Do you know about Springwise? It’s a great website that scans the world for cool business ideas and it’s how I found out about tropicalhowie. The company’s unique, limited-edition laptop covers were featured recently and I was excited to discover that they were designed and sold right here in Melbourne.

Well, of course I had to track them down the result is today’s HOT Chat with Chris Howatson (he’s the one partying on the left!), the brains behind tropicalhowie.

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Chris, tell me a bit more about your background and how tropicalhowie came about?

Hi Joyce, thanks for the chat. My background; I grew up in Brisbane and moved to Melbourne at the end of 2006 for work and to explore a different Australian city. Three years later I’m loving Melbourne and everything it offers.

During the day, night and too many weekends, I work in advertising at Clemenger BBDO/Proximity. It’s a job I’m delighted to do every day. I don’t work in the creative department, rather I’m a ‘suit’, but every aspect of the job is creative. Our every effort is focused on influencing and changing people’s behaviours and to do that well requires a creative solution. And similar to how I imagine architects feel, it’s a delight to come across your work in the course of your everyday life – online, on TV etc. Such visibility also motivates you to constantly do your best work – there’s nothing worse that seeing something you’ve been involved in that’s rubbish.

When I’m not doing any of the above, I spend my time on tropicalhowie. It’s my own personal creative outlet and an opportunity to execute idyllic business strategy being 100% accountable for success or failure. The initial idea for the laptop sleeve business came when I was on holidays a few years ago. I knew the business model I wanted to execute, I just needed to find an unmet need. I was packing up my Mac, sliding it inside a black laptop sleeve and thought, “That’s it. Why hasn’t anyone done this better?”. Macs, and the creative class that use them, are defined by aesthetic and the black sleeve hid all of that. With that idea, everything else grew from there.

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What’s so special about tropicalhowie‘s laptop sleeves?

Since starting the business I’ve seen more and more amazing covers for laptop sleeves, so there’s plenty of choice out there. What I think is special about tropicalhowie sleeves, and the feedback I’ve had from customers, is a combination of a few things.

Firstly, the designs. All other selling points aside, people have to feel confident enough to carry them around. They’re all very energetic, which is a reflection of my own personality. The designs are originals. Some designs are photography lead. Others offer texture (the current example of this is a terry towelling fabric fused to the neoprene emulating the classic beach shorts and hat), where as others are more vogue style prints.

Ensuring the designs are scarce is also important. Each design is limited to 750 units, which once sold to customers around the world, means you’re unlikely to run into someone on the tram with the same sleeve.

And finally, inside each sleeve is printed a short story that offers context to the experiences behind each design. These stories are all real in that they are experiences from my own life or the writers who write for tropicalhowie. We actually design from the story rather than match the story to the design. We don’t overly promote the story as we like it to be a surprise to people when they buy the sleeve.

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Who designs the skins and where are they manufactured?

I designed every sleeve here in Melbourne. This is the part of the job I enjoy most and I have the next two limited edition ranges (12 designs) sampled and ready for production when the time is right, hopefully later in 2010.

The sleeves themselves are manufactured in China. This process itself was an excellent learning experience. When I was initially sampling the product from different companies my emphasis was always on quality but their default was low cost and therefore low quality. I want my sleeves to outlast my customers’ computers and therefore I worked really closely with the manufacturers to use the best printers, neoprene, zippers and stitching. And I’m really pleased with the final product – the quality of the sleeves is often the first thing people say when it’s in their hands.

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Why do you think people feel it’s important to decorate their computers?

My belief is that our computers are the vaults of our personal expression. They store our music, photography, writing and designs. For me, this was the insight from which my whole business is based – that if inside the computer is full of self expression, why shouldn’t the outside be too?

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You started out as purely online store – why did you expand to bricks-and-mortar sales?

I started out as a pure online retailer but quickly discovered my product has three buying moments: people seeking laptop sleeves; an impulse purchase often as a gift; and as part of a computer purchase.

Those seeking laptop sleeves come though the website.  To cater for the other buying moments, I now sell through a deliberately small collection of retailers to maintain the brand’s exclusivity and to target these moments. You can find tropicalhowie at Design A Space (a great supporter of Melbourne designers), Australia’s first Lonely Planet store (at Sydney International Airport), Mac1, EnRoute, SoundStream and a design store in both New York and Berlin.

On a different note, what things or places would you consider HOT in  Melbourne?

Melbourne’s a fantastic place when it comes to living life well. A few of my favourite things include:

  • Watching foreign films at Palace Como.
  • Eating Asian cuisine – as often as I can. My two favourites at the moment are Coda which serves French Vietnamese fusion (141 Flinders Lane Melbourne +61 3 9650 3155) and Ichi Ni (12 The Esplanade, St Kilda +61 3 9534 1212).
  • Running through the beautiful parklands – Fawkner Park, The Tan and Albert Park.
  • And looking forward to the new football stadium AAMI Park opening so we can get more Rugby Union games in Melbourne!

Thanks to tropicalhowie I’m now the proud owner of the 17″ Taxi sleeve – and I can attest to the manufacturing quality, from the neoprene to the stitching and the hardy zips. The vintage wallpaper-esque pattern and short story on the inside of the sleeve is a special, eye-catching touch. The 15″ Taxi sleeve is now sold out, but the other sizes (13″ and 17″) are still available.

For more chats with interesting Melburnians, click here.