Just a few miles from the financial capital of Europe in the heart of Central London, a community of skilled creatives and thriving independent businesses occupy the Hackney Downs Studios. In this series of conversations with HDS residents we plot the personalities and sharp entrepreneurial minds which are inspiring London to drop what they’re doing and do what they love.
London is a stressful place to carve out a living. If you’ve ever participated in a sweat-soaked summer commute or been jabbed in the eye by a passing umbrella at a bus stop, there’s a high probability you would benefit from some therapeutic self-indulgence.
The Well Garden offers a wealth of classes and expertise engineered to create some peace and harmony in your busy life. The business has grown rapidly over a short period thanks to the passionate ethos of its founder Lily Lawson O’Neil and its various skilled contributors. We sat down with Lily to talk stepping out the spotlight, the importance of community and Reiki healers.
So what is your name and what do you do at the Well Garden?
My name is Lily Lawson O’Neil and I am the Director. It seems like such a fancy title! I started it.
What was your background when you founded the WG?
I was massage therapist. Before that I was a musician for years and years. I trained as a massage therapist as a kind of antidote to being onstage and singing about myself all the time; I felt I needed something that was grounding and was about other people. So I trained as a massage therapist and loved it, and found that I was happier doing that than I was doing other stuff. It was really nice doing something that was a little bit more tangible.
So did you start the business as your own project and eventually it expanded out to what it is now?
Yeah in a way. I I took one room here at Hackney Downs as a personal room to do my therapy from. A therapist friend asked if she could rent it off me when I wasn’t using it and I said yes of course, and then another therapist friend said, ‘oh, you have a really nice room! Can I use it when you’re not using it?’ And suddenly there were four of us. I kind of ended up with having to run a business just to make sure that everyone was here at the right time and really enjoyed it. I found that even though I thought I wasn’t qualified to do anything because I was a musician for all my life, that actually running the practice I realised I had skills I didn’t know I had so I could do things like build websites and make flyers and talk to people.
Did it feel like a more natural career path?
Yeah, definitely. I felt like I’d stepped onto the right path and it wasn’t cluttered, it was just nice and open and easy.
Did you feel like your enjoyed working in therapy more because you had the contrast of the music industry?
Definitely, in the simplicity of it and the fact that I’d met other people – I actually turned out to be much more comfortable with other people, talking about other people and listening to other people and hearing about them talking about themselves than the other way around!
It all sounds quite organic. the WG seems very community based.
Yeah, absolutely. And really quite quickly, the studio next door came up and I’d been thinking about opening a yoga studio as I was trained as a yoga teacher and very much wanted to send my massage clients to a really good yoga studio and be able to talk to the teachers and be able to refer my clients personally to them. So I wanted to create a more tailored service and so I opened the yoga studio. Probably a little bit before I was ready but the room had come up and I didn’t want to lose it so I acted on it quickly. And then a matter of six months later the shop came up here!
So how much bigger is this place than where you started out?
So it started off with one small studio and now we have three treatment studios and the little shop bit and then a big yoga studio. So it has grown massively in the last two years, absolutely massively. But that’s it now, we’re not moving anymore. But I keep saying that! We’re not growing anymore, we’re not taking on anymore studios! But yeah, I think we’re kind of at the optimal size now.
Even a few years ago this whole area was a lot smaller and different. Have you noticed that you’ve been aided by the creative explosion in Hackney?
We’ve been aided by… well the growth of The Russet Cafe is huge, of course that means you’ve got more footfall here, and all the shops are open and they’re all really quite interesting little shops so it breaks people down a bit more, and then also Hackney Downs Studios has grown all the time so more artists are coming in. And you know what’s great for us is it being in a community of creative businesses, it means that everyone is a little bit more flexible so people are coming in during the day, whereas if we were in a more 9 to 5 area then our business would be after hours. We can do treatments and classes during the day as people just pop out of work and come and get seen.
So have you collaborated with anyone within the community of Hackney Downs Studios?
Well, interestingly when I first started I started out without much cash in my pocket, and I was doing swaps with everyone. So I was massaging people who were doing the graphics sign, massaging carpenters, sign painters… so yes in that sense we were doing proper trade swaps, and I built my business upon massaging a whole load of creatives! (laughs) Getting them to do great things to help you build your business which was lovely, a really nice way of doing things. So yeah, we still use people within the community, graphic designers, carpenters.
That’s a great approach to have.
I love that part of the community as well. It’s what it’s all about.
That’s a good thing to hit upon: the trading of services, making the most of what everyone can offer here.
Yeah, absolutely. So you know, its mixing the community. That was one of the graphic designers that I massaged! So it’s a nice way of integrating into the community.
It’s interesting that you started off with just one thing, because it’s such a wide array of things that you offer.
Absolutely. There’s two sides to it really: there’s the yoga studio and there’s Pilates, and mummy baby yoga and pregnancy stuff and all that, and that’s kind of one side of it, and the other side of it is the therapists and we have a wide range of therapists who work for us: Homeopaths, Herbalists, Osteopaths, to Reiki healers.
So do you still massage?
No, I’m on the other side of it now. I actually realised about a year and a half ago that I couldn’t really massage anymore, because my hands were giving up. I’ve got very long skinny fingers there was a lot of pressure going through the joints, and it has meant that I’ve had to stop, unfortunately. I’m not allowed to massage anymore! It’s really sad actually, really sad because I really loved it and it was actually as quiet, and grounding and relaxing for the person giving the massage as it was the person receiving it. So my quietest, most pleasurable part of my day was when I would see clients. So I had to cut down from about twenty clients a week to six, seven, eight clients and then eventually down to five and I just had to stop.
And finally, who else do you work with at the Well Garden?
So I have Kat, who’s the main manager, and she’s been with me for the past few months. And then on reception I have Molly and Natasha, who are both amazing. And then I have Jess, who does all of our social media and marketing stuff. Jeanie who does all our cleaning, she has the right name she is a complete genie! Makes it look beautiful every day. Odie works for us and does all the accounting side of it. And those are the main people, we have 16 or 17 teachers and about 18 therapists with us as well, so there’s lots of people involved.