Creative types can do business

Design students should adopt an entrepreneurial spirit from the start and make the most of opportunities at university, says Jonathan Kestenbaum

The UK produces some of the best creative businesses in the world. The creative sector makes up 7.3 per cent of the UK economy; our computer gaming industry is well-known as one of the most exciting; and advertising has long been a great strength. However, despite this encouraging picture, many businesses still struggle to grow beyond a certain point. Turnover in the design sector, for example, has fallen by 40 per cent since 2000, and UK design exports have nearly halved in value.

The lack of growth in creative businesses is often unfairly blamed on the perception that creative people are not business-minded. ‘Creative types’ are considered to lack business acumen and to dwell at the other end of the spectrum from hard-nosed ‘business people’. This needn’t be the case at all.

Business acumen can be learnt. While the present reality may be that only 35 per cent of creative businesses have specific financial goals for the future, or that less than two-thirds include them in a formal business plan, this is something we can address.

Part of the problem lies in the support provided by higher education institutions. All too often there is no integration between a university’s business or enterprise offering and its art, design and media courses. Where an entrepreneurship module is built in, it is not always effective or appropriate to students’ needs. Many students complain that academics are out of touch with how the creative industries work, and there are limited attempts to align academia with industry.

There needs to be a more consistent approach that will ensure students in the creative industries leave university with the ability not just to set up a company, but to convert it from a start-up into a globally successful business.

At the same time, the individual student can do more to make the most of what’s on offer. Many students are not aware of what facilities exist within their own institutions to support entrepreneurship, such as incubator units, training courses or ‘bright idea’ award schemes. Ambitious students need to identify what their institution – and the wider region – has on offer, and engage in activities that will allow them to develop business skills alongside their craft skills.

Good entrepreneurship education is likely to cover areas such as developing the right model for your business – and this means more than just coming up with a business plan. Recognise your skills and where you’ll need the skills of others, and explore the financial consequences of your decisions.

Building contacts is also vital. Universities have wider links to business, or at least to the Regional Development Agency and to industry experts, to whom students should secure introductions. Students who become successful entrepreneurs take every opportunity available to expand their contact books – attending industry events, taking up work-experience placements, mingling at networking events and participating in extra-curricular courses, such as Nesta’s Insight Out programme, which offers enterprise training for creative individuals who want to set up in business.

It’s also imperative that students understand what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur: willingness to collaborate; relentless persistence; a strong vision; and unwavering attention to detail are all attributes that must be nurtured. Individuals come up against huge challenges while building a business and need the strength to push past obstacles such as consistent loss, loneliness and people telling them it won’t work.

The tools for growing a successful business are, for the most part, readily available – it is up to students to take full advantage of them. Where there are gaps, industry and higher education will need to engage with one another, as well as the student body, to ensure that the UK’s creative industry lives up to its full potential.

Jonathan Kestenbaum is chief executive of Nesta


• Identify the relevant business courses, programmes and initiatives your university has on offer and take full advantage of them
• Seize every opportunity to build up your contact book by attending events organised by your institution, networking events and external seminars
• Find a mentor – someone you can talk to about your ideas, someone who knows what starting a business is like and someone you can trust
• Identify gaps in your knowledge and make contact with people who can fill them

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