For as long as I can remember, it has been my dream to own my own business – to build something from the ground up and watch as it grows into a living creature. Although my background and experience is varied and extensive, I have lacked certain skills imperative to building a business. Recently I went looking for those skills.
My area of experience within the creative industries is the music industry. My love for the world of music is as strong today as it was when I heard The Beatles for the first time, and working on the communications for my former band Junah, I realised it was an area of the music industry that I wanted to push my career toward, and one day build a business within.
Just over six months ago, I started an MA in Advertising and the Creative Economy at Kingston University. The course covered modules on subjects such as Creative Collaboration, Mapping the Creative Economy, Elements of the Communications Mix, Marketing Communications & Advertising, and Design Thinking. A creative course within a business school with a heavy focus on entrepreneurialism which could give me the business skills I needed to bridge the gap between business and creative. Skills that we are not born with, but are learned (Aulet, 2013).
It was within Design Thinking that I was tasked with producing a blog to give an account of what we had covered over the course of the module, and what I had learned – a place to document the process of the business we would start.
Each student was instructed to form a business with classmates, create a product and bring it to market. As well as selling the product at trade fairs, we also needed to develop branding, packaging, manage finances, and perfect a sales pitch. The project would culminate at a Dragons Den event in March.
To begin a project like this, or indeed any project, you need the right mindset. Dr Carol Dweck (2012) explains that there are two distinct mindsets people can have. The fixed mindset and the growth mindset. A person that adopts a fixed mindset believes their abilities are natural and The fixed cannot be learned. This creates a fear of failure or looking stupid, and the long-term goal is not to learn but to look smart. A person with a growth mindset believes that our ‘talents’ come from hard work, and the harder we work at something the better we will become. Failure is part of the process for these people; it is a step on the path to learning. A view that is hugely supported by Tom and David Kelley (2015) of IDEO. In their book Creative Confidence, they tackle the genius myth and explain that people are not born geniuses, they simply learn through hard work.
The growth mindset was the first thing that I needed to ensure I had equipped myself with. Although I had experience of releasing a product in the form of music, this project would take me far from the industry I felt at home in. But the point was to learn as I was constantly told to ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission’ as there was ‘no such thing as too rude, wild, or mad’. “Stir things up” to quote Dave Trott (2013; 145).
One of the most exciting parts of the course is the people. Students, faculty, guest speakers, random strangers; getting the chance to meet people from different backgrounds, countries and cultures has been incredibly inspiring. These are the people I formed a team with, and the people I hope to work with for many years.
A team is a lot like society: they are based on balance and collaboration, and in order to be successful, they need people from different backgrounds and skill sets, who fight for one goal based on an agreed set of principles. It was my goal to have a team of intrinsically motivated individuals to ensure we could be as creative as possible (Amabile, 1998). A skill that is vital in any start-up.
Once the team was in place, it was time to discuss what kind of product we would make and the company we wanted to be. Anything that people within the team may be passionate about needs to be discussed to ensure you are on the same page. This includes areas like sustainability – how much should what you do affect the world around you; the culture of the business – innovation, creativity, are these the aspects that will drive future growth; what is most important to you as a business – profit? People? All of these positions contribute to what kind of company you are and can influence what kind of product you will develop. This was an important lesson to learn as it is imperative to understand your place in the market, and know where you fit in.
Once we agreed on our principals and who we wanted to be, we formed our company ‘Hugh Manatee’ and started the process of figuring out our product.
We began with a bug list. Trying to uncover any problems we could think of that we might be able to solve, and although our sights were set on a digital application to help people with disabilities navigate cities, we realised due to time, it was not feasible – our first pivot.
We quickly learned that the problem you wish to solve, must be a problem that exists and not one you perceive as existing. The only way to find this out is to go out and speak to people. Understanding your consumer is vital in every business, but it is the basic premise of marketing communications (Fill and Turnbull, 2016), and without understanding your consumer, you are destined to fail.
Our process was simple, it was The Lean Start-up (Reis, 2011) – build, measure, learn. By using the feedback loop you could test your idea, learn from this information, and iterate all in the shortest time possible, gaining insight from tools such as the customer empathy map (Farnworth, 2014), the value proposition canvas (Thompson, 2013), and the lean canvas (Sahuguet, 2015). It is only through learning that we really understand what our consumers want.
We settled on our product HOMEBRELLA, a home to store your wet umbrella whilst on the go. We began developing our first prototypes and receiving feedback on their designs. Through this, we could develop our minimum viable product (MVP), the most basic functional version of our product that would solve the problem, and from this we could learn what our consumers really wanted (Blank, 2013).
Like with all collaborations, it will never be completely smooth sailing. We had a strong team of friends who were all driven toward the same goal. We all wanted to work hard, and have fun while we were doing it, one of the many traits of the creative person (Csikszentmihalyi, 2013) We had a broad set of skills and different personalities that complemented each other well, but we, like everyone, came across difficulties, but conflict is not just inevitable, it is vital (Weiss and Hughes, 2005), and natural part of collaboration.
The majority of our problems were unforeseen issues that were out of our control. Some things happened that delayed the process longer than we would have hoped, and unfortunately, that meant that by the time the first trade fair came around, we had no product to sell. Things will always take longer than expected, a lesson well learned.
We could not turn up to the fair without anything. We decided that we would try and promote our brand, and get as much feedback on all aspects of our business as possible. This at least would tell us if we were on the right track.
Consecutively, we were also part of the Bright Ideas competition – a nationwide challenge for budding entrepreneurs to test their skills. Through Bright Ideas, we got the opportunity to meet with mentors who could give us feedback on our product ideas, practice our elevator pitch, and be in with the chance of winning £1000. It was also a chance to meet like-minded individuals and learn more about the process of running a business. For the first time, we experienced what it was like to view ideas from an outside perspective, now that we had some experience. It was interesting to be able to step back from a problem and it made me realise how important it is to do the same with HOMEBRELLA.
Unfortunately, we were not going home any richer, but we gained insight about our product and our brand. Ideas like sending our product to bloggers to increase brand awareness is invaluable for the future as it is another way to connect with the consumer, more value for opening a business in advertising.
The trade fair and Bright Ideas were a bit of a wake-up call for us. We realised that we were far from where we needed to be. We realised consistency is key with a product, branding and trade stand. But, we had some catching up to do.
With some research on possible components for the HOMEBRELLA, we came up with a design for the MVP that we felt we could produce in-house relatively quickly. We sourced most of the materials from plumbing suppliers and arts & crafts stores and handmade an initial 26 units.
By the time the next trade fair arrived, we had a product to sell and we had redesigned our stand. We removed any items, including a parasol, that made no sense to our product, adopted two brand colours, and by the end of the day, we had made our first sales.
As we had some momentum, we wanted to ‘keep the ball rolling’. To complement our in-house made website, we began building our online presence. Through research, we decided on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, as it is vital to ensure you are on the platforms that your consumers are on (Brenner, 2012). The importance of social media is that it can connect you with your customers so you can learn what they think, and can also be used to raise awareness of your brand (Ryan, 2017). Facebook has a huge share of online users and is ideal for advertising events and is highly effective for raising brand awareness (Cohen, 2014). Instagram is highly visual and allowed us to share different design ideas, and Pinterest has a user base which is mostly female (Greenwood et al. 2016), which aligned it well with our target audience of women from a professional background, between the ages of 28 & 35. It is also important to understand what will not work for you and we felt that Twitter was not the right platform for us, as it did not suit our product.
When pitching to a Dragon’s Den panel, or any other panel, it is important to ensure that the relevant information gets across to your audience (Best, 2006). Dragon’s don’t necessarily care how many colours your product comes in, they want to know if your idea is viable, if there is a demand, if the financials make sense and if the idea is scalable. They need to know if they invest, would they get a return on that investment.
From the initial Dragons Dens rehearsals, we quickly realised that maybe our product was not at the point of production that we thought it was. As a prototype, it was good, but as the final product, it was far too heavy and cumbersome. Clearly, we had not listened to our customer feedback enough.
We finally pitched at the last Dragons Den event on the 17th of March. Our journey had taken us from meeting teammates for the first time, to pitching our handmade product to a panel of judges just six months later.
Although we only had a product for the final month, we managed to sell a total 19 bags by the end.
Throughout this whole process, we did not make money, in fact, we did not break even, but that wasn’t the point. We brought an idea from inception to completion in an incredibly short period of time. We learned about every aspect of the process because we experienced every aspect of the process, but more importantly, we learned that it can be done. The skills and knowledge I have learned are transferable to any business within the creative industries, but the customer centred approach of this module has given me a necessary basis to work within marketing communications. It was an experience that was undoubtedly valuable and has armed me for when I am at the next stage of setting up my own business outside of the University setting. A stage of my career I now feel I am much more prepared for.
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