After cutting her teeth at Barclays working on multi-million-pound initiatives, Zena El Farra has launched MasterPeace, a gallery and mindful art experience in Belgravia for adults who want to learn to paint and express themselves creatively. A whole new world away from banking, Zena saw a gap in the art market for pay-as-you-go class bookings that mirror how we buy workouts. Building the business alongside her full-time job, she handpicked a team then finally jumped ship. As someone who considered the decision carefully, we were keen to hear her advice for those toying with a side-hustle dream.
Tell me about your background and what led you up to this point?
A month ago I was a banker, now I run MasterPeace. I’ve always loved art and wanted a place where I could book an art class like I would yoga. In other words, a regular weekly drop-in schedule, a pay-as-you-go model and an inspiring setting. Nothing like that existed.
Was there a specific moment you decided to change careers?
Yes, work at the bank was incredibly intense and my mum got stage three cancer. It all culminated in burnout. Then my husband bought me a huge canvas and I started painting again. It filled me with so much serenity. I just wanted to bottle up that feeling and share it with others.
Did you ‘side-hustle’ alongside full-time employment? Tips on balancing both?
Yes, for about six months. I finished at the bank and within two weeks our doors were open and we were trading. So hard, but it’s the best way to keep paying the bills before you take the plunge. But make sure you aren't compromising your day job - take pride in everything you do. Turns out I was more efficient in my day job because I didn't have the luxury of late nights and weekends anymore. Savage discipline and prioritisation really kicks in.
What’s your advice to others considering doing the same?
Ask yourself: is it a good business idea? Then you could you run a pilot event, or a low key way of testing it out, such as a pop-up. Can you take a controlled risk? Structure your start-up like a time-boxed experiment and cap your exposure i.e. consider it a six-month adventure. If you lose every penny of your savings, see that as money well spent. That's where Appear Here is great - you're not tied into a five-year lease so you can dip your toe in. Also define your measures of success: how will you know that you're onto something after three months? Be honest with yourself: if you're not hitting those points, be prepared to leave it behind.
How did you meet your co-founder Georgie? For those looking for a business partner, what should they look for?
I met Georgie through friends even though I wasn't looking for a business partner, it worked. You need someone who is as invested as you are, thinks differently from you, has serious grit and performs well under pressure. Is this someone who will stay with you at 3am mopping up when something goes wrong?
What are the key values of your business? How do you put this into practice?
We're open to all levels. We're playful: art, artists and art galleries can all feel a bit stuffy and elitist but our gallery has been designed to feel like you're exploring an amazing front room. We're open to all backgrounds: whilst we're a "luxe" experience in Belgravia, we want MasterPeace to be accessible to all so we offer ‘Karma Classes’ offered on a donation basis. We give back: our ‘Class for Class’ scheme means that for every adult class we teach, we aim to fund a class in a school. Even our artist robes have our social mission in mind: they're handmade sustainably in Jaipur by women in a female empowerment centre.
Would you recommend Crowdfunding? Why?
Crowdfunding is amazing! It's a great conversation starter and a real boost of confidence. We also got selected to take part in the Natwest Back Her Business Scheme, whereby Natwest pledged a whopping £5,000 towards our Crowdfunder campaign, helping us reach £16k.
Creative work and creative people have historically not been taken seriously when it comes to business. How do you plan to tackle this?
As a society, we devalue creativity and creative people. The one attribute that can't be replicated by any machine is true creativity and our capacity for ethics. It definitely helps that I'm a businesswoman. The marriage of my skillset in business with the creative skills of my team of 20 instructors makes us a force to be reckoned with.
Why did you decide to do a store? What does it mean for your business?
I know there are pop-up art classes available in local bars and pubs. For me, building creativity into a sustainable routine, just like exercise or yoga, relies on a long-term home. It means that we're able to curate the space to cater for guests, from custom paint dispensers to storage solutions.
Where do you see MasterPeace in five years' time?
We hope to have opened a MasterPeace in every UK city with plans to launch internationally! I am inspired by businesses like Psycle and Soul Cycle. I hope our class-for-class scheme, where we co-sponsor a creative class in a local school experiencing financial cutbacks, can have an impact. The best modern brands have built a community from scratch - I want to do the same.