Almost five years ago I was living in Melbourne, Australia, working full time for a design studio and loving the creative energy of a big city career, when I got an email from a previous boss. She asked if I was interested in moving back to my hometown of Townsville in regional Queensland, and purchasing the studio I had worked in – Verve Design.
I remember that day so clearly, reading the email with excitement and a little bit of fear.
Could I really do this? Could I be a business owner and run a studio all on my own?
Over some red wine and gnocchi at our favourite Italian cafe in South Yarra – I said to my partner Sean, “Okay! I’m doing it! I’m going to say, Yes!”
I loved Melbourne, but Townsville is my home and this was a great opportunity. My family and friends were a huge part of us moving back to buy the business, because we had been missing our support network living far away.
Two months later, Sean and I sold all our things, packed the car and said goodbye to our Melbourne friends. We were heading back to the warm weather and to a quieter city of North Queensland.
The first two years were an establishment phase. Establishing myself as a business owner and manager of people, but also understanding how to make the business I’d taken on more “me.”
Verve Design has existed as a business for over 16 years, and back when I bought the enterprise I was determined to make my mark on it. I wanted it to reflect my style and vision of what I think a business could and should be. This took a lot of soul searching and understanding who I was as a person and a creative practitioner FIRST!
I soon learned that I needed to know “me” before I could reflect this through a business. So through hours of personal e-courses, books, mentorship programs, reading blog posts, and visioning sessions I felt confident about who I was as a creative, what my values were, what I would say yes and no to, and how I wanted to run my business.
But a successful business doesn’t happen overnight, and even though the front facing Verve may look effortlessly successful, there is so much going on behind the scenes that makes this business tick along, and so much work has been done on me personally to reflect this in my business.
This week, I was contacted by a fellow creative:
I studied at James Cook University in Townsville and I was in one of the classes you spoke to about creative businesses. I’ve absolutely loved your work and vision as a creative.
I was wondering, do you have any tips or tricks in running a creative business from one creative to another?
Thanks so much, I really appreciate your time.”
To which I replied:
“Hi there! Thanks for your email and for your kind words about my business as a creative! 🙂
Sure, I would be happy to answer any questions you have – what do you want to know specifically? shoot them over and I’ll do my best!”
One of my key values I figured out very early on in the “establishment phase” is that I am a good listener and a good facilitator of knowledge. I really want to share my knowledge and be helpful to others in the industry, through collaboration, shared ideas and inspiring others who are studying graphic design. I speak regularly to our local university and always answer emails from students asking questions – because I know it’s not easy to approach someone to ask them for advice, and a little tip could mean the difference between someone giving up on their talent and someone pursuing their dreams.
This email came at the perfect time of writing this blog post, because I’d love to hear what other creatives really want to know about running a creative business – what are they struggling with that I might be able to assist with in some small way?
Thank you to this person for being brave to ask these questions, and because they were so rich and diverse, I thought I would share the answers with Verve subscribers too:
“What do you find is the best way to juggle work-load and running a business?”
Prioritise tasks and let go of the things you can’t do to create more space for the things you need to do.
I have a To-Do list that I make fresh every morning. I highlight the urgent/important items, and star the businessy items that need to be done to keep the business moving well i.e. projects and client tasks are highlighted, and I star things like “invoicing” or “call accountant”.
I like to start the day with the to-do list and a coffee every morning. It MUST be a fresh piece in my notebook and it MUST be a good coffee! Our team actually designed a to-do list notebook for this specific purpose! The other items left unstarred or unhighlighted are important, but not urgent and can be done tomorrow or later in the week.
I also let go of jobs and tasks if I know I am busy and hand them to one of my capable team members. These also include tasks that have been sitting on the to-do list longer than they should have. Sometimes I would love to work on a particular project that’s come in, but I know I don’t have time and I have promised other items. I let go and trust that my team will get this task done more efficiently than me.
Juggling is accepting that you can’t be and do everything.
I have a lot of help with managing finances and bookkeeping (from my amazing mum), running errands and doing things like cleaning the studio or picking up the post (from my amazing fiance, Sean), and writing, social media help, proof-reading, checking emails etc. from my amazing team – in addition to client projects. If I did all these things I wouldn’t be able to produce the work that I do, so it’s really important to let go of the things I can’t do to create more space for the things I need to do.
“The best way to organise office space and client sheets/job sheets?”
Get digital and in the cloud!
We are a mostly paperless studio. Our project management system is in the cloud, so all our client record, tasks, job sheets and job folders are stored online and safely secured and backed up, and can be accessed anywhere! Basecamp, Teamwork, 17Hats and Workflow Max are all excellent project management systems for creatives and each have different features depending on what your team needs.
We do have client folders for specific jobs where clients have given us something we need to keep (like inspiration they’ve found or old products we need to reference). These are kept in a small filing nook by our desk and labelled with the project name, job number and client name. All our projects are allocated a number and this is referenced on the actual file name and folder name in our digital design files. It’s also on the project name in our project management system, as well as on these physical folders. Having one number for every project is so helpful when you need to reference an old job or a client would like a re-print on an old job!
Our office space has been recently re-furbished. I designed the desks we sit at. They contain a filing cabinet (for our client job folder as mentioned above as well as business folders for things like letters and important correspondence). There’s also a pencil box and a storage cabinet for books and bags. On my desk, I like to keep it really clean with a few pens/pencils, a calculator and my to-do list of course! I’ll collect paper and letters throughout the week and I try very hard to file these away as quickly as I can, or recycle anything I don’t need. There’s nothing better than cleaning your desk at the end of the day and arriving with a clean space the next day (ready to write out your to do list!)
“How do you keep your environment creative?”
Natural light and being surrounded by plants!
Our previous studio had little natural light and instead had fluro lighting. This stifled my creativity. Now we are in a studio that is surrounded by windows and the outside world of beautiful big trees and a gorgeous bougainvillea – which is currently in bloom! I can’t recommend enough to put your desk near a window and use natural light instead of fluro lighting – it makes all the difference to your creativity. We also have a LOT of plants inside our studio and on our desks, which is excellent for keeping the air clean. I like to open the windows in the cooler months and let the natural breeze in, rather than turn on the air-conditioning.
“How do you keep your creative mind going when you have to deal with staff and business admin things?”
Uninterrupted creative time!
This one is the most challenging of running a creative business. Because when you get into business as a creative, you actually think you’ll spend more time being freely creative and having more time to do creative projects, but this is actually not the case. Running a business does take a lot of time out of your creative time because you need to keep the business running with admin, accounting and managing people. However, referring back to my first answer of letting go, and giving tasks to others and trusting others to do these tasks can give you back some of your creative time.
I started a ritual a few years ago when I felt overwhelmed with tasks and wanted to get creative time back. I wanted our team to enjoy “uninterrupted creative time” to be in sync with our “perfect work-day”, which you can read all about here. Uninterrupted creative time meant that for 2 hours in the day (usually when we feel most “switched on” and creative; which for me is in the morning), we would shut out everything else and just create!. This meant everyone in our studio would focus on being creative and not interrupt others, we turned our phones off so they would be answered with the answering machine and we would set ourselves up ready for this creative time (i.e. making sure we had everything we need for the project, a cup of tea and a snack nearby) so we could get in and do the task to our best ability.)
This might not work for every business, but it did for us and I still embrace “uninterrupted creative time” especially during our busy periods.
“And lastly, whilst I totally know you have to work hard to be successful… do you have any pointers or advice on running a successful business?”
Do the work on who you are and what your true values are.
Hire a life coach and get to understand “you.” From this, you’ll learn what you’re most passionate about and the passion will stem into your work and attract more likeminded people to your door. This makes for a happier life, a happier business model and a successful thriving business. This was so important for me in the first few years of business, and has been the foundation of the strong roots, procedures, policies and decision-making practices I have developed for the business that operates today. Spend a lot of time on “you” and then get to work on how this is reflected in the business, what things you’ll take on and what you’ll say no to.
Wow! I feel like I shared a lot there! But I’m ready for more questions if you have them.
If you have any questions or comments you would like to know about running a creative business, I invite you to use this post as an opportunity to ask any question you like! Don’t be shy – I’d love to hear and help!