A brief back story
In 2015 I ran a successful Fund It campaign to allow me to travel to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada. I wanted to see how craft and art practises there dealt with promotion of their businesses, and discover if there was anything we in Ireland could learn from them. I picked Cape Breton because it has many similarities to Ireland. An island based off of a continent, similar sized population, isolated areas, and so on. I learnt a lot in my month there, was invited back in 2016 for the Celtic Colours festival and was able to see more. The only problem was it left me pondering other questions; questions that have taken time for my mind to fully comprehend. I had to ponder the subject and carry out a few experiments of my own to see if I was on the right track. This and a recent trip to teach in Germany have given me a glimpse of a bigger picture and I hope to share some of my pondering with you here.
Where to begin.
I’m going to break with tradition and begin with the negative instead of softening you up with the positives, before sucker punching you. It is important to identify the problems or you don’t have a chance of solving them.
“You are only an artist/craftsperson/blacksmith”. It’s never really verbalised but I can see it in the eyes of politicians or public officials or business leaders whenever I have had meetings with them. It’s the look they get just before their eyes glaze over as I speak. Being brushed aside is our biggest problem; but not just ours, the wider community too. But it’s also, a problem in terms of the aforementioned politicians, public officials, and business leaders. It’s at the root of many problems facing small regions throughout Ireland and I’m guessing many other areas around the world too. The challenge is how to rejuvenate an area when you don’t have the advantages of a major population or large cultural metropolis?
Here’s the big secret. Art and craft businesses have a hugely disproportionate effect on the businesses and general culture around them. The problem is that this effect does not show up on any statistics. How we measure the worth of a business to the community is generally through the volume of employment generated by businesses. But, it’s not the only factor and it does not give you a clear picture of what is going on in the business environment, especially in rural areas.
The simple truth is artists, crafts people, or creative industries in general create an atmosphere that others want to be part of. Most people may not know why they prefer to eat lunch in a particular area or why they are drawn to stay an extra few days in a region when on holiday. Others will be drawn to that area because their friends hang out there. But it is clear that many places around the world were rejuvenated by creative people and businesses, and this has had a disproportionate effect on the businesses around them.
The vast majority of areas have been rejuvenated through fortunate accidents. In many cases, artists and crafts people moved into the areas that nobody else really wanted to base themselves. The rent in such areas was, crucially, cheap. Another vital aspect is that usually these areas are subjected to loose or looser regulations. Often, adaptable industrial spaces allowed for a diverse span of artists and crafts people to exist close to one another. Before long the coffee shops open up, then the bars, the galleries, and soon other businesses want to be part of this vibrant atmosphere. Areas like Shoreditch in London or Temple Bar in Dublin are cases in point. The problem is that the creative individuals and businesses responsible for kick-starting the area on the way to rejuvenation become priced out by the success they helped generate. Inevitably, the area becomes a tourist trap.
Then there are areas where rejuvenation is engineered through craft and art. West Kilbride in Scotland is one of the best examples I could find. There, artists and crafts people took over disused buildings one by one as they generated income for the rehabilitation of the town by providing studios for creative businesses. This in turn attracted other businesses, as with the accidental rejuvenations, but avoided the creative ones being priced out by their own success.
Where much of the engineered rejuvenations fall short (I’m not talking about West Kilbride here, just in wider terms) is that the units provided for the creative businesses tend to be less adaptable and are usually heavily regulated with terms and conditions. Whichever way you look at this issue, the big problem is that artists and crafts people are easily brushed aside on all levels. We even discount ourselves a lot of the time; self-deprecating, almost to the point of extinction. As a result there is a very large turnover of start-up craft and art businesses.
Travels with my hammer.
The areas of which I have knowledge are: of course Ireland, I have lived here for 17 years and have owned and operated my own creative business here for 12 of those; the U.K., where I was born and lived for 30 years; Germany, to which I have been invited for festivals and to teach; and Canada, in particular Cape Breton which I visited several times over the past six years, teaching, and giving demos in my field of forge work.
Each of these countries do things that are both helpful and detrimental to the small creative business. Here in Ireland one of the biggest bonuses is the lack of regulation around creative enterprises. This has allowed me to be flexible, I don’t get bogged down in red tape which has meant I’ve been able to spend more time at the anvil, developing my skill set. The down side is, I have felt invisible and irrelevant, since very few of the organizations set up to promote business have been interested in what I have to offer. There is no formal training in my field and this has hampered my progression in my craft.
The U.K. has great training in my field at least and that helps to generate a built in respect for craft and art. It is possible to gain a formidable skill set in a few short years in a college setting, allowing students to spend more time to promoting any business they set up. This, teamed with flexible study options that include part-time courses and the lack of major regulation, brings about both flexibility and a formal path. The down side is heavier business regulation, leading to red tape. As with Ireland there is an invisibility surrounding craft and art. Yes, you can go to major galleries and see already successful artists and crafts people, but equally you can drive from one end to the other of both countries without knowing that you are passing some of the most talented people in Europe.
Germany offers very good training and apprenticeships, leading to a high level of respect for crafts people and art in general. Culturally, there seems be a built in reverence for people who are skilled with their hands which drives customers towards creative businesses. There is a high level of red tape from what I have seen and a more rigid training system, which comes at a cost of less people finding different paths into a career in crafts, resulting in less diversity.
In Canada I noticed the highest level of visibility for craft businesses. This was true at least in Cape Breton where I was based. Most craft businesses had their own individually made and styled signs on main roads. As well as driving passing trade off the main tracks, these signs gave vibrancy to the areas. In all the other counties, at best, you might see a generic brown sign which does not have the same impact. There did seem to be a lack of major training, at least in my field, and maybe an overreliance on tourism which tended to create a less diverse creative industry.
In saying this, bear in mind that Ireland is the only country in which I have run a business. Everything about the other three counties is what struck me during my travels and through conversations with other creative business owners.
What I decided to do next.
So, what did I have after my travels? A load of experiences, observations, stories, and ideas. I also had no money (which, technically speaking, is a lack of something), a struggling business, and my skill set. So naturally I put together an experiment, with my business as the guinea pig. I’m lucky to have my forge on the N4, the main Dublin to Sligo road. I decided my shop front would be the canvas, but as I’ve already said, I had no money. Firstly, I painted the building black, which put paid to what little spare cash I had. Then, I had to wait six months until I had enough spare cash in the kitty to start the next stage. This is where Friz, aka Marian Noone comes in. She had already done several murals around Sligo Town and I loved her work. I contacted her, gave her my meager budget, and asked if it was possible for her to do something on that budget. Luckily for me, Marian thought she could but with a small budget, it would mean only one day of her time. So, we set about coming up with a minimal design that Marian could execute in one day. This consisted in me sending ideas and styles and Marian making those ideas realistic to come up with a great eye-catching design.
Marian arrived on the appointed day, worked very hard and, true to her word, finished that same day. The results really did exceed my expectations and the effect on my business was immediate. Within two weeks the new look forge front had paid for itself twice over. People were stopping just to take photos of the outside of my forge. In no time at all people were talking about my forge as a Sligo Landmark. So in the short term at least, the experiment had been a success.
There was an immediate increase in turnover, not huge on most people’s scale maybe, but for me and my business it made a huge difference. I was not struggling to pay the bills each month for the first time in three years. The most common comment I received were people telling me they had to turn around and come back just to come in and see what it was all about. I expected to get a larger amount of tourists into the forge, which I have, but not as many as I had hoped. The unexpected part was the amount of existing customers and those who were already aware of my work who came in for a visit. It seemed to tip the scales for a lot of people. I don’t know whether it gave them more confidence in my business or if the vibe it set attracted them but the big thing is it caught people’s attention. Since the mural was painted, the three major parts of my business have increased. That’s incidental sales in the forge of pre-made hand forged work, commission work, and courses. I expected the first two, but not the uptake in the courses I offer. The vast majority of my courses are taken by people from outside of County Sligo and more often than not they have rarely been to Sligo before. The only major change in terms of how I promote my business has been the shop front, so I don’t have any other reason for the increased interest in my courses in the past nine months.
In the previous three years to the revamping of my forge, three major businesses had closed around the area where my forge is located: a very good restraint, the largest hotel in this part of Sligo, and the gas station directly across from the forge. In the past four weeks a major revamp of the gas station across from me has begun. I can’t say that its reopening is a direct result of my actions; most likely it is a combination of many different factors, as are most business investments of this nature. But I do think other businesses look at what is happening in an area before investing. They want to see others striving to create something. Having a disused derelict building opposite your potential venture would not instil confidence in your investment. That gas station had been closed for a year before I revamped the forge. Its closure had had a dramatic effect on my business and the wider community since it was the only shop for some miles around. This illustrates the effects creative businesses can have on an area and how it is not really documented. We tend to be the tipping of the scales, but everyone is looking at and measuring the scales. McDermott’s Pub, just down from my forge, does not measure the 30 to 50 extra lunches my business gives it and register these to me, neither does Tower Hill B&B just down the road and I’m sure it’s only a drop in their overall customer base and profit margin. But these are the extra little things that keep restaurants and B&Bs profitable. If I was one of six creative businesses locally, how much could we boost the profits of those two businesses? Maybe it would have made the difference to the local restaurant that closed down? Maybe it would be the deciding factor to other businesses looking for the right location?
What this project has taught me is that visibility is a key factor to businesses like mine. Not just visibility but your own brand of visibility. Note I said brand of visibility, not Brand visibility. I used my personal ideas and interests to guide the design of my forge frontage. I think that is a crucial part of promoting a creative business. Don’t get bogged down in marketing advice and trends. People will buy into your passion, that’s our biggest asset. Being quirky and standing out is a huge bonus to us. Our clients are looking for the different, the quirky, the very things that can’t be defined by trend culture. There are lots of people who just want homogenised products and there’s plenty of choice for them. I’ve noticed that all the marketing advice I have seen for creative business has tried to push it in that direction. But it’s already well served by companies that are very well funded and can outspend, market, and promote the smaller art and craft business (you). That said, we have individuality, creativity, passion, and a flexibility that gives us access to a clientele of our own. We can take risks because we are creative, passionate people. In fact, for me being bold does not feel like a risk, I just get excited by it and other people tend to respond to that.
What’s the answer?
For a long time I’ve asked the same question. For many, the answer is uncomfortable. In general terms the creative sector is full of very hard working people. One of our major problems is the lack of investment. By that I mean it’s hard to get the sort of investment capital you need to really set up a business and give it the best start possible. But our biggest problem is ourselves. We defer our worth and potential to others. As an industry we look to others to fix a problem. We don’t want to rock the boat and get too noticed. I’m aware that other business people have no problem being pushy, bigging up their business and getting the maximum investment in terms of promotion or anything else on offer. The solution is that we need to see our true worth and trust in our own passion. We need to step forward and be bold in pushing our businesses. Polite just gets you squeezed to the back of the room. Too many times I’ve been to meetings of creative businesses and the first thing we decide is to get a “marketing expert” in to solve our problems. I’ve had help from marketing experts and some of it has been good advice, I’m not knocking them. But think about it for a minute. A room full of creative people and the first thing they do is look for funding to hire a marketing expert to tell them how to solve their problems. Why aren’t we looking to our own abilities to solve our problems? We are inventive, passionate business people with a wealth of knowledge. Most of the time I get the feeling that we know what the problem is: we are invisible. But to truly solve this issue we would have to crack some eggs, rock the boat, and as an industry we are scared to do this. So, we get funding for someone who does not truly understand our sector and ask them to come up with a plan that would allow us to tackle the problem. If we really want to move forward we can’t be afraid to step forward.
The problems and answers do not lie solely in the court of creative businesses. We have areas all over the country that need rejuvenation, with empty business premises across the country. I’ve been to meetings with business people and local authorities at which they too are trying to solve their problems by hiring someone who does not understand the real issue. They want to solve the problem of reduced investment and falling footfall by leaving premises empty at a very high rental and very high business rates. The result is no-one paying rent or business rates and fewer people visiting the area because a large percentage of the premises are empty.
What could be done is to create a nonprofit organisation that purchases a percentage of those empty premises and rents them out at a low rate, with low business rates, to creative businesses. After an initial period of time, the rent and business rates will increase to a percentage rate of the net profits of the businesses involved. In this way, an environment is created that allows creative people to work to their strengths, innovate, and take risks. The result is stable, vibrant businesses in properties that were previously empty and/or derelict. These businesses will grow and increase their profit margin to contribute more to the nonprofit over time. That added contribution can then be reinvested in the nonprofit and go on to help other creative businesses. Those that take longer to establish have a secure framework in which to do that. The other businesses in the area, will benefit from greater footfall and a more vibrant environment that is attractive to customers. Most importantly, it fosters diversity and a business community that is stable and attractive to visitors and investors.
But to do this it takes everyone, on all sides, to be bold and unafraid to shake things up a little. To stop trying to make a business model designed to work in a metropolis function in a regional setting. To take a small risk in stepping forward, rather than fading into the background