AWNY Startup Stories: Leah Bannister from L.J. Bannister (Flower dealers)

Growing up surrounded by the natural beauty of Australia in her grandparents’ gardens, it was inevitable that Leah’s love of flowers would one day translate into her own business. L.J. Bannister (Flower dealers) brings the gift of beautiful, bespoke bouquets to clients all across Manhattan, featuring a unique Australian touch combined with locally-sourced seasonal blooms. Read on for the story of Leah’s success and an exclusive discount code for AWNY readers.

Tell us about your business and what inspired you to begin.
We make and deliver beautiful, bespoke bouquets throughout Manhattan, NYC —lush, considered combinations of color and texture that have a loose and natural Australian feel to them, even though we’re working with New York blooms. We also offer services including events, weddings and regular client accounts.
I’ve always had a love for flowers. Both sets of grandparents had verdant gardens, and I have fond memories of one nan digging around in flower beds, and the other tending to an enormous magnolia tree. I studied floristry in Australia, and have worked with flowers since 2011, in a number of Sydney-based florists, and later, consulting on my own. After moving here, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to start a New York-based business.

A bouquet from L.J. Bannister

What has been your ‘Ah Ha’/ ‘I’ve made it in the USA moment’?

It sounds like such a small thing, but the first repeat customer I received was exciting. The city holds so much opportunity—though, of course, it can be intimidating at times—so just launching the business felt like an achievement.

What have been the hardest lessons in starting a business?
Perseverance and sticking to your guns.
Where have you been most successful in marketing your business?

We’ve been quite discreet so far—we’re growing through social media and word of mouth. Flowers are such a personal thing so when someone receives something that speaks to them, they’re more likely to then order themselves.

Do you have any mentors, and how have people been with sharing information and their networks?
I’ve been lucky to spend time working with great florists in New York who I’ve learnt a lot from. I don’t have a mentor per se, but my husband is always a great sounding board—he’s a creative director with a good eye for detail, so I’ll often bounce ideas off him.

Leah arranging a bouquet for L.J. Bannister

What advice would you give someone thinking about starting a business? 

If you’re passionate enough, get started, stick with it and don’t give up. Surround yourself with other creative people who’ll be critical, honest and supportive.

Other than yourself, what piece of Australia have you put into your business? 

We are really spoilt in Sydney with the variety and quality of flowers available. That’s been a good building block to develop my aesthetic. I’ll hunt out one marvelous flower—it’s usually a field rose—and build around it with interesting textural elements. I’ll then add something that you’d not quite expect, like a too-tall, grape-colored anthurium, or I’ll tie a cluster of pomegranates to the outside. Then it’s always grey paper, and thick ribbon in a rich electric blue. They’re both signatures of the business.

What is next for your business?
More of the same. We’re happy growing our clientele and building relationships in New York. At the moment we send flowers all over Manhattan—I’d love to add another borough or two to the list.

An L.J. Bannister bouquet

Support & connect with L.J. Bannister

Visit and use code AWNY for 20% off all orders until 31 January 2018.

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AWNY Startup Stories: Artist Fiona Maclean

Fiona Maclean has an impressive list of accomplishments as an artist, illustrator, and makeup artist for film/TV.  She shares the experiences that led to her becoming a visual artist—and, in the process, venturing from New Zealand to Australia and now New York City.

What brought you from Australia to New York?

I’m originally from New Zealand, but lived in Australia for many years and became an Aussie citizen 7 years ago. Bondi Beach was my home for many years. I met my partner in Sydney and we moved to NYC in 2005 when I won a place at Parsons School of Art doing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting. My studies were cut short when my partner was diagnosed with advanced cancer and we moved back to Australia. He passed away, and I took over running his online marketing and advertising business for a number of years, putting my artistic career on hold. I closed the business a couple of years ago so as to reinvent and pursue my artistic career again.

It wasn’t until last year that I decided I wanted to return to the US. I secured the O1 visa for my artistic abilities and talents and am in the process of relocating to NYC in early 2018.

Tell us about these businesses and what inspired you to begin.

I had always wanted to get into the creative fields and had a real passion for fashion illustration, costume illustration, and makeup, as well as my first love of painting, portraits, and the human form.

I studied art and graphic art/design briefly in New Zealand and then moved to Sydney to complete a makeup artist course for Film/TV/Special Effects. At the same time as starting out as a freelance makeup artist, I was also pursuing my illustration career, working mainly regular freelance jobs in editorial, mostly fashion and beauty illustrations for Sydney magazines such as Elle, Cosmopolitan, Cleo, and Dolly, as well as work for corporate clients like Air New Zealand. 

I love fashion and wanted to use my illustrations as a way to get into the industry. While doing that, I was working as a makeup artist on feature films and in TV, such as Moulin Rouge, Mission Impossible and the Matrix trilogy.


What have been the hardest lessons in starting a business?

The sometimes inconsistency and the fact that the only one I can rely on is me to do the work, the networking, the ‘go sees’, etc.

Where have you been most successful in marketing your business?

Through social media mostly, particularly Instagram and Facebook. They are great platforms for visuals and expose a range of people to artists who may have limited marketing budgets.  I have been commissioned to paint portraits and paintings through people following me on Instagram and Facebook.

For the past two years, I have donated my art to the Breast Cancer Awareness Lunch fundraiser held by Riley Street Garage in Sydney. It’s a great way to get my art seen and contribute to a wonderful cause.

What advice would you give someone thinking about starting a business?

You need to be disciplined and persevere. You also need some sort of ‘job’ or freelance-type job to fall back on if need be so you don’t end up putting so much pressure on starting out in a new career or business and in getting things up and running.

Other than yourself, what piece of Australia have you put into your business?

I bring to my artwork, my paintings and illustrations the kind of youth culture and freshness that is sometimes associated with Australia. I’ve painted quite a few paintings with Bondi Beach as the backdrop or the cafe culture that Australia is known for.

Tell us about your workspace.

I’m currently floating between countries so I don’t have a permanent studio, which has been a bit frustrating. Whilst living in Australia, I’ve had a home studio, and when visiting NYC, an artist friend gave me use of her studio in Brooklyn, which was such a luxury.

Fiona Profile pic 2

Credit: Keri Megelus

What are some of your biggest accolades in your art, illustration and makeup career to date?

I was chosen as an artist to watch among a strong emerging talent of artists in the ‘One to Watch’ series released by Saatchi. Winning a place at the prestigious Parsons School of Art (The New School). Being featured in fashion illustration books, such as Imagemakers: Cutting Edge Fashion Illustration. And working as a makeup artist on big feature films.

What is next for your business?

I’m hoping for an opportunity to work on upcoming feature films doing the costume illustrations, as well as getting makeup work on feature films/TV/commercials.

I’m also hoping to exhibit in both Australia and New York. I have a couple of commercial-type pieces that I want to start working on, which will be combining my painting with photography and mixed media.

My main focus this coming year is developing and cultivating my talents and skill set, so when one is a bit ‘slow’ I can gain work from one of the other skills I have as a freelancer.

Where can people view your artwork?

I have online portfolios of my artwork, illustrations and makeup work which can be found at the links below. I also sell through online gallery Saatchi I am available for commissions of paintings, illustration and freelance work doing Makeup, Illustration and Art. (Fine art, illustration & film/TV makeup)  (Illustration)


Facebook Artist Page




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Startup Stories: Tamara Hansson

Tamara Hansson moved to NYC to complete a program in musical theatre and decided to stay. Her next show is on December 3rd at Foot Gear NYC – 435 125th Street. Read on to hear about how she has developed her brand as a singer/songwriter in the Big Apple.

Tell us about you and your business in the music industry? Please provide some background about when you moved to the USA and your career trajectory.
I moved to the states in June 2011 – 6 years now, I still can’t believe it’s been that long! I’ve always worked in music, as a singer, composer, voice coach, and various roles in the music industry. When I left Australia in 2010 to go to the UK, I was saying goodbye to over 60 voice students in Brisbane between 3 schools, and I just wanted to pursue something for myself for a change. Teaching people is humbling and you’re giving a lot of yourself to that kind of work. I needed to step back and work out what I actually wanted.

Originally I moved to New York to take on a course I’d received a scholarship for – musical theatre. It was a real time of growth and development, and completely out of my comfort zone. I did a year solid of training in Musical Theatre and decided to stay in New York and pursue a career as a singer/songwriter. A lot of time earlier on in NYC was spent perfecting my craft and writing loads of songs, playing small shows and building a following, all while working jobs to stay afloat. Over the last few years, I’ve built more of a fan base, and in spring, completed a 40-date tour of the USA. Next year I’ll be releasing an EP, and doing an Australian tour, another US tour, and looking to expand out to the UK – I played a show in London over the summer – and to Europe.

What has been your ‘Ah Ha’ / ‘I’ve made it in the USA moment’
I love this question, and I guess every time you level up personally or professionally you have that moment.

I think back to some of my first performances in New York – actually my very first performance, I was asked to sing at a showcase with another Australian girl from Queensland. We had a blast, our names were in the program and I was so chuffed with myself. I was really proud at that point. I thought to myself, “Even if I go back to Australia, I can say I’m international now”. Haha, what a dag!

What have been the hardest lessons in starting a business?
I’m a very driven person, and when things don’t happen immediately, it’s hard to stay focused. You really have to be dogged, and persistent, and keep trying/throwing stuff at a wall until something sticks.

Where have you been most successful in marketing your business?
Social media has been a huge tool for me to connect directly with fans of my music, and for them to find me too. I never really had strengths in PR or marketing when I first started out, and have now got a small team who can handle things like that – but when I’m out on the road, fans usually connect with me on Instagram, or Twitter, and keep in touch regularly with whatever is going on. I was able to campaign to be a verified artist on Spotify via social media, we gave out merch prize packs on the road for people who signed up to the mailing list, all of it was done via social media. We tell tour stories while we’re on the road and fans can connect with that.

They also use it to tag me in photos of them wearing the merch, or fan art they’ve drawn, so it’s really nice to be able to connect directly with those people.


Do you have any mentors, and how have people been with sharing information and their networks?
Yeah, for sure, it takes a village, no one does it on their own. I have a business coach, as well as several others who I’ve met via gigs, or events, or through friends in the music industry. There are a few of them but they might not know they’ve become a mentor figure for me. Relationships are everything. I value them very much and am so appreciative of those who’ve welcomed me in, and shared their stories. I’ve learnt so much from listening to others who’ve come before me, it’s so great to have that, and have those deeper relationships.

What advice would you give someone thinking about starting a business in NYC?
Ask for help, listen to everyone around you and be humble. There’s no tall-poppy squashing here so dream big – go hard or go home. This city is not for the feint hearted.

Any advice for people moving to NYC?
I could write a book on my experiences, and I probably will one day. I moved here during my 20s and it was a real time of growth and discovery for me. Being out of Australian culture, leaving a job and an industry I had been in since I was a kid was hard. You have to start again, but I didn’t really realize that until maybe 6 months into being here. Surprise! Being able to find myself in a city where you’re a nobody is incredibly humbling and gratifying. I was able to really reflect after leaving Australia, take stock of my personal life and what I wanted to create for myself here in NYC.

As a music professional working in NYC what are the differences to working in Australia?
There is so much more opportunity for work in New York, and musicians are really valued. Also, you can build a business here due to the sheer density – if you have something people want, it’s easy to package it up.

You’ve just returned from a tour, what are the pros and cons of touring in the US?
Pros – there are waaaay more cities to play, even the smallest towns can have a banging music scene and you can really connect and build a fan base that is all over. It’s also a bit of a novelty for American people to meet Australians. Not going to lie, this worked in my favor for sure! Haha!

Cons – You’re in another country, and you have to drive a big fat beautiful astro van on the other side of the road – that basically sums it up! Hahaha!

Other than yourself, what piece of Australia have you put into your business?
I think Australian people in general do really well in business here because of our outlook and because we’re pretty easy going, approachable, and relaxed. That’s something that I’ve carried with me. Especially being on the road as so many things can go wrong and if you don’t have a flexible attitude, it can make life really hard. So staying light and taking each thing as it comes is always sage advice, especially living overseas.

What is next for your business?
I’m currently writing and demo-ing my next 6 track EP called “33” to be released next year on Feb 17th in New York (Save the date!!). I’ll be following it up with an Australian tour in April, and a US tour through May/June.

Here’s the video for my song ‘Your Bones’.

Do you have an offer or promo code you would like to share with AWNY members?
I have a current sale on merch at and you can use the code INSTATAM to get 25% off hoodies, tshirts, tote bags etc.

What are the best way for AWNY members to get in touch or communicate with you? (eg, email, website, social media links)
I’m always tweeting @TamaraHansson and ‘gramming @TamaraHansson


And like my page on facebook:



Enjoying the sweet life with Van Leeuwen Ice Cream; AWNY Startup Stories interviews Laura O’Neill

Life is full of twists and turns, and while visiting her brother in London in 2006 Laura O’Neill fell for an American living in London. She followed her heart and made the transatlantic hop from Melbourne to New York. When the romantic relationship faltered, it gave way to an even stronger friendship and business relationship.

Read on to discover more about the string of successful ice cream trucks and NYC/L.A. ice cream shops that are the very hip and very delicious Van Leeuwen brand.

What brought you to the USA?

I met my business partner (then boyfriend) Ben in London in 2006, I was ready for a change so jumped at the opportunity when he suggested I move to NYC and start a ice cream truck business with him and his brother, Pete.

Tell us more about how you met and why are you are in business together?

Ben and Pete had driven ice cream trucks as summer job in Connecticut during college, then right before graduation Ben was in Manhattan and found himself in front of a Mr Softee truck thinking “why doesn’t anyone sell great ice cream off trucks?” That was the ah-ha moment and the birth of the idea.

How was the new business born? 

After enlisting Pete and myself, the three of us started experimenting with making ice cream in our shared Brooklyn apartment.

We were making amazing ice cream using simply milk, cream, cane sugar and egg yolks, but when we looked to find a simple product to buy and sell off the trucks, nothing met our standards of purity. We knew we had to find a way to make our own recipes on a large scale. All the ice cream we found were full of stabilizers, fillers and gums and no one was using exceptional chocolates, fruits nuts etc. Simultaneously as we were experimenting with ice cream making, we found an old 1988 Chevrolet Step Van and retrofitted in to our first pretty yellow ice cream truck.

Was there capital investment when you started up?

We wrote a business plan and raised $60K to get started (very little for a food business!) We managed to pull together the funds from small investments from friends and family and a line of credit. We’ve grown without further investment until this day, with the help of some debt and a small business grant we won in 2012. We currently have 8 stores and 6 trucks across NYC and L.A. and sell our pints of ice cream through around 250 wholesale accounts, with big plans to expand in the next 12 months.

Starting up can be notoriously difficult – what motivates you to keep going?

I won’t lie, there have been some really tough days; time management goes out the window, you’re being pulled in all directions. One particular day there was a literal meltdown of a ton of our ice cream! That was stressful for sure, but with each challenge you realize how resilient and resourceful you can be difficult times and how you deal with these moments, define you as an entrepreneur.

How do you know that you are on the right path?

By remaining authentic to our vision. It’s easy for us to know what to do, because we have a clear vision and know what we won’t do. It comes back to our passion for our product; we will not compromise our ingredients.

How many people are working in your business?

We manage about 180 people at the peak of our busy season, across retail, production and office.

Lets talk about your brand messaging…

Our dedication to making the best ice cream is completely authentic, we use the best ingredients across all our flavors. About 5 years ago we introduced our vegan ice cream. The easy thing would have been to start using gums and fillers to give it the right “mouth feel”, but instead we created a product using fats from plant based ingredients that naturally mimic ice cream. For our vegan ice cream we use house made cashew milk, cocoa butter (the fat from chocolate), coconut cream and coconut oil. Last year we rebranded our pints and chose to work with design firm Pentagram; the best in the biz. With their guidance we were able to realize a brand image that so perfectly and simply communicates our vision.

What is your strongest marketing tool?

Instagram (check us out at @vanleeuwanicecream) is our best marketing tool. We’ve not yet ever spent a cent on marketing or PR so tools like Instagram are a great direct link to our customers.

It was a very deliberate decision to make our packaging more Instagrammable and we’ve doubled our sales since the redesign.

Deciding to use the professional design services of Pentagram was a very smart move; it’s important to know when to invest and work with other professionals to move your business forward.

Photo credit: Sydney Bensimon / Van Leeuwan Facebook

Where are your sales coming from?

Mainly our sales are from our retail; scoop shops that do great and of course our ice cream trucks. Currently we are focusing on wholesale distribution and opening more stores. We also do a lot of events with our trucks, film sets, weddings, festivals etc.

Tell us about ‘Aha’ moment – I’ve made it in New York!

It’s easy to get bogged down in the day to day grind, but it’s amazing to simply be at the stores and see people enjoying our ice cream. The food business can be tough, many try and fail, so although we’ve worked very hard we also feel very lucky that we have so many loyal customers that keep us going!

What are your 3 greatest learning’s in starting up a business? 

  1. Its worth investing in getting your packaging design right.
  2. Invest in quality equipment , if you cut corners it will cost more in the long run.
  3. Be authentic and focused, dig in your heels and stand up for what you believe.

What have been your greatest challenges in starting up a new business in New York? 

The mobile vending world presents many hurdles in terms of permits and parking and truck break downs etc, and the city doesn’t go out of their way to be very helpful, so that can be challenging.

Managing people, particularly as we grow isn’t always easy. When we were smaller it was simpler to convey and promote the company culture we desire. Nowadays we rely on great leaders within the company to help keep our culture and vision strong when we can’t always be present. Our team is awesome!

Going through a break-up with my business partner was a trying time, but we certainly came out stronger and closer and have done our best work since breaking up.

What do you love about doing business in New York? 

  1. If you have a good product, people will support it.
  2. There is the population density to support any type of idea and people who will collaborate with you!
  3. You can always find what you need; I’ll often be searching for an specific part or piece of equipment and realize I can find it right in our own neighborhood.

Photo credit: Van Leeuwan Facebook

In hindsight, is there anything that you would do differently?

We used to be such purists when it came to our flavors. The early menu was all single ingredient flavors, now we are willing to make more fun flavors with chunks and swirls etc, so long as we make everything in-house from scratch.

What advice would you give to someone else in a start-up?

  • Partner with the right people and its good to have business partnerships.
  • When you have an exceptional product, keep working at it. We never rested on our laurels; we continued to evolve our product.
  • It’s when you become stagnant that your business gets stale.

What is next for you and Van Leeuwen Ice Cream?

We are working towards opening more stores in New York and L.A., and increasing our wholesale distribution.

When I’m not doing all things ice cream related, I’m making music with my band Laura and Greg and running the Brooklyn chapter of No Lights, No Lycra. My partners I also run an Indonesian restaurant we opened 4 years ago called Selamat Pagi in Greenpoint.

As a final note, what was your favourite ice cream flavour growing up?

I have very fond memories of vanilla dixie cups with chocolate syrup on top.  Also I loved vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberries, and I’m especially nostalgic about Hokey Pokey ice cream and it inspired our honeycomb flavour, that’s our number one seller.


Connect with Van Leeuwen Ice Cream




The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream book can be ordered through Amazon.


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Brisbane ‘nice’ fuses with New York ‘cool’… meet Fashion Startup Mathys Sinclair – AWNY Startup Stories

Meet Thembi Hanify of Mathys Sinclair, who shares her experience of starting-up  a fashion business with her business partner Rachelle Sinclair.


Tell us about you, what made you move to the USA? 

I came to NYC kind of on a whim, not knowing anyone, and without a job or apartment. I decided to apply for the J1 visa just before my eligibility post-university ran out, and told myself ‘well, if everything fails then I can just fly home!’. And now I’ve been here for over six years.

What inspired you to start the business?

My business partner and I met almost ten years ago in Brisbane, sharing the idea ‘we have to start a fashion label together one day’!

We had always had the idea in the backs of our minds…so once I switched from full time work to freelancing and Rachelle sold her prior label KHALO; we both had the time and energy to create our own fashion label.  I guess it was meant to happen and in 2016 Mathys Sinclair was born.

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