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The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

A tale from a maker

29th May 2015

I’m an artist and designer, based in Bristol.  I’ve been working for myself for 12 years and have grown from a sole trader to a VAT registered limited company, and have recently become an employer.

Day to day, I work on projects as diverse as designing individual bespoke manhole covers for a town centre, and striking metallic focal points for superyachts.  My time is split three ways between running the operational side of my business, being a designer, and getting my hands dirty in my metalwork studio, actually making the art pieces.

When I set up in Liverpool in 2003, a lot of my vision was based on what I knew of similar artists’ careers and what they had achieved 10 years down the line, however, I soon realised that it’s easy to idealise other businesses, and that the real stories are full of ups and downs.

What appealed to me about self employment was the thrill of independence, of the challenge to learn all the necessary new skills; piecing together a formula to make my business function as a system of interrelated and interdependent roles.  To do this I wore different hats, and sought out training in each role to become at least competent, and at best excellent in each area.

I made a few mistakes, including financial ones, ploughing money in to ineffective marketing, however I was spared many potential pitfalls through the training I sought out, and found, through the Crafts Council, Arts Council, UKTI, HMRC and a number of regional organisations like LMDI and Liverpool Vision.

I’ve been fortunate enough to tap in to training aimed at small to medium sized businesses but from which I could extract what was relevant to my micro-sized business.  My experience is that there is help out there for sole traders in the creative industries, but I do feel that it has been squeezed in recent years, perhaps due to funding cuts.   I can confidently say that I would not still be in business without the training and one to one business support I received through funded programmes.

For me, at these initial stages, the most vital and inspiring seminars and lectures came from other artists and makers, further into their careers.  Equally beneficial was the informal mentoring through the network I established locally; through the Bluecoat Display Centre Gallery, the Bridewell Studios,  where I rented a studio, and through Liverpool Hope University Department of Art & Design, where I’d recently completed an artist residency.  These people supported, inspired and challenged me to persevere, and were essential to preventing the many drawbacks of working as an isolated sole trader.  I feel passionately about creating local and national peer networks; they are a rich tool for learning, through shared experiences and information.

When, 10 years later, I’d achieved most of what I’d set out to do, I ground slowly to a halt, having not made the time to re-vision another 10 years.  It was time to take stock of my business, reflect on what was working, or not, and move forward with a strong vision and, importantly, a strategic marketing plan.  Part of this re-visioning has let to the creation of my VAT registered ltd company, which has involved further learning, particularly in book keeping and accounts.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be selected by the Crafts Council for a scheme called ‘Injection’, designed to support established artists and makers to grow their business, through further training, but also, potentially by seeking investment, or becoming an employer.  For me a crucial benefit of the scheme was to break through my pre-conceived ideas and fears about employing someone, removing that barrier to growth.  This led to me taking on an intern assistant for 6 months through the creative employment programme.

The experience has been challenging at times; recruiting the right person, when many of the skills needed are vocational and very specific (how do we classify, rate and articulate these skills?) ; getting used to working in a small office with someone else; finally being able to manage them effectively (something for which I’m currently seeking training).  However, the time it has freed up for me to do important, yet neglected, tasks has been invaluable.  It’s been a delight to discover my new employee’s strengths and capitalise on these, adapting tasks accordingly.

Looking to the future, my challenges will involve seeking out further training, in management and in financial planning.  At the same time, I’m aiming to search for opportunities for creative development through courses that introduce new techniques and materials.  Creative development naturally falls to the bottom of the priority list when you’re under pressure to pay the bills, but I’ve learned that it’s vitally important to feed the very thing; my creativity, that my business model is based on.  This is my challenge for 2015!

You can see Rebecca’s work here

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