What to do, what to do?  


It's an odd time to be giving advice on starting and building a creative business because it looks like the sky is in the process of falling in. As I'm typing this, the "bail-out" is being debated and the markets look like this:

and part of me just wants to hide under the quilt (with whatever I have converted into gold under the mattress - though it wouldn't go far) and hope it will all blow over. But it won't. I actually do think that we are seeing the end of extreme, unfettered market capitalism - and personally I had a hunch this was bound to happen when Soviet communism ended - somehow one ideological system had propped up the other. With any luck the outcome will be a softer, more humane type of middle of the road capitalism with a good dollop of gentle socialism thrown in. Er, if we don't just slide into fascism that is.

So. Is there any point in even trying to run a business that's selling anything other than the basics? Well, yes, there is. The world will not stop. People will still want some fantasy and beauty in their lives. And - if you think of the 1930s, these wild times actually can produce extraordinary art and design. However, it might be an idea to rethink strategy now - change demands change and you may well not be able to follow your own five-year business plan (assuming you ever had one - the futility of such plans may well become my "point 25" when we get there).

It's probably time to look at new ways of doing things. Some thoughts on that in my next post. Firstly though, I need to send a letter to our "base bag" supplier to say we have decided to change to using silk-mix rather than silk in some of our products. Thus taking a really big chunk off the final price while keeping the exact same look.

Let's face the music and dance  


You may have noticed that I've been stunned into silence here by the incredible (well, not really - actually entirely predictable to anyone who can do basic maths) events on Wall Street.

So before I say more about this, here's a video that pretty much sums up my attitude right now (warning, gets very raunchy about two-thirds of the way in - a distinct touch of the Weimar.):

Why Russians are different  


Or at least, why my Russian is.

One thing on which Alex and I differ hugely is in our tendency to ask others for help. He finds it truly amazing when I need help or advice, know where to get it, but don't want to ask for it. "Why?" he asks, and the cultural gap between us opens up and almost sucks me in.
"I just don't like to," I say, feeling a bit feeble.

Russians ask - well, in fact more or less demand - help from one another all the time. I think it's somehow a result of the whole Soviet thing. Not because they were all sunny, happy, communal and co-operative communists but rather because, as Alex explains it, under that system your chances of survival were just a lot less if you didn't have mutual support from friends, family and neighbours. They simply grew accustomed to needing one another.

I decided earlier this year that I very much wanted to combine embroidery with some of our prints (I once almost did the Creative Embroidery degree at Goldsmiths College - another episode in my patchy and eventful past - under the amazing Constance Howard) . I have found a way of getting the most beautiful hand-embroidery done for us, but I also want to try machine embroidery - a very different look that works especially well with metallic threads. One of our Russian friends then announced that he had bought a professional embroidery machine (he does make-up and costume for films). "Is there any chance he might let us try it?" I asked Alex tentatively, only to get a blank look and then, "Well, of course." In fact a beautiful bag embroidered with a splendid gold crest and Alex's name arrived from Moscow not long after - our friend is, apart from his nationality, simply a generous person.

Of course we will also be expected to help when we're needed - and we do. But the point is that there isn't the self-consciousness or anxiety involved in asking for quite major favours that I was brought up with.

A bit of that kind of Russian attitude is a great thing in a small business. Ask and give - you really are stronger as part of a co-operative network.

12. Find a few people you trust. Use them mercilessly - and let them use you just as much.  


This is another big topic so again I'll split it across a couple of posts - and no doubt come back to it as well.

Running a business is lonely and scary and it can leave you feeling very exposed. It's important to find people you can talk to, and who may also be able to help you.

Weirdly enough, I learned this, at least in part, from a British Telecom management training workshop. When I worked for BT I used to be sent on lots of workshops and I honestly think it's the only thing I ever did learn from them. Oh, except I now remember that I did also learn (learning point number two as they say) that if someone on your team at a workshop faints at your feet, grab them quickly and volunteer to take care of them, preferably in a quiet room in the hotel (these workshops, at middle-management level, are nearly always held in places like Marriott Hotels). Sitting watching daytime televison and getting stuff in from room service and chatting is usually a much better way of bonding than actually attending the "teamwork" workshop. Which brings us back to the first thing I learned, which is that it's okay to ask for help.

At the particular ghastly workshop I'm talking about (not the fainting incident one), we all had to make videos that communicated the company values. I wish I was kidding, but I'm not, this happened. My team's video was pretty crap because we spent a lot of time bickering - or in my case, alternatively telling jokes and going into a huff because they wouldn't give me full creative control, HUMPH.

We also didn't have a clue how to make a video. There were two technicians there and we were told we could ask help from them, but somehow we felt we should only do that in case of dire need (not knowing how to switch on the camera etc.) At the final "wrap up" session one thing we were asked was why on earth we hadn't asked for the help available to us. A really good question.

So - I pass on to you this piece of learning from that experience. If you know of people who can, and may be willing to, help you, then for goodness sake ask them.

Postscript. By the way, I was so utterly depressed by the video-workshop I'm describing that when they asked us a final question - what we would take home from the experience - I said something inane while clearly telling myself "That's it, I'm out of this job. These last three days tell me that I have to get out NOW". I moved jobs within a fortnight. There are times when I think that the main, hidden aim of corporate middle management workshops is to bore and depress the trouble-makers into leaving the organisation. Or am I just being paranoid?

So - if there are no walled gardens, what DO you do in the wild world?  


This is carrying on from my last point (11).

I'll probably say a lot more on this whole issue as it's one of the main ones facing any business nowadays. For now, just some simple advice:

  • Face up to the fact that there is some very strong global competition in the world and it's not going to go away. Just don't hide your head in the sand.

  • Also - as the cliche goes - don't panic. Of course you can compete in this new, internationalised market. You just have to put some time into thinking how.

  • Realise that there are huge positives in what's happening. Asian producers are not just competitors they may also be suppliers - even if all you end up doing is stringing some Indian glass beads with Bali silver findings - or even better, collaborators. You can find people - in any culture or country - that you can work well with.

  • Be honest and be confident about your own skills, experience and abilities. What can you make that people will want? Regardless of competition. What do you have that's unique in some way?
Globalisation makes the competition tough, but it also opens out all sorts of possibilities that just weren't there before. We are currently buying silks direct from India, getting our inks from England, our paper and fabric to print on from Czech, our messenger "base bags" are made for us in China - to our own design and specifications - and so on. One day I'll write a whole post about this and maybe - for fun - make a map.

Then the finished bags (and soon cushions and other things) go off to our distributors in, for example, Australia, and to shops in Greece, Germany, Japan or the USA...

Ten or fifteen years ago this would all have been very hard to organise and we would probably mostly have sourced in one country (even if fabrics etc ultimately came from somewhere else), made in one country and sold in one country. Nowadays that often isn't the best way to do it - not just in terms of cost but also - and this is an important point - in terms of the range, depth and quality of what you can produce.

Okay, it still takes a lot of work (finding good people who love good quality as much as we do is never easy) but nowadays even a teeny tiny studio like ours can work globally. And well.

Yes We Can! Whoops, sorry, wrong post.