The art of keeping it simple


Jo and I met back in 1990 through an artists group brokered by the curator of Keele University’s gallery. This group was short lived but morphed into Stoke-on-Trent Artists Co-operative – comprised mainly of fine art graduates from, the then, North Staffs Polytechnic.

For quite a long time the Co-op did little more than meet in pubs in the Shelton area of Stoke, drink pints of mild and smoke roll-ups……oh yes…..and bemoan the fact that there were no purpose built, beautifully appointed, free studio spaces in which fine art graduates could create their wonderful, but little understood, work.

We did manage to get a grant from the city council for £250 and with this we were able to establish a bona fide legal co-operative (which I suspect still formally exists).

Having done that though it was back down the pub for another good moan.

Then into our midst came a rather straight talking Yorkshireman called Ian. He joined the Co-op but very quickly became fed up with all this “the world owes us a living” talk.

“I don’t think you really want studios”, he said. “I don’t think you really want to produce art work. If you did you’d do something about it!”

‘Shocked and affronted of Shelton’ complained that he just didn’t understand. There were no grants to fund studios. There should be publicly funded art space. The Council didn’t value art….society didn’t value art. It was an outrage. It wasn’t us….it was them!

A few of us met with Ian to hear him out. He argued that we should start small. We should work out what each of us could afford to pay each week for a studio. Then we should look for some space… empty industrial unit, say, and make the owner an offer. Surprisingly quickly we found an empty second floor space in an old silk mill in Leek.

We did secure a small amount of funding to buy a load of 5 x 8 chip board panels and we scrounged some white paint. In the course of a week we transformed the cold, dark, dirty and empty mill into cold, dark and dirty studios. Weeks later a beautifully top lit top floor became free (when a dodgy gym did a moonlit flit). We dismantled our panels and moved upstairs.

For the next 4 or 5 years we ran an entirely self-sufficient studio space which generated a small monthly surplus to fund PR for our frequent and increasingly ambitious exhibitions.

All this was pre-internet so we seem to have left almost no digital footprint.

Co op

So what?

Well it strikes me that there certain similarities between the fine art graduates in Stoke in the early 90s and a lot of the social entrepreneurial scene today. Bright young things full of ideas and expectations. In the 90s it was beer, roll ups and Filofaxes. Today it’s flat whites, Graze and iPhones. In the 90s it was looking to Councils and government quangos to provide the funding to turn dreams into realities. Now it’s getting hold of cash from UnLtd, Big Lottery or Nesta that is all that stands in the way of these exciting ventures that will make the world a better place.

But being an entrepreneur isn’t about sitting around in a trendy Hub at a kidney shaped orange ‘work station’ drinking expensive coffee and DMing other like minded graduates from your Apple Air laptop.

Lab 2

Starting a new business – social or otherwise – means having a half decent idea and then putting it to the test……..oh and lots of hard graft.

I love Stephen Fear’s essential tips for business start ups. He started with nothing – launching his oven cleaning start-up from a shared council flat bedroom, a phone box and a friends lock up. His mantra is to spend as little as possible, avoid any overheads, make do with what you’ve got. Focus on what you can do for your potential customer than fancy kit or flash offices…..

“Stick with your old banger or use public transport rather than taking on a car lease.”

If you think you’ve had a great idea and months or years later it is still only a great idea, then perhaps it wasn’t quite so good after all.

Or perhaps you just aren’t an entrepreneur after all.


8 responses to “The art of keeping it simple

  1. I’m sure there are a lot of young un’s out there sitting around thinking that the world owes them something but to an extent I think thats understandable. You’ve got to remember that a lot of these young un’s were told from the age of 4 – 21 that if they worked hard and got good grades at school / college / university they would end up with a good job one day. Now they come out of education and find those jobs aren’t to be found. They exit into a world where those promises don’t match up to reality and where they see their parents and grandparents retiring on final salary pensions at 65 and knowing that they will never get that same opportunity. You get a bunch of young uns’ who for the first time in ages have a lower standard of living than their parents and opportunities that look bleak.

    You may say that the young uns’ should know better, that they shouldn’t expect the world to give them something. But to be honest, when their teachers, parents and peers have told them their entire developing lives that working hard = career prospects and those don’t pay off I can’t blame them for feeling a little bit aggrieved.

    Regardless of this I’ve found that there are a ton of young people today who are working hard to forge their own future paths. Some of them might sit around on kidney shaped desks and use MacBook Airs but thats just progress.

    I disagree that people are sitting around waiting for funding. I believe young people are exceptionally good at getting things done with no funding. They don’t expect anything anymore, they’ve given up on the older generation doing anything for them other than berating them for being lazy and self entitled while they remove their benefit entitlements and job opportunities. I look at projects like TEDxBrum and other social enterprises I know of around Birmingham and I see bright young people working around the clock in order to turn their passions into viable business propositions. What I see from the older generation is people moaning about the current state of things and wanting to go back to the past where Government hand outs were given out as a matter of routine as opposed to given out when a project or plan deserved it was commonplace.

    Young people live in a difficult world where opportunities are dire and they are villianised as a drain / problem for society.

    Young people today have crappy ideas just like every generation has had crappy ideas and there are always going to be people who sit around and think that all they need is a little capital injection to turn that idea into a successful business. The good thing about the current trend in social business is that in order to get these ideas off the ground without capital you have to turn to others for help and support. That turning to others results in an informal peer review process that weeds out the crappy ideas from the potentially viable ones.

    The people I know don’t sit around in pubs bemoaning a lack of opportunity. The people I know work to forge their own opportunities at their own expense on very small bank balances. You can have the best ideas in the world but nearly every business needs a level of capital in order to get it to a point of business viability. I believe that todays generation does a lot more with a lot less.


    • Phew! Thanks Thom. I remember a teacher at school reading a piece in an assembly about how dreadful young people are today; how lazy, disrespectful, loutish, etc. The piece was actually written by some Roman bloke in about 200BC.

      The exact circumstances that we live in inevitably change over time and the challenges are different but there will always be challenges. Actually I think many young people now have far more self belief and are ready to give their ideas a go far more readily than many young people were when I was in my 20s.

      But I still see loads of twitter feeds, websites and blogs promoting conferences, groups, funds, workshops and training sessions about how to make your idea a reality, when what may really be required is that first step to make the idea real – using resources we have already and the skills and support that our friends and contacts may be all to ready to share. Any hurdle is really in our head rather than in the world. I Think Stephen’s story is timeless. And imagine how much easier it might have been with the web instead of the FT or a mobile instead of a call box.

      And ofcourse we know many, many ventures will fail. But how much better to start small, have a go and maybe fail, than to over think an idea and never get it off the runway?


  2. Interesting blog, I can definitely vouch for spending the last 6 – 8 months setting up a whole heap of things with literally no money, company car or perks – not sure all young un’s are necessarily sitting around waiting for funding to do stuff & are dipping into their own pockets significantly to set stuff up.


    • I think creating equitable democratic flat spaces without hierarchy for people is very rare without top down gatekeepers and growing it through communities by people is a very unique combination, I do agree with Thom, people are doing lots more with a lot less these days too.


      • Thanks Immy. I think there is a lot of activity and lots of very passionate people now. Not sure I agree that they are doing lots more with lots less though. The barriers to entry in so many fields are much weaker today than they have ever been.


    • Quite so Immy. But boy are there a lot of people making a living out of convincing people the way to make their idea happen is to enrol on a course, attend a conference, jump through hoops to get thousands of pounds in lottery funding or similar. When really they’d be better off just trialling it on a small scale to see if it even works or if anyone actually wants it!


  3. This is the first blog I’ve read this year that has compelled me to put finger to key!

    First thought is that I can see what Thom is saying, I was given the same ‘work hard, get educated and the rest will come’ rhetoric throughout my earlier years. After getting my degree in graphic design and feeling creative, inspired and ready to take on the world I went for my first job interview. Innocently I ask the employer the sort of work I’ll be doing… maybe I’ll get involved in some magazine design or corporate identity work I’m thinking to myself. “Well one of our key commissions is the page design for the yellow pages” comes the response from the interviewer. Not quite what I had been hoping for, can you even describe the yellow page layout as ‘design’?. At that moment I knew that it wasn’t all going to be as easy as I had thought!

    Deflated I decided perhaps I should set up my own design agency, how hard can it be I thought. Once again, I quickly realised the answer – very hard. For 6 months I scrapped by, putting off getting a proper job, by selling paintings on ebay, designing websites, selling hand made birthday cards to art galleries. I

    10 years later, I now know what held me back. I lacked focus and didn’t want it (or need it) enough. My peer group wasn’t diverse enough, we were all in our early 20’s and full of ideas and enthusiasm but didn’t understand the practicalities of work (or life). Thom, would your peer group really tell each other their idea is crappy? Mine certainly didn’t and I get the feeling neither did John’s.

    That said, I don’t think its really about age or peers, it’s about understanding what you want, accepting criticism, plenty of rejection, and being able to still keep going for it. My wife has shown me this better than anyone, we’ve got a picture on the wall at homes that she drew when she was 7. At the bottom of the picture it says “when I grow up I want to teach people to ride horses’. When we met she was lecturing in equine, you might think that this was enough for her and that she had achieved her childhood dream. Not so, she wanted to own a riding school, not teach in a college so she pulled together a business plan and spent weekend after weekend driving from farm to farm knocking on farmers doors and presenting her plan to them. Hundreds of doors later she comes across a farmer that has 10 acres spare and thinks he might be able to help. She now has a long lease on the same 10 acres and is running a successful riding school (shameless plug – When she tells her friends and former colleagues that she has a riding school the normal response is “wow, you’re so lucky. Fancy a farmer having some spare land”. We smile and nod, knowing that it was nothing to do with luck (or age, or education) it was (and still is) about knowing what you want, a lot of hard work, persistence and passion.


  4. Andy – thanks for this

    I love the honest and insightful way you have reflected on your journey to wage slavery (!) and your wife’s parallel 10 year journey to ‘overnight success’!

    As part of a social business that’s all about adding value to our customers’ lives I’m sure that innovation and the development of new products and services will become an ever more important part of our future at Bromford. We need to find ideas that just might fly and the pilots who have the passion to get them off the runway.

    Here’s to the continued success of the rockstar equitation centre.



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