Polly started her business at 16 as an Etsy shop, which has grown and evolved into the innovative giftware brand it is today. I’ve been a huge fan of Polly’s work for years, so it was an absolute dream to chat to her.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a giftware designer currently living in Manchester, I’m 24, and my shop is called Sighh Studio. I went to the University of Leeds to do illustration and I had the plan of keeping my shop going throughout uni. The reason I went to uni was to improve at what I wanted to do, but I still wanted to have the job I’d created for myself when I left.
After graduating I moved in with my boyfriend at the time, who was working in Newcastle. I didn’t necessarily want to live in Newcastle as I had no other ties there, but I didn’t mind it as I didn’t have anywhere else I wanted to be. It was a great city but it wasn’t ideal for me in terms of meetings and stuff. I know I can work from anywhere really, but it’s nicer to be around a more creative community further down South.
When did you decide to move to Manchester and why did you choose Manchester?
When we broke up, I didn’t know where to go, but I’ve got family and friends all over the country. I had two close friends that lived in Manchester and I knew a few people from Instagram in and around the city that I could get to know more.
It’s a really good city for moving through; people do tours here, a lot of people have to come into Manchester for meetings and it’s also a really big food city (and you know I love eating!) so that was also a consideration! I could have gone back to Leeds, but that kind of felt like I was going back to uni.
How did you initially feel after the break up?
In the relationship I felt quite muted. After that I was really scared about going off and doing my own thing, as when you’re in a relationship that makes you feel like that you feel very small.
The reason I didn’t break up with him even though I knew we weren’t right and I knew we weren’t each other’s perfect people is that I thought what would I do without him? I had nowhere else to go. I’ve got a family that I love and everything, but why would I go back to Surrey? It’s so expensive, so I had nowhere specific to go and I felt immobilised.
I was okay, but I was definitely not pushing myself. I wasn’t around creative people or thriving in a way that I wished I could have. And if you don’t do that for long enough then you feel like that isn’t your life. I felt that I was quite a small world person.
When we broke up, I went to therapy specifically because I felt like I used to be this very strong, independent person who was excited about life. Then at university and in that relationship I lost that.
I think people that have been following me on Instagram for a few years have seen me getting that back to that, evolving into myself.
Does being in your own environment help you to thrive?
The reason I create giftware and products is because I really want life to be exciting and endearing. Everything around you can bring joy. I take a lot from my surroundings and I like when others do too.
I went back to see my ex a few months later for a catch up and the place was so minimal and depressing. Everytime I meet a new guy I like to look at their room to see if they have any artwork up, like do they have any personality around? Not everyone is like that, but I really get a lot of stimulation from my environment.
My brand is me, so my home reflects that. It’s like I’m living on set (cringe). It’s obviously good for instagram too, as how easy is it to create content when everything looks good already?
I was initially so scared to leave Newcastle. I ended up going to five sessions of therapy as that was all I needed to change my mindset from “how can I do it” to focusing on building a life I wanted to lead.
I really wanted to be excited about changing my life and she really helped me to think about it in a positive way.
I sometimes can’t believe that it happened, as how scary is it to move to a new city, basically on your own, leaving your boyfriend of so many years? It’s so fucking crazy, such a leap into the unknown.
How has being single and moving to a new city changed your life?
I had the privilege of knowing that how I wanted to be was already part of me, as it was what I used to be before I became insecure and daunted by new things. I had it in me all along, just muted. It was how I was able to start a business in the first place, before uni.
I think anyone can relate to that feeling – as though they lost themselves in a relationship that held them back. I think if you can remember who you were, that really helps you get over it, as you think I was that person and I want that back.
With my therapist I was working out why I felt insecure and we got to the root cause of it and then all the anxieties dissipated; all my social anxiety, negative thoughts and worries about doing things for myself.
I managed to think positively about the move. During the last few months of living with him I ordered my new furniture, pinterested to heck, and thought about my own space in a really fun way.
Then the second I got here I focused on making the living room as nice as possible as that’s where I would bring friends over. I wanted to create an environment where people would want to be with me so I’d be happy to have people over as soon as possible and solidify my social life.
Looking back, were you aware of how much of yourself you lost? And did you ever think you’d be in this position now?
In terms of where I am now, I went to a business retreat by my friend Alice Benham and one of the activities was very “woo woo” and manifest-y. Sophie French was the coach, we all stood in a circle with our eyes closed and she said I want you to think about a normal day a year from now. What would you like your ideal day to look like?
We went through the whole day from getting up to going to bed. And my ideal day looks exactly like everyday does now. I cry everytime I think about it!
It was as simple as, I want to get up in the morning in my own bed, in a lovely room and slowly make a nice breakfast for myself. Then I want to get ready for work and open the door to my assistant (as I didn’t have an assistant at that point) and I want them to work in the same house as me.
I want to do design work as I never had time for design work, and I want the assistant to focus on running the shop. Then I want to have lunch together and chill. It wasn’t like a massive dream, I didn’t want to be an astronaut, but that was what I wanted.
So that was manifesting but in a really practical way, as I went through, step by step, how I wanted my day to be and that kind of made it a reality. I wasn’t thinking about crazy stuff, it was just this is my ideal so maybe if I start making choices with that ideal in mind, it will start coming together…
Did I think I would ever get there? I don’t know, I think when you feel insecure and like you’ve been muted, you think yeah I’d love that so much, but how? That’s there and I’m here or maybe even that’s someone I’ve lost and this is me now kind of thing. But it wasn’t.
How has this also impacted your business?
At the time, I was coasting, everything was fine and I was selling and bringing out products, but I wasn’t making that much money and I wasn’t growing to the scale that I wanted to grow.
It wasn’t thriving or exciting and I wasn’t really innovating the business.
With what I do you can basically be an Etsy shop where you’re a crafter and make stuff that people will look at and think “yeah I’d actually like that as a gift” or “I’ll buy it as a gift further down the line”.
What I want is a brand with an invested customer base and product launches that are exciting.
I don’t know how big I want to be down the line, which is a bit of a problem, but I don’t just want to be an individual crafter, I want to have a brand.
Before University I was like how would I even get stocked in shops? Having my cards in big retailers was a big dream as it was like this is what an illustrator does. But then it happened and it was hilarious. It’s one of those things that is not as great as you think it is. I think I get something like 4p from each sale, but it’s having the cards on shelves that’s cool.
I think being on my own and posting on Instagram Stories more has allowed people to get a lot closer to me. My ex limited my confidence and impacted how much of myself I put out there. Having someone who isn’t interested in hearing about your day makes you really want to not share that.
My business has always been about sharing the BTS and I think that this move has allowed me to be so much more confident in myself again. When people see you show up online as a confident person, being happy and slowly building up your life, it’s so incredibly inspiring.
That’s the beauty of social media, being able to watch people’s journeys. People get genuinely invested. I did a story a while ago where I said I would totally recommend a traumatic life experience once or twice a year as my engagement on Instagram had shot up ridiculously, haha.
How has it been living by yourself during lockdown?
I think it’s been better than people realise. It’s been kind of fine. I felt a bit guilty about it as a lot of people have struggled, regardless of whether you lost your job (which is awful), you might live with people who irritate you or live with a partner you’re breaking up with.
I’m alone, but I’m also a very independent, capable person now so I’m kind of trained for being by myself. I think that if I wasn’t that sort of person I would just move in with my family for a few weeks as I wouldn’t want to do this to myself otherwise.
What’s the one piece of advice would you give to someone who is in a similar situation or a break up? How do they move forward and get back to being themselves?
As I showed the whole journey on Instagram, I get a lot of messages from girls sharing their own situations. It really affects me as it’s real people coming to me with their real issues, looking for someone who will understand. They’re asking how am I going to do this, ever get over this and move on? I was in the exact same position.
When you’re younger (I’m going to speak like an old lady now) everything feels like it’s been leading up to that moment in the present, but as soon as you get away from it you realise it was just a chapter of your life.
I remember breaking up with a guy when I was 18 and I was devastated. I was crying and I remember saying to someone I don’t want him to just be a sentence when I’m talking about my life like “I dated a guy when I was 18”, that’s how I sum it up. “I dated a guy who played polo, he was swiss, he was very exotic and cool.” and that’s my sentence.
It meant so much at the time, but all those emotions and all my past hopes for us are literally just a sentence now. You get over it. Life moves on and you’ve got so much more life to live.
When you are a kid having an argument with your sibling, you feel like your life is fucking falling apart, and well it is, in the grand scheme of your short life thus far. That time is a very large part of it if you look at your life as fractions of a chocolate bar, but as soon as you get past it you’ve got the rest of your life to live. A much bigger chocolate bar of life.
I keep telling people, you just have to wait for time to pass. Now what you should do is busy yourself with self-improving, productive stuff so time passes and then very soon you’ll realise that your emotions feel a lot different. I was busying myself with decorating my house and being excited about all of the stuff around me and hiring someone. I don’t think it was a repression, I think it was really just waiting for time to pass and trying to focus on benefiting my life in the meantime.
I thought I was going to design lots of like quote-y, sad girl stuff, but I literally didn’t, I did one. I didn’t want to dwell on the break up. I wanted to make happy stuff.
How do you feel about dating now or going back to dating after lockdown?
2020 was going to be my year for going on dates. I had a really good month and a half and alas I look back on it fondly, haha.
I started seeing a guy before lockdown for about a month and then lockdown happened and within three weeks I ended it as I needed way more attention than he gave. I’m still moping over it. Probably because I can’t find anyone new as there’s so little motivation for dating apps at the moment as you don’t know if/when you’ll get to meet new people!
It’s so difficult as when I first broke up with my ex I didn’t want to think about dating, I wanted to focus on me as that was the whole point, I didn’t really have a sense of me or know me anymore. But now I really know me and I really want to date someone and I can’t!
This last interaction does make me worry though. There’s a reason I was in a relationship that made me unhappy for so long – I need more time to figure out what I want in a partner, and what’s healthy. How much support/attention should I need? I think lockdown has put that learning curve on hold though, so I’m in limbo!
Looking ahead, where do you hope, say in the next year, to be?
It’s so difficult with lockdown, let’s pretend it’s going to go away in September. I would really like to have another person working with me. Amelia is doing really really well, I just want to keep scaling.
I feel as though my main audience is girls finding themselves and wanting to come into their careers. I really want to have interns. I’ve always wanted to provide an environment for work experience.
Originally I thought I was going to have some kind of conveyor belt of interns helping me with the shop, but then I realised that would be so much work and so much pressure to teach them new stuff each month. Whereas I can rely on my studio assistant, Amelia.
The definition of an intern is they shouldn’t be helping you more than you’re helping them, otherwise you’d be paying them like additional staff and I don’t think I’m there yet. Whereas I can do work experience, I could make worksheets for them as I was pretty good (it was my best subject) at personal professional development. So I could create little worksheets for them to do a recap of working at Sighh that they can take it back to their degree or college course. I’d like to have that.
Also, I’d like to be working on my new big product (that I will not talk about). I’ve had this product in mind for so many years and I have never been able to do it as I need 5-6 months of dedicated design work to be able to do it.
Would you like to mention a charity that is close to your heart?
I’ve always wanted to donate to a selection of charities through the business and currently we only donate to a guide dogs charity. I was captured on the street to sign up, and they do such a good little job. But I’ve always wanted to give a percentage of the revenues to charities closer to the brand and our values, too.
I think I want it to be a mental health charity so Mind is a good one. There’s a new charity that I’ve seen recently called Black Minds Matter and it’s specifically for Black people having access to therapy. Those are the two on my list at the moment.
Does it feel surreal (as this was your dream) to be at the point in your business where you can give to charity, have a full time salary and hire an assistant?
I keep getting worried, as like, I think my plan worked, I think I’m doing okay?! When I started the business when I was 16 I always felt I was a bit mature for my age, looking ahead more than other people seemed to. I was always a bit confused about how people didn’t worry about their future. I had my fun, some fun, don’t get me wrong, but I was so worried that I wouldn’t have a job after uni and I knew that I could create a job for myself, so I made it a priority.
I managed to keep the shop going through university and that helped me eat well and meant I could immediately get a flat as I had a rent deposit, which a lot of people didn’t have, having to move in with their families for a few months to save.
I saved the money I earnt from the shop as a teenager and I called it my ‘Sims starter pack’. I knew I’d need money to help kickstart adult life, so I needed to save it while I could, and then I’ve just been building it up since and dipping into it when I need to do things like move cities and buy a sofa.
I’ve got an employee now and it seems to be working… so naturally yes I’m a bit worried! I’m just kind of rolling with it, but I’m also aware it might not last forever. I’ve got to be sensible, as when you’re a freelancer/self employed you can never really treat your current income as your forever income. Whereas when you work for someone else you hopefully become more qualified and move up.
For me or freelancers, you need to have a buffer. You have to have a plan B. My plan B is that I want to be a counsellor or therapist. (Imagine the worksheets, they’d be gorgeous!)
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