Considering Self Employment

By Peter Mosely, craft&design; Business Editor

"It seems likely that most people will be portfolio workers for at least some of their working lives. The earlier they put their toe into the water with a bit of self-employment (on the edges at least) the easier they will find it to survive." Charles Handy.

I often visit colleges and talk to craft and design students. When the subject of self-employment comes up the most common fear that comes into people's minds is the spectre of having to deal with record keeping, the Inland Revenue, banking and accountants.

I always feel that this is approaching the problem from the wrong end. The real issue when starting a small business is to do with supply and demand - you need to know for sure that there's a big enough demand for your product in order for you to cover all your costs and for you to make a decent living out of it. Finding out about the other stuff is relatively easy in comparison to figuring this out.

One of the very first things to do is to get a thorough appraisal of your work - from as many viewpoints as possible. If you are a student, you will be used to hearing the views of your peers and tutors. This is not the same thing, I'm afraid, as bravely putting your work in front of potential customers out in the real world.

Without that feedback, you don't get the information you need to fine tune your creative output to the needs of the marketplace.

It's often a good idea to 'start before you start'. By that I mean trying to sell some of your products before formally committing to starting a business. It is often used useful to talk to family and friends. Let them know what you are trying to do and see if there are any social opportunities for you to show your work to people and give them the opportunity to buy it. You can also try things like approaching local traders or even going to local community fairs just to engage with a lot more people and see if they are interested enough in the things that you make to buy them. You will often find that this is a really good source of feedback. You can then look at your product more closely and perhaps make it even more appealing to customers before you start.

The appeal of starting out small and growing in small increments is that you lessen the risk. The truth of the matter is that less than 50% of crafts makers earn more than �5000 a year from their craft output alone. It's a minority who make a full time living, and those who do tend to be mature businesses that have been building up turnover over a number of years.

By building the business up over time, it lessens the need for huge amounts of startup capital, and allows you to make informed decisions about when to move to the next stage.

A lot of people dive straight into starting a small business and invest large sums of money on equipment, stocks of materials, perhaps even renting studio or retail premises before they have really tested the market. It�s a worrying statistic, but around a third of small businesses fail within the first three years. This happens for a number of reasons - usually because people fail to check out the actual demand for their product before they start the business in the first place, or because they don't take account of the real costs of running the business and the cash-flow difficulties those costs can create.

Geography can be a critical factor too. Where do you want to live and work? It's worth opening up a large scale map of your region and thinking about the following things:

How many cities and towns - large population centres - are within striking distance? List them. Draw a circle on the map that delineates a comfortable travelling distance - to visit retailers to encourage them to take your work and later, to deliver stock to them. Do some research. How many galleries, shops and other outlets are there within your chosen area? In marketing terms, is there a big enough slice of your target market close enough to you so that you can both make and sell effectively in the time you have available?

If you are going to supplement your making with teaching or workshopping, you need to think about all the places that might be available to you for that slice of income too.

A lot of us conduct our daily business on the net nowadays. You will, I hope, be looking at the best of your fellow makers� websites. You may also be watching how they sell on sites like Don't fall into the trap of thinking you'll be able to make a fortune simply from selling on the web. You will need to market yourself in both high and low tech ways. The highest earners will have quite a spread of marketing tools and techniques in play.

Seek advice from the best possible source - other makers who have already experienced the ups and downs of getting started. It's rare for someone to turn down a reasonable request for help. The more successful someone is, paradoxically, the more likely they are to have asked for help themselves along the way. Be brave, contact people you admire. Tell them why you particularly want their help - because you like their work perhaps, or are fascinated by the way their business has developed.

Identify and contact regional creative industry umbrella groups. (For example, mine is called �Creative Leicestershire� - A lot of them can now be found on Facebook) They will be able to let you know about any training and mentoring schemes that are available in your area.

Above all, don't try and do it all on your own. One of the strongest trends of the last couple of years is the move towards collaborative production and marketing. Who could you team up with to make your offer stronger and share the effort and risk?

And one last word to echo Charles Handy - portfolio working is essentially an entrepreneurial activity. The days of grants and subsidies are fading fast. The future belongs to upbeat, positive people who are determined to make things happen against all odds.

craft&design Magazine - Issue 212

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