I Found Ikigai and I Decided to Use It To Help My Students

I Discovered Ikigai and I Decided to Use It To Help My Students | Eleanor Snare - Sustainable Marketing for Creative Businesses

Back at the end of 2015 I learned about a concept called ‘ikigai’. You might’ve heard about it, because it’s going to  be the new hygge.

Once I’d found out about it, and worked on exploring and finding my own ikigai, I wanted to use it to help others.

(After all, my ikigai is to help fulfil potential).

I decided to create an employment programme for my final year students based on the idea of ikigai. It seems that lots of people come to their ikigai at an mid point in their life; how could I bring my students closer to this concept earlier on?

How could I introduce it to them so they would start to make employment decisions based on that, not on external pressures?

This is the story of how and why I came to develop that programme.


In 2015 (my first year as a lecturer) I wanted to write an employment programme for final year creative students which was based on a more holistic view of ‘work’ and ‘career’. I wanted it to anticipate the blocks they may face in pursuing a creative life while giving them specific knowledge about how to develop a career in which they are confident and satisfied.

Rather than approach this through providing an outline for the sort of person they need to be or career they need to have in the creative industries, I was interested in helping them work out what was important to them first – then designing a career around that.

I hoped this approach would help students realise they have some level of autonomy in choosing their work. I also wanted to move away from working on CVs and LinkedIn profiles, and towards exploring basic yet deeply rooted elements which are essential to happy work and life.


Ikigai and self-actualisation

My starting point was ikigai, which you’ll have heard of by now. It’s a Japanese term originating in the Okinawa area (although that has been contested).

Loosely translated it means “the reason for which you wake up in the morning”. It is not necessarily about work, but about anything in one’s life which is this “reason”.

This concept has been identified as key to the long and fruitful lives of people in the Okinawa region, including in a seven-year longitudinal study of around 50,000 Japanese people which found that those who had not discovered their ikigai had a significantly increased risk of mortality (in a 2008 study by Sone, et al.).

I saw ikigai as similar, in some ways, to the ‘final destination’ of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualisation and the transcendent needs (helping others to self-actualise).

(If you’ve not heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before, read this).

One way they’re similar is because ikigai and self-actualisation can take any form; they don’t have to be high-brow. For example, the love of family might be your ikigai, which would be classified as a ‘lower’ need in Maslow’s hierarchy – but can also be a way of you self-actualising.

Another similarity is that ikigai and self-actualisation are dependent on the individual and their social context. I love this quote from Maslow about how the self-actualisation desire is different in different people:

“The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person…the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically…in painting pictures or in inventions”

For me, one of the most important similarities – and actually one of the most important things about ikigai as a whole – was that they are a continuous practice. It is the reason for waking up every morning, not just one single morning.

And from Maslow:

“[self-actualisation] might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming”

You don’t just ‘get’ your ikigai and stop. It is the complete opposite of our pervasive #goals culture; it’s something you find, embrace and just keep doing because every time you do it you become more you.

I believed ikigai and self-actualisation were key to talking about creative careers in a supportive and student-centric way. I saw that they placed the holistic development of the whole person at the heart of any activity.

They were the ‘colour’ of the colouring in, rather than the prescriptive outline.


 Discovering ikigai and self-actualisation

The next step I took was to understand the process by which someone could achieve ikigai and self-actualisation, the behaviours needed to do so, and then develop this into a programme.

In his work as a coach and entrepreneur, Marc Winn created a visualisation of how a person could achieve their ikigai. This diagram has been shared a lot so all credit to Marc; it’s a brilliant representation.

ikigai diagram by marc winn

This diagram has similarities to the one designed by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, showing the key characteristics of companies which significantly improved their operations.

Collins’ diagram consists of three overlapping circles: ‘passion’, ‘best at’ and ‘driving resource’. These translate in turn as ‘what lights your fire’, ‘what could you be the best in the world at’ and ‘what makes you money’.

The corresponding values in Winn’s diagram would be ‘passion’, ‘profession’ and ‘vocation’. But by adding ‘mission’, Winn saw the link between internal fulfilment and external, social need – which can be central to ikigai and self-actualisation.

When I saw the links between Winn’s ‘path to achievement’ diagram and the characteristics Collins discovered of significantly improved businesses, it suggested the principles in Winn’s diagram could be successfully applied to individual career development.

I felt confident that an employment programme based on ikigai would work.


Mr Arden steps in

From there, I looked more closely at some of the behaviours Maslow identified of people who he believed had achieved self-actualisation, which he shared in his 1970 book Motivation and Personality. These included absorption, experimentation and honesty – and a few more too!

One of my favourite books ever is Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To BeI saw links between his chapter subjects and the behaviour he encouraged in creative business people, and the behaviours Maslow identified.

For example, Arden has a chapter called “It’s all my fault”. One of Maslow’s self-actualising behaviours is responsibility.

Arden has another called “When it can’t be done, do it. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t exist”. Maslow lists experimentation as another self-actualising behaviour.

I saw that Arden was articulating – maybe unconsciously – Maslow’s self-actualising behaviours, and matching them to success in a creative career. I realised that adding this into the ikigai mix could make for a great employment programme.


The results

With ikigai at the very heart of the programme, I added an understanding of Maslow’s self-actualising behaviours.

I was inspired by Winn, Collins and Arden that this combination of ideas could work when teaching students about getting a creative career they were fulfilled by.

So I designed and ran an 11 week programme with around 15 students.

And it wasn’t half bad.

Read more about the results of the programme right here.

Why It’s Important to Take a Holiday When You Run Your Own Creative Business

How to organise your creative business so you can take a holiday without worrying

Today I want to talk about the importance of taking a holiday when you run your own creative business.

But first, a story.

I had lunch with my friend Nick the other day. He’s self-employed as a copywriter, excellent at marketing and happens to co-run one of the UK’s most impressive cheese clubs. Nick was giving me some very good advice for the next stage of my business.

“Of course, I never actually take this advice myself,” Nick explained, after he’d gone into great detail about business plans and cost-per-sales.

I looked at him.

“So you’ve never done the things you’re telling me to do for your own business?”

“No, don’t be silly,” he said, “who ever takes their own advice?”

And despite giving good advice to clients, helping my students, supporting my partner and even occasionally giving Nick something to think about – neither do I.


I am so bad at taking my own advice, especially when it comes to running my creative business.

For example, in this article I’m going to tell you how important it is to take a holiday when you run your own creative business. I’ll give you facts, and stats, and loads of stuff to convince you it’s the best thing to do.

The last real holiday I had was in 2014. That’s two crazy years of not taking a real break.

I have two weeks booked off work at the end of August and I still haven’t sorted out a holiday. At all.

There’s too much pressure to make this holiday brilliant, to manage my business around it, to make sure I come back feeling refreshed, that I’ve become paralysed with indecision. I am not taking my own advice.

If there is one thing you do after reading this article, please make sure it’s to take my advice and get yourself on holiday.

Then email me and tell me to do the same.

 

Why holidays are essential for creative business owners.

 

I’m not sure if I even need to explain to you why holidays are so important, but just in case there’s someone out there who isn’t quite convinced, here are just a few reasons.

 

It’s unsustainable to work all the time

Human beings are living, breathing animals. We’re not designed for constant activity; we need regular breaks – hence sleeping – to help our bodies repair themselves. The same goes for our minds; constant thinking work depletes our energy, and leaves us with no space to repair or rejuvenate ourselves.

If you run a creative business, it’s likely your working hours will be longer, or at least more erratic, than other people’s. You might end up checking emails at 7am, or working on a new marketing idea until 11pm at night. You might risk falling into an ‘always on’ mentality, where you never really step away from your creative business to replenish yourself. Research and campaigning body, the Future Work Centre, has even found that ’email pressure’ – the stress felt from immediate email notifications – is an actual thing and pretty damaging.

As if you needed more to convince you about why working all the time is a bad idea:

No matter how much of a go-getter you are, it seems working constantly without a real break from your business will make you physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted.

 

A holiday will improve your business

You might think “But if I take a holiday, my business will suffer. I won’t be there, sales will drop, and we’re all buggered.” Not so. While it can be tricky to manage your business while you are on holiday, there are significant benefits to your business once you return that will ‘make up’ for anything you’ve felt you’ve lost.

When Project Time Off asked HR professionals within companies about the effectiveness of people who took their entitled holiday days, 75% of them reported that people who took the whole or majority of their allocated time off performed better overall than people who took minimum vacation time. I’d suggest that’s because Group A – the Jolly Holiday Makers – weren’t completely burnt out or overwhelmed, unlike poor old Group B.

So having time away from your business can improve how you perform – how you tackle and get on with your work – when you get back. It can also encourage better ideas. Participants in a 2012 study from the University of California were more likely to come up with a creative solution to a problem when they were allowed to let their mind wander after being given the brief – rather than push on straight away to think of an answer.

Better, more creative ideas come from a fresh brain – and a fresh brain is exactly what your holiday is meant to encourage.

 

You’ll find inspiration everywhere

Without a holiday you’ll end up being physically and mentally worn out. With a holiday, you’ll be more productive and hopefully more creative when you return. Most excitingly for creative business owners, though, is what a holiday can inspire.

Visiting a new place, experiencing a new culture, and seeing the world from a new perspective will inspire you to do new things. Maybe it’ll help you create an interesting product range, or develop a particular service for a brand-new target customer. Maybe it’ll give you beautiful photographs to use in your marketing material. Or maybe just a tacky souvenir that makes you smile every time you glance it on your desk.

There is inspiration everywhere, and a holiday away from your creative business allows you to access that inspiration. It takes you away from the monotony of receipts, invoices, scheduling and suppliers so you can revisit that passion which sparked your business in the first place.

Now, find out how you can organise your creative business so you can take a holiday without worrying by reading this.

Why you should take a holiday as a creative business

The Secrets of Successful Creative Businesses: Curtisward

In this blog series, I profile creative businesses who’ve impressed me with their marketing, promotion and creative presence. I showcase their best bits and talk about what they could do to improve, giving you best practice case studies to help you improve your business.

The Secrets of Successful Creative Businesses - Curtisward - Eleanor Snare

Despite there being plenty of other shinier marketing tools available online (ooh, Instagram Stories!), a website is still a key part of any creative business’ presence. It’s your home turf, where you can describe your brand and your offer to customers in the way you want.

Curtisward, an independent art supplies retailer, impressed me recently with their website – it’s easy to use, easy to navigate and enjoyable to visit. Here’s why it wowed me so much and what you can learn.


Easy to find

It’s important to remember here that I never, ever click on Google Ads that appear in search results. Never.

Apart from this time.

Although not strictly about their website, I wanted to note how I found Curtisward as it includes some useful lessons for other creative businesses. I was searching for a specific product – Tombow brush pens – and naturally turned to Google.

You can see the results here:

The Secrets of Successful Creative Businesses Curtisward - Eleanor Snare - Google Results

I visited The Pen Company first, because they had three different adverts which suggested a good range of products. Their website was difficult to use and I soon gave up.

I came back and clicked on the Curtisward advert. Why them? Why not scroll? Why not the Amazon link which I know would be cheaper?

Here’s why:

  • When I visited their website, it was easy to use (so I stayed)
  • Their advert imaged showed multiple colours and plenty of pens, suggesting they had lots in stock
  • Their advert image was the only one that showed the pen up close
  • Their advert description had the most detail (I know it’s a pen – they told me it was ‘dual brush’)
  • I was specifically looking for an independent creative business to buy from

(Yes, these really are all the things customers think about in those few seconds when they click on an advert. Trust me.).

What you can learn
  • Don’t be afraid of using Google Ads: there’s a customer out there who will only turn to Amazon if they can’t find you – help them find you!
  • Use product images which show the product clearly and in the most relevant way
  • Use product images to show range if it’s possible
  • Use an advert description which gives specific product detail

Easy to navigate

This sort of thing isn’t very sexy but it’s a critical factor when a customer is deciding whether or not to buy from you. Clear, meaningful website navigation makes it easy for your customer to:

  • Find what they’re looking for
  • Encourages them to explore (and hopefully buy) more
  • Reduces time between exploration and purchase

Curtisward made navigating their website easy through a clear drop down menu – but most importantly, the way they had structured their website and the labels they gave different sections made it easy (and fun) to navigate.

The Secrets of Successful Creative Businesses Curtisward - Eleanor Snare - Categories

As an art supplier, Curtisward probably stock thousands of individual items. I was looking for a specific sort of brush pen; if they’d simply had a huge category called ‘pens’ I would’ve been turned off from scrolling through hundreds of different products.

The Secrets of Successful Creative Businesses Curtisward - Eleanor Snare - Categories

Instead, they labelled their sections by what the customer wanted to do. Want to clean something? Click ‘cleaning’. Want to make some marks? Click ‘mark making’. This is an impressive structure because it focuses on what the customer wants to DO, not the product Curtisward wants to SELL. That’s good marketing: “You want to do something, and we can help you do it”.

Within each section there’s clear products, then product types, then brands or ranges. This might seem very complicated  (and it might look like that on a site map) but for a customer it’s perfect because it funnels them down a path straight away.

What you can learn
  • Consider what your customer needs to know when they land on your website
  • Make sections about what they can DO, not simply what you sell
  • Lead customers down a clear purchasing path

Mobile-friendly

I searched for, clicked on and bought from Curtisward all on my mobile – and their site was really easy to use on mobile.

This shouldn’t be a thing. Huge numbers of us spend many many hours a day using the internet on a mobile device, for social networking, email, browsing and watching video.

The Secrets of Successful Creative Businesses Curtisward - Eleanor Snare - Mobile Optimised Full Size
The full size website

Yet there are still many businesses – and unfortunately, small creative businesses tend to be in there – who don’t have a website which is mobile-friendly. This makes it harder for your customer to navigate and use your website when on their mobile, and harder for them to buy from you.

Curtisward has a responsive website, which means that whatever size screen you’re using, it adjusts to look the best for that screen size.

The Secrets of Successful Creative Businesses Curtisward - Eleanor Snare - Mobile Optimised 1
Smaller screen, still looking good

That meant I could find what I wanted, and explore, and therefore buy more, all on my mobile device. What might have been a £1.85 sale for one product turned into a £15+ sale through ease of use.

The Secrets of Successful Creative Businesses Curtisward - Eleanor Snare - Mobile Optimised 2
Mobile phone screen size, and still easy to use
What you can learn
  • Make sure your website is mobile-friendly and ideally mobile-optimised
  • Most modern website builders e.g. WordPress or SquareSpace will do this automatically
  • Test the friendliness of your site using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test

Engaging content

Alongside their product pages, Curtisward have a lovely blog and information page packed full of different ideas and posts. While this engaging content wasn’t a key factor in making me buy from them, it does make me think favourably of them; it shows they want to give more to their customer, and that they really do know their stuff.

They have a good range of articles, from quotations by famous painters to art ‘inspired by…’ and showcase different products, like their travel brush sets. They also occasionally profile customers’ work, which is another nice touch.

I do think they could improve some of this content by making it a bit easier to read (with a larger font size) and perhaps a more contemporary layout. Their articles are also scattered over two sections, so there’s no one, definitive knowledge base they can point customers to.

However, the quality of the ideas and the regular posting mean they’ll always have something to share in other marketing channels, demonstrating their expertise and helpfulness to customers.

What you can learn
  • Think about what expertise you can share with customers on your own website to help engage and interest them
  • Make sure it’s easy to read and pleasant to look at; customers are used to beautiful blogs
  • Re-purpose this content for other marketing channels to demonstrate your knowledge and helpfulness

 

And now for some exciting news…

 

How to Make Your Website Read Well, Look Good and Convince Customers - A Free Workshop for Creative Business Owners

If you’ve been reading this article thinking “My website doesn’t do any of these things – eep!”, then this exciting news is especially for you.

I’m running a free, face-to-face workshop for creative business owners on how to make your website read well, look good and convince customers. Because websites are one of the basics of marketing – and yet creative businesses very rarely use them to their full advantage.

There are only 10 places on this workshop to make sure everyone makes the most of the time and activities (of which there will be many, alongside refreshments and fun – of course). You’ll get advice on best practice alongside expert and peer-to-peer feedback specifically for your business; not just generic advice but ideas for you and what you need to do to make your website brilliant.


Interested? Read more and sign up here.


This workshop is in-person, so if you can’t make it (because, say, you live in Madagascar and the bus fare would be ridiculous) then that’s ok too – I’ll be turning elements of the session into an online workshop which you can do from anywhere in the world, including on the beach. Damn you. You can read more about that and sign up to hear about the launch date right here.


Learn more and sign up for the free workshop here.


 

 

Why Saying ‘No’ Will Make Your Creative Business More Attractive (and Exactly How You Can Say It)

Why Saying No Will Make Your Creative Business More Attractive - Eleanor Snare

‘No’ is an incredibly powerful word. When you use it in the right way, it can make your creative business more attractive through better focus, better clarity and one of the most desirable qualities ever: exclusivity.

But how do you say ‘no’ without losing money, burning bridges and going against the socially-acceptable grain?

Why Saying No is The Key to A More Attractive Creative Business - a helpful blog post from Eleanor Snare

In my first job, a not-very-pleasant team leader asked me to work late, for no extra pay. Overtime is pretty normal when you work in a marketing agency, and I had done it before.

But this time the team leader said that, in return for working late, he would buy me (and the other juniors who worked past clocking off time) a bottle of wine. You know, to make up for the hours we would spend on his project rather than on much-needed leisure time.

I said no.

I didn’t say no because I didn’t want to finish the project. I didn’t say no because I wasn’t happy to work overtime.

I said no because I didn’t want him to think that my time was worth a £4.99 bottle of plonk from Sainsbury’s.

I said no because I wanted him to realise there was a line I wasn’t prepared to cross for my work.

I could’ve said “Yes, but don’t bother about the wine”, but I was very young and I was trying to prove a point.

That point still stands, and I still think of it now running my own business: saying ‘no’ means there’s a line. And a line means that you and your business have integrity.

 

A TOTAL LACK OF ‘NO’

How often do you really say ‘no’ in a day? Unless you’re in a really bad mood, probably not very often.

And that’s it – we associate saying ‘no’ with being negative, with being a wet blanket, a killjoy and generally a pain in the arse.

“No, I won’t help with the washing up.”

“No, I’m not coming to your party.”

In a social and cultural time where we really struggle to accept and express negative emotions as useful or healthy, saying ‘no’ is shocking. It’s a radical act.

It’s radical because it appears negative. It can even seem rude or impolite – probably the worst type of behaviour in British society – as it appears as though you’re putting your needs before someone else’s. Saying ‘no’ means you might disappoint someone, or let them down.

 

‘NO’ IN BUSINESS

All these social implications of ‘no’ filter through to the business world, and they’re especially pertinent if you work independently or run a creative business. People expect creative business owners to be ‘touchy-feely’, because they’re creative. They expect them to be nice, and ‘no’ is not nice.

Small, independent or creative businesses are also normally in a precarious position when it comes to saying ‘no’. Turning down work or customers with a ‘no’ might mean burning bridges. It might mean missing out on promotion. It might mean you don’t earn any money that month.

Saying ‘no’ starts to become a question of paying the bills, rather than whether you actually want to do the thing or not.

Some of us end up not saying ‘no’ for another reason; because we don’t know what we want to say ‘yes’ to. We don’t know who our target market is, what our ambitions are, what we really enjoy, or what the future of our business is. So we keep saying ‘yes’, even if we really want to say “No, no, no! I need a bloody break!”.

 

THE POINT OF ‘NO’

Saying ‘no’ means there is a line you won’t cross. It means that you, and your business, has integrity. It means you have principles which are so important to you that you’ll stick by them, no matter what.

By saying ‘no’ to things, you give yourself some time and space to think. You can take a step back from rushing towards another ‘yes’ and really consider what you want to do with your business. Constantly accepting things (whether they’re work, commitments, hobbies or even dates) doesn’t give you any time to reflect. On anything.

The point of ‘no’ is to focus your attention on what you really want.

In your creative business, that’s the core goals you have, the core services or products, the core market you want to attract. You stop saying a scattergun ‘yes’ and find the ability to focus.

Saying ‘no’ can help make your business more attractive to clients and customers because your output is more focus, your USP is clearer, and very importantly: you are exclusive. You do not say ‘yes’ to everything. Not everyone can have a piece of you. That makes you (and your creative business) valuable.

 

HOW TO SAY ‘NO’

We all have problems saying ‘no’, whether that’s to friends, family, or a delicious packet of ready salted crisps (I know it’s the most boring flavour, don’t judge me). Cultivating the ability to say no takes time and practice. I’m no life coach so if you’re a creative business owner who really struggles to say no and you feel like you might need extra (emotional) help, have a Google.

But if you know that you can say ‘no’, you just never seem to actually say it, then here’s some advice.

 

Keep a buffer.

Money is the main reason creative businesses and independent workers don’t say ‘no’. Saying ‘no’ might be turning down your only money for that month, which is a risky, frightening thing to do.

It’s hard at first but keep a financial buffer to help you say ‘no’ when you need to. Two or three months’ expenses is a useful amount, if you can do it, but even a month’s worth can be helpful.

 

Try not to take any shit.

The other very tricky time to say ‘no’ as a creative business or independent worker is in the middle of a project. Try not to take any shit from your clients or customers. You won’t know what that shit is until they do it and your gut goes “Hey, wait a minute…”. Then say ‘no’.

Changing briefs, changing payment terms or amounts, adding or taking away work, messing around with contracts or pissing about with timescales all constitutes ‘shit’ in my book. You are allowed to say ‘no’ if someone tries to mess you around.

 

Have a ‘no’ list.

Actually, have two lists: a ‘no’ list and a ‘yes’ list. On your ‘yes’ list, write everything you really, really want and like when it comes to your business; who you like working with, what work you like doing, etc. On the ‘no’ list, write all those things which give you that ‘euurrgghh’ gut reaction. It might be a type of work, client, customer, payment terms – whatever you want.

Write that list and stick to it.

These lists will grow as your business develops and you gain more experience, but even when you’re starting out you’ll know what makes you want to hide under a duvet.

 

Remember you are a commodity.

You might not say ‘no’ running your business because you’re worried you might let a client down, or put someone in a difficult position. Remember, you are a commodity: if you don’t do the work because the terms aren’t right, your client will most certainly find someone who will without much fuss.

Yes, you might lose the work – but do you want the work if you’re going to be stressed, underpaid and exploited?

 

Be kind when you say ‘no’.

You can still be a nice person and say ‘no’ – in fact, it makes it a lot easier to turn down opportunities when you are graceful and kind. In that first example of me saying ‘no’ as a junior team member, I wasn’t graceful – I was a bit obnoxious. Learning to be kind and saying ‘no’ has helped my business a lot.

By doing it, you won’t burn any bridges with potential clients or customers, but you also won’t sour a good relationship by accepting work that you simply don’t want to do.

 

You don’t have to explain yourself.

I know, right? You can just say ‘no’ without explaining why, or saying “I can’t” or “I’m afraid that”. For British people, this might just be a revelation.

Of course, I never, ever do this because I have frightfully intense levels of politeness buried deep within my genetic code. But you might be able to. It can be useful to explain why you’re saying ‘no’ if you feel it could resolve issues for the future, but that’s your choice.

 

Remind yourself why you’re saying ‘no’.

You are not a fool. You are not an arse. You are a creative business owner who values their time. You value the type of work you do and the type of people you work with. You don’t just say ‘yes’ to any old thing.

You are focused, clear on your goals and exclusive. You have lines you won’t cross. You have integrity. Remind yourself of these things if you wobble from the path of ‘no’.

 

‘NO’ MEANS ‘NO’ MEANS ‘YES, I HAVE TIME FOR BETTER THINGS’

Saying ‘no’ is a tricky thing. It’s socially and culturally conditioned, and yet it’s essential for our creative and professional health.

Saying ‘no’ brings focus to your business, makes your goals clear, and adds desirable exclusivity to your products or services.

‘No’ makes your creative business more attractive because it shows you have integrity. And it gives you more time to say ‘yes’ to better, more exciting, more ambitious and more meaningful things.

 

 

Learn How To Make Your Creative Business Stand Out From the Crowd with this Step-by-Step Guide to Competitor Analysis

Competitor Analysis for Creative Businesses - a step by step guide from Eleanor Snare

One of the fundamentals I teach our fashion marketing is students is competitor analysis, because to be a successful business you’ve got to know who you’re up against. Creative business owners don’t always take the time to work out who their competitors are, especially if they’ve started organically or are still developing their business alongside a day job.

Knowing and analysing your competitors gives you a really good understanding of where you are in the business eco-system. Are you high or low priced? Are you in a certain clique, or aesthetic, or making style? Are you totally, radically different, or subtly unique? And knowing the answers to these questions will help make your creative business stand out from the crowd.

By doing a competitor analysis, you’ll be able to:

  • See who you’re competing with for customers
  • Understand what other businesses are doing well (or not so well)
  • Come up with ways for your business to stand out

 

But I don’t have any competitors!

You might think that if you run a very niche, very specialist, or very small business there’s no point doing a competitor analysis – after all, how many competitors can you really have?

The answer is more than you think.

Although no one might be selling exactly the same hand-carved wooden yoga sandals as you, there will still be creative people carving wooden ornaments, making beautiful sandals and tapping into the ever-so-bendy yoga market.

Even for independent creative businesses whose service work depends on other businesses – like self-employed marketing consultants and copywriters, ahem – competitor analysis is important. I know there’s quite a few copywriters and marketing consultants in my area.

I know their specialisms, USPs, prices and client base. I know where I sit in the market and what my USP is.

I found all that out through a competitor analysis – not because I had some spare time, but because I wanted to make sure I was running by business in a credible, sustainable way, at the right price, and with a USP that had a true U. Doing it has helped me focus my marketing and my services, and kept my business on the right track.

 

A Guide to Competitor Analysis for Creative Businesses - Eleanor Snare

 

How to analyse your competitors

A competitor analysis really is very useful, and lots of creative business owners don’t do them. But if you do one, you’ll be able to make your business better by working out exactly how to stand out.

This guide is going to give you step-by-step instructions on how to do a competitor analysis that you can tailor to your unique creative business. This is something you can revisit in the future when new folk arrive on the scene, or when your business evolves.

You don’t need anything fancy for it, although doing it on the computer makes it easier to keep track of all your information.

It covers:

  • Working out who your competitors are
  • Desk research about your competitors
  • First-hand research
  • Understanding strengths and weaknesses
  • Highlighting danger areas
  • Lessons you can learn from your competitors
  • What makes you different (and how to use this to help you)

 

Step 1.

Work out who your competitors are

 

As I mentioned, it can be easy if you have a creative business that’s particularly niche, or you work independently, to think you don’t really have any competitors. But it’s very likely that you do.

Working out who your competitors are gives you a starting point for your competitor analysis. Your competitors might be ‘direct’ competition – they have the same business as you – or ‘indirect’ – they have a business which overlaps yours but isn’t quite the same.

For example, other freelance copywriters are my direct competition, while freelance community managers are my indirect competition; we don’t do the same thing but it does overlap.

You can start by thinking up a list of all the types of creative business that might be direct or indirect competitors. If you’re a fashion photographer, that might include non-fashion photographers, bloggers, creative directors, stylists – anyone who does something a bit like you.

You can make that list more comprehensive by considering these factors:

  • Geography: who in your local area could be a competitor? What about national competitors? Or international?
  • Product: who sells similar products or services to you? Who sells specialist products like yours? What about people who sell general products, but include ones like yours?
  • Aesthetic: whose business looks and feels like yours? Who has a similar aesthetic? Whose business could yours be confused with?

For example, a fashion photographer might find there’s no people doing fashion photography in her local area, but there are several photography studios which could be indirect competitors.

Step 2.

Do some desk research

 

Desk research means looking at the information that’s already out there and putting together your findings (normally sitting at a desk, of course). In your competitor analysis, it means researching your list of potential competitors online or in print and recording what you find out.

It’s time to be a detective.

I’ve found the easiest way to do this is with a spreadsheet which lists your competitors and different elements of their business. But if you want to work visually, or on paper, then choose the right tools that work for you.

There will be a ton of information that you can record about your competitors, but here’s the essential list to find out and record:

  • Basic details: name, business name, contact, website, social media links, email, where they operate
  • Business type: a short description of what their business is
  • Products and services: short descriptions of the type of products and services they sell (if you’re working on a spreadsheet it can be handy to give each type a different line)
  • Prices: individual prices for their product types or services
  • Aesthetic: description (plus pictures if you can) of their visual style and branding
  • Marketing: a description of what you can see they’re doing to market their business (like writing blog posts, sending newsletters, etc.)
  • USP: what you perceive their USP to be, or ideally what they say their USP is (if you can find out)

Don’t expect this to be a quick process. People have a habit of hiding the most important information in places you can’t find it, or being very vague about what their business actually does. But recording the information like this allows you to see, at a glance, what your competitors are doing – and later in your competitor analysis, it’ll help you work out how you fit in to this creative business eco-system.

 

Step 3.

Do some first-hand research

 

It’s always useful to support your secondary research with first-hand research – the stuff where you actually go out and find out new information. This isn’t always possible but it’s really, really useful if you can do it because you get first-hand experience of the business.

You can try visiting your competitors, checking out prices, seeing what their customer service is like, and generally being a ‘secret shopper’. It sounds sneaky but it’s exactly what big brands do when checking out their competitors (or what they do when testing the quality of their own staff).

 

Step 4.

Strengths and weaknesses

 

Once you’ve got all this information together, it’s time for some analysis of everything you’ve seen. Starting with strengths and weaknesses of your competitors is useful because it’ll help you quickly identify any common themes and any areas you need to think about for your creative business.

Here are some questions to help you analyse your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths:

  • Is your competitor well-established? Are they well-known in their field?
  • Do they appear to be popular on social media? Have you seen them in print or featured on websites?
  • Are they busy? Were there lots of customers or phone calls when you were in the shop? Is their calendar booked up?
  • Is their website easy to understand and use? Do they appear in search results for words related to their business?
  • Do they have a strong list of clients or retailers?
  • Do you think they look, feel and act professionally?

Weaknesses:

  • Is it clear what they and their business offer? Can you understand their USP?
  • Are they actively marketing themselves? Do you think it’s working effectively?
  • Was their customer service acceptable? Are customers satisfied with their products or services?
  • Was it difficult to get hold of them? Do you feel they look, feel and act professionally?

You might not feel like you can answer all these questions – how are you meant to know if they’re busy all the time, or their marketing is working? – but actually, you can. Because you are an expert in your field and therefore you can make a professional, educated judgement about what these competitors are doing.

The more of them you look at the more knowledgeable you become about what’s right for your industry and your business.

 

Step 5.

Danger areas

 

The whole point of a competitor analysis is to understand where you sit in the business eco-system (not just to make a handy list of who you should be keeping an eye on). So using what you’ve collected so far, and especially your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses, you can highlight some danger areas.

Danger areas are elements of your competitors which could be dangerous to your business. For example:

  • A competitor offering cheaper services could undercut you
  • A competitor whose brand is similar to your own could confuse customers
  • A competitor stocking the same products could make you seem less unique

Not every competitor will present your business with a danger. But documenting as many of these danger areas as possible will help you in making sure your business stands up to the competition.

 

Step 6.

Lessons you can learn from your competitors

 

If you’re thinking, “I have so many competitors! There are so many danger areas! Eep!”, fear not. This is the part where you learn from your competitors to make your creative business even better.

Every competitor, no matter how small or indirect, will have something they can teach you.

Work through each competitor one by one, look at their strengths, weaknesses and danger areas, and see how they can help you improve your business.

Strengths is a great one to start with. Is there a competitor who is really doing well with local press? What’s her method? How does she get involved? What about one whose online presence is excellent? Learn from that.

Weaknesses next. Which of your competitors makes it hard to find out what their services are? Is there one who seems to be over (or under) priced? Think about why this could be and learn from it.

Danger areas can help you learn lessons from the future. If there’s a competitor stocking similar products to you, what could you learn to help you choose unique suppliers in the future? Or if their brand is so similar to yours it could be confusing, what could you do now to make sure yours is the one customers remember?

Keep these in mind when you’re moving your business onto the next step, as it’ll help you make the right choices so you fit effectively into this creative business eco-system.

 

Step 7.

What makes you different

 

Now you know your competitors inside-out, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and have learnt from what they’ve done, it’s time to re-affirm exactly what makes you different.

Having something which makes you different from your competitors is the way a creative business eco-system thrives. It’s means you’re developing a creative business which fits into a niche.

It’s the same reason why 8.7 million species survive on the planet, or why 18,000 beetle species were found in 2.5 acres of rainforest in Panama. They all find a niche.

That doesn’t mean all those beetles aren’t competing; it means they’re not all competing for exactly the same thing. You and your creative competitors will be competing for customers, but not for exactly the same customer. Explaining what makes you different means you can seek out that customer more readily.

It also means you have a snappy comeback to suppliers, clients or other customers who say “But so-and-so is cheaper/better/greener/whatever-er”.

“Yes they are”, you can say, “but here’s exactly why you should go with me instead.”

For example, I know there are freelance marketing consultants and copywriters out there who are much cheaper than me (and some who are way more expensive). But my cost is based on my experience and skills – which are really quite good.

So I can say:

“Yes, so-and-so is cheaper than me…but they haven’t worked with international brands or given one-to-one workshops or [you get the picture]”.

Compare yourself, honestly, to the competitors on your list. Ask yourself what makes you different. Are you:

  • More experienced?
  • Better priced?
  • Friendlier or more professional?
  • Easier to work with?

Write it all down and be ready to use it as your snappy comeback, and as a reminder about exactly why you’re worth buying from.

You’ve done it.

Phew.

Congratulations – you’ve completed a competitor analysis for your creative business. If you’ve followed each step closely, you’ll have a great database of who your competitors are, what they’re doing well (and not), and the ways in which you can make sure you stay one step ahead.

Everything here can help you decide what to do next with your business, from developing new services to making sure your branding is the one customers remember.

 

Four Ways to Manage Your Creative Business and Keep Your Cool

This year I’ve taken some big (ish) steps with my own business. I submitted my first proper tax return, I redesigned my whole website, added new services to my offer and moved into a new office space.

While none of those things were stress-free, I did them all to make sure that the future of my business – and the way I work – would be as stress-less as possible. Doing all of them made me feel really good. Even the horrors of submitting an online self-assessment resulted in a jump for joy, although the tax bill didn’t.

Here I’ll share with you a few simple ways you can manage your creative business and still keep your cool, even when you feel like you’ve got more work than you can handle. For lots of small and creative businesses, summer can be a quiet time as lots of customers are on holiday; use some of the time to reflect on how you work and maybe rearrange things to make sure your methods are stress-less and enjoyable.

4 Ways to Manage Your Creative Business - a guide for keeping your cool as a creative business owner


#1 Get a workspace to call  your own

For the last year (and more, when I was working full time and freelancing) I worked on my business from my bedroom. My computer was on the desk at the head of my bed, and at the beginning of this year I felt like I only lived in one room – and it drove me a bit mad.

I think there’s a bit of a myth about independent and creative businesses. There’s the dream that you can work from anywhere, like a fancy coffee shop or the park, but the reality is there’s only so long you can make a latte last and glare is the screen-worker’s worst enemy. You end up working at home, and it means you never get a break from work.

If you have the space in your house, dedicate a room to being your home office. When you’re in there, you’re working – and when you close the door at night work is done. One of the best business investments I’ve made has been my office space, because it forces me to focus on either work or play. Getting a workspace to call your own, whether it’s a shed, co-working desk, spare room or kitchen corner, is essential to maintaining a calm creative business.


#2 Use the right tools for you and your business

As a creative business person you will already have a whole range of tools for the ‘creating’ bit of your business – maybe different camera lenses, art materials, props, or whatever. Just as important are the tools you use for the less-than-creative bit of your business; the accounting, project management, diary keeping, and all those underwhelming parts.

Sustainability is very important to me so I have tried very, very hard to use digital tools to manage my business. I’ve tried nearly every free project management tool going, set up multiple schedules on Google Calendar and signed up for plenty of accounting software trials.

Every single time, I come back to pen and paper for nearly everything. I don’t want to – I don’t think it’s very sustainable – but I can’t seem to manage my business properly unless I write things down. I use a Filofax for blog and social media planning, and a small, un-sexy diary for workload and appointments. For accounts, I use Google Sheets and keep my receipts in an envelope. It’s a surprise I don’t have an abacus.

But it works for me. Finding the right tools for managing you and your business is important not just for the smooth running of your business, but because trying to keep it all in your head will definitely lead to stress and anxiety – the absolute opposite of calm. If you’re not sure what works, experiment with different tools for two weeks each as it’ll give you a good idea of what you find most appropriate.

When you work two days a week, this is quite a good to do list. 😎

A photo posted by Eleanor Snare (@ebsnare) on


#3 Make your work (and workspace) healthy

Workspaces are the hottest interior porn on Pinterest; scroll for just a few minutes and you’ll see immaculate white spaces with motivational postcards, shiny Macbooks, plates of pastel doughnuts and probably a pug. Creative workers snap their morning smoothie bowl for Instagram before “slaying it” all day on only an avocado. No-one looks tired.

And yet – so much of it is unhealthy.

Health and safety is not fancy. It’s not cute. It doesn’t come with gold handwriting on. But if you don’t get it right for your business you’ll really suffer.

So when I say these white workspaces are unhealthy, it’s because:

  • They have beautiful chairs – that don’t provide any back support
  • They only feature laptops – which you should only use for 20 minutes at a time
  • They put computer screens in front of walls – which doesn’t allow your eyes to get a rest
  • They don’t include carbs – which may be an exaggeration but no-one can do much work on a bowl of pureed berries

Work itself should be healthy too; you don’t need to (or should be) “slaying it” all the time because you’ve got to leave some of that energy for you, your mind and your body to replenish itself. Don’t crush yourself for the sake of what is – at the end of the day – just a job.

Have a look at the health and safety information that’s most appropriate for your workspace and put it into practice – for example, if you run a shop you’ll have different requirements than a home-worker, or someone in an art studio. Check those aggravating clients you have or some of the high-pressure situations you find yourself in – they won’t lead to a calm creative business or a sustainable lifestyle. And get yourself some plants; they’re the ultimate health improver.

Today, in the studio. Not pictured: chocolate muffin 🍩

A photo posted by Eleanor Snare (@ebsnare) on


#4 Find your team mates

There are some universal truths about working by yourself, or at least most of the time by yourself:

  • You will talk to yourself almost constantly
  • And either mutter or babble at your partner/housemate/friend when you see them after an ‘alone day’
  • ‘Friends’ now means houseplants, and you will name them
  • Some days you won’t get dressed or shower, but you’ll eat biscuits for every meal

Running a creative business often means working by yourself, or at least spending a significant amount of time alone – maybe creating, planning or managing your business. And too much time by yourself with just you and your business for company can be hugely stress-inducing (although the biscuits are good).

Finding team mates who you can share ideas with or grumble to is very useful for developing calmer, less stressful ways of working. Spending too much time with ideas in our own head can lead to anxiety or self-doubt; while your team mates might not like your ideas, they’ll be objective and often much more positive than Your Brain By Itself would be.

Team mates can be fellow creative business owners, freelancers, or people you share your workspace with. There are also plenty of networking and support groups on Facebook, which can be good if you’d like specific advice. My team mates range from seasoned freelancer friends to my sister and partner, all of who prevent me from becoming a hermit and offer excellent business advice.


Those are my four top ways to manage your creative business and help you keep calm, no matter what’s happening: get a workspace, use the right tools, make it healthy and find your team mates.

What else would you add to the list? What’s worked for you?