Bella Starkey, owner and founder of Art & Soul shares a few helpful pointers for starting a business and setting up as a sole trader.
My career as a picture framer came about completely unintentionally and I had exactly a days’ worth of experience before I decided to make it my own business.
In 2013 I was doing temp work for a large architecture firm and as with lots of recent graduates, I was just trying to grab something of some substance for me to create a life out of. It was more a case of ‘Oh this’ll do’, rather than being feeding any creative desire or personal ambitions.
I quickly realised that if I wanted to feel fulfilled, I would have to find a specific craft or field, so I took courses on the weekends – sculpting, gilding, before finding framing.
My framing course took place in this beautiful, light, airy workshop, with a huge circular window and the smell of wood. I met the wonderful Rebecca, the owner of the business and the framer who would be teaching me for the day. I really enjoyed the creative side mixed with meticulous attention to detail and accuracy, and Rebecca told me I had a natural flair for it.
At the end of the day, she told me she was in the process of selling her business, handed me a flyer of details and said I should think about it. I thought she was crazy.
Though as I sat on the train home, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought why shouldn’t I do this? Maybe I can do this!
Full of intrigue and excitement, I went back to her to let her know I was interested. She presented me with a business portfolio, outlining what the business entailed, all of which was completely new to me and seemed really out of my depth.
Since I hadn’t done more than a day of framing, we came to an arrangement of me working on an apprentice basis with her with the understanding I would take over the business in four months time.
Ask and take people's help
This apprenticeship was crucial – this is where I learnt everything from customer service, handling orders, book taking, and learning every aspect and type of framing. It was a very overwhelming but inspiring experience.
A lot of the business side I had never done before – handling the finances, understanding stock taking, marketing… This is where I learnt my first, most invaluable lesson and something I cannot stress enough when starting your own business or setting up as a sole trader – ask and take people’s help.
It is invaluable to the progress of your knowledge and I would not have been able to do it on my own.
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I made sure I wrote down everything that I was told. I am someone that once I write something down, as a visual person, it’s likely once I see it, I won’t forget it.
This is something else that I find very helpful is to play to your strengths, don’t try to use a system that does not work or come naturally to you.
The power of being personable
When it was time for me to go it alone, suddenly I felt like I was on a boat in the ocean and someone had just taken the oars away and the sea was picking up.
Without Rebecca to lean on for advice or reassurance, this was when I really had to rely on skills I had cultivated previously and re-apply these in a way that was relevant to my own business.
Before taking over Art & Soul, I had done a lot of customer service based jobs and it was these skills of communication that helped me maintain and build trusting relationships with my customers.
Running my own business has also changed me as a person. I have evolved from someone who was terrified of giving my own opinion or making decisions, to completely knowing what I think and being able to deliver it confidently.
As I had the benefit of taking over the client base, I had the reassurance of knowing I would have some customers but maintaining these customers was up to me. I put open and honest communication at the core of Art & Soul and made it a unique selling point.
We offer a one-on-one consultation where customers are free to discuss their artwork, take their time and feel comfortable asking for advice, so they can make their piece look the best it can.
This is where I feel honesty comes into play too. If I don’t think a customer should frame something, then I will tell them so. It may lose me a bit of business but it creates a trust that I believe will make them want to come back to me again.
Good communication is also invaluable with suppliers too. Get to know them, build a rapport. You never know when you might need a favour or something to get sent to you a little sooner, and they will want to help you out.
Pragmatism is key
As time went on, I developed a more pragmatic approach to my business. I realised the importance of evaluating certain opportunities and that it was okay to be skeptical.
Inevitably, Art & Soul had slow periods. Having a robust, thorough business plan in place with forecasts and forward-planning on how you will manage when those periods do come around, is a great way to be able to navigate and solve problems quickly and sensibly. I learnt this as I went along but it would have made me feel a lot more comfortable if I had done this from the get-go.
I also realised the importance of making time to look at what was happening in trends within my sector (for me, in framing and interior design). I realised this wasn’t ‘wasted’ time but it was actually helping me future-proof my business.
Be ready for stress and sacrifice, but not without reward
Taking on Art & Soul has been an incredibly stressful journey with countless sacrifices, but the truest rewards come from knowing that people want to use your services.
Running my own business has also changed me as a person. I have evolved from someone who was terrified of giving my own opinion or making decisions, to completely knowing what I think and being able to deliver it confidently. This has been not only proved invaluable for my business, but for myself personally, which for me, is priceless.
Bella is the founder of Art & Soul, offering a custom picture framing service, based in North London, Camden.
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