We needed space and connection with nature
Laura Hamod Barnes, founder and director of digital marketing agency Connected Digital
Working in marketing and advertising for companies like Yahoo! and Southern Cross Austereo for 15 years, Laura Hamod Barnes thought Sydney would be her forever home. Then she started her own digital advertising agency with husband Joshua Barnes and quickly realised that something needed to change.
“The media industry is a very fast-paced environment – most people leave because of burnout, and we just decided that if we’re going to stay in this industry, which we love, we needed to make some big decisions around balance, because the Sydney lifestyle just wasn’t for us,” she explains. “We needed space, connection with nature… I realised with our industry, I had the flexibility to work where I wanted as long as I was within a short distance to Sydney so I could still attend client meetings.”
The idea prompted them to look south to Wollongong – specifically, the cool coastal town of Thirroul – where they could enjoy the laidback lifestyle they craved while still being close enough to Sydney to duck in and out for client meetings.
That was six years ago – now, the couple’s agency employs more than 20 people and works with big-brand clients around Australia. Low overheads, high staff retention and a great work-life balance has helped Connected Digital flourish.
“For us, it’s been the best move that we’ve ever done to be able to create this lifestyle for ourselves down here,” Laura says.
Take a look at what Laura’s typical day looks like now.
“I usually train five mornings a week. It might be running along beach tracks or going to a pilates studio around the corner from our house. Then I’ll get the kids ready for school, do the school drop-off and come back to work, all within a 10-minute drive.
“There’s no traffic – after I’ve done the school drop-off at 8.30am, I’m generally at work by 8.40am. In Sydney, traffic was a nightmare. We were spending $10 a day on tolls alone and car parking was $40 to $50 a day. So here, to have free all-day parking, and not have to be constantly thinking about moving your car, is unheard of.”
“I’m generally at work right through to 5pm most days. We spend a lot of time meeting each other, as a team, when we’re all working on projects together, so we just pop to a local cafe in Thirroul, within five-minute walking distance.
“We’ve been able to create a strong work-life balance culture at Connected, and our team know we work really hard but also have the benefit of being a 10-minute drive from home each day. There is definitely a lot more balance here.
“It’s not as fast-paced as it was in the city environment, so we have a lot more headspace to get more quality work done.”
“I still go back to Sydney once a fortnight for meetings. The biggest difference I find now is that when I do go into the city, I usually will back-to-back my meetings, and I get a lot more efficiency out of my day than I did previously. Sometimes I take the train, but usually I drive in, and then I just do calls on the way in and calls on the way back.”
“We’re in the service industry, and the expectation is that we will serve our clients as a Sydney agency would, but I’d say 80% of the time, most of our people are home before 5.30pm. For Josh and I, from a work-life balance perspective, we get to spend more time with the kids. I’ll work half a day on Fridays, so I can pick them up and spend the afternoon with them and have a really good start to the weekend.
“I like taking the kids on bike rides or going down to the beach, visiting friends – we’ve made a really good network down here. On other days, I’ll pick up the kids from after-school care, be home by 5.15pm, get dinner on, and be ready to relax by 7pm once they’re in bed!”
Out and about
“We do go into Wollongong’s CBD a bit for dinner – we like to try out different restaurants, just to feel like we’ve still got that foodie culture. The last place we went to was Debutant, which is a really cool restaurant, and there is a gin bar right next to it called Juniper Bar. And Cucina in Thirroul has beautiful food.”
“We feel so blessed that we were here in Thirroul during the COVID-19 situation. I would not want to be in the middle of Sydney! Our beaches are completely empty, so when we do go for walks, you feel like you have space, and because we’re all in big houses down here, you don’t feel like you have to get out of the house to entertain children. We’re very lucky.”
Wollongong has everything that Sydney offers – just with a much better lifestyle
Nick Bassett, director and development manager at Skyrise Developments
It was Nick Bassett’s parents who made the move to Wollongong first. Visiting them on weekends, Nick quickly fell in love with the area and began investing in local property. Meanwhile, his life living and working in inner-city Sydney was beginning to take a toll.
“I was working as a Business Development Manager in the signage industry and it was an incredibly busy role,” he shares. “I was flat out from one minute to the next throughout the day, going to site meetings. Every day I’d be driving in and out of the Sydney city, and that was just an absolute nightmare.”
So, around two years ago, Nick decided to make a change. He wanted to renovate his investment property overlooking Lake Illawarra and couldn’t do it with tenants living there. “I resigned from my job, packed up my life in Sydney and moved down!” he says. “It was a huge change and it was stepping into the unknown, but the minute I got to Wollongong, I thought, this is the place.”
The move also meant a change in career direction – Nick is now working as a property developer in his own property company, Skyrise Developments, a role that allows him to showcase Wollongong as one of the best places to live.
“I think Wollongong is to a large extent still a well-kept secret. In my opinion it’s got everything that Sydney offers, just with a much better lifestyle. I am often the one shouting from the top of the hill how amazing Wollongong is!”
Here, he shares how the move has completely transformed his work-life balance.
“I’m very much an outdoors person and always trying to stay outdoors as much as possible. I’m flabbergasted that we’ve got such an amazing natural asset in Lake Illawarra. Until probably as recently as four years ago, I didn’t even know Lake Illawarra existed. Being from Sydney I’d never heard of it.
“I love fishing and crabbing on the lake. It’s a great place for walking the dog and exercising. I also love the coast – my favourite beach in the area is Warilla Beach. It’s just beautiful, clean and deserted. In summer I try to get there every day.”
“I usually like to start the day spending time with my dog, Roxy the foxy. I find just spending half an hour or an hour in the morning with her sets me up with a really good headspace. We’ll go for a walk and then just hang out and play. I’m based working from home at the moment, so then I get into the work side of it on the computer. But I’m always trying to spend as much time outside as I can!”
“Days for me now revolve around property acquisitions and various meetings, whether that’s with architects, council, or other stakeholders. Essentially all of my meetings are done in cafes, like Lettuce B Frank in Wollongong. It’s on Crown Street near the station and the food and coffee there is just out of this world.”
“I went from being an employee to more of an entrepreneurial role down here. We’re doing multimillion-dollar deals in property, so it’s very different to my corporate life in Sydney.
“I really enjoy having the opportunity to be a catalyst for change and growth in the city of Wollongong and bringing Sydney eyes to Wollongong.
“I’m a night owl, so it’s not uncommon that I’ll still be working at 7 or 8pm at night. That’s when I do my best work because I’m not tormented by the idea of going outside!
“Being in a nine to five job in Sydney, although often with extended hours, it was a lot more contained. In my job now, my hours are more self-directed. It’s not uncommon that I’ll meet with investors and other people on the weekend and as a lot of our investors are coming from Sydney, Sundays are my busiest day. That’s perfectly fine by me, I’m happy to work odd hours because it doesn’t feel like work in Wollongong.”
Spacing it out
“There’s a lot more open space, and there’s a lot better value here. I purchased a six-bedroom property in Warrawong with almost a 180-degree view over the lake, and in Sydney that would be multimillion dollars. I was living in a tiny studio apartment in Newtown so I can’t even tell you how much of a life transformation it’s been for me.
“I also think, post COVID-19, people will have started to realise much more clearly that they don’t need to be in Sydney, and we don’t need to be in a Sydney city office.”
Out and about
“One thing that took me by surprise, is that when I moved down here, I didn’t actually go back to Sydney for the first six months. I didn’t feel the need – I was so happy to be where I was and be doing what I was doing! In the relatively short time that I’ve been a ‘local’ I’ve amassed an array of favourite places to eat out. I really like the food at The Open Hearth in Warrawong, and in Wollongong’s CBD, His Boy Elroy and 2 Smoking Barrels.
“Just recently I discovered a little Spanish restaurant in Port Kembla which is very, very good. You would never know it’s there – it’s called Café La Playa. I also discovered burek (a type of Mediterranean baked pastry) when I moved down here, and it’s just beautiful. Try King Burek in Warrawong.”