2012 – The Year of the [Creative] Entrepreneur

I’m thinking of all the artists, practitioners and creative entrepreneurs I’ve worked with over the last twelve years as I write this.  What an adventure it’s been!  The original, simple idea behind Cida Co (or ‘CIDA’ as it was first) was to help creative people earn more from their creativity.  In the late nineties, I was nervous about the way politicians and economists had started talking about the creative sector; suddenly, after centuries of being ignored or marginalised, mocked or patronised (‘why don’t you get a proper job’/ ‘can’t exist without subsidy’/ ‘flaky airheads uninterested in profit’/ ‘under-resourced, managing on improvisational entrepreneurship’), here we were, suddenly being feted for our capacity to provide jobs, create new businesses and generally contribute significantly to a nation’s GDP.  But nobody had talked to us.  No-one seemed to take on board that the sector itself needed to be part of the story and, indeed, part of the future.  So we were reacting by saying ’Creative Industries? What creative industries?  Not me, sunshine – I’m a poet/playwright/painter/musician/ [add or delete at will] – I don’t work in the creative industries’.  Thus, there was a moment when the risk of us missing the boat and losing the opportunity seemed appallingly high.  On the other side of the coin, it took the worlds of business and public sector agencies much longer to hear, never mind understand and embrace, this new theology:  creative industries are the backbone of the new economy.  Long after the Blair/Smith sector Mapping bible appeared, they were receiving more brickbats than encomiums and we in the sector were still being shown the door on the rare occasion we tested this new ground.   But we were canny.  We quickly learned to talk about SMEs, not creative SMEs (of course no-one talked about micros and MSMEs in those days), and about entrepreneurs, not artists.  We subverted the process and we won the money to fulfil our mission: to help creative people acquire the confidence, knowledge, skills and networks to realise their dreams.

In a way, the ‘knowledge, skills and networks’ were the easy bits:  the sector is filled with talented, highly intelligent, often highly qualified, articulate and generous people who have been through the travails of setting up a successful practice and, even though still learning themselves, are keen to pass on the benefits of their own experiences.  We designed and delivered our own Mentoring Creative People programme, trained a number of creative practitioners in it (including a number of people who started as clients and came back later to train as mentors), surrounded the mentoring with specific workshops and new networks, and set up shop.  We have never had to advertise for clients – once the word was out that an organisation existed that had been set up by creative practitioners for creative practitioners, they just poured through the door, both in the UK and overseas.

It quickly became clear, however, that the really big issue we had to deal with was confidence.  Years of mockery and marginalisation had taken its toll.  Many creatives had learned to think of themselves as congenitally incapable of managing a business.  Arts tutors had taught them that ‘trade’ was ‘dirty’.  Enterprise tutors taught them without regard or respect for sector specific modus operandi (‘no I haven’t researched the market need for my book/painting etc’).   ‘Business support agencies’ [sic] laughed at them publicly when they said they weren’t driven by profit.   Financiers turned them away as too risky, too flaky  – (until they had a success, of course, and then……….let’s have Rambo I/II/III/IV).

So we started the process of building their confidence by identifying and nurturing the behaviours of a creative entrepreneur.  We didn’t want to turn them into lawyers or accountants or marketers.  But we did want to help them understand those processes so that, if and when they employed people to do those tasks for them, they knew and were able to assess the effectiveness of the service they were being given, and retain an informed control.  Another part of this confidence building process was to note and confirm that the sector has its own way of operating, its own values and its own indicators of success, and that these do not necessarily conform to established business metrics.  That lack of conformity does not make us wrong – just different!  For example, generally speaking, creative entrepreneurs are not customer-led.  They often do not regard growth as a goal nor consider the number of employees they have as a criterion of success.  Collaboration is a normal way of operating – the fact that they set up an organisation to carry out a project and then disband and move on is not a sign of failure but simply common practice in the sector.   Today, our role in the wider economy is no longer in dispute – but the next step for governments and funders is for them to realise that they cannot treat the creative sector as just another sector.  They have to face – and learn from – the success of a sector that, across Europe, provides up to 7% GDP despite the fact that it will not conform.  

More often than not, we lead the way.  In the 90’s, as people began to become aware of the changing global economy, much was written about the loss of the job-for-life scenario; job insecurity as a way of life was bewailed as leading to the breakdown of society.  But, in our sector, we had always lived like that – moving from job to job, from project to project, was simply the way we did things.  Business started to look at us, to see if they could learn from us.  We went on to demonstrate that loving what you did brought dividends; we forced Professor Wetzel in the Wall Street Journal to backtrack on his uninformed pronouncements about competence in  ‘lifestyle’ businesses and instead provided the model for so many new businesses today; we modelled new ways of running 21st century ‘flat’ companies; pioneered the need for creativity and fun in business;  displayed a talent for innovation that other sectors can only dream of; broke the barriers in terms of collaborative leadership; demonstrated multi-lateral global collaboration without leaving home; and, above all, we continued and continue to break the rules.

Despite their loudest shouts and fiercest threats, neither government nor big business will ever be able to put the lid back on downloading, legal or otherwise.  It’s the music industry that has led the way in developing new models of business practice that supports the individual musician and threatens the big record companies – it’s the publishing industry that really questioned the role of the middle man – it’s the video business that is now breaking new ground with artists putting their shows online without involving the established distributors.  New software is appearing with monotonous regularity which makes all this easier to do, easier to create, easier to share.  According to some observers, the issue now is more control by the artists – ‘scripting is the new literacy’ (Mullenweg/Gigaom) i.e. if, as an artist, you can’t code, you can’t be in control.

And so we move into the Year of the Entrepreneur – with artists leading the way.  Research shows that the attributes of a creative and those of an entrepreneur are often closely aligned.  50% of UK students setting up business from University come from the creative courses.  Creatives inspire. Creatives lead.  Creatives make things happen.  Others merely manage!

Anamaria Wills, Cida Co                               Anamaria@cida.org                        Twitter: anamariacida