It takes strength

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Joanna Montgomery graduated from DJCAD in 2010 with a brilliant idea, an enterprising spirit and a huge sense of determination. The concept was a simple but powerful one that resonated with people worldwide. Indeed, while still a student she had thousands of likes on her Facebook page and a You Tube video that today has attracted 850,000 views.

She started out by entering pitching competitions to raise capital (which she won) and working the media to build interest including BBC, CNN, Huffington Post – of which she became one of their regular bloggers. And of course, most importantly, working out how to bring it to market – in design, technical and business terms. From the pitching competitions arose her reputation as an inspirational speaker, culminating in her TEDx talk earlier this year.

There were setbacks along the way, many of which would have caused others to have given up, but not her. Some of the challenges arose from her position as a young woman in a male-dominated tech culture. She not only took these on, but wrote powerfully about them, so that others could benefit from her journey.

Yesterday Joanna launched Pillow Talk on Kickstarter. I never doubted for one moment that Pillow Talk would launch. Joanna excelled in the three vital aspects of enterprise – creativity, communication and commitment. She had powerful, relevant and innovative ideas, she perfected the craft of how to inspire others in this vision and in her journey, and she was committed totally to that journey.

And just about every year throughout this difficult and demanding journey, she found the time to come back to Dundee and talk to my students for an hour (or put up with them visiting her), never failing to inspire and generate huge interest. And if that isn’t enough, this inspirational entrepreneur found the time to train and compete to become England’s strongest woman.

But watching her transformation from a person who lived in “a body that I didn’t like” to a confident woman who could pull large trucks up hills with her bare hands, demonstrated something else. Strength is a skill, and skills are learned. The reason my students (and of course many others) find her inspiring is because she shows that with determination and focus, then we can all achieve strength in our work and lives.

Alongside strength, Joanna has another quality which we rarely encourage in entrepreneurs, but which marks her out – honesty – which is often a quality many find difficult to deal with. Her best Huffington Post pieces exemplify this honesty: “I’m OK, You’re OK – But Are We Really?”, “How to Take Care of Yourself When No One Else Will”, “Pretty Face and Thick Skin: Flourishing in a Male World”. I’ve read a fair number of books by entrepreneurs, and very few (if any, frankly) display honesty, which is why I recommend these pieces by Joanna to my students.

Yes, it takes strength: the strength to get through failure and setbacks; the strength to be totally honest; the strength to stay the course.

And as a former tutor, I’m very proud of that achievement.

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Scottish innovation: design and democracy

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We are perhaps seduced into believing that the UK is moving into the Harry Potter economy, in which so-called ‘creative’ industries, such as film production, television and publishing drive wealth creation and employment. Indeed, some years ago it was suggested that boy bands contributed more to the GDP than the aerospace sector. While I’ve never been able to fully examine the veracity of this claim, the day after One Direction called it a day, I paid a visit to the Tayside firm of Scott & Fyfe. The broad product portfolio of this textiles manufacturer includes composites that stitch bond together glass, carbon, aramid and other high performance fibres in products that are used in a range of sectors, including aerospace. While this company’s turnover may not quite be up there with the world’s top grossing music act, they represent a sector that is vital to the UK economy. The textiles industry in Scotland has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, contributing over £1 billion to the economy, and generating considerable export earnings. There are currently around 570 companies Scottish textiles manufacturers directly employing around 9,000 people. In Scotland we still make things. But we make them, and create them very differently, and Scott & Fyfe shows us a unique way of doing things.

The company  has a 150 year history as a manufacturer of technical textiles, from its base in the small coastal town of Tayport in the north east corner of Fife. What it weaves and knits are the textiles that are used to create motorcycle helmets, rubber underlay backing, irrigation piping systems, bus interiors, yacht hulls, water slides, truck wind deflectors and much else. This company, which has a global reach in highly competitive markets, is a hidden gem of Scottish innovation. For me, its significance and inspiration comes from its unique fusion of design and democracy that creates an aspirational, highly creative firm that values and fully uses the skills and insights of its employees.

The global economic crash of the late 2000’s coincided with a crisis in the company’s fortunes. But its slide towards crisis was caused less by recession and more by its long-term failure to innovate and develop new products.

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“Ours is a business of failure”, said Michaela Millar, the hugely impressive Business Development Officer who had invited me to the company. Michaela’s background is in textiles design from DJCAD, but it is evident that her responsibilities go far beyond a design brief. She explained to me that the company’s varied markets demanded constant innovation and bringing new products to the market. Most of these products will fail, so the task is to learn from failure, build on success and move on.

In our risk averse culture, this attitude is refreshing and places Scott & Fyfe in a rare group of organisations which have succeeded in finding strategies that innovate through encouraging creativity.

Talking to me in one of the innovation pods in a huge open area adjoining the factory, painted in primary colours and floored in astroturf, Michaela told me how two key developments pulled this ailing family-run firm back from the brink. In 2010 the company began to work with Glasgow School of Art’s Design Innovation Studio, to explore how creative thinking and innovation could infuse its culture and operations. This resulted in a range of tools and methods being explored and applied in the company. This opened them up to new perspectives and – crucially – new thinking tools that could be applied to new product development.

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Joined by Business Manager, Michelle Quadrelli, the two spoke to me with obvious passion and enthusiasm how this design-led strategy was quickly accompanied by a move towards employee ownership. In December 2012 Scott & Fyfe evolved from a fourth generation family owned firm to a fully employee owned enterprise. The workforce is fully informed and briefed on what the firm is doing, and above all is valued in terms of their knowledge and skills. The tools provided by GSA are one means of harnessing this vital expertise, and turning it into new successful products.

This appears to be a vital element in the company’s success – and all too rare in the UK. Unlike Germany and the Scandinavian countries, industrial democracy has been notably absent from Britain’s industrial landscape. Perhaps predictably, it is on the agenda of none of our political parties, and it should be.

Scott & Fyffe shows another way ahead for our manufacturers – based on design and democracy. It embraces creativity – the creativity of ALL of its workforce. Far from pillorying failure, which is seemingly our national pastime, it uses failure as a useful source of learning. As Michaela said to me “we fail fast, and we fail often, and that way we do things better.” It uses methods of innovation and design thinking that I last saw being applied in California’s Silicon Valley. It trusts and it values its people. And yes, they are “people” not “human resources”.

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Giving relatively untested employees like Michaela trust and responsibility is refreshing. Hers has been a steep learning curve, but the scope to explore new markets and possibilities has brought the very best out of this highly talented young woman. But that is my enduring impression of Scott & Fyfe – an enterprise that knows that its employees are its most valuable asset. Respect and value them, give them a stake in success, support them and give them tools and space to creative, design and take risks – and you will succeed.

With design and democracy, Scotland’s enterprise can be world class.

Be a New Designers social media ninja!

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In 2014 the week one Dundee (DJCAD) crew had more social media coverage than the rest of New Designers put together! Don’t believe me? Well check out this Storify from last year’s coverage. And what did that achieve? It contributed to a record increase in conventional media coverage, greatly increased visitor numbers to the stands, increased the opportunities for job offers, internships and exhibitions, and overall raised the attention and profile of all of our students.

Social media is not an optional add-on at an event like New Designers. It is totally essential. And it has to be considered strategically. Our graduates worked as a team to maximise coverage and to co-ordinate their efforts. Right from the start of their courses at DJCAD, we make sure that our students are effective and professional users of social media.

All students from every institution should make use of social media at New Designers to maximise the opportunities of the event. It isn’t rocket science, it’s actually quite straight forward. But from our experience in 2014, nobody else was doing this strategically.

So, this is what you do. Just make sure that you do it.

Step One. Work on your profiles for twitter and linkedin especially.

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This is the profile for Rebecca Black, who in 2015 is in the One Year On show. She was our perfect Social Media Ninja! Rebecca realised that the profile you use is vital! Take out any reference to you being a student, and especially reference to your age. You are not a student. At New Designers you are a professional. Ensure that your social media profiles express this. Consider carefully how you will describe yourself and brand yourself. Ensure that you social media profiles have links to any website. Use your best quality images in these profiles.

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Beth Spowart was another of our stars from last year, presenting a professional, expertly designed and informative profile for her twitter page. These things really matter. In fact they are vital if we want to be treated seriously and professionally. This has to be all in place before the next step.

Step two. Follow people

Between now and the opening of the show follow everyone you can who is relevant to your aspirations. This is on the assumption that 30% of the people you follow will follow you back. So look at who people just a few years down the line in your field are following. If you’re not following people like @TheDesignTrust or @coadg then you clearly are not serious about your future! Find out who they follow. Ideally you want to follow people who are likely to visit New Designers, because that’s the trick here!

Put yourself in the shoes of a busy retail buyer, gallery owner, or design manager who has 90 minutes scheduled in their diary to DO New Designers. As they walk up Upper Street, they check the twitter feed on their feed. What’s trending on #ND15? Last year it was Dundee. So they made a point of seeing us.

You need to do some detective work on figuring out who to follow. But in an hour you could usefully double your followers IF you focus on key leaders in your field and trust your instinct.

Step three. Have images, use hashtags

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What tweets do you really notice and read? The ones with images. If I want to be noticed then I’ll use an image to ensure that my reader lingers on my tweet in their feed. Load your phone with at least 10 (or 20) of your most compelling photos of your work. You can use these to drive your twitter posts in the first day or so. But bear in mind that most twitter readers on phones show an image that is 1 high by 2 wide. It crops whatever you post. Use this to your advantage. Think killer images! And put text into them. If you don’t have space in the tweet to put the stand number or other details then simply put this into the image. If you don’t know how to do this then I’m not sure you should really be at New Designers.

Then ensure that in every tweet you use the correct New Designers hashtag, you refer to your institution twitter handle ( in our case it’s @DJCAD ) because then they will retweet (assuming they get social media) and you use the stand number. Make sure you find out what the hashtag is for the event this year. I think it’s #ND15. If you don’t put the stand number, how will they find you?

Step four. Broadcast all success

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DJCAD Dundee students win more prizes at New Designers that those of any institution. We generally win a prize every year. Two last year. That is because our students are really very good indeed! Above is Rebecca McGill from 2014 having just won the John Lewis prize.

Now, when a person in your team wins a prize EVERYONE benefits, if you pitch it right. There is an immediate increase in footfall to see what amazing institution the student is from. But we can help lift this even further.

Every time a person wins something, or gets a job or anything, tweet it! But always remember image, hashtag, institution twitter name, stand number. Last year within 35 minutes of me tweeting Rebecca McGill’s prize, the story was being run by STV back in Scotland. The more traction you get on twitter, the more it will be picked up at the event itself and rebroadcast. Following journalists back home, and asking them to follow you can really help here.

Step five. Run stories on well known visitors

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If a prominent visitor polls up, take their photo, name check them and broadcast, as we did here when the UK’s most prominent design blogger visited us. If a TV crew turns up then do likewise. You want to broadcast and share all evidence that your stand is the best show in town and that you know how to tell a good story. But ALWAYS remember hashtag, institution twitter handle, stand number.

Step six. Retweet

Retweet what other people in your team is posting. You almost certainly have different followers, and in most cases modest numbers of followers, so you have to punch above your weight. You do this by working as a team and reposting or retweeting what your colleagues have posted.

Step seven. Storify it

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One person should be tasked with collating a Storify of the week. Apart from anything else it gives you a great account of the week that you can look back on. But if you update it every day you can see how the strategy is working, and what things are getting attention.

Step eight. Enjoy it

New Designers is an amazing experience and a great platform for launching your career. But the chances you get from it are not down to luck. They are a consequence of your strategic approach. Have fun. Be strategic. Focus on your objectives.

Learning from Vanilla Ink

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So Vanilla Ink – the unique Dundee based jewellery start-up incubator and general creative powerhouse – is to shut up shop in the city; for a while at least. Kate Pickering has driven forward Vanilla Ink from an initial hazy notion of what she would have liked to have seen supporting her when she graduated as a jeweller a decade ago, through to being the creative exemplar cited in just about every talk and article about Dundee’s creative economy. Well, in mine anyway.

For Dundee this is an important moment – perhaps more important than we recognise, given the significance of design to the regional economy and to the future that we are seeking to create for ourselves. Personally it’s significant, in that I have worked with Kate in a very modest way over the last few years to support her in building her vision. Some reflection is therefore in order about what we can learn from the Vanilla Ink achievement, where it leaves us, and – most importantly – how we build on the incredible legacy that Kate has provided us with.

What, then, has Vanilla Ink taught us? It would be easy to say that it all rests on the remarkable Ms Pickering of whom I am hugely proud. But as an educator I believe that individuals who do remarkable things stand as an inspiration to us all, and as such help us all to raise our game.

It’s about vision

Right from the start, Kate had a clear vision about what she wanted to create – a workshop space to enable jewellery graduates to develop their businesses, supported by mentors and a structured programme of support that would help them to develop the skills, confidence and knowledge to succeed in the future. That was it. Hers was a vision propelled by the passion she has for jewellery, for the city she had chosen to call her home – and most importantly for people.

It’s about people

It was a vision about how people could work together, support each other and make their own visions real. This has echoes of the idea of the “social expert” – in which craft expertise (or indeed any expertise) is indivisible from social interaction, from mentoring and co-operation. This is in contrast to the idea of the “antisocial expert” who is competitive and selfish with their knowledge. Kate exemplifies the qualities of the social expert, and has created a project centred around the sharing of skill, confidence and creative entrepreneurship. I believe that a sustainable and convivial future is dependent on people who are passionate and caring about other people.

Telling the story

Visions do not become concrete unless they are shared – and to do that their story has to be told. Right at the very start, Kate told that story a little uncertainly, a little falteringly. But the more she told it, the more her confidence came, and the more vivid became the telling. The vision was just the start – it was the story, the narrative, the placing of this idea within her own experience and expertise that made this project a viable proposition. In November 2011 she was one of those invited to speak at Dundee’s first ever Pecha Kucha. Watch her presentation below:

Build alliances

Innovative places require innovative communities, and building communities is the most vital activity, without which change simply does not happen. Again, this is part and parcel of being a social expert, and Gillian Easson’s success in building the Creative Dundee community is evidence of this. Kate was a pioneer (to my mind anyway) in using social media as a means of building a real community around Vanilla Ink, and connecting with others, such as Jane Gowans and Hayley Scanlan, to demonstrate a vibrant community of creative women entrepreneurs in Dundee. Her use of Kickstarter for the first Vanilla Ink cohort was a brilliant demonstration of what crowdfunding could do to generate support, community and finances to raise the ambitions and profile of the group. Indeed, Vanilla Ink was one of the first UK Kickstarter campaigns. Kickstarter was a means by which the City could get behind Vanilla Ink and show its collective support.

Creative leadership

“Mike, I’m going to initiate and organise the first ever Scottish jewellery week. What do you think?”  I thought she was possibly a bit unhinged, and if it went wrong, then it would go spectacularly wrong, but when you are a proven and respected creative leader then that’s not really on the agenda. Creative leadership means forever looking outward, not inward, looking for new opportunities, creating a focus for your ideas, and bringing people along to share in what you create. From initiating Vanilla Ink, then a creative festival to celebrate jewellery was the logical next step. Creative leadership is also about being unpopular when that is necessary, it’s about facing up to setbacks and having the confidence to move on. It is about being brave. These are qualities that she has developed, and that the emerging generation of new change makers can learn from.

Knowing when to quit

There’s a real art to quitting. And indeed a science. I teach my students “the meaning of life” at then end of one of my lectures (no honestly, I really do), and this is in part about knowing when to quit – or rather about knowing when to reinvent. As the inspirational Charles Handy says “The world keeps changing. It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and the ways which got you where you are, are seldom those that keep you there.” I have no doubt that Vanilla Ink could have just carried on in the same way, but the world does keep changing, the challenges shift, and new opportunities arise. This is linked to creative leadership, having an outward focus that constantly scans for new ways of developing and implementing vision.

 

Some lessons for Dundee…. be cool

Finally, a few lessons for Dundee. The creative industries are great. They can be transformative to regional economies and to the profile of a post-industrial city such as Dundee. They bring the allure of awards and celebrations, which of course cities love. But they have two other qualities: they are VERY fragile, and VERY mobile.

We are at a significant moment in our city’s development, which is overlain by some equally significant shifts in employment nationally and internationally. Scotland has a much improved rate of new business start-ups, but we have yet to see the kind of support for new businesses and for the self-employed that the RSA, NESTA and other organisations have been saying we need to see, and which I have been writing about for some time. It is time that the city and the country took the needs of our fragile but vital creative industries more seriously. This is not about asking for hand-outs or subsidy – rather the infrastructure, business support and mentoring that our Millennial-driven start-ups need.

Kate exemplifies Richard Florida’s idea of the creative class – these are the creative knowledge workers in fields as diverse as engineering, the theatre, life sciences, education and business start-ups that all economies demand to retain their dynamism. As Richard Florida says “In the future, they will determine how the workplace is organized, what companies will prosper or go bankrupt, and even which cities will thrive or wither.” One key characteristic of the creative class is that it is highly mobile, lacking the traditional bonds and loyalties that formerly bound people to place.

When he was Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg wrote this in the Financial Times: “I have long believed that talent attracts capital far more effectively and consistently than capital attracts talent. The most creative individuals want to live in places that protect personal freedoms, prize diversity and offer an abundance of cultural opportunities. A city that wants to attract creators must offer a fertile breeding ground for new ideas and innovations…. Economists may not say it this way but the truth of the matter is: being cool counts.”

In Dundee we have made considerable progress, but we still have a fair way to go. I have yet to be convinced that the City truly understands the cultural dimensions of economic development, or indeed the needs of our fragile start-ups.

However, my belief is that by learning the lessons from initiatives such as Vanilla Ink, and strengthening the creative communities of Dundee, then we will continue to make progress. Vanilla Ink 2 Dundee will open up, and will take Kate’s vision into new territories. For this to happen we need new energies and ideas to join with hers. She showed us what was possible. Now let us build on that further and really put creativity to work in Dundee!

 

Dundee’s Daltrey data dilemma

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YouGov has a massive database of consumer and voter and lifestyle preferences based on 200,000 people which they have made available online for ‘profile’ access. You can’t drill into the data, for that you have to pay upward of £4,000 – but it’s a taste of the data that they have.

Visitors to the YouGov Profiles website are invited to type in “any brand, person or thing” – and will be presented with a typical persona of a consumer, fan or user. Using it we discover that the owner of an Apple iPhone is more likely to be a professional woman with politics in the centre. An Android user is more likely to be male, lower middle class and left wing in their politics.

So, what sort of typical person has an interest in Dundee? A male around 30, working class, with voting preferences bordering on the Marxist. Lorne sausage and Madeira cake are amongst their favourite foods, they are keen on tennis and possibly keep a budgie. They drive a Kia, shop at Tesco and Burton is their tailor of choice. They read The Scotsman and Reveal Magazine, and favourite entertainment includes Gary: Tank Commander and Roger Daltrey. 

But people who like the University of Dundee are more likely to be professional women aged over 40, conservative in politics with a taste for brown rice and horse racing, driving a Peugeot and reading The Herald.

Admirers of Alex Salmond shop at Lidl and drive a Skoda. If they invite you to dinner it’s likely there’ll be a Forfar Bridie involved. They like watching Braveheart, listen to The Stranglers and are regular readers of New Scientist. Yes, I too began to doubt the veracity of this when it got onto reading preferences.

But they’re bang on when it comes to the typical Arsenal fan: a posh woman in her early 20s who shops at Waitrose and John Lewis and reads The Guardian and The Economist. She has a taste for empanadas and probably keeps a goldfish.

I myself am broadly in the demographic of the wearer of Paul Smith (although my salary only really stretches to the socks, and I got given those as a present), a professional male of a certain age with a taste for Jack White, Morrissey, and Apple computers. However the real oddity is this: their politics are clearly left of centre, but they read The Telegraph. Go figure that one out.

YouGov profiles are probably a useful starting point for developing personas and I can see a role for it in teaching. They help to demonstrate differences in values as expressed by brands. As a starting point for other research I feel there us much to commend it. But if I was V&A Dundee planning their launch campaign, I probably wouldn’t rush to sign up Roger Daltrey.

 

 

Useful work: the changing landscape of entrepreneurship

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“Here, you see, are two kinds of work – one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life. What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work, and manly also to refuse to do the other.”

William Morris, Useful Work vs Useless Toil, 1884

 

Bill was right all along. The alienated useless toil necessitated by capitalism would eventually give way to more constructive, satisfying and useful work. It would take a great deal longer than he expected and involve far less chintz, but the landscape of work would – in the early twenty first century – begin to shift towards sustainable autonomous production involving considerable numbers of people. Perhaps not as part of the socialist utopia predicted by him, Marx and others – but more as a means by which people in advanced industrial economies could gain flexibility and satisfaction, while coping with the erosion of the welfare state.

There are some profound shifts taking place in the landscape of entrepreneurship in the UK which educators and policy makers need to catch up on. Despite record numbers of new business start ups in Scotland, political debate has yet to seriously address issues that concern entrepreneurs or indeed the wider cultural and economic questions of entrepreneurship. This is regrettable because the latest research is providing some rich insights into why people go into business, what meaning it provides for them, and how working and creative practices are being transformed.

A recent report on microenterprise provides some fascinating insights: the RSA/Populus survey Salvation in a start-up? The origins and nature of the self-employment boom, produced in partnership with Etsy and authored by Benedict Dellot. Below I will pull out some themes from this report, link them to other recent research and identify some implications.

A cultural shift

Since the onset of the recession in 2008 we now have 600,000 more micro enterprises (firms with less than 10 employees) in the UK. Today, one in seven of the workforce are working for themselves, and this trend is clearly climbing. Just over the last year we have seen a 9% growth in new business in Scotland, and over the last five years the business start up rate for Scotland has been one of the highest in the UK. According to Entrepreneurial Spark founder Jim Duffy “Coming out of a recession, a new industrial revolution is starting in Scotland. So many people, who didn’t think they were capable of turning their hand to entrepreneurship, are now doing it.”

That much is certainly true. But they are not doing it because of the recession. They seem to be doing it because they want to: it is (to coin a perhaps overused phrase) a lifestyle choice. The RSA survey suggests that only 27% of startups had anything to do with escaping unemployment, and self-employment had in any case been on a steady climb all through the years of the economic boom. This is supported by other recent research including a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Resolution Foundation, confirming that 73% of those who became self-employed since the recession “did so wholly or partly due to their personal preference for this way of working, and not solely due to a lack of better work alternatives”. While the RSA report argues for evidence of structural social and economic change to account for this, I would suggest that there is a more deeper seated cultural shift that is behind the new ‘start up tribes’.

 The new tribes of enterprise

The report identifies six tribes of self-employment, each of which describes very diverse characteristics and motivations of entrepreneurship – shown in the figure below. Only 33% fall into categories that we associate with conventional business culture – driven by profit, a focussed sense of purpose and desire for growth. Virtually all business policy is predicated on the assumption that startups have the ambition to grow and take on employees. The reality – revealed by this research – is that most don’t. Indeed, very few self-employed people who have started up in the last 5 years have taken on employees. There has also been a notable rise in part-time self-employment, suggesting that this can co-exist with part-time paid employment and other activities. Nearly half the rise in self-employment since 2000 is accounted for by part-timers, or nano businesses, as the report refers to them.

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Poorer but happy

Many of those in the RSA survey see work as inherently enjoyable (in contrast to much of society) and 85% say “they are now more creative, autonomous and satisfied in their work” with key advantages being flexibility to deal with their own health and the welfare of family. In other words, autonomy, flexibility and happiness appear to be the qualities of self-employment that are most valued. On the downside, they are earning less money. As the report argues:

“Life for the self-employed presents a paradox: they appear to earn less, work harder and be more isolated, yet in the round are some of the happiest people. The reason seems to be because their work offers greater autonomy, a source of meaning and – perhaps surprisingly – a greater sense of security. All of which suggests that the draw of self-employment lies in what the Swiss economists Benz and Frey term ‘procedural utility’. In other words, people who work for themselves gain more from the way something is done rather than the final outcome of that activity – namely money.”

I would suggest that there is a genuine movement towards creating a culture of useful work and autonomous welfare. The two massive failures of the modern age are the alienation and inflexibilities created by work and the shortcomings of our welfare state, especially in terms of childcare and inadequate pensions. Much of the shift towards self-employment would appear to be driven by an impulse to create meaningful, flexible work rather than profit. This is not to deny the vital importance of the visionaries and the classicals to local and indeed national economic growth, but their needs and significance have to balanced by the very different needs (and contribution) of the remaining two thirds of the self-employed. I will briefly look at three issues below and pull in some additional evidence.

Self employment is about thinking.

The biggest increases in self-employment since 2008 have actually been in professional occupations. In a piece entitled How British workers are losing the power to think, Guardian correspondent Aditya Chakrabortty has drawn on research that strongly suggests an erosion of autonomy in many occupations. “Since the mid-80s, academics have been carrying out regular skills surveys, asking detailed questions of thousands of employees. In 1986… 72% of professionals felt they had a great deal of independence in doing their jobs. By 2006, that had plummeted to just 38%.” Some researchers are suggesting a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have permission to think. “The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions; what the academics call ‘digital Taylorism’, in which graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line.” This would suggest that self-employment is driven by a very basic human need: to use your brain creatively and fully.

Self-employment is family friendly.

The successive failures of UK and Scottish governments to provide adequate and affordable childcare – in contrast to many other European countries – is providing one major motivation for self-employment. One recent survey showed that 65% of mothers with children under ten years of age are considering starting a business from home in the next three years, and 49% “believe that they would be financially better off if they started a business from home”. The rise of the ‘mumpreneur’ (a contentious term), of whom there are estimated to be 300,000, is part of a shift in self-employment away from its historical tendency to be male dominated. Indeed, over the last two years the number of female entrepreneurs has increased by 9.6% in contrast to a 3.3% rise for men.

Make a job – don’t take a pension.

The self-employed are getting older. Those aged 55–64 has risen by 40% since 2000, while the over-65s in self-employment have increased by 140%. The over 55s are now a significant start up demographic and we could perhaps see this group as shifting towards self-employment as a means of dealing with the pensions crisis that is otherwise undermining security into old age. This view is supported by the Resolution Foundation in their separate survey and report:

“28 per cent of the overall growth in self-employment is due to a decline in the rate at which people leave self-employment. Our view is that this is partly explained by the UK’s expanding and ageing workforce. The raising of the retirement age, longer life expectancy and low levels of pension saving may have led to people remaining in employment for longer, and because self- employed people tend to be older than employees, this disproportionately affects this group. Self-employment might be growing as an alternative or complement to retirement, rather than as an alternative to being an employee.”

A policy vacuum

The evidence suggests that this diverse and varied landscape of enterprise is simply not recognised as such by the state, and those public bodies there to support the self-employed. At least that is the view of those surveyed in the RSA report who “still largely feel as though they are overlooked by the state”. More significantly “the vast majority believe the Conservatives have the best policies for their business”. Worryingly, there is also widespread support for a cap on immigration. The Conservatives certainly have more policies and a clear ideological commitment to enterprise and self-employment. The left and the labour movement appears held back by long-established animosity. While the RSA report points out that the most obvious bodies to help provide the collective benefits and support needed by the self-employed are the trade unions, this is unlikely to happen any time soon as the unions “have been one of the most vocal in disapproving of the rise in self-employment, with the Trades Union Congress recently expressing its concern that this type of work is inherently insecure”. 

So perhaps in an independent Scotland the self-employed could be the driving force of a new economy, autonomy and community focused wealth generation and support? Best not hold our breath. In all of its 604 pages, the weighty tome that is Scotland’s Future : Your Guide to an Independent Scotland contains only one reference to the self-employed.

What is clearly needed are conversations to help set a new agenda to support the forms of self-employment that are reshaping work, enterprise and welfare. These conversations should seek to focus around the question of how the UK’s micro enterprises can be taken seriously and influence policy makers. A critical objective should also be to create a vision of how a world centred on useful work could develop and thrive. 

 

New designers: all you need is love

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The annual New Designers exhibition in London is both inspiring and intimidating. The talent and innovation on show continues to inspire visitors year after year, many of whom are there for the express purpose of employing the graduate designers or buying their work. For the 3,500 graduate designers who are showcasing themselves at New Designers, the quality and range of work on show can be intimidating. If you don’t win one of the 26 prizes awarded (and the maths suggest that exhibitors have a one in 134 chance of winning) then how are you noticed?

The elephant in the room – and the Business Design Centre is capacious enough for several herds of them – is that the majority of the exhibitors will not fulfil their current ambitions of becoming professional textile designers, jewellers, ceramicists, etc. True, most will apply their design thinking and sensibilities professionally, but not in the vocational sense that far too many courses continue to suggest they will. Far too few design tutors appear to understand, or show much interest in, the seismic shifts in work, enterprise and employability that are taking place today. I have written about this elsewhere. As the competition becomes more acute, then our graduates need to become ever more enterprising and entrepreneurial in their approach, especially at events like New Designers. It is no longer enough to display fantastic work and expect one’s talent to be instantly recognised. Something else is needed: love.

In the last two days at New Designers I’ve had a number of conversations with award judges, design consultants and others about what they’re looking for, and the answer is fairly consistent: love and passion. They expect that the design graduates make their work “come alive” with their evident love for what they do and the passion that they bring to it. They want the story: why does this work exist? What does it mean? Where is it going? They want evidence that the graduate understands people and how their practice fits into their world. They want to be told about idealism and ambition. And they want somebody they can get on with. No pressure there, then. Generally, our Dundee graduates are good at this. Yet again this year one of them beat the odds of one in 134 and won a major award, and others have succeeded in gaining recognition, placements, commissions, etc. But it is the ones who naturally exude the love and passion that succeed first.

I am of the view that ALL graduates are capable of doing this, if they work at it. These are key steps.

1. Have a story.

Who are you? Why do you do what you do? What does it mean to you? How did you get to where you are now? What excites you? Where do you want to be? If you are not clear on your backstory, then you cannot engage others. The story needs to be authentic and vivid. But begin by writing it out and practicing different ways of telling it. That story needs to underpin your social media presence.

2. Breathing, body language, smiling.

How you look, how you stand and the confidence you express are all vital. If you’re hunched with a facial expression that suggests you’re chewing wasps then it’s unlikely anyone will want to know your story. This post on hacking your way to confidence is worth reading.

3. Use social media.

An event like New Designers is ideal for using social media to get noticed and to express your passions. Tweeting about other exhibitors and work you see that is inspiring is essential. So is self-publicity and linking twitter to your blog, Instragram, etc. My page on social media strategy explores this in more detail. The Guardian’s piece tweet your way to a better job provides some great examples.

4. Be a battery charger

A good colleague of mine divides people into two groups – battery chargers and battery drainers. The former bring forward ideas and solutions, they have infectious passion for what they do, they energise those around them. The latter bring forward problems, they require support and encouragement, frankly they can be quite draining. So here’s a question for you. How do you think you’re perceived? How do you come over? What can you do TODAY to demonstrate that you’re a battery charger?