How to turn a lightbulb into cash: School teaches creative types hard-nosed financial nous

Are you full of good ideas but devoid of business sense?

Simon Usborne
Wednesday 13 June 2012 22:51

Ideas are free but making money from them can be a huge struggle for Britain's artists, designers and masters of crafts. Businesses spend millions on consultants and motivational speakers to make their suits more creative and, to use that dreadful phrase, think outside the box. But if you're the one making the suits or the boxes, and spreadsheets make your brain ache, who's going to show you how to turn creativity into cash?

Tina Crawford makes cushions and other things she thinks will make your house look nice. She studied jewellery design at Central Saint Martins, the prestigious London arts school. She graduated back in 1994 but after illness forced her to give up full-time work in television, she was compelled to go it alone and rely on her creative talents.

Crawford, 40, turned to freehand embroidery, which had been a hobby, and set up business alone at the same time she had her son, Toby. "I couldn't afford to go back on benefits," she says. "I had to make it work." But how? Crawford admits she had no brain for business. "I almost ignored that side of things. I didn't know about pricing or any of the things you ignore as an artist. I just thought I can make things and everything will be hunky-dory."

It wasn't. Crawford's embroidered cushions featuring nostalgic scenes of landmarks in London, where she lives with her husband and son, were going nowhere. After two years in the doldrums, she heard about the School for Creative Startups, a social enterprise run by a man better known for breathing fire over would-be business people.

"Entrepreneurs aren't born, they're made," says Doug Richard, the school's founder and one of the original investors on the BBC series, Dragon's Den. He was renowned then for his lack of faith in would-be success stories, investing in just two contestants in two series, but has since become a champion for young creatives. "There's a tremendous amount of creative talent in Britain but nobody's helping these people succeed entrepreneurially," he says.

Richard, from California, has joined Medeia Cohan-Petrolino, an arts curator with experience in education and PR, to run the school at Somerset House. Crawford was among their first intake, having recently graduated after a year of workshops, lectures and lesson tailored to her needs. Her classmates were a diverse bunch of young people from fields including design, the performing arts and fashion.

Cohan-Petrolino sees no shortage of talent in Britain but says the arts are infected with a culture in which money is still a dirty word. "Schools don't see it as their responsibility to teach professional development," she says. "For them to be giving you 90 per cent of the skills to become a creative person, but none of the 10 per cent that allows you to eat from it is a disservice, especially when you're paying £9,000 a year."

Jim Rokos is a former model-maker, teacher and film extra. A degree in industrial design followed but when he wanted to make a go of a fruit bowl and a wine decanter with three bases at different angles of lean (it "gets drunk" as you do), he didn't know where to begin. "I had no idea about pitching, pricing or negotiating," Rokos says. The School paired Rokos with mentors who have helped him negotiate deals to make his products, which are now close to production.

Richard and Cohan-Petrolino will open their doors to 100 new students in September, having recruited a line-up of advisers, or "Titans", that includes Anya Hindmarch, the designer, fashion giant Paul Smith, Frieze's Matthew Slotover, restaurateur Oliver Peyton and Natalie Massenet, the founder of Net-A-Porter. Richard says his lessons in business will benefit many more people.

Government figures published last December showed the contribution to the economy of creative industries, which already employ 1.5 million people in more than 100,000 businesses, is growing. "Growth in economies comes from innovation that increases productivity, and new jobs," Richard says.

Before Crawford attended the course, she presented her cushions to buyers at a designer open day at Liberty, the London department store. "I was a mess," she says. "I could see they liked my product but I could also see they didn't think they could do business with me, because I wasn't a business person."

After months of training at Somerset House, Crawford got another chance to pitch, to Mary Portas, the retail expert who also has concessions in the House of Fraser department store. "I was nervous but I knew what I was talking about," she says. "I had the confidence to think, yes I can do this. It was a massive difference." Crawford's range is expanding and she's almost at the stage of needing to employ people. And she's confident: "I used to say, 'yeah, I make stuff, I don't know'. Now I say 'I'm a designer and I believe it'."

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in