In this series of articles, Stephen Watters, Co-Founder of ‘That Creative Thingy Wotsit’ and Puppet Place Associate Artist, takes a look at the business realities behind all creative enterprise and examines exactly what it takes to start and grow a successful creative organisation.
If ever there was a question which begged an obvious answer then that must be one. Of course you want to be a good artist and you want to be successful. As a new or emerging artist, there is little that I or anyone else sat at a laptop keyboard can do to help you with the first part of that wished for outcome. It’s mostly down to your latent talent, how hard you apply yourself to honing your craft and ongoing development, copious amounts of hard work and determination and a healthy dollop of good luck.
The second part however, being successful, is something that I and other more experienced and worldly wise business men and women just might be able to do a little something to help with. Hang on a minute, did I just describe myself as a business man? Yes, I did. And therein lies one of the first obstacles we need to address. As much as I, and probably you too, love to describe myself as a creative artist or professional performer, what I am in reality, and most of all, is a businessman. I’m in the business of making a creative product, marketing and selling it to the public and doing so at a profit. If I don’t succeed in doing that I’m either going to be a starving artist or have to go back to being a wage slave.
Urban myth has it that 8 out of 10 new start-ups fail within the first 18 months. Something as often repeated in business circles as strong & stable is by a Conservative party devoid of real policies to offer the electorate this election cycle. The facts, according to recent Office of National Statistics are that around 42% of new businesses are still functioning five years after start-up. The inverse of that is obviously that some 58% of new businesses are not.
The reasons behind those failures are probably as many and varied as the number of businesses themselves, but there are some reasons which appear time and time again regardless of what type of business it is, including creative ones. These ‘common causes’ appear with a frightening predictability and whilst they can, and do, cause business failures all on their own they are invariably only a part, albeit a large part, of what cause many businesses to fail.
I am fortunate in that I get to chat with lots of graduates of performing arts courses and other people considering a change of direction by becoming a creative artist, or a business person as we now know better to call them. I always ask them, what were you taught on your course about business planning, marketing and financial management? The number of times these subjects have been barely touched upon, for me as an experienced businessman, is quite shocking. It’s akin to sending the students out to make their way in the real world without a map of how to get to where they want to be.
And so to the reason for these articles. By spending an appropriate amount of time and effort to at least make yourself aware of the basic skills and know-how needed in these key areas, a lot of the risks to your success can at least be minimised. We are going to concentrate on just the three key elements of starting a new business I mentioned earlier, the business plan, marketing and finance/funding. Not because these are the only three that matter, but because they are the three that probably matter most if the questions asked of me by people just starting out in business or the statistics on business failures are anything to go by.
So we are going to start with the business plan. I know, I know, you’d all rather I just cut to the chase and talked about the money, ‘the kerching’, and I am. It just doesn’t look like it to the uninitiated. But as you will learn, by experience rather than just by me telling you it is so, the business plan is always about the money.
I was chatting to my business partners about these articles and how best I might get across the importance of the business plan to someone starting a new business as a sole trader or a new partnership where neither party has run a business before. Our MD Rachel, as smart a business person as I have ever worked with, asked me how many business plans I had written or been involved in writing. I ran out of fingers and toes at twenty and probably could have added more to that list had I needed to. So you’re very experienced and well practiced in the dark art of business planning she added, so tell the readers how much time and effort you are putting into the writing of our new business plan and let them figure out that if someone with so much know-how and experience needs to put that amount of time and effort into a plan, and they find themselves doing less, then the chances are they aren’t putting in as much into it as they probably should. Told you she was smart.
Our new business will involve us, as a CIC, taking creative artists and theatrical performers into residential care homes to work with the elderly, the disabled and people suffering from dementia in an effort to enhance their lives, mitigate the loneliness and social isolation they experience and make them happier if we can.
So far, I have attended two arts council funding workshops, will be taking a two day course in strategic funding planning with the Directory for Social Change in London two weeks from now. I have spent over 60 hours in care homes talking to people with dementia, their carers and their families. I have spent at least 40 hours doing market research into charities and other groups who work in a residential care environment engaging residents in some form of ‘arts’ based activities. I have read several reports into the benefits of arts in a care environment by Age UK, the Arts Council, the Baring Foundation and others. I have spent many hours in meetings with my two partners, who have both put in as much time and effort as I have, and I have studied in detail the business plans of several successful arts-based businesses including the Tobacco Factory and Theatre Bristol based here in the South West. All this has accounted for about a third of the time and effort I have put in so far, and what stage are we at? We are just about to start writing our first draft of our new business plan this weekend.
It is tempting for me to tell you that you need to do this process well if you are planning to apply for funds from the Arts Council, Charitable Trusts and Foundations or other funding bodies and you will, but more importantly, you will need to do it well to give your new business its best chance of being successful. If your business plan ends up in a file only to be dusted off and brought out when needed for a funding application then I can tell you now, it’s not a good plan. A good plan is a living, breathing document which guides your business through those troublesome early years and ensures you become one of the 42% of businesses that stick around and not be part of those sad statistics of businessmen and women who, for whatever reason, didn’t quite make it this time.
Lack of column inches and the necessity for this article to be of an introductory nature prevents me from going into detail about your business plan and its contents. What I can do however is to point you towards what I believe to be an excellent guide, commissioned by the Arts Council and written by Dawn Langley and Susan Royce of Alchemy Research & Consultancy. Spend time reading through it. More than once if you need to. Take time to make sure you understand the methods and models they are introducing you too. There are lots of good quality YouTube videos to explain SWOT & PESTLE, resourcing, and monitoring & evaluation for example which will build upon your understanding of the planning process and the business tools these excellent authors touch upon in their guide. Find other similar businesses who have published their business plans on-line and take the time to learn from them. I promise you, if you put the same amount of hard work and determination into this process as you will into trying to become a ‘good’ artist, you will for sure also be a successful one.
Next time, we are going to delve into the challenging world of finance. It makes sense to do that before we cover marketing because, after all, if you don’t get the finance in place to pay for everything, including your wages, there is a very good chance there will be no product to market to the public. We will look at the best way to successfully apply for funds from the government & Arts Council (£1.1 billion), charitable trusts and foundations (£5.6 billion) and UK company giving (£420 million) and how best to access the £200 million and growing funds accessed through various crowdfunding platforms here in the UK in 2016. Until then, don’t let the difficulties and frustrations of writing a good business plan put you off going for it, one of the very few things that can be guaranteed in life is that the best boss you will ever work for is YOU..!