Designer Showcase: Sarah Courtney
For Sarah Courtney, it all started at the tender age of 10 when she learned to inflate air-filled foils. Her parents owned a party business, and she often found herself working alongside them to earn spending money. She didn’t know then, but her future was quite literally about to blow up!
Sarah continued to learn the balloon business, and in 2013, she opened a party store. However, she quickly realized her passion was in balloon decorating, not retailing. Sarah closed one door and opened another. Her decor business, Belle Balloons, has experienced rapid growth since its start. It now occupies warehouse space in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, and employs a staff of four full-time and four part-time team members. According to Sarah, 85% of the company’s business is with event planners, advertising & experiential agencies, stylists or direct with corporate brands and venues. These events can include everything from product launches & shopping center openings to Bat Mitzvahs & weddings. For Sarah, the bigger the project, the better! In mastering large projects, she has developed her own organic and trademark style. “I drew on my love for art and pushed myself to create new looks and more abstract ways of using balloons, resulting in the organics we do.”
A Focus on Perfection
Today, Belle Balloons offers only organic balloon decor aside from freestanding and hanging oversized balloons. “I think our success is greatly to do with the fact that we have focused and perfected one thing and instead of trying to be everything to everyone, we do what we do well.”
Sarah finds inspiration from varying places. She looks to artists, buildings and architecture, and nature. In doing so, she uncovers not only new designs and shapes but color combinations. And this exploration of new vision is paying off! "As we do a lot of corporate work, the colours schemes vary hugely. However, 70% of our work is custom colours as we try to push the boundaries with our colour combos even when working within corporate colour guidelines. The introduction of Qualatex Chrome® Balloons has also been a game-changer in terms of colour combinations.”
Artistry is essential, but knowing your brand and customer is just as critical, according to Sarah. “Whilst you need to be good at what you do and have a good understanding of the elements of art – line, shape, space, value, form, texture, and colour, you cannot be successful in any business without creating a good brand, understanding your bottom line, and planning for future growth.“
In the early years of her decor business, Sarah noticed the growing influx of DIY and at-home decorators and knew she could not compete with their low overhead. It was then she turned the company focus to both corporate and B2B clients. All her marketing messages now target that client base.
For Belle Balloons, the most successful form of promotion has been social media, in particular, Instagram. “I grew the entire Belle Balloons business off the back of an Instagram account. I started it as a side business to my party retail store, recognising that Funtastic Parties (my shop) was probably not the right brand to be targeting weddings/corporate events, etc. It wasn't until about a year of extremely fast growth that I saw the need to establish a proper business for Belle Balloons and in turn, ended up closing the shop." Today, most new customers find Belle Balloons through Google and its corporate website.
Building Networks and Friendships
Additionally, Sarah credits her success to education and an excellent mentor. “Attend as much training as possible – the friendships and networks you will build will help you beyond even what you get from the training days themselves. I wouldn’t be where we are today without my good friends in the industry. Tina Guinta of Shivoo Balloons has taught me the most along the way. She showed me how to tie my first balloon and make my first topiary tree, and I have been to many of her classes. She is a fantastic teacher!” Sarah also admires and follows the style of work by Fondazione Geronimo, of Milan, Italy. “She turns balloons into art pieces, which has been a common goal of mine.”
Sarah is also a proponent of education. “A strong industry with a high standard of work is good for all of our businesses. Whilst some may argue it means more competition, I believe that if there is good work being done across the board, this will make using balloons at events appealing to a larger market and in turn, there will be more work going around.” She has attended training conducted by BASA Victoria, classes held as part of the Qualatex QTour, multiple OzJam Conventions, and two World Balloon Conventions. Sarah has also taught numerous courses and is looking forward to teaching at OzJam 2020.
While continuing to learn and share, Sarah, persists in pushing the envelope of design and scale. Her dream job is, of course, something epic and large scale. "My dream balloon job would be a big colorful installation down the side of a high-rise building or to cover the entirety of a ceiling of one of Australia's exhibition centers." Keep looking up everyone; you might see Sarah's work coming to a sky near you!