tax return

Flower market stall in Bangkok, Thailand

Reviewing Your Business

I am sure your business and sales will fluctuate with the seasons (and the British weather). Most of the creative clients I work rush through autumn, in a manic flurry of making and promoting for the pre-Christmas gift market, to then find spring slow; buyers and clients are less willing to spend money. It can be hard to be positive when sales are thin on the ground. However, this down-time is ideal for planning!

But the outlook isn’t bleak! No! This year you are focusing and streamlining and moving the business forward. Like many of my clients you are probably using this period as reviewing or thinking time. And my Creative Planning – Next Steps blog series can help guide you.

So, last time, in Taking Stock of Sales and Costs we looked at your Revenue Streams and Cost Structures and now, tax return behind you, you are on top of the financial side of your business! Let’s continue to review the other areas of your business. This post will now help you audit all of your business and develop action points. But do refer back to my last post if you need to.

If you have armed yourself once again with the Business Model Canvas[1], Post-it notes, pens and a cup of tea, I will take you through what to review and some action points for you below, step by step.

How to fix your business problems

Customer Segments

You may have different groups of customers/buyers with different needs and relationships (more on the latter later). Some will be more or less profitable and price sensitive. Different segments may have differing distribution channels – where and how you sell. You may have distinct product or service offers for distinct groups e.g. private commissions vs. trade or retail.

Action point: Consider how you can cut back time, investment, and involvement on the less profitable and reach more profitable customers – you may need to put some customers or types of work on hold for now if they are not earning their keep. Plus, is there any way you can reduce your time and money on the profitable customers throughout all your activities without it being apparent?

Value Proposition

This is where you offer something different that the customer wants, your unique mix of elements catering to meeting their needs. This can be price based, or speed/ease of service, or design – perhaps the originality (or breadth) of your creative process or finished piece(s), or the customer experience of your offer.

Action point: Is there a part of your offer that deep down you know isn’t quite good or original enough, or needs a refresh or update? Is there a new feature or innovation that you want to build in? Do you know if your customers would want this? Try honing your offer, but ensure through some research that it is actually desired and also doesn’t dilute the brand or confuse the customer!

Channels (of Distribution, Marketing, and Sales)

As mentioned before, this is how and where you sell your offer to your customers, clients and buyers. You may sell directly to the end customer through your own website, stall or shop, or you may do this indirectly through other retailers, online or offline, or wholesalers. You may also have individual clients.

Action point: Do you have too many channels, stockists, marketing bumpff or not enough? Is it all manageable or taking up too much of your time for not enough profit? Do you need to simplify, or to improve your efficiency with each one? Perhaps wind down your involvement with less profitable and lower commission channels if your sales and income aren’t great.

Customer Relationships

This is where and how you acquire new customers and retain existing ones, encouraging them to buy again (and again) from you. Some customers you will invest more time in because they are, or you hope they will become, more profitable such as a new bespoke or trade client or a new department store buyer. Depending on how you sell to each group of customers, you may need to offer different service levels to each.

Action point: Consider each group of (or individual, if bespoke) customer. How can you better manage your time with them? Should you pull back from less profitable ones, and seek out new customers instead, and do you have time for this? Can you nurture the slower or lapsed customers to buy from you again – are they worth keeping.  How can your best customers be encouraged to buy more? Pareto deemed that 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your customers, so cull and spend time wisely!

Key Resources

These are the ‘assets’ that you need and use to create, distribute and reach your customers. These might be physical resources such as machinery, packaging, kit and stock, or intellectual such as your brand identity, copyright and licensing agreements, plus technological such as your website, e-commerce and social media platforms. There are also human resources – you, your co-director, your staff or ad-hoc freelancers. Lastly, there are your financial resources such as investment, grant funding, cash, capital, reserves and buffers, and credit. Without all of the above you would not be able to produce your work.

Action point: Is your money tied up unnecessarily in any of these? Can you sell or hire out your machinery or space? Can you re-work your existing stock and packaging rather than expend on new? Is your website hosting and transaction process cost effective for you? Can you afford to take on freelance staff to help you increase your productivity? Where can you secure additional funding from? Streamline those that are eating up your cash or capital and put on hold what you can to build up reserves.

Key Activities

The actions and functions that your business takes to operate successfully to create, distribute to, and reach customers. So, for example, design, production, distribution, marketing, PR, IT, plus outside teaching or consultancy, and networking etc.

Action point: Similar to key resources, what functions and activities can you trim or pull back on, what do you need to invest more in to improve your productivity or ability to reach customers? If you currently outsource some functions, or is it cheaper to have an ad-hoc freelancer or do it yourself? Do you actually have the skills to do in-house functions, or would it be more efficient and achieve better quality to start to outsource these?

Key Partnerships

These are alliances that are vital to running your business: your relationships with your suppliers and buyers, your reliance on your investor or partner. Perhaps also support networks and grant-giving bodies.

Action point: Are you engaged in networks and clusters with other similar businesses, and can you share knowledge and expertise? Do you attend networking events, to raise your profile and forge new relationships? Do you spend time nurturing your existing relationships to iron out glitches? Do you need to dedicate time to finding grant funding or gaining free/subsidised skills or business support? Likewise, what can you reduce or say goodbye to? Is it better to work at solving existing issues rather than moving on?

And here is where I congratulate you on having completed your review! Now, warm in the glow of accomplishment, you have your head firmly around your business, and have taken control of what isn’t working, and can plan to build on your strengths and successes and what areas to streamline. Now, you need strategies to focus this down and take it forward.

Over my following blog posts, I will show you where to start with creating strategy, then how to map this out through distribution strategy, marketing strategy, and social media strategy.

Next time: Creative Planning – Next Steps 3: The Right Strategy for Your Business

If you have any questions after reading this, or would like me to work with you on your creative business, then feel free to email me on, or drop a comment on the blog.

[1] Osterwalder and Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas, from their book Business Model Generation, 2010, Wiley and Sons.


Taking Stock of Sales and Costs

It is most definitely January. Decorations lie forlorn in boxes, sparse pine trees litter pavements, and your tax return still awaits you… What better time to take stock, re-focus and plan for the year ahead? Business detox, anyone?

This will be the aim of my new blog series, Creative Planning – Next Steps. My new posts will be ideal for those of you who have reached the ‘where am I actually going with this?’ and ‘do I really want to/can I afford to keep doing this?’ point in the run up to and during the holidays. Or, perhaps, you are at the year two or year three stage of your business and it is time to review your sales, strengths and successes and to plan ahead. It’s time for next steps.

So where do you start? How do you know how to begin and structure a review? What should you be looking for? Then what do you do with all the info???

Creative Planning – Next Steps will guide you through: reviewing (auditing) your business from a simple format, the Business Model Canvas[1]; getting your head around strategy and focusing the direction of your business; plus mapping out easy (yes, it is possible) distribution, marketing and social media strategies for you to take forward.

When you run a creative business and make, design or produce, this is probably where your heart is and the ‘business stuff’ takes away from your creative time. This is a hard reality to learn, and maybe leaves you slightly disillusioned. Perhaps so far you have been working in a ‘freelance’ mentality, rushing (lurching?) from project to project with not enough income or time to create? Or, perhaps, after all your very, very hard work, you’re still not seeing the financial benefits?

I suggest you need to review and streamline, then focus the business strategically to make it as profitable as you can. Ultimately, you can then hire occasional/part-time/regular staff so you can focus, once again, on creating.

Beginning your business review

In this and my next post, I will help you review and start to refine your business, step by step. I will look at key areas (building blocks) and then suggest action points to help you move forward.

Essentially, a review is where you look at your businesses’ strengths and weaknesses to see what you can make the most of and what you need to prune or cull to be profitable. Usually, this is in terms of sales i.e. which ranges or pieces are doing well, which can be quickly produced to high profit, and which are just not working well at all. Also, you can consider it in terms of customers and clients – if you offer, say, bespoke or commissions rather than products. Should you be advanced enough in your business, you might also look at it in terms of geographic markets e.g. China is slowing, but Japan and Indonesia are picking up.

Begin with the basics – your business sales and costs

First, this means digging out all your sales data. You may have already rooted through your sales receipts and invoices for your tax return. Totting up what sales come from where and how many sales for piece (or range) X, Y, and Z. Are you selling more online from your own website or more from host platforms such as Are you running out of commissioned work? Which sales channels take up more of your time for less financial return, and so on…?

Are there surprises in all this paperwork – are some products and ranges not the ones that are your bestsellers after all? Perhaps there are pieces which garner media coverage but little sales; they instead drive web traffic, enquiries and social media followers? These showpieces are valuable samples to you for this purpose, but won’t sell as pieces or ranges – couture catwalk shows don’t reflect what their customers actually buy, they are there to flirt with the media and raise awareness!

At this stage it is probably helpful for you to record your sales information if you are not already doing so. The much maligned Excel spreadsheet can be set up easily, then quickly updated at the end of every month or quarter as you now – being newly organised – continue to monitor your cash-flow. Now you have it all in one place and can view it easily.

Next, as part of this process, and certainly for your tax return, you will have begun to see some idea of your costs. Possibly this is the moment of disillusion – you seem to have generated income well, but actually your costs are high: too many ranges, too many materials, too many different distribution and delivery channels, too much time spent on individual pieces that could be sold at a higher price, not enough high-paying commissioned work etc. This is not good news for profit. So undertaking a review becomes an even more important exercise – you are finding issues that need to be addressed to solve this.

When I work with my clients, and in my MA teaching, I often refer to Ostenwalder and Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas as a structure to follow and a starting point for a review. This is an excellent model for a holistic, inter-connected, all-in-one-place view of your business. And you can just pin it on the wall and scribble or stick Post-it notes on it – easy! This is from Business Model Generation, which I recommend as a bible for early-stage businesses.

This model proposes that there are nine core building blocks or areas of your business. These areas need to complement each other and all work in sync for your business to succeed and overcome its challenges. In this post, I will now take you through the Revenue Streams and Cost Structure areas, and then suggest easy action points for you to follow:

Revenue Streams

Where your income comes from, divided into different streams. So this can be from one-time customer payments, or recurring revenues from ongoing payments, or repeat custom. Here, also consider investment, if you are lucky enough to have some from either a partner, investor or even from crowd-funding or grants.

Action point: How can you secure ongoing or new funding? What relationships can you revisit? Can you dedicate time to crowd-funding or grant applications? How can you ‘up-sell’ more products to customers or ‘cross-sell’ additional products to customers? Perhaps you have existing materials that can be sold off or turned into stock, or perhaps have existing stock that can be ‘tweaked’ into new, higher priced products?

Cost Structure

These are the costs incurred in creating your product or service and getting it to your customer to maintain good relationships with them. Overheads, materials and labour, packaging, distribution and delivery, website upkeep and hosting, commissions to other hosts stockists, promotional materials, networking events, shows and exhibitions, staffing (even interns’ expenses), taxis to and fro as you heave samples and stock for buyers and clients. Plus any returns’ costs -for products – that you incur, and telephone calls for sales enquiries or for following up on leads.

Action point: Perhaps you have excess stock (inventory) that is costing you, how can you sell this to bring in income? How can you minimise future stock and inventory so that you don’t have to pay for storage, or wait such long times for financial return? How can you streamline all your operations and resources, where can you make cuts, what can you put on hold? This can be hard-going and radical; do be sure not to cut too heavily or without planning contingencies or replacements.

So well done on starting your review and getting to grips on the financial side of your business!

Next time, in Creative Planning – Next Steps 2: Reviewing Your Business we will look at the remaining areas of the Business Model Canvas, to give you the full 360 on your business. From here, it’s easy to begin a review: you break down your business information so it isn’t overwhelming, and then visualise the problem and its solution, one step at a time…

If you have any questions after reading this, or would like me to work with you on your creative business, then feel free to email me on, or drop a comment on the blog.

[1] Osterwalder and Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas, from their book Business Model Generation, 2010, Wiley and Sons.