business planning

Street market in Bangkok, Thailand

Do your research: the market

“What is your market?” Do you know the answer to this? If not, does it matter?

If you have been working creatively and so far have been receiving commissions and referrals, you probably haven’t needed to think about ‘what next?’ and promoting yourself out to new clients in the market. Or maybe you are just starting out and not sure where to start selling. Well, what comes next is market research…

This doesn’t sound terribly exciting, maybe doesn’t sound like it is relevant to you, and possibly is conjuring memories of dodging clipboard wielding researchers in the street. But I believe market research is vital to helping you grow your sales, and your business. And it is easier to do than you might think (with no clipboards).

Essentially, a market is where you sell your product or service. Your market might be based on the product, so fashion, ceramics, childrenswear, jewellery, millinery etc, or service – photographer, jewellery resetting, interior design or architecture. It might also be based on geography, so, locally in your own neighbourhood, your city or region. This might be online. Or this might be overseas, either if you have been successful e.g. in the UK and are planning to expand, or if you have had some sales from e.g. Japan and China and think there could more sales from these areas.

Your market might also be a specific market level or area. By this I mean luxury, mass market or bespoke commissions. Perhaps you have worked in the mass market and have been retailing to small pieces to high street chains, but now feel you want to produce a more upscale range for independent boutiques. Or perhaps you want to move into the ethical design or crafts market with sustainable and eco products or services.

And your market could also be trade. You might be selling your products via retail to the end customer – the actual customer who will be using it – or you might be selling your product to interior designers who work with clients, for example. Maybe jewellery setting services to jewellers, or embroidery services to fashion designers or crafts people.

Once you know what your market is – and you may have more than one, which is fine – then you already have a head start on how to grow sales by understanding:

  • the type of stockist or clients or end customers that you can work with
  • trends and opportunities for growth that you can capitalise on
  • the aspects that are in decline and best avoided
  • the new challenges that are arising and affecting the market
  • the type of successful businesses that are working – and competing with you – in this market
  • what it is that your clients, stockists, or customers want and how much they will pay for this

But why does all this matter to you? You have a product or service that either has been selling well enough, or is surely going to sell well enough, if not brilliantly! Isn’t it easier, quicker and a better use of time to just start trying to sell where you can rather than undertake any market research?

I think jumping in and trying to sell anywhere to get your business off the ground (or keep it afloat) makes sense and may bring you in short-term sales, which is important. But in the longer-term i.e. the following weeks, months or years since your recent sale, having more of a strategy and a focussed means of selling your product or service will be more time efficient and more lucrative. And hopefully will also give you the much needed sense of knowing where your business is going!

If you are just starting out, and you have samples or prototypes, or just single pieces of your product so far, then you would need to do initial market research. If you have already been selling and are expanding into a new market, such as one of those discussed above, you would undertake something more substantial, as there is a greater financial risk to it. In both cases, you need to do this in stages.

This will involve accessing the internet or library with notepad or iPad. Plus, if you are exploring your geographic market quite literally on foot, take a camera and a map so you can see how the shopping areas are laid out.

First, set some time aside for this and schedule it – think about whether you will visit a library, or you might want to try the internet first. But give yourself a goal of a couple of hours or one afternoon a week for a few weeks to work through this. Put it in the diary; this is also your work too, not just making or designing!

Then identify your market – look at the list above, which of these applies to you? There may be more than one.

Visit a business library – in London there are City Business Library, the British Library’s Business and Intellectual Property Centre, and Westminster Reference Library to name a few. All of these places will have librarians who will be happy to get you started and show you (either ad-hoc or if you make an appointment) their resources, databases, periodicals and reports relevant to what you are trying to find out, and they cater for small businesses – for free! Other cities will also have a good business section in their libraries. Often, once you have visited a library, they can set you up as a member so you can then explore their resources online from home.

Then read reports on industries, trends and market growth – these reports include Mintel (Market Intelligence), Keynote, Datamonitor and Verdict. And also Cobra (Complete Business Reference Advisor), and EBSCO business resources to help small businesses. At the British Library Business and Intellectual Property Centre, there are industry specific information guides such as fashion, or jewellery etc. In these reports, look at data for sales, turnover, numbers of companies, and indicators of growth and decline etc.

Now analyse what you have read and noted down – what are the trends and growth areas? How is the market structured and divided up into smaller markets? What areas or sectors have declining sales? Who are the main players and market leaders? How saturated is this market? – e.g. mass market womenswear will be more saturated with lots of similar brands than luxury accessories? What looks stable to you? What looks like a new and emerging area that you could capitalise on?

Consider the impact on your current product or service offer. It’s not a nice thought, but are the sales of similar offers in decline or heavily saturated with competitors? If so, how can you modify or innovate in what you are doing (or where you are selling it) to take less risk here? Or maybe the data shows that no-one else is doing something similar to you? That could highlight an opportunity, but also an indicator that there is no demand for it…

So now you have the data, it is time to visit the market yourself – if you can afford it. Are you selling handmade accessories to your local neighbourhood? Head out with your camera and photograph what you see by way of other stores, craft fairs, boutiques and department stores. If you are a small scale jeweller or designer, head round the museum shops and jewellery districts, plus the boutiques and departments stores (but don’t take photos inside!!!).

Are you expanding overseas – e.g. Paris or Shanghai? Take a budget trip to familiarise yourself with the districts, the stores, how the department stores are laid out inside, what looks busy, what is near underground and bus stops and other main attractions. This way you get an idea of what the location is like, where you want to be in that location, what else is selling, what types of other stores or brands are there already – who looks busy and who doesn’t?

Or are you moving into online sales? Are you setting up your own website and promoting it on your own social media platforms, or are you going to sell through a host platform e.g. Notonthehighstreet.com, Etsy.com, Asosmarketplace.com, or Culturelabel.com etc. Browse all the similar host platforms, then within each platform look at all the individual brands similar to your business. Monitor them and see who is selling best where. Keep an ear out (and eye) for feedback on other businesses’ (negative) experiences with such host platforms.

So, what your time spent on this research will have shown you is:

  • what the trends and opportunities to capitalise on in your market are
  • what is selling well and are growth areas = potentially more sales and profit
  • what is in decline, or will be more challenging and risky financially
  • who the main stockists or competitors are
  • how the market is structured – lots of large chain retailers and only a few boutiques, or mainly online sales
  • how saturated by similar offers the market is – the more saturated, the harder for you to gain a foothold
  • geographically, where you want to be in this market – the wrong end of the right street can be just as unfortunate as the wrong end of town; you want to be where the customers are
  • again, geographically – locally or overseas – this shows you a little more about customers’ buying habits and what exactly is selling well

For your business now, this will give you more direction and focus. It will help lessen you wasting your time (and money) trying to sell in the wrong place, or trying to sell the wrong offer in the right place. Ultimately, this will help you begin to capitalise on opportunities to make more sales. Which is what everyone wants…

Good luck with it!

If you have any questions after reading this, then feel free to email me on hallandco@outlook.com, or drop a comment on the blog.

Next Creative Planning Basics post: Customer research – who are they and what do they want? And is your dream customer your actual customer – if not, does this matter? Hint: yes, it does…

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Liliana K stall in Whistable, England

Reality: Your business now, your more profitable customers, and your cashflow

“Have you got a Business Plan?” is not a question that brings joy to the heart of early-stage creative micro-businesses. Visions of Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, and alien, small-printed jargon arise; hours, days wasted, lost in unfiled paperwork only to create more unfiled (and unread) paperwork. Sound familiar?

Many of the fashion and creative start-ups I work with don’t have a business plan (it’s all in their heads), don’t do planning (ditto), and run their business like a freelancer. And why not? That way you can focus on the day-to-day must-dos, the making/constructing/designing, and the creative energy.

But planning your direction – whether it is building a strategy, a business plan, or identifying your goals for the next year or three – can be a creative process in itself. And like everything creative, planning is developmental and organic, it isn’t set in stone and can be adapted and improved, scrapped or redone. It starts with the first steps – and that’s what this and my series of Creative Planning Basics blog posts will explore.

These posts will help you focus everything that you already know or have dreamed about your work down into some kind of visual map. This will help stop the chaotic ‘washing-machine’ thinking and instead bring some colour-coded clarity.

Save your Business Plans and Strategy Documents for the bank and investors – you will get to this when you need to – and instead just begin now with how you want your creative business, and life, to be. So, with your old-school paper, Post-It notes, pens, pencils and camera at the ready, read on…

So, decide what time period – one year, two years etc – you want to focus on. Grab different coloured Post-It notes and find some wall space, or A1 paper, and pens and pencils.

This exercise will help you identify:

  1. Where your business is now.
  2. How to divide up your creative business into different customer bases for each strand.
  3. What work to spend more time on to generate more profitable leads and relationships.
  4. And start to recognise when the income is likely to come in and when your outgoings for the work are likely to go out = cashflow.

First, think about how many different aspects to your business you may have. For example, you might be an architect that does residential, commercial and the occasional profile-raising pop-up or collaborative work. You might be a jeweller that provides setting services for trade but are now branching into your own designer collections and bespoke commissions. Or a ceramicist beginning to get interior design wall commissions. Whichever way, you will have different strands of your business, different customer bases, and, importantly, different levels of income from each.

Using your Post-It notes, pens and pencils, colour-code each strand and divide it by income. So, if you are deep down someone who dreams of having their own pottery and shop, and meanwhile is beginning to do one-off wall commissions for interior designers at 15K a pop, but also hope to sell ceramics to high-street chains, plus take part in craft fairs with jewellery, picture frames, and general knick-knacks with your surplus materials, you would give a colour for each of these. Stick each coloured set on the wall, or paper, with a different sticky for each range or piece within it – and write down everything you produce within these strands that you do, or could, sell.

By now, you know how much each of these costs to produce, and you know, I hope, how much you might be likely to sell each piece of work at from your provisional market, customer, and competitor research (more on this in another post). So by totting this all up, it will visually indicate your more profitable income stream. How many of a, b and c are you likely to sell within the next six or twelve months? What if you only sell one 15K commission but get several of high-street orders for ceramic pieces? However, what if you already have one such commission lined up but are still just at the design/thinking stage on your retailer ceramics? Assess what is realistic to you for the chosen time period, factoring in how much work or progression you can realistically make in that time.

Earlier this year, I attended an event at the British Library Business and Intellectual Property centre – The Design Trust’s ‘More Than Making: Grow Your Creative Business’ – where entrepreneur Paul Sturrock[i] outlined a very simple business approach based on Osterwalder and Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas.[ii] Part of this discussion was identifying how much you need, or would like, to live on with a salary and all costs covered – 25K, 50K, 100K? Then you break that sum down into how many of each business strand you would need to sell to reach your goal.

So, let’s say you want to live off an income of 50K for salary and costs. If your wall commission is now looking (from Post-It note heaven) like your main income stream, you could find three commissions – one for each quarter – totalling 45K, plus another 5K of ceramic orders and craft fair takings to reach 50K. This additional 5K might be ten retail orders of £500.00. That would be almost one order a month, which is perhaps not realistic for this stage of your business. So re-adjust that to five orders of £500.00, then you can push the craft fair takings seasonally around Christmas gifts (yes, you will be busy!) to pull in the remaining £2.5K.

However, is this do-able for your workload at this stage? Could you bridge the income gap initially with a part-time job, or some freelance work using your other skills? Could you also sell some of your smaller pieces on online platforms such as Etsy.com, Notonthehighstreet.com etc? Do you have local shops, boutiques and galleries that might take some pieces on sale-or-return? Do you need to live off 50K? Could you manage on less for now? This is your creative business and life, so design it how you want it to be.

And finally… take a photo(s) of your hard work – don’t worry if you need to do this exercise in stages- and file or print for future reference (and to refer to for my next blog post).

So, what this exercise has helped you with is:

Where your business is now.

Maybe you have no contacts as yet with retail buyers, but do have several conversations regarding wall commissions, one of which is definite. You may really enjoy the buzz, banter and trading with your customers at craft fairs, but this can be a lot of work and time (even if it is in front of the telly of an evening) for a potentially lower return.

How to divide up your creative business into different customer bases for each strand.

You may have clients who are hotel groups commissioning you for wall pieces, or it may be an interior design small business with high-end clients, or a bigger design group. You might be aiming to target the highly competitive nationwide high-street chains for higher volume retail ceramic sales. This means you can identify additional interior designers for further commissions, or perhaps target smaller boutique interior stores with a good clientele who are willing to pay more for distinctive ceramics. A later post will look at how you find and promote to your different customers.

What you can spend more time on (yes, you can be efficient in time management!) to generate more profitable leads and relationships.

By now, you will know that it isn’t just the product or service itself that you spend time on, but also the research, the networking and the promotion (leg work) of it. So it makes sense to spend less time and earn more!

When the income is likely to come in and when your outgoings for the work are likely to go out = cashflow.

So if you break your year down into quarters, you are then already starting to build a loose cashflow projection. Try breaking income and outgoing down further into months throughout the year. This will hopefully help you manage your finances and lessen the sting of overdraft charges.

But perhaps you really do still dream of that pottery and shop, and your business is to help you work your way towards that – maybe you don’t want to be the new darling of the retail ceramics or interior design world. Then these planning steps will help you maximise your income from less time giving more time to you to continue to do the making, creating and designing you love.

Any questions, feel free to email me on hallandco@outlook.com, or drop a comment on the blog.

Next post: Creative Planning Basics 2: Starting to research your market, your customer and your competitors. Really, it’s just chatting, and having a nosey around with a camera.


[i] Paul Sturrock – about.me/paulsturrock

[ii] Osterwalder, A, and Pigneur, Y, (2010), Business Model Canvas, John Wiley & Sons. Also, www.businessmodelgeneration.com

Japanese painting in Kyoto, Japan

New Model Marketing

Since the 1960’s, marketing theory has enthused about the 4 Ps, and any student, graduate, or practitioner will have cut their marketing teeth on the mantra of Product, Price, Place and Promotion. But in the Internet age, we are encouraged to think conversation, not marketing, and engaging not broadcasting. So how relevant are traditional models to fashion and creative micro-businesses’ digital marketing strategies?

In 2009, Brian Fetherstonhaugh[i]  authored a call-to-arms article for advertising giant Ogilvy and Mather consigning the 4 Ps to the past, to ‘fantasy’. The era of marketing as king, and audience as ‘obedient’ is ‘shattered’. Fetherstonhaugh declares: “consumers have seized control”.

He adds, “The new ecosystem is millions and billions of unstructured one-to-one and peer-to-peer conversations”. He proposes it’s time for a new framework and toolkit – replacing the 4 Ps and embracing the 4 Es is the future: Experience, Everyplace, Exchange and Evangelism.

Similarly, Lon Safko’s fantastic Social Media Bible outlines current theory on engaging consumers today. He cites Communication, Collaboration, Education and Entertainment as necessary approaches in digital marketing – get them talking with you, working with you, listening to your values, and having fun. Engaged consumers are happy consumers.

So far, so large-scale multi-national. But how does inspired theory work in practice if you are a time and resource-strapped fashion or creative start-up?

A recent social media seminar I attended with Adrian Swinscoe[ii] explored some current online thinking for micro-businesses: Create, Curate, Community, Converse and Context. Could new, micro-business friendly marketing theory – and practice – be the 5 Cs?

Adrian outlined the approach. Create only content that is helpful and relevant to your customers or audiences on the platforms that they use. Curate other people’s relevant content and share and comment on this. Build a community, and take part in other communities, where these issues matter. Converse with your customers, listen and respond, be visible to them. And, importantly, wrap all this in the context that that connects you to your customer. Remember that people want to buy from people, so keep the human touch within the 5 Cs.

In time-saving practice, I would also add to re-use and adapt existing words, images and video that are appropriate to your audiences and platforms. Build your community and network from scratch by regularly re-posting, commenting on, sharing, re-tweeting other relevant content to increase your own followers and visibility. Keep your social media platforms up-to-date and provide quick responses: start out small with whatever is manageable, test what works, and keep it up. And always think about the ‘why’ of what you are doing. Ask yourself: Does this reach my customer? Do they want to see or hear this? Will it get them to buy/to share/to recommend? Is it saying the right thing about me and my brand? Manage this in 15 minutes a day or one half day a week – keep it simple, put it in your diary and stick to it.

So from Ps to Es to Cs. The theory and practice of how we and where we do our marketing may be continually evolving, but our intentions remain the same. We will always ultimately be selling products – or services – to people, obedient or not.

If you have any questions after reading this post, or would like me to work with you on your creative business, then please do get in touch. You can either email me at hallandco@outlook.com or drop a comment on the blog.


[ii] http://www.adrianswinscoe.com