Like many creative people, David used to think that business was a ‘dirty word’ and was likely to corrupt his good intentions to change the world for the better through his community projects and creative endeavours. However, through his direct experience of setting up and managing community and creative enterprises, he learnt that we can use business techniques for our own purposes. David inspires and helps creative people to adapt business methods to help them become more successful in a way that fits with their values and objectives. In other words, by combining our creative talent with smart business thinking, David says that we don’t have to be controlled by conventional business logic – we can be more in control of our own enterprises to achieve success in our own terms.
As product designer Ilsa Parry says: “David sees business as an opportunity to be grasped by creatives and not to be feared.”
David tells his story in his own words…
“Creative people in business often tell me: “My main passion isn’t money; it’s creativity (or innovation/culture/art/changing the world/helping people)”
You might say something similar.
When I was 22, along with friends, I set up a community bookshop in my home town of Bury, near Manchester in England. We didn’t describe it as a ‘business’ but as a ‘cultural project’ or ‘community resource’. And if you had called me a ‘young businessman’ at that time, I would have laughed – and also been offended.
‘Business’ was a dirty word for us at that time, a word sullied by implications of exploitation and greed. We wanted to change the capitalist world, not join it.
Our motivations for setting up the bookshop were about community politics and culture; making information and books available to empower ordinary people. This was in 1980s, before good quality chain bookshops and the Internet. A long time ago – so you have to imagine me with hair, indeed long hair, and a beard!
The unholy pursuit of profit wasn’t our aim. In fact we took a perverse pride in being unprofitable. Like the starving artist in the garret, we believed poverty was an indication of purity, and that making a profit somehow meant ‘selling out’.
Ironically, despite being ‘anti-business’, I quickly had to learn about many aspects of business in order to manage the bookshop effectively. I had to deal with landlords, accountants, lawyers, bank managers, suppliers and the tax authorities. I had to understand marketing, cash flow and contracts. I had to devise management systems. I had to manage people.
Like many creative entrepreneurs, I had no business training and learned things the hard way, through trial and error. I spent sleepless nights worrying about how to pay the bills; I experimented randomly with marketing to attract more customers; and I didn’t understand the financial jargon used by our accountant.
I came to realise that learning about marketing, accounting, legal matters, intellectual property and managing people etc is actually quite useful!
Knowing more about business doesn’t mean that you ‘sell your soul’ and sign up to hardcore capitalism. Quite the opposite; this ‘management stuff’ can help us achieve our objectives, whatever they are, in our own way, according to our own values. The tools of business are neutral; people choose to use them for good or bad purposes. We can use these business tools to craft our own version of success and a better world.
Similarly, money is also useful stuff – without it, we can’t get great things done.
Profit is neither good nor bad; it’s how we make it and what we do with it that matters.
After managing the bookshop, I worked in book publishing at Commonword Ltd and learnt a lot more about marketing, finance, new technology, intellectual property and management structures. Later I was the Managing Director of Password Books Ltd, an international book marketing and distribution company for specialist literary publishers. There, I learned a great deal about international business, strategic marketing, financial systems, corporate structures, business negotiations, company law, managing change, strategic partnerships, leading people, and business growth.
By now I was excited about what could be achieved using business methods and so I decided study at university, for the first time, aged 35. After leaving school, I had travelled overseas and worked in an odd assortment of jobs: factory labourer, forklift truck driver, civil servant, and van driver. Along the way I learnt a lot about management, mainly bad management, as an employee observing incompetent bosses and the alienation of disaffected workmates.
At Bradford University, I studied part-time over three years for a Masters Degree in Business Administration (the classic MBA of Harvard fame). In the lectures I sat alongside bankers and corporate executives. I felt out of place; but at the same time I was intrigued and enthusiastic. I felt like a spy! I wanted to learn about the secrets of business so that I could use them for my own purposes – and to help others.
Most of the case studies used in business schools are from large corporations and so at first it was difficult to relate to them and find lessons that could be applied to my smaller creative company. At first I had to work hard to ‘translate’ or adapt what I was learning for use in my own enterprise, then discovered that many of the same issues apply to businesses of all kinds, just on a different scale, in a different context, guided by different values and driven by different goals. I learned everything I could to develop my own business – and to help others. In 1995 I graduated with distinction.
Whilst managing a company and studying part-time I was asked occasionally to advise other creative enterprises with their business plans, marketing strategies or management systems. Helping other businesses in this way, through management consultancy and my training workshops, became my passion and my profession.
Since then, I have worked as a business adviser and trainer with large corporations and smaller enterprises, in various sectors and cultures, in more than 50 countries on several continents.
I continue to ‘translate’ effective business methods from around the world and help people in the creative, digital and cultural industries to adapt them appropriately and sensitively to their own circumstances. I help people through my consultancy advice, training workshops, keynote conference speeches and writing.
My books ‘T-Shirts and Suits: A Guide to the Business of Creativity’ and ‘Chase One Rabbit: Strategic Marketing for Business Success’ and other publications condense much of what I’ve learnt over the years. I have learnt from my own experience, from business school, and from my clients’ successes. Everything I write is designed to be relevant and appealing to creative people. I’m proud that both books have been translated and published in several languages around the world.
Because of my own journey, I can empathise with creative people who are motivated primarily by their creative passion, and my story often resonates with theirs. I understand people’s concerns about the conventional assumptions and practices of the wider business world. I share their outlook, which defines ‘success’ differently. I know people want to do business in their own unique way – and I can help them to achieve success in their own terms.
In short, I help creative entrepreneurs to achieve the success that they want, using smart business thinking that fits with their values and objectives.
And when creative people hear my own story, they know I’m on their side.”
“David has been instrumental in developing our business strategy, and creating a new brand. I have worked with other consultants who facilitate rather than pitch in. David, with his wealth of experience within the creative industries, offered his own ideas and solutions, which was refreshing and hugely beneficial.”
Neil Adams. Managing Director.
Powerhouse Digital Photography Ltd
“Dave was a great sounding board and independent viewpoint we used to develop the overall strategy for the business. The time we spent with Dave was a great way for us to focus on where the business is going over the next year and his facilitation of these discussions was extremely valuable. He made us take a step back and also look at our creative thinking processes which was also useful and better still…good fun!”
Anna Heyes. Managing Director
Active Profile Ltd