We’ve all had those light bulb moments when inspiration strikes – the seed of an idea takes root, and you begin to entertain a very different lifestyle, one where you, and not your boss are in the driving seat.
Whether you’re a recent graduate or with many years’ industry experience under your belt, at some time or another the thought of starting your own business may have crossed your mind.
Yet very few of us have the conviction to take the next step, unsure if our ideas are a pipe dream or one with real business potential.
As we’re about to discover, the path of the creative entrepreneur does not always run smooth. There are challenges to overcome and learning experiences can be tough. But it can be one of the most fulfilling, rewarding and life affirming decisions you can make.
Armed with a little start-up fund, a strong vision and will to succeed is arguably all you need. We speak to several designers who have weathered the storm to find out how they did it, and more importantly what drives them.
Do what you love
For Australian artist Brad ‘BEASTMAN’ Eastman and his wife Kelly, starting a business was triggered by their dream to build the foundation for a family business following the birth of their son Eamon last year. “We wanted to create a brand that we could literally almost do whatever we wanted with and give us the flexibility to work from home or wherever we are into the future”, says Kelly.
Inspired by the idea of ‘finding ways to integrate art into spaces differently’, East Editions launched last December with just one collection – a set of four hand crafted coffee tables (below) inspired by globally respected graffiti artist Vans the Omega and his geometric painting style.
“We had a lot of faith in our vision for the brand and the products we were making,” says Kelly, who together with Brad invested their entire life savings into the venture. “We knew Vans work would translate well onto furniture and would be a great product to launch the brand with.”
Understanding the market
Launching in 2010, Howkapow champions independent designer-makers, selling a collection of handpicked home-wares, prints and textiles. Founders Cat and Rog How (above) worked the artist’s market circuit for several years before going into business together.
“Markets are an invaluable way of gauging what’s going on,” says Cat, “we were able to gain market experience; see what sells, at what price and get feedback on our products.”
Trust your gut
“A huge part of it was gut instinct” continues Cat, “We just knew that we wanted to - had to - do something creative.”
It was during a two-year residence in Australia that Cat first began selling her handmade jewellery at Melbourne Rose Street Market in 2006. “I started making jewellery in my spare time” she recalls, “but it was a while before I began looking at it as a viable business option.”
Taking up a place at Central Saint Martins on her return to the UK, weekends were spent trading on Brick Lane with her husband. “It was an odd realisation, that with a little research, planning and hard graft – that doing something I really loved, that I’d always seen as a hobby - could actually work on a commercial level.”
Relocating to Bristol, the concept for Howkapow was born. “Once we’d made that decision - it sort of fell into place as we began to test out various markets and website ideas.”
Lots of great companies started in garages and spare rooms. For anyone who has thought about starting a business but thinks they can’t afford the set-up costs, freelance web designer Kim Lawler is keen to dispel the myth.
“You don't need the top pieces of kit from the get-go; you just need what it takes to get the job done” says Kim, who juggled a full time role for several years to supplement her side project Finest Imaginary (above).
“If that means six months on an older laptop while you save for a better one, or renting camera lenses instead of buying them, then that's what you have to do” she adds.
“Having a vision to do it your own way often means you’re restricted”, says Nathan Blaker, director of the aptly named No Guts No Glory, an independent store that failed to secure a bank loan in the early days. As Nathan reflects “It not only made us more determined than ever, but it also inspired us to be resourceful and stay realistic.”
With just £300 in their back pocket to print their first run of t-shirts, Nathan and his partner Hayley Merchant (above) relied on the help of friends to build the shop, gathering support of their local community by championing regional artists and makers.
“It was a personal choice - the desire to take a risk and seek out the alternative.” Hayley tells me. “We both wanted to create a way to work that doesn’t compromise our values or restrict our creativity. No Guts No Glory is about taking a stand and striving to carve out a lifestyle that stays to true to who we are.”
A strong concept
Launching a business idea on a small budget certainly offers up it’s fair share of challenges, yet it’s how you approach these obstacles that determines the success of your venture, as Dutch creative Jeroen Smeets (above) testifies. Fuelled by a desire to run a project that combined two of his passions – art and travel, Jeroen launched The Jaunt last year.
“Through a friend I heard about a Danish artist who had asked people to financially contribute to a trip he wanted to make to Iceland, and in return he would deliver a set of prints to them,” says Jeroen, director of Your.Own agency and Eight Magazine. “Traveling is a huge source of inspiration for many artists. I wanted to take that principle and make it into more of a platform.”
Working on the premise of taking established artists to cities they have not visited before, The Jaunt offers an opportunity for artists to find and seek inspiration in the culture and surroundings of their location, inspiring the production of a limited edition print. Prospective buyers can participate in the creative process through The Jaunt blog, which documents each artist’s experiences, whilst the concept of buying the artwork ‘unseen’ finances the trip and print production.
It’s a successful formula that has seen the likes of Rick Hedof, Miss Lotion and Saša Ostoja take trips to Latvia, Portugal and Morocco, amongst others.
“Although there is no real business plan, I have a strong will to do great projects and a big network of artists and partners to make it happen,” says Jeroen.
For Dutch entrepreneurs Benjamin van Oost and Mathieu van Damme, forming a business partnership was born from a shared passion to spread happiness by producing flawless objects and contemporary design. Collaborating with a diverse selection of contemporary artists including the likes of Parra, Ed Templeton and Bue the Warrior, and building on the rich history of their first initiative: Toykyo art-collabs and productions, Case Studyo was founded in 2012 as a conduit for high end, functional art objects.
“We got to a point when we realised that we needed to give the limited edition artworks a dedicated focus” says Benjamin van Oust, whose clientele ranges from independent organisations to global brands, from the music and fashion industry to publishing and advertising agencies.
“We collaborate with artists from a broad artistic scene - not limiting ourselves to a certain style or visual language. I think the products we make are real collectible art pieces by artists who have a great future ahead of them. We do everything out of a 'gut feeling' and 98% of the time this has paid off.” he adds.
Their first collaboration, the 'Belgian made nipple sticker pack' consisted of a metal stickerbox with 36 stickers & a screen-print inside - all hand-printed by Mathieu & Benjamin. After the success of this production, their collaboration with Parra become official, and even today they still work with Parra on a regular basis.
“Everyday is an adventure, and I take all the challenges that come my way,” enthuses Benjamin van Oust. “You have to work if you want to reach your goals! Nothing goes by itself. Hard work remains the key to a successful business. And of course making some smart decisions - my advice is not to try to run too fast.”
Managing your overheads
Cash flow is incredibly important when starting out and designer Kim Lawler (above) is keen to stress the importance of starting small to avoid problems later down the line. “Always, always start with the bare minimum. You really need to think hard and be honest about the best way to spend your money.”
Nathan Blaker of No Guts No Glory keeps a firm eye on the bottom line. “It can be a bit of a balancing act between keeping our products affordable and being able to sustain the business. We try to divert the extra costs and find fun new ways to keep the project running, such as guest lecturing and designing for other businesses.”“I think we just had a lot of faith in our vision for the brand and the products we were making, we knew the financial risks, but also just trusted in our decisions and felt confident that people would respond to it and buy the products” says Kelly of East Editions.
For Cat, the experience of having a physical retail space (photo at the top of this feature) was a valuable addition. “It was a brilliant experience – we learned a lot about stock management, staff training and dressing windows - it was great to see how our products looked on display.” Running it alongside their existing online store was a challenge, but a worthy investment, as business partner and husband Rog recalls, “It was a hard slog, but it really helped to galvanise our reputation as a serious business.”
Kim recommends having support in place from the start. “I’ve always struggled with accounts and tax returns”, confesses Kim. “When I quit my day job, one of my first priorities was to get an accountant to deal with that stress for me.” She adds. “It's quite honestly one of the best business decisions I've ever made.”
“There are always difficult times and moments of doubt in doing business,” reflects Benjamin van Oust, who strongly believes in wilful determination. “You just have to keep going and never give up.”
Engage with your online community
For Cat How, investing in PR (above) from an early stage helped free up her time to focus on other areas of the business, “It can be very hard to promote your own business - especially if you’re not natural sales person.”
Designer Kim Lawler agrees, crediting the platforms like twitter as essential to securing new clients. “Social networking is so important! Most of my work comes from places like twitter, and having that casual point of contact to potential clients & customers has added a whole new dimension to my work.”
“We’ve learnt a lot over the last 6 months” says Kelly, “online retail depends on driving people to your website and interacting with the brand on social media – you have the power to reach a lot of people.”
“Social media has really helped us to build and maintain a strong network,” says Hayley of NGNG – a strong brand with very clear brand values. “It’s key to any business these days, but it’s also about staying true to who you are - being honest and treating your followers with the respect they deserve.” Nathan agrees, “Bridging that gap has enabled NGNG to reach a worldwide audience.”
Be prepared for the long haul
Engaging with customers, building your brand, managing finances and keeping abreast of social media - running your own business is not for the faint hearted. “It comes down to a lot of juggling and you divide the time where needed” reflects Jeroen Smeets of Your.Own agency. “Luckily I work together with a team of very professional and skilled people and friends that help me out on many projects - ranging from designing to brainstorming and public relations.
Hayley Merchant of NGNG recommends taking a steady approach: “Definitely make a business plan and a budget forecast - it’s an invaluable tool for business clarity, helping you stay objective and highlighting any unforeseen problems or opportunities.”
It’s that drive to work for yourself that lies at the heart of the budding entrepreneur, and it’s wise to remember that turning your ideas into reality does not necessarily happen overnight, “We’ve come to accept that things take time, and that’s okay” says Nathan. “We’re happy to grow slowly to be sustainable in the longer term - it gives us time to think about where we are and to plan ahead.”
“To be successful as a self-employed designer takes a hell of a lot of self discipline. You need to be flexible, a good time manager, have a head for numbers and embrace a really good work ethic.” adds Kim Lawler.
Hayley concludes, “Above all believe in what you do and stick to your guns – remember: No guts, no glory.”