Graduates: How I Got Here: A student joke can make you a lot of money

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Giles Andreae, 33, is the creator of Purple Ronnie, Britain's favourite stickman. This phenomenally successful cartoon character has made Andreae the country's top-selling poet and an icon of contemporary popular culture. Andreae also writes books for children.

Background and education

Eton and Oxford, both of which I loved. Not surprisingly, my forte was English, but I wasn't top of the class or anything. The only thing my teachers used to say I excelled at was what was politely termed "declamation". After uni, I decided on a career in the media. Advertising, we were taught, is about as acceptable as you can get if you want to be creative, and so I went for it. Bad move. It was the very last year of the advertising boom in the Eighties and the industry was so flash and cut-throat that I left after one week. Mind you, I was getting over cancer, and I'm not sure I'd have made such a radical move otherwise.

The big idea

Quite simply, I wanted to send silly greeting cards to friends while I was at university. So I created Purple Ronnie. The friends seemed to get a kick out of them, so together with a mate who was an illustrator, I set up a tiny operation in which we got them published on to postcards. Then, we'd set off on our bikes and sell them to local shops in Oxford, making a grand total of around pounds 10 a month.

We made buyers laugh and remember us, though, with our "minimum-of-one" order policy. Then, one day - around the time when I was graduating - a friend of mine discovered that her parents lived next door to a big publisher. We met him and he took it from there. That said, around 15 publishers had turned us down previously. I guess the moral to that story is that there really is truth in the saying: "It's who you know."

Most desperate moment

Performing Purple Ronnie on stage at reviews while I was at university. I still cringe at the mere thought of it. What did it teach me? To recognise that, when you clearly have no talent at something, to walk away from it quickly, with your dignity intact. Had it not been for realising just how dreadful I was so early on, I might not have decided to concentrate all my efforts into writing instead. Dreaming of being able to do something is one thing. Reality is another.

I wish I'd known

I would love to know what would have happened if I'd had a licensing agent from the beginning. In the ten years I've been doing this job, I've been adamant to handle all the business side of it on my own. The result is that Purple Ronnie remained relatively under-exposed. Now that I've teamed up with a licensing agent, that's changing. So perhaps if I'd accepted more help, and not insisted on being in total charge of my operation, I could have gone a lot further a lot quicker. Maybe I could even have retired...

Greatest achievement to date

Millennia the Angel. I suppose I'd describe it as a fable celebrating the millennium, and Selfridges are using its theme for their Christmas windows. It's the first thing I've written that will appeal from young children to grannies and has some real resonance and moral value. If people read it and think how profound it is, I'll consider it my biggest achievement yet. Having a career which involves so much "silliness" means it's particularly important to be taken seriously once in a while.

Secret of my success

First, the ability to recognise that just because you do something for fun doesn't mean you can't make a career out of it. I never thought: "Ah, there's a gap in the market so I shall fill it." With anything creative, it's rarely that predictable or obvious. But I am proof that what seems like a student joke can make you a lot of money, especially if you don't let yourself be put off by all those who will inevitably laugh at you or turn you away. Second, the ability to recognise that there's a child within every adult.

What you will need

It sounds awfully American but "Believe In Yourself" is my motto. That can be hard if your career plans are a bit off-the-wall. But keep reminding yourself: if you don't believe in yourself, how can you expect other people to? Once you've achieved that, make sure that you're tenacious with it.


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