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First Hand —

Alex Ostrowski shares his notes for future founders

Alex Ostrowski set up creative agency Lovers in October 2014 having previously worked as Head of Design at YCN and later Director at YCN Studio. Taking the leap from paid employment to setting up a business can be a difficult decision to make but here, Alex shares his advice for future founders…

So you’re thinking of setting up a business to provide professional creative services? First, an important cliché to get your head around: You can do it! Sir John Hegarty says Confidence is the key ingredient for any successful creative agency. That said, it’s worth asking yourself a few questions before you 100% talk yourself into setting up.

One that springs to mind is: Will it be fun? Yes, of course it’ll be fun, that’s a stupid question. Will it be stressful? Yes, obviously, see above. Will I regret it? Now there’s a question. Yes, you will. But only about 2% of the time. And that’s not 2% of every day by the way, we’re talking about two days (and nights) out of every hundred.

Let’s dig deeper. Am I ready? You might be. But there’s a very, very real chance you’ll find it easier and more natural in a year or two, or five, with a bit more experience under your belt. Experience is a bit like tea in that you can never physically drink enough of it. Only more. Every hour you work for somebody else is an hour you can learn and develop yourself without risking your livelihood. There’s a cheery thought.

The normal path for setting up is to start doing it in evenings (maybe with a compadre) until there’s enough momentum to work fewer days at your full time job or stop altogether. The other way is to leave a big agency and steal a client or two on your way out (bit naughty, usually illegal). Either way, if you’re setting up with other people make sure you really, really know each other. I know business founders who have gone off trekking together before setting up, to make sure they can actually work and relax well together.

There is a third way, and that’s to set up straight away before working for anyone else. But think long and hard before doing this, what’s the hurry? If you’re dying to do it, experiment with the idea in your spare time first. Try delivering a superb professional creative service for a friend of a friend and see whether you really know enough to do it brilliantly (what’s the point in doing anything non-brilliantly?). Working in a company is likely to be a better way for you to quickly gain exposure to the business of creativity, meet your peers and elders, start forming grounded opinions and produce work within a supportive, trusting environment.

One useful thing to know is that everybody, everywhere, all the time, whether they admit it or not, is winging it (i.e. you’re not the only blagger). In this climate, your best weapon is an inner compass that gets stronger and more accurate over time. Stronger by reading, talking to people, trying, trying a different way, noticing, pushing on.

Creative entrepreneurs hate writing business plans. It feels (especially at the very beginning) like a painful waste of time. In some ways it is, but the key thing to realise is that every business or organisation you’ll ever provide services to has managed to write one. By having a crack yourself, you’re inadvertently taking a walk through the baby steps of business. This exposes to you the DNA of the organisations you’ll work for when you’re set up, helping you understand what challenges they might be facing, allowing you to chat with them meaningfully, and understand how your creative services might be useful to them. There are business plan templates all over the internet, just grab one and have a go.

Putting a simple idea at the heart of your whole business is a cracking idea because it means you, and anybody who comes onboard to help, can always know how the business should be behaving and what it should do next. Realistically, it can take a while to develop this idea. Try thinking about the profile, culture and reputation you want your company to have. You’re essentially in ‘brand’ territory here, as Simon Sinek explain’s beautifully in his TED Talk “The Power of Why”. Look it up and ask yourself, why does the world need your new creative business?

Knowing yourself is also key to setting up a business. Understanding what you want to be spending your hours doing, and what you don’t. If you’re really bad at knowing yourself, a quick Myers-Briggs personality may help. If you know you want to be on the front line, laying out type all week, then bring in the right people around you to share the other business management duties.

A few final thoughts to leave you with: Don’t build your business on favours, they can’t be relied upon. Try to see you business from your customers’ perspective, not just your own. Don’t be overly optimistic, if you promise somebody you’ll do something, you absolutely must do it. This is true with clients, colleagues, bank managers, everybody. Use a pen and notebook to think. Try not to get “stuck in the weeds” (embroiled in the nitty gritty without a bird’s eye view). Identify a handful of advisors who’ve been doing your thing longer than you, mentors if you like, respectfully gaining their advice at key moments. Learn to negotiate elegantly. Always make the best of what you’re given. Stay positive, unswervingly (that’s a Bear Grylls survival tactic). Listen voraciously. Learn to love contracts, they’re your best friends. And remember not to take things too personally. You’re just a person who’s job it is to steer the business. It’s not you, and you are not it.

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