You have to be determined to scale your business if you’re in the creative industries. Investors seem to find our sector hard to understand, worry about their returns and look to avoid it if they can. It would seem doubly hard to gain investment if you are a woman looking for that ambitious growth.
Creative England is trying to address this issue by launching a ballsy Female Founders Scale-Up programme for women who lead narrative content companies, funded by the BFI and National Lottery. It’s open for applicants now. As I’m leading the programme, I was keen to discover what advice other scaling company leaders – from across the board – offered.
A founder of digital and broadcast company, Two Four, Melanie Leach is experienced at pitching to investors. She led the pitches both times Two Four was sold. Her key advice was to ensure you have the right team of people in the company – the investors want to know you have the means to deliver on your ambitions. Now a founder of South Shore, when she took her new business to market to raise, she went to the big media players and approached VCs but finally went with ITV, who she knew from their investment in Two Four.
The point about having the ‘right team’ was echoed by Smith & Sinclair founder, Melanie Goldsmith. Founded in 2013, she said it was really important to bring in good people early. But she stressed that you need different skills from starting to scaling. She’d had to learn quickly as they grew – everything was continually new with so much to keep on top of. She said a good, honest relationship with her bank was key, and finding an imaginative mentor as well as a proactive support network really helped her develop the business fast.
She added when you are scaling up, potential investors are always trying to put you down. You have to be tough. She realized that what drove investors was the fear of loss, rather than the hope of gain.
(It is ironic that women find gaining investment hard as women running businesses are naturally more cautious and risk averse. Although their businesses may build more slowly, female entrepreneurs are less likely to overstretch themselves to the detriment of their business and staff. According to McKinsey research.)
And her advice to other founders includes not being so hard on yourself. She felt she sacrificed lots of her own energy to accommodate others. You learn things by trial and error, moving on quickly if ideas don’t work.
Neither of the above two female founders felt that being a women was a drawback. Caroline Amer of Double Yay Productions said that when they first launched they got lots of trade press coverage because they were 3 women starting a production company together. Wanting to be producing funny shows, rather than being seen as ‘funny women’, she feels acceptance has moved on in the last few years. However she did admit that they have been working on an animation project which she has found tough getting meetings, yet when a male partner approached the same companies, they were ushered in the door.
Margaret Scott of the Research Centre in Glasgow, which is partially funded by broadcasters, commented that the pandemic has democratized production. Before it was very much about ‘water-cooler’ chats but now access is much more even. Running a programme called ‘Supersizer’, the Research Centre is encouraging those companies looking to scale to super-size their ideas too, focusing on the R&D engine room of the business. Scaling is not just about what is in production but about empowering the development person or team to have ambitious ideas.
Heidi Lightfoot founded design studio, Together, with Katja Thielen in 2003. ‘At the start we were welcomed because we were two ambitious women looking to well. There was a lot of goodwill even though we were only one of the 8% of design companies run by women.’
And there is no doubt that Together has turned their female lens perspective to their advantage. Looking at their portfolio, there is definitely a range of clients whose target audience is predominantly female, but their work for Pearson and Haws shows their capabilities are much wider.
She added that they’d also looked for really good advisors. RBS research has shown that founders are adept at seeking advice, assistance and guidance from any source they can, both pre-launch and during their business growth. This includes tapping into professional advisors, support networks as well as seeing what is available across social media.
Heidi and Katja’s founding partnership also went as far as taking it in turns to have children so the business still had strong leadership taking it in turns to have mat leave. ‘As a woman founder, you have to think about these sorts of things in advance so you can grow your company in the way that feels right for you.’ Heidi added.
I’m not sure how many male founders would ever factor this in, but it is definitely going to be on the agenda of the Female Founders Scale Up programme. As will prepping for investor pitches, finding talented teams, building and using networks.
So if you are looking to scale your narrative content business – apply now. We’re going to have a great cohort of ambitious women to work with, lots of focused workshops, as well coaching support in-between sessions.
Applications for the Creative Enterprise: Female Founders Scale Up Programme close midday Monday 26th October.
Erica Wolfe-Murray works across the creative, cultural and tech sector helping companies to innovate through imaginative use of their intellectual assets/IP. Referred to by Forbes.com as ‘a leading innovation and business expert’, she is the author of ‘Simple Tips, Smart Ideas : Build a Bigger, Better Business’, shortlisted for the Business Book Awards 2020, Business Self-development category (judging 23.3.20). It’s full of easy-to-use advice on innovative ways to grow your business and is available from Foyles, Amazon and all other good bookshops.