From Cramped Living Room to Chapel Street Charm

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It’s Monday morning and I’m walking, coffee in hand, towards the Chapel Street Bazaar. Above this iconic antique market, where tourists and locals trawl for an enviable bargain, is Relab Studio’s latest home.

It still feels surreal at times.

Since starting this agency from my drab living room in Carnegie, we’ve moved thrice before landing this fabulous space, as the agency grew over the years.

I studied at the Swinburne Design School in Prahran, which has now moved to Hawthorn. This new office makes me feel like I’ve gone full circle and am finally home. I don’t know whether it is a case of coincidence or providence, but I’m hoping that Relab will leave a lasting mark in the industry, just as the iconic Chapel Street Bazaar does for Melbourne.

The Journey to Prahran

Like every entrepreneur, I started this agency from the confines of my home — my living room to be exact. Back in 2012, I was still working part time from Monday to Thursday while trying to build my dream. I’d sneak in around an hour’s work during lunch time and continue working after hours and on weekends. Fridays were usually reserved for client meetings.

The first two years were very tough. I remember staring at the account transaction page on my computer screen, waiting desperately for payment to come in. They say that who you marry can make or break your career. I think I’ve found a good deal in my wife, Irenne. She’s been my biggest supporter since day one. An accomplished illustrator, she would burn the midnight oil with me to help finish production work for clients. I made a lot of mistakes but I think our team grew from it to be 10 times better today.

Our first official office was a tiny 2m x 2.5m room in a shared office space in South Melbourne. There were 3 of us. If a client visited us, sometimes we’d be sitting knee to knee to fit everyone in as we huddle around a laptop to look at a demo. It’s funny when I think about it, but I doubt anyone felt it was back then.

LEFT: Early days in a 3m x 4m office suite (circa early 2013 — late 2013). RIGHT: Alvin receiving his birthday present from the crew, Jason, Kevin and Young Ha.

We managed to upgrade to a bigger shoebox when another room became available. This time it was a 3m x 4m room and we had an extra person join Relab. Our head count was now 4. We had a fun team, closely knitted and full of enthusiasm. I still felt we were in survival mode at that point.

LEFT: Daily planning session. RIGHT: NERF™ target shooting competition.

By the end of November 2013, it finally felt like shit was getting real when we moved to St Kilda Road Towers. For the first time, I had to shop for office furniture. Browsing around Ikea had never been that exciting. Our new place was a 2-storey space with work spaces on the first floor and a funky loft for meetings.

There were a lot of memories there but towards the end of our lease, it became too small for our growing team. Plus, I felt that the ‘suit and tie’ feel of the building didn’t fit with our creative ethos.

A view of our Suite 831, 1 Queens Road office (late 2013 — late 2016).
LEFT: Top view of Didi’s and Young Ha’s desk. RIGHT: Back view of Sam’s desk.

A Bright Future

Our move to this new office in Prahran is a big deal for the business because we invested more money to set up the space. It’s not exactly like my dream office, but it’s on track. This extra capital puts more pressure on us — a good one — to continue working hard for Relab to stand side by side with the veterans in the industry.

LEFT: Didi running a sprint planning session. RIGHT: View of the Technical Team’s section.

Some of my proudest moments as a principal were being recognised by our peers and other big creatives in the industry. Personally, it’s quite something to have one of my Melbourne designer idols ask, “Who is Relab?”

In the last 3.5 years, we’ve had the chance to work, collaborate and cross path with some of the hottest names in Melbourne’s creative scene.

Being in Prahran among other creative agencies also makes me feel like we belong here. It’s a great suburb that has a soulful vibe with great food and links to the city. We’re spoilt for choices for morning coffee, lunch time and shopping for the ladies. On a nice sunny day, we’d sit in the park to have lunch together.

Late 2016 — just moved into our Suite 3 & 4, 217 Chapel Street, Prahran office. Excuse Didi’s intimidating (or not?) look.

I’d say we did alright so far.

Family first // Principal @relabstudios // Customer-obsessed digital design agency // Design sprint advocate // Melbourne // Say hello @alhermanto

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