Being a founder is a life consuming vocation, but with sometimes up to 100 hour weeks, with little sleep and time to rest, East London based founder couple Sinead Mac Manus and Alex Haw, have blossomed their relationship as well as their businesses Fluency and Atmos Studios for over six years, and still manage to squeeze in time to party to their hearts content.
I caught up with them at their favourite Shoreditch hangout, The Vintage Emporium to discover the magic ingredients they blend to make a blissful love, life and work balance.
Firstly, tell me about each other’s businesses…
Sinead: That’s a good idea! Well Alex, my lovely partner, runs Atmos, an art and architecture practice that’s been going for seven years. His work is incredibly sculptural and bespoke, it’s really beautiful. It’s made to order, it’s not like any architecture that you’ve seen before. He does a lot of stairs, one of his most famous pieces is in a house in Wandsworth with metal and glass it’s very surreal, it’s incredible. He’s incredibly talented, he’s an amazing writer as well, he writes for a lot of publications. He is a workaholic, so he works all the time, 24/7, as much as I think I work hard as an entrepreneur like I did a 12 hour day yesterday he did a 36 hour day the day before. I’m always the first home.
Alex: So Sinead is a serial entrepreneur she’s done all kinds of things like she’s actually written books and she’s a sort of a humanitarian entrepreneur. She wants to do stuff that will change lives not just change the bank balance. She’s incredibly emotionally connected to the work. Her current business Fluency is quite new, she runs it with one co-founder and it’s about training kids mostly, and young adults to be digital natives, to become tech savvy. They learn quicker and help all of those small businesses that can’t otherwise do all these digital skills.
Sinead: That was great, can you do my marketing for me? (Laughs)
What do you think about how you described each others’ businesses? Anything you want to add?
Alex: I would say that a lot of people react to the aesthetic of my work but it’s actually about problem solving so it comes out of deep analysis. Our work is actually quite nerdy and analytical but the way I see is that it merges meaning and sensuality so we’re always trying to do something that fits the context, it’s very site specific. We work with houses quite a lot and clients so we’re solving a problem, if it’s not beautiful it doesn’t really work because beauty is a core aspect, but it’s got to work before it’s beautiful as well.
Sinead: Alex is really interested in data and maps so a big project he did for the Olympics was called global feast, he designed and built a table of the world that sat 80 people. It was incredible and there’s a mini version of it in our house. So you love to analyse data and make something beautiful out of that, one of your early pieces before you met me was taking the data from the Architectural Association and then translating that into light, it was a really stunning piece.
Alex: The last sentence about me and then you go to you! Our stuff is also trying to enable people to do something, even though it might be a beautiful situation it’s trying to be participatory. That first light installation we ever did it was about expressing the activity of the school and making everyone’s presence in the school contribute to this work. It’s always trying to enable humanity somehow. Over to you…
Sinead: No you described it well.
Sinead: Yes, a learning platform to give people digital skills and connect them to jobs.
I’ve also heard that you both run a supper club together can you tell me about that?
Sinead: Alex started a geo-specific supper club called Latitudinal Cuisine 6 months before we met and it’s still Alex’s baby but I go to a lot of them and I hopefully I’m a big part of the Latitudinal family. There’s one picture you always put in your presentations when you talk about latitude with me and two other people and there’s lettuce hanging out of my mouth! (Laughs) Out of all of the pictures of all the years why that one?
Why did you have food hanging out of your mouth?
Alex: The whole idea of that supper club was love food, aphrodisiac food and there was no cutlery so you kind of just had to feed other people so we were feeding each other with our mouths and it was a bit of a funny moment.
Tell me about how you guys met…
Alex: It was online – so digital! (laughs)
Sinead: I was a bit lonely and bored and I got on Guardian Soulmates to set up some dates, I thought I’m going to have a bit of fun and date around. I met Alex on my very first date! He said let’s meet at a private viewing at Redchurch Street and he was a little bit late and the viewing was finishing. I remember him walking down the street towards me and thinking ‘wow he’s better looking than his picture’, and then I said ‘it’s really nice to meet you but it’s finished now, there’s no beers left!’ and he said ‘well lets have a look anyway’. He takes one look at the ice bucket, dives his hand in and picks out the one last beer that was down the bottom, opens it and hands it to me and I was like ‘I just fell in love! Beer and good looking!’
Alex: And late!
Sinead: And late – totally it’s been like that for six years.
Alex: (Laughs) Gives you plenty of time – you get to do your own thing for a bit, no pressure.
What were you both doing at the time, had you started your own businesses yet?
Alex: I was already doing Atmos, so I was working 100 hour weeks probably. I’d been on quite a lot of dates, I’d been doing dating like a project, I was doing a date everyday for half an hour for a coffee and lunch, because I couldn’t do the evenings.
Sinead: I was doing freelancing in arts project management. He told me he had a spreadsheet for it and I was like the 40th! He was my first.
So, what was it about Sinead after all these 40 dates Alex?
Alex: She’s just gorgeous and brilliant! She’s perfect. We just got on immediately it was incredible. That’s the way it’s always been, everyone has their aggravations in their relationships, but we don’t really have that.
Sinead: We have our ups and downs like everybody.
Alex: We have our discussions but we’re very direct and natural with each other. We don’t have this kind of tussle.
Do you have nicknames for each other?
Sinead: Well, they’re based on woodland creatures which sounds a bit wanky when I say it, but it’s quite adorable. I’m the fox and then Alex was the badger because he’s got black and white hair. He didn’t like being a badger because we’ve got a picture of a fox and badger in our house and they seemed kind of slow and plodding and then a friend of ours said but you mean the honey badger and then we watched the video – “He’s so nasty! He eats everything, he’s dynamic you put him in a cage – and he’s out of the cage!” So meet the honey badger! We’re the fox and the honey badger.
Do you think the fact you have done your own thing in your successful businesses contributed towards the success of your relationship?
Sinead: I think it helps because a lot of people get up in the morning and go to work and feel very unhappy, we’re just very blessed that we wake up every morning and it’s so exciting what we’re doing. We’re hopefully changing something about the world in our different ways. I think it’s lovely to be with somebody who feels the same way. I think on Alex’s Guardian Soulmate profile it said ‘I don’t care what you do, you could be a cleaner or a curator as long as you feel like you’re doing something with your life and contributing.’ That was really important to me as well. Not to come home and say ‘Oh god, my city job, I hate it!’
Alex: I suppose both of us are in fields that are challenging somehow, it’s never easy constantly trying things out, we get set backs. But we both have quite a positive outlook so we’re continuously getting through the struggle like ‘fuck it, let’s keep going.’
Sinead: Running a startup and running a practice some days are brilliant and some days are terrible. We sort of balance each other out and just go home and have a bit of a moan about how it’s terrible and nothing’s going right and the next day everything is better again. Or you get a call from a client and suddenly everything is good. There’s been the tough times as well.
When did you both realise what you’re doing now is what you wanted to do?
Alex: For me I’ve been doing it for a while because I trained as an architect, when I set it up it was only because I didn’t see any way of proceeding with my discipline, everything else was very unattractive I just didn’t want to work for anyone else at all and I felt like there was no way forward. To be honest when I started I didn’t really know what I was doing, I didn’t have any clients, I didn’t know what to do and I never would have foreseen we do what we do. I never thought I’d be designing these crazy sculptural tables and designing clothes or designing the things that we’ve done so it’s all an on-going process. You have one life, every day is precious if you have that feeling sometimes creativity just invades you a little bit. I don’t think there’s a kind of one moment, there’s this constant surging of moments of discovery if you’ve got an open mind and you can channel it.
Sinead: I’m kind of the opposite of Alex, I never thought I would be doing what I’m doing today. I suppose I’m on my fourth career and I never thought I’d be working in tech, I always liked computers when I was younger I’m not one of those tech people, I didn’t teach myself to programme or anything like that, but all of the things I’ve done up until now really I think made me the perfect person to do what I’m doing now. I fit it together and I probably still have no idea what I’m doing but I’m really enjoying it and the last two years have probably been the most exciting bit of my work life ever. You’ve sort of seen that Alex, I was really burnt out doing freelancing and just plodding along, not making anything work properly and this feels like it’s got momentum and the best thing is it’s bigger than me.
Alex: You were always very positive, but now you’re radiant! This planetary energy! (Both laugh)
Do help each other with your work?
Alex: Yes she’s helped me loads! When I first started she did my accounts, helped me with marketing, absolutely tons. She basically did everything for me!
Sinead: We don’t really have time now.
Alex: What have I done for you? I’ve done some photographs, I’ve done books for you, copy editing, events but I don’t really help you much at all – She can’t stand working with me!
Sinead: We have really different working styles, I try to get away with doing as little as possible, very big picture. Alex is very detailed he likes control, a bullet point list on the email with italics and things in bold. It’s good, he get’s stuff done.
Alex: You think it’d be a natural collaboration but she still can’t stand to work with me (both laugh).
How do you still have time for each other? How do you fit in time for your business and your relationship?
Sinead: We throw a lot of parties!
Alex: We have occasional date nights as well. We arrange to meet. We’re both very independent, you’re always going to these events but we meet later in the evening, 9 or 10. We see each other a lot with other people, we’ve got quite a social hub. I’ve been running these dinners for seven years, now we’re doing it more than twice a week, it’s crazy, it’s like 50-100 dinners a year. So that 1500 people we’re meeting. When we both turned 40 we threw a big party and that started a slew of parties and weekend away parties. That then brought on a lot of people so we’ve go this incredible hub of very open, dynamic, brilliant, interesting people.
Sinead: We just started watching Game of Thrones, so that’s our couch time (both laugh). Which is terrible but we’re still watching, I don’t know why!
Tell me more about your parties…
Alex: It’s funny everyone thinks that they’re sex parties and last time we got given T-Shirts because I had to write to everyone and say, ‘just so you know this isn’t a sex party’, so this is now a T-Shirt that everyone got saying ‘This is not a sex party’! Everyone gets a bit confused because we’re slightly like everything goes, just do whatever the fuck you want.
Sinead: Increasingly a lot of our friends are DJ’s so wherever we go for a weekend, we’ll go to Corfu or have a party we just have DJs on hand which is brilliant. We love dressing up so we’ll have themes. We had a Valentines one, we had a massive New Years eve party up in Dalston, Moulin Noir, the dark side of Moulin Rouge.
Alex: It’s centred around the music. The great thing about weekend is you can have a great meal and every gets to talk and chat around a table so you can have a sensible conversation, then you have a massive night and dance, then you have breakfast the next day when everyone’s slightly hungover and so everyone is going through this topography where you’re recovering together. It’s the whole of life compressed into a weekend, the ups and the downs.
Sinead: It’s very open, we’re not this sort of weird clique. The more people that come the better, we just love to meet people.
Why East London?
Sinead: We live and work in this area and it’s just so important to us. Before I always lived south of the river, it’s just changed my view of London, it’s just the most dynamic area. We both cycle everywhere so we never get the tube. It’s really amazing, I’ve been here 15 years, it’s given me a new lease of life.
Alex: It was such a revelation that you could live in a place where things are alive, not just a bunch of residential houses where every things quiet. They’re putting up some horrible flats around here but all the hoardings are just covered in art, everywhere is covered in art, it’s like a gallery, it’s incredible.
What’s in the future for your businesses?
Sinead: With Fluency we’re at a stage in the business where we’ve got a really good model, the platforms working really well, we’re really great at engaging users it’s just about getting the growth to a number of people not just in the UK but globally so we’re in 42 countries at the moment but I want to keep expanding that as much as possible, so that’s my goal in the next year.
Alex: Atmos’ growth is slower, we’re in a few countries, it’s hard for us to get to make work happen. People come to us. We’re working on the largest building in the world in a way now, slightly taller than anything else in this speculative proposal for Dubai, but otherwise all of our work is the opposite, it’s really small, often residential some art projects but really bespoke very sculptural, very niche. Most people think it would be kind of minimalist, but our stuff is a bit more Gaudi-ist. Not mass market, lots of wonderful clients who are very deeply emotionally involved. Every plan I’ve ever had for expansion has always been thwarted, but then I’ve always been surprised that I don’t know where the work’s coming from. It’s like a friendship, you don’t have a strategy of having friends, when good things come along you just take that. That’s exactly what it’s like, it’s all based on relationships, who knows who’s going to come into your life.
And for you as a couple?
Alex: One major thing that we’re hoping to do is find a plot and build a house together.
Sinead: The ultimate party house! We’ve planned the sound system.
Alex: How do you prevent your neighbours shutting down the party? It’s a bit of a problem when you live in a block of flats because we don’t want to piss everyone off but unfortunately we have to, sorry! And there are other things like how do you use your space. Usually you only have quite a small space, you have a bedroom and a living room and the bedroom is complete wasted space from your living room when you’re not using, that’s the design issue. I think it’s a core part of having a private home is being able to host not just sleep, to most people it’s a dormitory but I think actually it’s the ability to select people together and congregate them.