While researching the different types of creative businesses being run by creative women, I spoke to Managing Director of Creative City, Beth Powell, about running her company. In this interview she tells me about the creative possibilities and challenges of running her own business, and the changes she’d like to make in the world through her work.
Elisa: So, tell me a bit about what Creative City is and does?
Beth: We are a community arts / community development company, which means that we do all sorts of things using arts projects. This could include problem solving, thinking up new and innovative ways of bringing people together, boosting confidence, and challenging certain injustices through the arts. It’s a social impact company but using the arts.
I love doing all sorts of different things so I can work on a really individual level with some people and a much more whole-community and geographical area level as well. This can involve everything from running multi-organisational projects, to festivals, to 1:1 mentoring, so quite a big range of things that I put together a bit like pieces of a puzzle to make sure we are achieving all our aims.
E: You also have a sister company, could you tell me a bit about that?
B: Soap for the Future is kind of being incubated by Creative City. It’s got its own identity, it’s a start up venture. This is really exciting and also new for me as it is a product-based initiative.
It’s all about women and women’s empowerment, especially focussed on women who are displaced by violence. We make and sell soap and the profits go towards funding women’s initiatives.
I also run workshops that are based around making soap, face scrubs and things like that. Really nice, therapeutic, shared experiences that help build friendships.
E: Do you do most of the things yourself or do you outsource work?
B: Behind the scenes I do a lot of the company building work by myself, with support from my other Director. I have a brilliant graphic designer who has been helping to develop the visual brand with me. Creative City, Soap for the Future, and another one of my projects, Take Up Space, are a family of initiatives. Each have different brand identities and separate audiences that I’m having to join the dots to visually explain, which has been a fun challenge.
I’ve had support from volunteers too. I work with a range of different people to run workshops, and I work with a whole host of community groups and organisations who also have their own staff teams, so joint projects would involve them. When I’m leading a community-wide project my role might be to bring together staff from those organisations and help everyone contribute towards a shared goal. At the moment for my smaller projects and events I mainly work with freelancers. I don’t employ anyone directly to produce the soap, and when it comes to actually making the soap to sell, I do all of that. I’ve also had support from some women’s business initiatives.
E: What’s the impetus been to start a company of this kind?
B: So it’s a CIC (Community Interest Company), which means it’s a social enterprise. The reason behind it is the social impact that I want to make. There’s lots of different routes you can go down in life if you want to make a change; you could do formal politics, form or work for a charity, run a profitable business, but I chose this route because I think that the best route for me personally is this kind of balance between business and a more innovative way of doing good things.
I think I’ve sometimes felt a bit stuck when I’ve been an employee, not that free to be as inventive as I want, or to respond really quickly to a problem that I see and design a solution and implement it without going through lots of layers of management, or to be able to apply directly for a budget to do what I need to do, so I find this way really freeing.
I also think that there’s this problem in society to do with women in leadership and there are pros and cons to running your own business, but that freedom and ability to lead as you think best is really a big draw for me.
E: You mentioned Women in Business initiatives you’ve had support from. Have you got any recommendations for anyone thinking of starting a business of who to approach?
B: I’ve had lots of support, I’m really lucky really. I’d say before even doing anything it’s good to build a network of support around you with just the idea, because there will be a lot of people who invest in you as a person. There is a women’s enterprise and support network in Manchester called Flourish Together CIC, and they’ve been amazing actually. It’s a peer group of women that have meet ups, they crowd fund then redistribute the money to support women’s start up ideas. They do a lot of nice things, they’re worth looking up if you are running a social business.
E: Could you tell me about your previous work that’s led you to this?
B: This is actually my second business. The first I was running while I was also employed, so I’ve juggled a lot through time. After uni I went to work for New Economy (Greater Manchester’s economic development agency) and from there I went to work freelance within a small team contracted to deliver some social business support projects. So that was my eye opener into social enterprise, delivering business support for social enterprises.
I then went into working more with young people, developing youth leadership projects, and went on from there to work as a regional manager for the Rio Ferdinand Foundation, which is where I got more experience of managing larger youth projects, bigger budgets and staff teams. I then went to work for Oxfam running women’s projects.
One thing I found about running a business at the same time as being employed was a slight friction about where to put my creative ideas. If you pitch it in one place, it’s going to take time to get it through but might have more resource behind it, but then if you do it in your own business you might find it more of a struggle, but might have more creative freedom and be able to shape it’s ethics more. It’s a whole challenge. There’s no right or wrong way.
I wouldn’t be able to do what I was doing now if I hadn’t had all those different jobs. Especially that balance between experience of economic development, community and youth leadership work.
E: Did you have any particular advice before you set up?
B: Not the first time around, but I just had a lot of experience from being around lots of social enterprises, and perhaps I should have sought out more advice. But it’s swings and roundabouts really. I think sometimes a bit of trial and error is ok. I’ve learnt a lot from just doing. I think starting up my second business has been the perfect moment to get a lot of advice as I understand the different aspects of business better, now I can have more informed conversations about what we are trying to achieve and what our options are.
E: How much more admin is it to run a company than a sole trader?
It’s a lot of admin. It depends, as lots of sole traders effectively run as a company, they have a brand and social media, and a lot of subcontractors who are like their staff. But I think running a company is a lot of admin as there’s an annual timetable of things that have to go in at certain points. And to do things well, you have to keep up to things on a weekly basis – what’s coming in, what’s going out, what’s owed, timetable of invoices. I can spend a minimum of 4 hours a week on it.
E: Do you run PAYE?
B: I have taught myself how to do it, which actually felt more scary than the initial starting of the company. Running PAYE and knowing that you’re an employer feels like a massive responsibility. I use Quickbooks, which has got pros and cons I think. There were a lot of things like using tax codes that I’ve had to just learn without much help.
I think if you’re a director-only company and you just have to pay your own pay then that’s useful because you can learn how to do it in a way which you can be quite forgiving if you make a mistake and just correct it. As a freelancer trying to fill in self assessment on my own I found it quite difficult to get advice from HMRC, but as a director and employer I found it quite easy to get advice from them.
E: Do you have a business strategy and plan?
B: I have a business plan that I refer to quite a lot. I think it’s really useful because when you’re running something, anything, you can have those moments when you can question yourself, mini little melt downs that happen periodically when you’re the driving force behind something, and it’s really good to refer to because it reminds you of the bigger picture and then also it’s got your objectives in you can refer to.
E: Thanks so much for the insight into your company and working life. Could you tell me about any exciting plans coming up?
B: I just finished running a pop-up shop, selling craft gifts and beautiful art by Manchester-based artists and makers, in the lead up to Christmas. It’s been great because it’s brought together artists I’ve been working with in different ways, for example my creative business mentees. So every time I made a sale for them I did a little happy dance knowing how much it will mean to them.
I’ve got some great things coming up in three Creative Spaces libraries I’ve been working with in Manchester. I’ve been helping them to become cultural hubs for their areas and helping to bring in younger people to use the libraries creatively. We’ve got a project coming up in January/February 2019 with Brighter Sounds who will be delivering some youth music workshops and the young people will be performing in libraries, which will be really nice. That collaboration is all about women in music.
I also have a really exciting participatory budgeting pilot project coming up in an area of Bolton. I think its really innovative as I’ve never really come across something like it quite so youth led, so we’re really excited to give it a go and support some young people to run a participatory budgeting project, leading up to an event where young people will vote on how the youth budget for a particular grant is going to be spent.
It’s going to be a busy year! I’m really looking forward to 2019
You can find out more about Creative City England CIC here.