What I’ve learnt: Blue Forest’s Simon Payne
Building bespoke tree houses is not everyone’s first thought when they decide to start a business. However, for Simon Payne and his brother Andy, after a childhood spent surrounded by scenic landscapes in Kenya, it was simply in keeping with what they knew. Blue Forest is a multi-award winning tree house design and construction company, inspired by Aomori, a region of pine forest trees in Japan with a blue appearance. These tree houses defy anything you could have dreamt of as a child. Blue Forest have created structures for everyone from the NHS to Alton Towers to Madonna. We caught up with Simon, the company’s Director, to reflect on his career and business to date.
Where did the idea for Blue Forest come from?
The idea for the company came from our childhood in Kenya. As you can see from Blue Forest’s portfolio many of our designs resemble the beautiful, organic Safari Lodges that can be found across Africa. In particular, Andy grew up with an interest in construction and was nicknamed ‘Fundi’ as a child, which means ‘craftsman’ or ‘skilled fixer’ in Swahili. We’ve both always enjoyed the outdoor life and I guess building tree houses is the perfect way to avoid growing up and to carry on ‘playing’ for a living!
How did you get started?
One of the key points in the formation of the business happened in early 2003. Andy and I went to visit a friend that runs a conservation project called The Arabuko Sokoke Schools and Eco-tourism Scheme (ASSETS) – they’d just received a grant to build a tree platform and a suspended canopy walkway through the Mida Creek Mangroves. We volunteered to build these eco-tourism features, which tourists pay a few dollars to visit, with the money going to help provide scholarships for secondary school students.
On returning to the UK Andy had several very interesting conversations with individuals who had seen pictures of the tree platform and walkway in Kenya and he realised that there could be a business in building equally unusual structures in the UK.
Did you have any support?
The business was built organically with no financial support. In the beginning Andy, worked ‘on the tools’ and enjoyed the chance to use his hands on a daily basis and to be creative. I started working with him in 2004 on an informal basis, helping out on site and in the office as he was getting too busy to do both. It was never meant to be a permanent thing as we thought we might kill each other! As it turned out, we got all our fighting out the way as younger kids and actually very much enjoy working together, so we made it more permanent partnership after a year, and here we are over a decade later.
How did you build up your client base?
Like many businesses, the client base grew slowly at first and mainly by word of mouth. Gradually over time the tree houses became bigger and more complex and inevitably more expensive to build. There was also a trend towards the tree houses being built with the adults (big kids) in mind. To date, we’ve completed a wide variety of tree houses, including everything from Aga ovens and hot tubs, home cinemas to offices, few with secret tunnels and a separate door for fairies.
The global financial crisis of late 2008 presented the company with a challenging period, so we made a strategic decision to focus on ‘high-end’ private and commercial contracts.
What have been some of your favourite creations/career highlights?
We’re fortunate and privileged to work for some very interesting individuals and include people such as Madonna, Eric Clapton, J K Rowling and Ed Sheeran amongst our clients – we love challenging ourselves and as a result the latest project is frequently the most exciting. Often, it’s the overseas projects that stick in your mind, whether it is the Tonogle Wilderness Lodge in Malawi or a visit to the jungles of Borneo.
Some of our recent projects include one of our largest ever private tree house schemes – a 200m squared double story tree house, designed to reflect the Georgian architecture of the client’s home. It’s been built to have a 75 year design life, and its top features a leaded dome roof with over 1500 lights – appearing like a starry night sky. We’ve also recently completed the construction of five Enchanted Village Tree Houses for the new Enchanted Village Resort at Alton Towers Theme Park
What tech or online tools have you found helpful in building your business?
We are all a sucker for a good gadget in the office and have probably experimented with just about everything we can get our hands on!
About 10 years ago we discovered Leica’s professional laser distance meters – these have saved many, many hours collectively undertaking site surveys over the years.
We also love the motrr Galileo for taking 360 degree views of tree houses. Galileo is an app-driven, motorized mount that lets you control the orientation of your iPhone or GoPro. It can be directly programmed to follow specific motion paths, or controlled remotely from most handheld devices from anywhere in the world!
Most recently we have discovered the possibilities open to us through the use of laser scanning equipment. This equipment can provide us with a ‘mm perfect’ 3D scan/model of a client’s tree – meaning we can design and engineer their tree house with even more precision
The next gadget we are lusting after is a professional drone, for taking video footage of our latest tree houses (not just because it’s cool!)
As a business we also use a number of online tools to help in the day-to-day running of things: Mailchimp for email marketing; Pipedrive for managing our sales process; and Addthis to track our social impact and improve our website.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
We face many of the problems that other businesses face: resourcing, logistics, staffing and more. Having said this, there are some unique issues that we face as a tree house company.
Firstly, having been established for 10 years, we have now built hundreds of tree houses and face a continual challenge to come up with new, imaginative ideas. In order to do this we have invested in our design team and in researching new and emerging design ideas and construction techniques.
Similarly to many architects and construction firms we are a project based business. Our client base is predominantly high-net worth and as a result we tend to deal with relatively few high value projects each year (on average 20-30 construction projects per year). With this in mind, each individual project can have a large impact on our income and resourcing. Outside factors such as planning permission can make it difficult to forecast our construction schedule accurately.
If you could talk to your younger self, at the start of your journey, what advice would you give?
Think bigger, make the most of every opportunity, always be positive and enjoy every moment.
What hopes do you have for the future of your business?
Over the next five years we intend to become (not just the UK’s but) the world’s leading tree house Design and Construction specialists. As a key element of this plan we are pioneering a new approach within the leisure and public services sector as well as developing bespoke sustainable accommodation solutions for the hotel and leisure industry.
We’re hoping to develop a range of prefabricated play structures that can be retailed both in the UK and abroad, but importantly, we’ll continue to challenge our creative design team to ‘let their imaginations run wild’ and to push the boundaries of tree house design coming up with even more elaborate ideas to make the world a little more adventurous!