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  • Writer's pictureSue Bulmer

How working with a Mentor helped my creative business

One of the things I really want to achieve through this blog is to talk about my experiences throughout my creative business journey and to share what I’ve learned in the hope that others can benefit as well as to give people an insight into my creative process. Working with a Creative Business Mentor on a Mentoring Scheme back in the early days was an opportunity I often look back on which was AMAZINGLY beneficial to me and my creative practice. Since that time I have had also worked with a Life Coach (which led to me retraining as an Art Psychotherapist and subsequently changing my career path), and also a Creative Business Coach. I thought I would share the highlights of these processes with you in case you have been thinking of pursuing a similar thing. I will begin with the process of working with a Creative Business Mentor, Nottingham's lovely Debbie Bryan, which I did ten years ago as I was starting out on my creative journey. We were matched through a creative organisation we were both members of after a call-out for applications for a brand new mentoring programme. Debbie is a designer and maker and also founder of the beautiful Debbie Bryan retail and crafting space in Nottingham and Ruddington.

Aspirations and Goal Setting:

Initially, we looked at some of the issues I was facing in my practice and what kind of things I wanted to address during the mentoring process. I really felt that I needed some help so it was great to sit down with someone who could give me some really useful and impartial input. This issues I identified were:

· I was unsure of next steps to take my business forward

· I was struggling with setting myself realistic goals

· I had total lack of marketing strategy

· I didn't know what to focus on or prioritise

· I wanted to develop my portfolio and skill set

We also looked at the ambitions and aspirations I had identified in my application form so we both had a better idea of the direction in which I wanted to head:

· aim to earn consistent income from creative practice

· explore other media and expand skill-set

· expand range of products

· develop ideas, introduce colour, new themes to work

· collaborate with other artists and exhibit more widely

· grow my creative business blog

· work on marketing strategy

· identify trade fairs and other selling opportunities

· expand audience nationally and internationally

I had considered the ways in which I thought I would use the program to help me achieve these aspirations and goals:

· draw on Debbie's experience and knowledge of the creative business sector

· gain an expert’s opinion/critical feedback on portfolio

· support in forging links with other practitioners

· being inspired by other creatives

· support with design concepts and ideas development

· accountability - would help with goal achievement and motivation

· giving my practice more structure

Our resulting discussion enabled us to think realistically about what we could achieve within the timescale, and I found out more about what my Mentor could offer. One of the first things she got me to do was examine my purpose and motivation for the goals I had identified. As a result I realised that some of them didn't really belong on my list. The simple act of asking myself some questions gave me time to think about why those goals were there. I realised that they weren't as important as some of the other goals so they ended up at the bottom of my list!

We also thought about medium- and long-term goals which made me think about what I would like to be achieving in my business 5 years from now. I hadn't ever considered this before as I was always thinking about more immediate short-term issues. Actually taking the time to allow yourself to look ahead, and dream about where you would like to be, is exciting and liberating.

Research and Perspective: Debbie encouraged me to look at other businesses in my field and to write a small case study about the ones I had chosen. Each one was in a different stage of business, from start-ups, mid-term business and well established ones. This made me look at my current position and helped me to realise how far I had already come. It also gave me something to aspire to. It helped give me perspective and to pick up tips on good practice, what works well for other businesses in the creative sector, and it also helped me to realise the things I didn't want.

I started to research events I would like to visit, with a view to investigating whether they would be a good 'fit' for my work. I visited several, making notes on how they were organised, what kind of facilities they offered and which section would work well for me. I gained useful knowledge and insight from talking to others who had exhibited at some of the shows, which help me to make informed decisions about whether they were right for me. This research was really useful and a good activity to utilise when you are thinking about changing direction or thinking of breaking into new markets.

We reviewed my portfolio and discussed options for expanding product lines and talked about opportunities I could put myself forward for. As a result of this the initial list of goals did change but this is one of the really good things about having a mentor, you don't have to stick rigidly to your goals, you are your own boss, and you can change to rules to suit.

Making your own Opportunities and Collaborations: Two separate entities in themselves, but in my case, something which seemed to cross over and become the same on several occasions. My Mentor talked about how we should look for opportunities all of the time, instead of waiting for things to happen. This conversation has really stayed with me. I think having the ability to make your own opportunities and to make things happen for yourself can really make you stand out from the crowd and be seen. I didn't (and still don’t) want to be one of those people who sits around waiting for things to happen to them, although I appreciate now that my own process is cyclical, with busy periods of doing and quiet periods of being. I want to have a stake in making good things happen for my business, even now. Along with the theory I also have the proof that making your own opportunities can make the difference between failure and success, whatever that means for you, My mentor, practiced what she preached, as demonstrated in her own business success and this helped me to realise I could do it too.

As a result of the actions taken over the 9 month mentoring journey, I gained more exposure, got my work in front of new audiences and have saw my turnover increase. Via the mentoring, I discovered the Nottingham Festival of Words and also Creative Twinning, two great collaborative opportunities which I applied for and joined forces with. As well as taking part in these two events I've also made a conscious effort to take part in other collaborative projects. I've became a member of, and formed links with, several other creative agencies. I guest-blogged on several blogs and have been interviewed for others as well as gaining a feature in Craft and Design Magazine.

My comfort zone was left far behind on many occasions - speaking at the closing ceremony for the Festival of Words was a 'biggie' as far as personal achievements go for me, as well as Live Drawing in front of an audience at the Launch event! Mentoring taught me to stretch myself more, and to treat each new experience as a learning curve to help me to develop myself and my creative practice.

Looking back

Towards the end of my mentoring process I asked myself 'Has working with a mentor been beneficial to me and my creative practice?' The answer was a resounding YES!! Looking back over what I wanted to achieve through the mentoring scheme I had ticked a lot of the boxes of my initial goal list, which makes me feel that it was definitely been time well spent, from being the Artist in Residence at The Nottingham Festival of Words, to creating new collections of work, research and evaluation, exploring new product ranges, expanding my skills, collaboration, and increasing my profile. It really was an enjoyable and rewarding experience. I learned a lot about myself and what makes me tick and also about the things I want to achieve in the future.

Knowing my mentor beforehand made it easy for me to work with her. I knew what kind of person she was and knew that we would be on the same wave-length, which I do feel is really important when choosing someone to mentor you. You do need to click. I respect what she has achieved with her business and think this helped to inspire me on my journey. If you don't know your mentor beforehand, then you need to do a bit of homework and maybe have an introductory chat to see whether you can work together. So, if you are feeling as though you need a bit of direction, help or support with your creative business I would highly recommend seeking out the services of a Mentor or Coach. Take my word for it, it has been a great experience, and a lot of what I have learned on the journey has stayed with me ever since.

My relationship with Debbie continues to this day. We are collaborating on a new project which will be coming soon so watch this space for details.

In my next blog post I will be sharing my experiences of working with a Life Coach and will then share my more recent experience of working with a Creative Business Coach

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