I’m sure many people have grand claims about why they started a business. Creative vision, a million in the bank, world peace and all that.
My reason was that I had fun working with a friend and, really, what better reason could you ask for? Focussing on fun has meant that while Thought Den has remained a relatively small agency, we have also gained a reputation for producing creative work. Somehow fun and creativity became our business strategy, not that we’d call it that, and this is how we produce work we’re proud of.
Of course, setting out to remain creative is all well and good but you need clients who also appreciate that sort of thing. In the early days we were taking what scraps were offered to us and trying to have fun with them.
Gradually, as our skills improved, we became more discerning. We were working with Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort early on and that’s quite different from the arts and culture work that we’re doing now. While Jack Daniel’s is a great client, there’s a different feeling to the job; a shorter life span, less love in the project. The arts and culture sector appealed because the content we’d be working on – art, science, history – is really rich and quite meaningful to people.
What has been fundamental in winning these clients is our enthusiastic approach. We’re not hard business people and so we don’t act like that. The Tate hired us because they liked our attitude. Maybe if we were selling photocopiers we couldn’t be as laid back in how we talk to customers, but the way we present ourselves fits with our work and the industry we’re in.
Part of keeping Thought Den personable and fun has meant giving each other flexibility; understanding that if it ever becomes too difficult, or if the work is no longer enjoyable, then we’ll simply stop. It’s almost like we’ve got nothing to lose. We’ve adopted the understanding that life comes first.
While for others that might sound a ridiculous business philosophy, I have faith that if Thought Den did close, all of us here are talented enough to go on to better things. Without getting too philosophical, we’ve had so much fun getting to this point and learnt so much, we can’t lose. I wouldn’t mind a bit more money in my pocket to show for it but we’re working for some incredible brands, so it feels like every week we’re winning in other ways.
Once you realise that closing the business isn’t the end of the world it liberates you as a company. You no longer take on the awful projects just to stay alive and instead can take risks, you dare to create something different. It is only when you’re free to make those leaps that something impressive can be created, not when you’re churning out websites ten-a-penny.
When we started out, we didn’t say ‘right we want a £4 million company, 20 employees and an office in a skyscraper – we just said we want to make cool work. What we wanted to achieve was flexible enough that we feel like we’re winning with every step forward, though sometimes the creative and business aspects of Thought Den are almost in opposition with one another – and that has been an on-going issue.
In the early days we weren’t fussed about growth but on reflection it’s now clear that our desire to ‘be creative’ often means we’re over-delivering. While that’s a good way to create an impressive portfolio, it’s no way to build toward the future.
We’re in a position now where we’re working with great brands on fairly big budget projects, and if someone was to invest 50-100 grand we could take it to the next level very quickly. We’d probably all start earning some proper money too.
However, the question is, ‘how big do we want to be?’ In truth, I’m largely satisfied with things as they are. We set up Thought Den both aged 22, just out of university, and now we’re employing people – that feels ridiculous. So long as we continue producing work to be proud of, stay creative, and grow a little, I think that should be enough.
Thanks to their focus on fun and creativity, Thought Den has produced everything from web games to magic eight balls for major arts institutions including The Science Museum and Tate.
Illustrated by Jordan Carter
- One Thing I Know