Whether you’re a designer, crafter, maker or painter – freelancing or running your own brand can often be a lonely business. To combat the isolation which solo-makers can feel, it is essential to build your own network of supportive, likeminded creatives.
Creative communities come in all shapes and sizes and offer all sorts of benefits; from practical advice and skill-sharing to emotional support. Even the most independent of makers can’t turn their aspirations into reality on their own - creatives need creatives.
But just how do you go about building your own network? 91 contributor Greg McIndoe caught up with a few small business owners to hear about their experiences growing and sustaining a creative community…
Illustrator and maker Libby Walker graduated with a degree in Illustration from Edinburgh College of Art in 2009. Having spent years working her way up through different markets and studio spaces, last summer Libby opened the doors to her very own shop in the south side of Glasgow. If you pop in to Libby’s bright yellow store you’ll find a whole host of totes, prints, mugs and cushions on sale as well as the artist herself, beavering away on her next colourful creation.
The shop is currently displaying an exhibition of new works by Libby inspired by her retail neighbours. The series depicts many businesses local to her - including beer shops, salons and queer book shops - along with the people who run them. Libby created the series to highlight the fact that many small businesses are run by just one person. Knowing herself how much work and risk is involved in launching your own business, the project commends her fellow shop owners for their brave business moves and thanks them for shaping the local community.
The beautiful illustrations are going to be edited into a single print which will be sold by Libby both online and in her physical store. The original paintings however will be gifted to the people who inspired them. In return, Libby has been promised beer, haircuts, plants, vintage treats and – most importantly - a tribe of new friends. This project is a perfect example of how creativity can be used to connect with people and immerse yourself within a community.
The Frome Independent
The Frome Independent market was launched in 2009 by a local entrepreneur with the aim of bringing footfall to the independent shops of Frome’s picturesque cobbled streets. Over the past decade, the non-profit business has grown from working with just a handful of sellers to over 200 and now welcomes around 80,000 visitors a year. Once a month, a close-knit community of sellers, including contemporary crafters, homeware designers and ethical clothing and jewellery brands, assemble on the streets of Frome to flog their latest wares.
Frome Independent strives to be ‘more than a market’ and a key part of this effort has been encouraging makers and craftspeople to form their own ‘community with benefits’ which extended beyond market days. The organisers have witnessed countless friendships between traders form and strengthen as a result of trading alongside one another at the market. The strength of this community has been proven by many of Frome’s traders going on to open their own shops in the local area.
Creatives who trade at the market have nothing but praise for the organisation. Elizabeth Huband is the owner of ethical brand Badger House Leather who sell at Frome Independent each month. Currently one year in to her business journey, Elizabeth names Frome Independent as the catalyst which sparked the idea for her to turn her passion into a business and strongly believes she wouldn’t be where she is today without it.
Elizabeth explains that the benefits of the community go way beyond simply being able to sell products. She says, “the market allows you to feel connected to the community you live in, to collaborate with other makers and artists and to broaden your horizons in ways you never thought you would. I’m now doing business differently and frankly, doing it better!” This glowing review shows how surrounding yourself with like-minded creatives - even on a monthly basis - can benefit you and your business in ways you never knew it could.
Over the past 8 years, Ohh Deer has established itself as a go-to online destination when searching for the perfect quirky gift. A significant amount of the brand’s success story is rooted in the online community they have built up over the years. The half a million followers which Ohh Deer have gathered across their social platforms have helped their business to grow and grow.
In the beginning, Ohh Deer started as a blog before launching themselves into the world of stylish stationery with the help of 10 illustrators whom they connected with through Twitter. They have now worked with over 100 creatives to create gorgeous, illustrated products which can be found in the likes of Oliver Bonas, John Lewis, Urban Outfitters and ASOS.
Despite having amassed this impressive following, Mark Callaby - who founded Ohh Deer with his partner Jamie Mitchell back in 2011 - says that getting the best out of social media has become increasingly difficult over the years. In particular, the constantly changing and ever-unpopular Instagram algorithm has made it more and more difficult for Ohh Deer to engage with their followers. Undeterred, Mark simply sees this as a chance for his team to up their game – a challenge which he praises them for rising to triumphantly.
Ohh Deer’s is undoubtedly a success story but it hasn’t been without it’s learning curves. Last year, they chose to open a physical shop in each of the co-founders hometowns of Ipswich and Loughborough. Unfortunately, their Ipswich store was forced to close a few months ago. Whilst this was a difficult process, it did offer them an insight into where Ohh Deer’s strengths lie as a business.
Speaking about the change Mark says that “the high street can be tough and for us our strengths are definitely online and selling to other shops so we've realigned the business over the last 12 months to play towards these strengths even more.” Mark is very open about the fact that he and Jamie have made plenty of mistakes during Ohh Deer’s history but each one has taught them how to be more business-savvy and calculated when taking essential risks. An important lesson to takeaway from Ohh Deer is how they have assessed and realised where their strengths lie. Before you can grow anything, it’s important to know where best to plant the seed.
Last year, some of the UK’s leading lifestyle bloggers came together to form Mayke Collective. Five well-established content creators - Caroline Burke, Medina Grillo, Teri Muncey, Francesca Stone and Hester Van Overbeek - chose to band together to pool their creative resources, increasing their individual reach and therefore power within the blogging industry. The collective offer brands the opportunity to benefit from all of the member’s collective audiences as well as their 30 years joint experience within the industry.
The idea for Mayke Collective was initiated by Hester Van Overbeek who blogs at Hester’s Handmade Home. Having worked independently as a freelancer for years, she missed having coworkers to bounce ideas off of and vent to after a bad day. Hester already had a community of bloggers which she chatted to online and socialised with at events and wanted to strengthen some of these connections and harness the collective power they offered. Hester describes each of the members as the ‘perfect match’ as they all create similar content but with their own unique creative style. An added bonus came with the fact that they are all mothers and so understand each other’s time limitations. The blogging dream team worked together planning the collective for a year before it launched.
Since launching, Mayke Collective has gradually gained momentum and is offering its members more and more benefits. The collective offers the brands which each of the individual bloggers work with more coverage and gives their followers more free content plus they share PR contacts and resources with each other to help gain new clients. Best of all though, Hester feels like she has colleagues again. Having experienced how lonely a relatively young industry such as blogging can be, the best benefit has been having people who understand her and her business to talk to. Whether it is a contract query or some reassurance when she is feeling uncertain during a quiet period, the collective guarantees there is always someone there to listen. Mayke Collective seem to have struck the perfect balance as they are able to nurture their businesses, inner creatives and friendships all at once.
There is so much to learn from these creatives, so along with their wise words and my own experiences, here are some top tips for building a creative community…
Collaboration over competition
Every creative I spoke to concurred that collaboration should always be favoured over competition. Libby Walker encourages all makers to “be creative, heartfelt , supportive and reward local support.” Mark Callaby agrees that the goal should always be to make friends even if you see someone as competition, saying “my parents taught me that manners go along way and they couldn't be more right!”
Support your fellow creatives
The first step in building a community can be showing one-on-one support to a fellow creative. This can be something simple like choosing a few of your favourite profiles to share on your Instagram stories, or popping in to your local independent shop for a chat. Whether online or in person, these interactions are often the first stepping stone on the road to a thriving community.
Do your hashtag research
Mayke Collective’s Hester Van Overbeek shared insight into how to build a creative community specifically through social media platforms. She advises you look at relevant hashtags or create your own to start a conversation and engage with fellow creatives who inspire you. There are countless examples of creative communities which started through a hashtag and if you can’t find one which fits then you can always start your own.
Engage with people IRL
While social media is wonderful for building online relationships, nothing beats connecting with other creatives in real life. The sellers at Frome Market agree that the human interaction these events offer can prove just as valuable as any sales you make. Real life interactions can mean stepping further outside your comfort zone but the rewards will more than likely outweigh the discomfort.
Think about diversity
If you are thinking of setting up a creative community - be it a collective, an online platform or a design event - it is important to think about diversity. Online especially, the perspectives we are offered are often filtered to be as close to our own as possible. By making the effort to broaden these perspectives and include a range of people from a spectrum of genders, sexualities and races we in turn broaden our understanding of the world around us. The best design events that I have attended - such as Pecha Kucha Dundee - have included a diverse rostra of talent and allowed the attendees to reap the benefits of this inclusivity.
Connect instead of simply selling
Similarly, if you are in the position to hold any kind of event, then think about what you are offering people, other than simply the chance to sell things. Speaking from his experiences with Ohh Deer, Mark Callaby wants to push for networking events which are more than a sales pitching opportunity saying “I get that we're all here to make some money, but we should also be here to support each other as running a business can be really isolating if you're not around like-minded people.”
Follow your own path
Mark also encourages people not to feel restricted by what has come before saying “I've seen a lot of companies that try to copy others successes and they quickly fail.” He admits that when he and Jamie started Ohh Deer they had no clue about the industry, but this in fact helped them find their own identity without being overly influenced by others. Creative communities can take any form and if you have an alternative idea of how one should look or how it should be grown then go for it!
Remember, you are not alone
Finally, remember that you are not alone in feeling isolated sometimes. It is easy to feel like you are the only one that doesn’t know anyone when you attend an event or be a little nervous starting a conversation with a creative whose work you love. Remember though, that we all either are or have been in the same position. Wanting to make connections with other creatives is very common and if you make the first move, the reaction will most likely be positive. You know that warm feeling you get when you get a nice message about your work or someone compliments your products? Well we all get that feeling too and we’d love to be part of a community which makes us feel it all the time.