10 Keys to Business Survival & Growth

business person learning how to survive, pinned in the corner with red tape

Ten practical tips to ensure your business survival came out of a Creative Business Conference held at Birmingham City University in June 2016. Organised by Creative City Partnership, speakers came from a wide range of business and cultural organisations.

Discussions were intense and focused on survival, collaboration and growth. There was consensus around 10 take-aways, which are in fact relevant to all business sectors, not just creatives. In no particular order the winning tips are…!

1. Stay focused on what you’re good at – Too many creatives spread their activities too widely. Focus on what you’re good at and don’t be tempted to chase little bits of money for short-term cash-flow gain. Focus on your core markets and develop those more fully.

2. Charge properly and build a war-chest of resources – It is so easy for many creatives to not charge enough for their services. Keep a genuine business plan up-to-date and keep an eye on the bottom line. Plan to make money so you can build a war chest of resources that enables you to ride income dips and be able to make bold and risky moves in the future.

3. Keep your public funding dependency under control – For those organisations using grants it is essential to keep their ratio of public to private money under control. It was felt that public funding or grants should be no more than a third of your businesses turnover. Ideally keeping other funding as commercial as possible.

4. Keep your Organisation Nimble – Winning large contracts was identified as a big risk! Don’t say ‘I am a Big Company Now’ and start spending after the win, stay close to reality. Keep your core staffing and overheads under control. Be nimble, so if contracts end abruptly you can scale back with minimum risk. This means cultivating a reliable and trusted group of quality freelancers who can regularly work with you as projects allow.

5.Look Outside your Comfort Zone – One of the keys to securing future sustainability is not being afraid to look outside your comfort zone and in unexpected places for new knowledge and opportunities. Sometimes this means learning boring stuff, like regeneration policy and planning! Sometimes effective collaboration can come from very unexpected places, for example, many creatives have found work through inclusion in healthcare funding bids.

6. Building relationships is the key to survival – People work with people. We can all help connect people and their businesses together. To enter new markets start with the problem or need that you want to address and then figure out how to solve it. That includes making the right people and organisation connections to turn your idea into reality.

7. Build Equal Partnerships – Building ‘equal’ partnerships is important. Never have one partner thinking they are the supplier to the others – all must be equal. Effective collaborations and partnerships need this sort of equal commitment, in terms of time, resources and risk.

8. Collaboration is not always transactional – We tend to think of collaboration as always being transactional. That is a partnership formed for the singular goal of developing and launching something specific, be it a product, service or cultural project. But collaborations can be about evolving new ideas and thinking. These more open collaborations have the potential to lead to something amazing in the future, if they are allowed to be open and flexible now.

9. Leverage whatever support you can get – Don’t underestimate the value of business support in all is forms to help your organisation survive and grow. Be it learning new things, perhaps bringing in a coach or getting some expert consultants. You can often leverage resources from unexpected places to fund your projects too, for example, including a low carbon building component on a bid can give you preferential public funding. (on the right bid!)

10. You don’t have to know everything – You don’t have to know everything to be successful! But it will really help you if you know who to ask to acquire the latest knowledge. This means keeping in touch with peers and constantly building your active network of connections.

Panellists for the conference included: Format Zone, Birmingham Open Media, Blue Hippo Media, Ammba Digital, Civicolive, The Space, Woman and Theatre, Birmingham Hippodrome, WAA Advertising Agency, SRS Insurance, Creative England, Creative Industries Federation, Digital Humanities Hub and Greater Birmingham & Solihull Enterprise Partnership,

You can download the full report, ‘New Thinking, Essential Change in the Creative industries – Conference’. (opens in a new tab)

Negotiating Brexit: the pain is just beginning

Culture across Birmingham

July 21st. Hippodrome. Birmingham. Louise Jury from the Creative Industries Federation leads their first ‘Brexit Impact’ Meeting outside London. The purpose, to understand the true effects of brexit across the UK and identify negotiating priorities for government. Stakeholders raised a number of critical issues:

Restrictions on the free movement of people could significantly impact access to talent. The Hippodrome suggested they may be restricted in their ambitions with international artists. Sampad, promoting South Asian Arts, felt charities like them would be hit by the extra admin burden of visas. Although more important for them and other smaller cultural organisations would be loosing EU cultural funds that support talent exchange and cultural enrichment.

Creative businesses had big concerns over access to markets. Ammba, an SME in digital heritage, said they already worked in EU markets and were exploring global ones too, especially Canada and North America. It was of great concern that the lack of free trade agreements in the next few years would have a huge impact on the expansion potential of them and many thousands of other SME’s.

Big concerns were raised over the pausing by treasury of new projects involving the European Regional Development Fund and European Social Fund. This decision affects all EU funded programmes that were about to start but have no funding agreements in place. An example came from Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, where part of their business support programme for next year has been paused.

It became clear from many stakeholders around the room that the implications of this ‘pause’ were huge, as EU match funds are embedded literally ’everywhere’ across the region. Creative Advantage Fund said they would not have been able to establish their venture capital fund for creatives without European money. The Hippodrome cited that their new building work would have been scaled back without EU funds.

Creative City Partnership noted that EU funds that come straight from Brussels, such as Creative Europe and Horizon 2020, have not been paused according to EU coordinators. Birmingham City University (BCU) felt that there was uncertainty over these funds, especially after the next 12 months.

Many in the room had hoped to make the most of the next few years to access EU funding while its still available, as anything agreed should continue up to 3 years after brexit. They felt getting the pause lifted and real clarity on what access the UK has to EU funds was urgent.

The conversation them moved onto the big area of university led collaborations. BCU have been very active in EU collaborations, especially around the new area of cross-innovation. Steve Harding emphasised the huge value to working with Europe in terms of knowledge and innovation, ‘It is much more than just a financial transaction’.

David Furmage, policy consultant, suggested we should lobby for Creative Europe and Horizon 2020 funding from the UK to be continued. His contacts at the European Business Network said there was support for this amongst many in Brussels. Whilst this is ‘cherry picking’ it might be agreed because the areas of collaboration, research and culture have built very complex relationships and ecosystems over many decades. Also, they represent only a relatively small part of EU funding.

Jonnie Turpie, from Maverick TV, felt we should analyse which EU funded projects had been the most successful, he cited the West Midlands film Production Fund as an example. We could then direct new UK funding towards programmes with the highest potential for success.

Several mentioned the double-whammy of huge cuts in Birmingham City Council’s cultural budget, where a ‘cultural inquiry’ has been considering solutions. EU funding cuts on top make an almost impossible situation worse.

The message was clear. Birmingham needs devolved funds and the freedom to develop itself as a major city region for the benefit of all. EU funds and crucially the relationships and enrichments from Europe have enabled a strong Creative Economy. This has benefited the wider economy, the well-being of our citizens, students, tourism and much more.

UK government needs to recognise the importance of replacing EU funding with UK monies to ensure a strong devolved city. It also needs to understand the value of existing relationships with Europe, especially around culture and research, to see what can be preserved.

Finally, when the Creative Industries Federation polled its members, 96% wanted to say in Europe. There is no doubt amongst the vast majority of the creative economy that brexit is a bad and damaging idea. We don’t endorse it, but if we have to live with it we want the best solution we can get, funding preserved and crucially our relationships with our European friends and colleague’s still intact.

Business Support …Smarter! Creative Industries Friendly Test

iPad and productivity tools

Business Support is an essential component of economic growth, be it helping start-ups, expertise around internationalisation or funds to de-risk innovation. Creative Businesses can find it harder than most to get support, as banks and other support intermediaries often view them with suspicion, for example, over the valuation of creative intellectual property (IP).

Cluster 2020, part of the European Business Network, has tested a range of measures to help creative businesses. One is a tool that can measure how well main-stream support programmes are accessible by creatives. The idea being to advocate for the sector, so banks cab be educated (about the value of creative IP) and support intermediaries can make adjustments to their programmes so they work for creatives.

Cluster 2020 published a report which concludes that creative businesses have specific characteristics relative to other industries. There is a need to develop a ‘Creative Industries Stress Test’ which can be implemented when considering [and measuring] the suitability of business support tools aimed at helping creative industry businesses succeed.

The following 5-step test has been developed by David Furmage and the team at Creative England and The Serious Games Institute.  It is suggested that each question is allocated a score (1 = low, 5 = high) and the final score will determine whether or not the tool is ‘Creative Industry Friendly’.

1. Does the tool (or support programme) recognise the key characteristics of a creative business. ie., micro size, nature of employment, business models and processes?

2. Does the tool take into account the hidden assets/creative IP of the business?

3. Does the tool provide a platform or testing ground for developing new ideas and product applications, exploring new technologies and trying new things?

4. Does the tool require a fully skilled and resourced management team/board?

5. Does the tool ‘Keep it Simple’? For example, minimal bureaucracy, appropriate metrics, accessible help, easy-to-use on-line application form etc.

Programmes or services that score 15 or above on this test are deemed to be ‘Creative Industry Friendly’. Read the full report here.

Wider implementation of this test would make  significant improvements in business support for creatives, as a far wider range of support would become available to the sector.

Creative Business Needs – a cracked record!

film crew at work, creative business

As the Creative business sector considers its latest needs and issues, especially in the light of ‘brexit’, it is interesting to ask the question ‘where are we now with business support compared with 4-years ago?’

Back in 2012 ‘Cluster 2020’, part of the European Creative Industries Alliance, surveyed business needs in Birmingham and Manchester’s creative industries.  This EU funded project, led by David Furmage, was testing ‘next-generation business support’ for the sector and wanted to base-line sector needs. The findings serve as a useful reminder four years on of what has improved and what is still needed.

At the time clearer signposting of support was essential. A kite-mark to identify reliable and trustworthy support programmes with an intermediary acting as an ‘honest broker’. Brokerage for collaborations, partnerships, innovation and matchmaking which again had to be trusted. Guidance and mentoring around business affairs, Intellectual property,  recruitment and skills development were all considered essential. Overall it was felt there was a lack of generic business support and little access to industry experts to provide support.

These surveys were done early on in the life of the UK’s 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships. They now have active Growth Hubs, providing limited business diagnostics, advice and signposting. Much of the core business support is now run through universities, who have been providing some excellent services. Sadly many of these have been funded through European structural funds which have either ended now or have limited hope of being renewed.

Fast forwarding to 2016 it does feel very much that businesses haven’t been listened too, their support needs ignored. Their are some rays of light though! In Birmingham for example, The Growth Hub, along with the Chamber of Commerce and notably Birmingham City University, are trying to put coherent services in place against a stark backdrop of funding cuts.

This blog will be reviewing support, especially in Birmingham, over the coming months. For now this may serve to remind us that we perhaps shouldn’t have overhauled Business Support so radically. Business Link with all its faults is sorely missed … businesses now, as in 2012, need a solid, clear and trustworthy business support programme to help them grow and succeed.

The Birmingham Summary report can be downloaded here. The manchester summary report can be downloaded here.