Embracing the Indonesian Economy’s Creative Calling
As Indonesia’s economy expands, it is developing in unique ways; cultivating certain strengths and flairs that are all its own. The creative industries in particular have accelerated, fed by Indonesia’s own culture and a more accessible capital market.
One of the main players in the creative industries here is Leonard Theosabrata. The entrepreneur founded Brightspot Market (“a curated market of all things cool”), the offshoot The Goods Dept., furniture brand Accupunto and alternative media Whiteboard Journal.
Leonard sat down with the Jakarta Globe to share his thoughts on and experiences working in Indonesia’s growing creative economy.
Could you explain what the creative industry means to Indonesia?
I think due to the economic growth in Indonesia, which is around 6.5 percent, we are experiencing an influx of interest from all over the world. Everybody is looking at Indonesia in terms of the potential we can grab from the conditions right now. I think it is a very positive thing, especially for the creative industry.
Indonesia is full of very talented people, and although the contribution of the creative industry within the whole economy isn’t significant yet, it is one of the sectors that the government is starting to realize and expand due to the big potential it can contribute to the whole economy. I think that is why we have a ministry now [the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy]. As one of the players in this industry, I do believe the ministry will help propel the industry far beyond what we had before. I have been around for 10 years now and over the years I’ve seen a lot of improvement in terms of the amount of people involved and the growth of the businesses that are considered “creative” businesses.
How did you enter the industry?
My background is in product design and I work as a designer, but at the end of the day you could say that I am a creative entrepreneur — honestly you can’t really make a living by just being a designer now. You have to be a little bit more creative in terms of just basically expanding your capacity. I started out as a product designer and furniture designer, until I built Accupunto. Since having my own brand, I started to become more business-minded, which led me into making different businesses of my own. Then I started to go into interior design, commercial interior and so on.
My highlight as a designer was when I started to design beyond my own businesses for big clients such as Toto — that could be considered a once in a lifetime opportunity for a designer in Indonesia. Because in Indonesia, aside from working for a personal company there aren’t many large companies that are willing to invest in design. If I stayed in Italy or America for instance, I would have had a better chance to work with bigger clients. So I thought that instead of spending my time working for other companies, why couldn’t I just spend my energy to be the principle to my own business growth? So one day I could get to be the big client, so I could give projects to young, good, talented people.
Now you work across many fields such as interior design, fashion, culinary, a bit of music and media as well. How significant are the relationships among them?
Although it happened by chance, what I feel from my experience, diving into one discipline after another, from product design suddenly into retail fashion, for example, I try to manifest my knowledge from my old businesses into my new ones and vice versa. Different businesses gave me different insights on how to improve all of them all together, so they really help each other out creating a good blend of many different things.
If you pay close attention to the Brightspot Market or The Goods Dept., they are totally different animals compared to the furniture industry. But if you go to a certain fair, you can feel a great energy produced by the mix of different industries, the same sensation you get in Brightspot Market, for example.
Another thing we need to realize is the power of consumerism. That is why Brightspot Market, in my opinion, is highly anticipated, roughly speaking, because the Indonesian market is strongly fueled by consumerism. Sixty percent of our GDP is from consumerism.
Past thinking had a negative take on creative jobs — for instance, our parents used to say ‘Don’t be a painter, be a doctor instead.’ Looking at the success of the creative industry now, do you think that has changed?
I think I can’t say that for Indonesia yet because sometimes it is very tough for a career to be just a designer, or an artist — but of course some successful ones are exceptions. In general, what we need is a balance between the logical side of the industry with the talent that supplies it. Without the logical side, the talent doesn’t have anything to supply. That is why now the government plays a key role in the current situation, because they are the ones who supply the logical side to the talent of the industry.
We also have to understand that the generation that created the economy is in their 50s, and they are the decision makers, so their sons or daughters who are working in the creative industry are not in the position to make the ultimate decision. I think Indonesia still needs another 10 years before we can see a more forward-thinking industry.
Let’s talk about one of your businesses. The Goods Dept. seems like it is the ‘edgy place’ for Jakarta youth nowadays. What makes that possible?
Well, honestly we asked that question internally as well. We put a checklist and asked, “What makes us work?” I think that the good thing about my partners and me is that we are students of the game. We are constantly learning about the processes, trends and the new things that are happening around us. We never assume that we know everything; in fact we always assume that we don’t know anything. Therefore, we become hungry for knowledge, striving to be better.
What I think makes us work is that we have the ability to relate with the market. To put it simply, we try to understand the market better than our competitors by being a part of the market. But most importantly for us, it is not about the money, but more about making a breakthrough and giving qualified originality.
Here’s a rather interesting question about the market: ‘Hipsters’ — what do you think about them? And how would you judge whether a person is trying too hard to be trendy?
I think there is a very fine line. In every trend development, there are many layers: first comes the trendsetters or first adopters, then comes the second adopters and so on. I guess “hipsters” are the first adopters. They immediately realize what to look at or pay attention to — they have a great understanding about what is going on.
But I guess if you consider yourself a hipster, you are automatically not. A real one would just do their own thing, having their own mind-set for recognizing the first wave and taking advantage of the first wave.
Do you think the Indonesian mass market is open-minded in terms of taste and interest in the creative industry?
I think there is a step-by-step progression. I feel there was a generational gap when I first entered the industry around 10 years ago. Back then there was a limitation within that generation; people couldn’t appreciate these new things due to that gap.
But around two years after that, when my younger peers started graduating, there was an influx of new talent on a large scale contributing to the industry. All of the Indonesians that studied abroad started to realize that there was an industry that needed their support. Since then a lot of new things started happening and new trends started to grow. The more action and work we put into the industry, the more people we attract to partake in the industry. That is why we can’t just sit still and wait for things to happen, we have to make it happen.