I started my marketing agency, Studio Cotton, about 3 and a half years ago from a desk under the living room window of a little (but perfectly formed) basement flat off Cotham Hill. I can assure you, that when it came to running a new small creative business, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, let alone where I should spend the measly amount of money I had.
Since then, we’ve grown to a 700 sqft studio in the centre of Bristol, and things are, well, pretty banging. I want to use that early-days-deer-in-the-headlights experience to guide others, so if you’re starting a small creative business on a budget – here’s where I think you should scrimp, and where you should splurge.
Scrimp: Memberships and organisation fees
In my first year of trading, I joined every business and industry organisation that every agency I’d worked for in the past was a member of, because I thought I ‘should’. That was silly of me, because once I joined, I did absolutely nothing with my memberships.
I did try with a couple. I wanted to get my foot, ankle and calf (complete with patches of stubble because I always miss the back) in the door, and was happy to help with blog content, events, speaking, helping with social media content and more. But once they had my fees, it just wasn’t a priority for those networks,and soon it was not a priority for me either.
That’s not to say that there is no value in these memberships – just choose them wisely. I’d probably pick one professional support service – like the FSB – and one creative community – like The Collective by Delicate Rébellion (where I am now a mentor). You can also look into free community groups, like your local Etsy team, who are just so freaking smart and good and generous with their time.
Splurge: Creative events and meet ups
If you’re looking for a wife, you need to be where potential wives hang out. At least that’s what I say to my single friends who really, really appreciate it – right?
It’s the same for us when we are in need of clients, collaborators and small business buddies who get our struggle. I recommend attending every in-real-life event that takes your fancy – creative talks, workshops and classes, business launches and parties, beginners crochet and cake decorating.
And yes, I am serious about those last two. Less than 18 months ago a lovely lady left a comment on one of my Instagram posts about crochet. I said “I don’t know how”. She said “I have a workshop coming up”. I said “Yes please”.
In my head, I was freaking out about going to a creative workshop alone, but it was worth it. Emma from Stitching Me Softly who was running the event is now one of my literal best friends. And like any good friendship, I then stole/shared her best friends, including Jodie who now works with me at Studio Cotton.
In a two hour session I learned how to crochet a basket, and gained a network of amazing, caring, creative women. I honestly wasn’t expecting my life to change that day, but it did.
I have gained so many contacts, clients, friends and collaborators from creative events of all types, plus I know how to weave, knit, crochet, dye yarn, ice a cake, plant a terrarium, make wreaths, create necklaces and drain my bank account more efficiently than ever before.
Just kidding on that last one, they’re not actually that expensive.
Scrimp: Networking, brunches and luncheons
This might just be me, but if something is billed as a “networking opportunity”, a little part of my insides shrivels up and runs. I’m a big-ass extrovert, but the thought of a business brunch or an executive lunch sends introvert Aime heading some fresh air, a glass of water and a fluffy pillow.
Side note: I put a lot of effort into finding that clip. I hope it’s well received and that we all take a moment to appreciate the glory of 13 Going On 30, and Mark Ruffalo’s prime noughties sk8r boi aesthetic.
Anywho, networking events can be great opportunities for doing business, but in my experience it takes a very specific type of person to thrive in that environment. I hate the undertone that everyone is there to sell or to be sold to – that just ain’t my vibe. It might not be your vibe either.
Splurge: Photography and/or illustrations
Running an agency means our marketing budget is actually pretty small, just because we can execute most things in house. Our biggest expense by far is photography, and it’s worth every damn penny.
Here’s a list of things that are impossible (or dang difficult) without great photography:
- Building a pretty website
- Eye-catching, effective ads
- Getting in magazines
- Growing an engaged Instagram audience
- Attracting Pinterest users to your blog
- Selling products
- Looking professional
- Showing off
Dang thats an important list. Some of those items are crucial to running a successful business, and some just make things a heck of a lot easier. Now imagine not having access any of them – it’s going to make your life much harder than it needs to be.
We work with some insanely talented local photographers, and I suggest you ask around for local recommendations before finding someone who absolutely nails your aesthetic.
If you have literally no budget (just like me when I started Studio Cotton) stock photography websites can get you started – I even wrote a post about working with stock photography back in 2017.
Scrimp: The *perfect* brand identity
I literally sell brand identities for a living, and I’m about to tell you not to buy one from me. Yet.
Effective branding is crazy important – I run a workshop on Essentials of Branding here in our Bristol studio. Hear me out! You don’t need to get it 100% right the moment you launch your small creative business. In fact, I’m like 94% sure that’s impossible.
A brand identity that’s comprehensive – one that includes a logo, fonts, colours, typography and image guidance – is key. It can be 80% aesthetically right for you, your business and your audience, but if it’s applied 100% consistently, it’ll be so damn powerful.
Ok I’ll stop using percentages now. The point I am trying to make is that we can spend £1,000 on the perfect identity now, but if that’s all the money you have, it won’t have the same return on investment (ROI) as say, a banging website or a selection of stunning original photography.
Splurge: A banging website
I’ve written plenty in the past on how to DIY a great website, but it is categorically not easy. Wix, Squarespace, Shopify and their ilk can go to Hades – shouting about how easy it is to build websites using their platforms – because they make it really easy to build ruddy terrible websites too.
So much more goes into a website than just how it looks, and it’s hella important to get these factors, formatting and features right. I’ve spent over a decade studying and implementing websites for small businesses, so I know how to layout each page, where to tweak certain settings to attract search engines and convert visitors.
You probably don’t know that, because you spent your time perfecting your craft – as you totally should. That’s how we both got so good at what we do.
A website is your most important business, sales and marketing tool. If your website is terrible, nothing else you do matters.
You are sending good customers to a broken but lovely-looking till. You are directing potential clients to an office building held together with very pretty washi tape. You are spending money on ads to send people to a gorgeous shop with no front door. You are running out of analogies Aime.
Scrimp: Anything for the ‘Gram
A couple of weeks ago I sat on a Q&A panel at Creatival, an incredible creative business conference, and someone asked how we cope with crafting an engaged Instagram audience and also stop from getting sucked into comparing ourselves to others.
At least it was something like that, because as I was planning my answer in my head, my whole body started to slightly shake. I was about to drop one heck of a truth bomb that even I needed to hear.
Instagram is not a very good marketing channel. We need to stop kidding ourselves about how important it is to our business success – we’re just social media addicts like everyone else.
Instagram marketing by itself has a pretty low ROI. It takes so much time, energy and emotion to grow a great following – 3 things we don’t have in abundance when starting a small business.
I’m not saying we should abandon Instagram, but we are businesses who need to use this marketing tool like we would any other, which probably means detaching a little. I’m still trying to take my own advice on that one.
Splurge: Coworking or studio space
Here’s one that really worked for me, but might not be your bag. I sucked at working from home. When I was sat under that living room window just off Cotham Hill, I also spent about 2,000 hours watching Judge Judy.
I still love Judge Judy, but I was so damn lonely and constantly drawn into procrastination, I even worked out how I could watch my bae Judith for 8 out of my 9 working hours by channel flipping.
I had to get out, and a coworking facility helped me get into the work mindset. It created a physical and mental barrier between professional and personal, making me more productive in both environments.
Scrimp: Coworking or studio space
As I said, coworking and working in a studio might not be your bag, so don’t over-commit before you know it’s a good investment. My first coworking solution was £110 per month in a filthy space that got burgled all the damn time – if I was better off working from home, I wouldn’t have lost much money.
From there I moved to a small 3-person studio, before taking on the lease for our current spot on Corn Street.
There are lots of ridiculously stunning coworking options popping up across the world in major towns and cities, and they come with a price tag. Before you splurge on renting a desk, get out your pen and pad, or start a sexy spreadsheet, and really investigate if the opportunity represents good value, and is the right investment for your budding business, right now.
Splurge: The right equipment for the job
You need a decent, reliable laptop. You need a smart phone. You need great wifi. If something is crucial to your business function, this is not the time to cut corners or go with a just-for-now solution.
If you can make a business case for a purchase, make the purchase. And get insurance too.
I am Aime, you are you.
And you might think my list is utter cockamamy*, but I hope at least you think my list is helpful. It can be really tough to make financial decisions for a small creative business on a budget, and this is what worked for me. I hope you find what works for you too.
*it took every bone in my body not to write Coxamamy, because my surname is Cox, but thought I’d saved that touch of silly narcissism for a foot note. Also, cockamamy is a funny word.