there is an organization from the Netherlands, which internationally certifies small producers. Their focus is on the social aspect of production, which is also one of my largest concerns. We create all the designs in-house. For production, where possible, we try to find traditional craftspeople and unique materials for our products, so in the end we can offer something truly special.
How do you successfully scale up a business model to a new level?
Over time we really needed more space. We got lucky, and after one and a half years under the roof, the window display area, on the ground floor, became available. Linda and Alex, who run the “Kuchen im Glas” label, had outgrown gig7. To be honest, the space felt a bit to big for my taste, but we took a leap of faith and opened our new showroom. In the beginning of 2018, we again began looking for a new home. Aside from this, gig7 was in dire need of a co-working space. The community manager, Nico Hoffmeister, was a real help finding a fitting new location for us. He was the one, who found the awesome space, here in the former Rosenthal-Studio, which is located in the historic ÖVA passageway, in the shopping precinct. We’ve been here since March, 2018.
The MAOMI start-up, right in the main shopping precinct in Mannheim – how does that feel?
To have a prime location store, right in this shopping area, is exciting. We are not really retailers. It’s a very different kind of business, and we would need a much larger portfolio, to be able do this long term. As a first step we expanded our selection of products to include things, which are produced by our partners. These are people that share our values. Our sofas, for example, come from Gervasoni, Milan. Creative director Paola Navone also gets her inspiration from many different countries around the world. This is a great fir for us. Just like the brand Ay Illuminate, which is run by two designers from the Netherlands. They make some very cool lamps, which for example utilize a weaving technique, used by fishermen in Swaziland for their netting. We also carry hand knitted blankets, by Uccellino. All of these things are really nice, and perfectly complement our portfolio. As much fun as we have, being in close contact to our customers, once our lease for interim use ends this year, we will end our business as a stationary retailer. We will refocus on the service sector and delivering our products to retailers. Though we will keep several brands onboard in the future.
So, you are planning on moving again, towards the end of the year?
Yes. This is an interim solution. The complete ÖVA passageway will undergo substantial renovations in 2019. But don’t worry: we aren’t leaving Mannheim. It is not official yet, but we’re looking at a location in the Schwetzingerstadt quarter, which fits exactly what we need. In 2019 we are returning to our roots regarding our business model.
Mannheim has become my home. I came here from Stuttgart, as the business school has an excellent reputation. Sure, Stuttgart has developed nicely as well, but my heart is in Mannheim now. The people here are very open, sincere and honest – I like this a lot, and it inspires me. The start-up and creative scene are very diverse and well connected. This is something I don’t want to miss.
What are MAOMIs plans for the latter half of 2018?
A real highlight will be the Maison&Objet trade fair in Paris. It’s THE fair for interior and design, and it’s our first time there as exhibitors, which is a real honor! I’ve visited the trade fair often, and Paris has always really inspired me. Now MAOMI is a part of it – unbelievable! I’ve always felt a special bond to France. I studied for two semesters in Lille, and my husband worked there for many years, so we were constantly riding the train back and forth between Mannheim and Paris. It’s only a three-hour trip.
Last question: What is your favorite MAOMI product?
I would say the espresso cups we are drinking from right now. I use them every day to celebrate my coffee breaks, both at work and at home. Till now I haven’t broken a single one – which is great if you have five kids running about.
Interview: Andreas Stanita / LA.MAG
Photos: Daniel Lukac