When I was at school I never knew what I wanted to do. I saw Top Gun and I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I saw All Creatures Great and Small and thought I’d be a vet. I’ve always been able to imagine different scenarios in quite fanatical detail, which I guess was the route to creativity.
I got to sixth form and the teachers said to do what you’re good at, so I studied science and art but realised that science was much harder, and slowly dropped everything but art. That led to art college and then university, still with no real job in mind. Then, when my girlfriend at the time was studying graphics, somehow I managed to sit in on her lessons.
There was never an end goal in sight, I just kept following all my little interests and before I knew it I was a digital designer.
After a few years in industry the big question became: ‘do I work for others, freelance or should I just start my own company?’ By then, I felt I’d learnt enough to make it on my own and so I started Revolting. We moved in to my partner’s parents’ house and just set up in a back room – emailing people and saying we want to work with you. Suddenly, without even realising it I’d become a businessman. The trouble was I was still thinking like a designer.
We thought we could handle both the accounts and the design, and that there’d be no difference between the management and the creative. I was due a rude wake up call!
Dividing my time between ‘being creative’ (actually designing work) and maintaining the accounts and admin of the business became very tricky, very quickly. Every day I handled the pitching, admin and invoicing for each client, but found there was less and less time to carry out the creative. It got ridiculous, to be frank.
It peaked when I only had one day a week to create work and was spending the other four talking to printers, sorting accounts, meeting with bank managers etc.
I felt like I wasn’t giving the client what they had signed up for. We were selling ourselves as a creative agency and yet the important part of the project, the creativity, was being rushed in at the end of the week. It reached a point when I wouldn’t sit down to design until 8pm, and only then because the banks and printers had shut.
Switching between the mind-sets of designing and managing a business, usually back and forth within a day, is not an easy feat. When you’re designing, there is often a linear process to creating work. You can concentrate on moving from step to step, but when you’re managing a business the work is forever changing. You might start a day with a to-do list, but you’ll soon receive a phone call and have to fire-fight that issue. And it’s all happening at the same time!
It sounds odd, but one of the ways I handled this was to have two desks. I’d sit at a desk with a computer to handle business issues, and then I would move to one with no computer or phone, take out some pens and just design. That way I didn’t have the distractions of urgent emails or nagging phones calls and could focus on trying to be ‘creative’.
Even then it is difficult to focus. The emails might not be popping up but the business issues are still in the back of your mind. Eventually, I admitted that you need to separate out each role and have a different individual committed to it, so I bit the bullet and hired somebody to undertake the admin.
While this has freed me up to be creative, the reality is that, if you start a business, you’ll never just be a ‘creative’ again. Running the company has become less and less about designing now that I have a team who can realise our creative ideas to a better standard than I ever could. Instead my role is to give creative leadership, to share my ideas and ensure that our work stays in line with the original concept throughout.
The divide between creative and business management is still there, but now I’ve learnt to step back from aspects of the creative process and to trust my designers. That means I can hand over a creative idea, go take care of some banking issues, and come back to the creative process knowing it is cared for. Getting the balance between being creative and being the businessman is pivotal in running a business like ours and is something that every start-up needs to figure out.
Award-winning creative agency Revolting asks its team to look at projects with fresh eyes, and in doing so has produced unique work for the likes of The National Trust and Corfe Castle.
Illustrated by Rebecca Cleal
- One Thing I Know