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Royal Docks: Why Silverspace Studios’ founders created an all-inclusive business

Image shows Michael Stuart-Daley and Calvin Mlilo of Silverspace

How Calvin Mlilo and Michael Stuart-Daley created a space for photographers, by photographers

Image shows Calvin and Michael in their studio
Michael Stuart-Daley, left, and Calvin Mlilo created Silverspace Studios in Royal Docks – image Matt Grayson

Both Calvin Mlilo and Michael Stuart-Daley want me to see Studio A. Our interview has come to an end just as their clients vacate the space. So the two photographers who founded Silverspace Studios together at The Silver Building in Royal Docks in 2018, can finally take me into the 400sq ft room where it all began.

Knowing that their studio hire business has since swelled to include a second nearly 700sq ft facility and office space just across the corridor, as well as an 800sq ft space in Elephant And Castle, I ask them how walking into the smallest room in their portfolio feels. A pause, then a quiet discussion about how to put their answer into words.

“I feel proud,” said Calvin. “It was a challenge when we first came in. You’d look at it and ask: ‘What the hell have we got ourselves into? Can we do this?’. Now, when you look at it, how this very room has trickled over into Studio B, Studio C and the office – it’s growth and growth. It’s our favourite room.”

“This is the baby,” added Michael. “You’d wake up with a smile on your face knowing you were going into work for yourself, for your business. “It was just us – we had to put our all into it and we have done that. Now this is us – full time.

“Pride is the key word. I remember the day we got the keys. It feels like it was yesterday. It’s been a lovely journey so far.”

“I love it when people book this space,” said Calvin. “For us it’s the beginning of everything.

“I love the potential of it. Your brain starts to work as soon as you step through the door.”

This spare white box with natural light flooding through windows along one side – framed by the bare brutalist concrete of the building – is a physical embodiment of Silverspace’s roots – the foundation of a project that has been 12 years in the making.

Both Calvin and Michael grew up in Newham, meeting while studying photography at the University Of East London. 

“At that time, we had the university studio and we could use that quite frequently,” said Calvin. “But after finishing university, you had to finance yourself.

“You’d get that bang in the face of needing £100 to book a studio – then there might be another £50 for equipment on top. It’s silly – being charged for using clips, clamps or a stand. It doesn’t help young creatives believe in the journey that they’re going through. It’s discouraging – spending £30-£40 on little things that you need for the shoot.”

“How many times have we been to a studio and it’s another £10 just to use a polyboard to bounce some light off?” said Michael. “You’d feel like you’re being fleeced.”

The solution was Silverspace – a place both photographers could use for their own projects, but also that others would be able to hire at an all-inclusive price with equipment and facilities folded into the basic price.

“That frustration, that hardship is where the business came from,” said Calvin. “We wanted to make a space for us to create in and then realised that there were a lot of people going through the same hardships we were – young people trying to get into the creative industries. We started small – turning an office space into Studio A.

“It had high ceilings – which work for photography – big windows, natural light, which you can work with, as well as using lighting. We turned it into a space so people could create portraits or shoot fashion.

“Then, when we outgrew that, it was about asking: ‘Can we go bigger?’. That’s how we’ve expanded – organically.”

Image shows Calvin Mlilo
Calvin says he and Michael feel pride when the look at what they’ve created – image Matt Grayson

Michael and Calvin were among the first tenants to take up residence at The Silver Building – a former building transformed for temporary commercial use by Projekt.

For the pair, who both still live in Newham, their business is also a way of encouraging the next generation.

“Providing affordable space that doesn’t break the bank, where you can come in and get things done, is essentially giving back for us,” said Michael.

“Through our years of studying at UEL, going through the stages of our careers, there have been a lot of opportunities where we’ve been given chances.

“Silverspace was, predominantly a space in the beginning for us to create. Once we realised other people needed it, we opened it up.

“Demand has gone through the roof. Getting the keys, on April Fool’s Day 2018 was the beginning of the journey. Over that three years it’s been an amazing experience – seeing the business grow, seeing how we’ve grown.

“Being a freelance photographer is completely different from running a business.

“We’d had experience as studio managers elsewhere, so we knew how to do one or two things, but now we deal with every aspect of the business. 

“If I could go back, I’d tell myself to ‘just keep doing what you’re doing’. That’s what has got us here. As photographers we were fortunate to be able to invest in ourselves – to buy equipment and get the things we needed to apply ourselves properly in the trade.

“For example, the Profoto lights we have now are the same ones we had when we started.”

Calvin added: “It’s important not to doubt yourself too much, to run your own race. On a personal level I was guilty of that – looking at people who’d been running studios for a long time and trying to put myself on that level.

“You just have to put the work in, apply yourself, do the hours and you’ll get the results. It’s also important not to over-think things. If you worry things are expensive you’ll never buy them – you just have to do it and trust that business investments will recoup the outlay.

“Working as photographers was our market research for the studios – asking ourselves: ‘What would we want?’. 

“So we created a space for us, by us and, at the same time realised a lot of other young people could benefit from that.    

“People are often surprised when everything’s included.  That’s the reaction we get quite a lot – it’s a specific service we provide and people come back for that. 

“We help out as well and I don’t know another studio that does that. Why not? We’re in the office anyway.”

Image show Michael Stuart-Daley
Michael says Silverspace is always happy to help clients with set-up and lighting – image Matt Grayson

Michael said: “If a group of us are in and someone needs advice, they’re tapping into a good 35 years of collective photographic experience. If someone shows us a reference picture, we can set the light up for them. People come back for that service.”

Calvin added: “If you have someone who’s starting out, that makes such a difference.”

Completely committed to their craft, the pair admit to spending 70-80% of the time they should have been studying in class at UEL, experimenting in its studio, and are keen that more people should get behind the lens and do the same. 

Michael, who has also tutored students at the university, said: “We were taught there were no mistakes in photography – if you made a mistake, then own it.

“So, if there are newbies coming into the studio, we’re there to give them a hand, to help calm their nerves so they can get the results they want whether that’s as a hobbyist or as someone embarking on a creative career.

“It is expensive equipment that we supply, but it’s there to do a job and, so long as it’s set up properly and safely, you don’t have to worry about it.”

See more of Calvin’s work here and Michael’s work here

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Canary Wharf: GoBoat launches Wood Wharf branch of its boat hire business

An image showing a GoBoat in Canary Wharf

How GoBoat is set to hire out craft for a  tranquil cruise among the Wharf’s towers

An image showing GoBoat co-owner Grant Sweeney
GoBoat co-owner Grant Sweeney – image by Illyas Ayub

In addition to being the first day when hospitality venues can welcome guests back inside, May 17, 2021, is the date a new attraction is about to set sail in Canary Wharf.

A quartet of low-slung sleek grey GoBoats has already arrived in West India South Dock in preparation for the launch, which will see the company renting the craft from a base at Wood Wharf.

Inspired by an enjoyable time on the water during a stag-do in Denmark, co-owners Grant Sweeney and Julian Wootton gave up decade-long careers in management consultancy to start their own business from scratch.

Founded in 2017, GoBoat already has operations on the Regent’s Canal at Paddington and on the non-tidal Thames in Kingston. 

Grant said: “We’re an eco-friendly, self-drive boat hire business. Our boats are made from predominantly recycled materials and are powered by electric engines. We’re all about getting people onto the waterways of the UK and allowing them to have a fun time with their friends and family.

“Canary Wharf will be our third location and we’re super-excited about being here – we can’t wait to open and to get people onto these wonderful waters in Docklands.”

Initially the company will operate four boats, eventually rising to eight. GoBoats seat up to eight people and are available to explore the West India Docks and Blackwall Basin, with visitors booking either one, two or three hours for £89, £129 or £169 respectively.

“The experience is all about social interaction,” said Grant. “We view our boats as a platform to enjoy the city – it’s about giving our customers a different perspective on a part of London that they might already know but haven’t seen from the water.

“Each boat has a designated captain and they are responsible for steering. Customers go straight out on the water after a relatively short handover where they learn how to drive and steer.

“Typically our customers bring a picnic down. They are allowed to have a couple of alcoholic drinks, but no more than that and the captain remains sober.

“Essentially, it’s a fun, social experience and I think there’s a real demand for that now as we, hopefully, come out of the pandemic. Being outdoors, it’s quite a safe environment and it provides happy memories for our customers.

“I hope anyone who takes a journey with us feels relaxed. A number of studies have shown that being on the water is good for people’s mental health.

“We see it all the time – as soon as our customers get on the boat, there’s a different vibe – almost like a sigh of relief. 

“When boats pass each other, everyone waves. You wouldn’t do that on a footpath or in a car, but on the water it’s different.

Image shows two GoBoats sailing in Canary Wharf
GoBoats can take up to eight people with one acting as the designated captain

“Everything about our business has been designed to complement that, so the slow pace of life on the boat is deliberate, because we want people to be calm and relax and talk to one another. They’re limited to 4mph by design for a reason.

“It’s also why the boats have been designed with the picnic table in the centre, so that guests sit around the table opposite one another, and it encourages conversation, rather than looking forward and not talking to each other or using their phones.”

Sustainability was a key consideration when Grant and Julian set up the business and they’re always looking for ways to make their operation more environmentally friendly.

Grant said: “About 80% of each boat is made from recycled plastic bottles and the wood that is used for the picnic tables in the centre of the boats is from sustainable sources.

“The engines are electric, so there’s no environmental pollution and no noise pollution as they cruise over the water.

“We are a very environmentally friendly business and, in terms of the customer experience, the lack of noise from the engine encourages conversation.

“We are very proud of our green credentials and we want to carry that forward and try to improve that at every opportunity. We are currently looking at ways to reduce the amount of plastic that our customers leave on the boats, for example.”

That’s no small task considering the success of the business so far, which in four years has taken the owners somewhat by surprise.

“We didn’t anticipate that it would get so big, so quickly and become so popular,” said Grant.

“We estimate that we had about 100,000 customers last year across both of our sites. We’re really proud of our team for achieving that.

“We’re not sure how many we’ll get in Canary Wharf initially, but we think it will be a sizeable number.”

An image showing a GoBoat moored in Canary Wharf
Each GoBoat has a picnic table that sailors can use for their refreshments – image by Illyas Ayub

Elena Istode will be running things on the ground as GoBoat location manager for Canary Wharf.

She said: “I started in 2019 with the company as a crew member and then came back for a second season as a supervisor.

“Sailing a GoBoat is very safe, although we will recommend everyone wears a life jacket just in case as the water is deep and quite cold. Everything around here is very well managed, so there’s very little danger.

“We can’t wait to welcome our first customers and the most important thing is that we’ll be selling ice cream from Hackney gelato.”

 Other refreshments will also be available at GoBoat’s kiosk and the firm is currently on the hunt for more locally-based food and beverage partners to extend its offering to customers.

Grant added: “We’re really excited to be in this environment. We had conversations back in 2018 with Canary Wharf Group and, at every step of the way, we’ve had really positive support from them – it’s been a joy really.

“We feel the water in Docklands needs more animation and it has always been our ambition to come here. We think it’s such a stunning part of London’s waterways and it just seems so obvious to us to do this.

“The landscape here is unparalleled – it gives you that urban experience, which you don’t get at our other two sites. Each one of them is quite a different experience.” 

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