A creative business may be born for many reasons. Redundancy, frustration, impulse, illness, lifelong ambition, the need for flexibility, or change in circumstances such as the arrival of babies – all reasons I’ve hear over and over again. In this blog post, I host a virtual discussion with three female entrepreneurs about their experiences starting up their creative businesses.
Ella Hulbert is founder of Ella Rose Cakes, and a true believer that cake makes people happy. Her clients are engaged couples in the throes of wedding planning. They are looking for a stunning wedding cake that fits with their elegant style and great taste. In Ella’s own words, her clients “have an appreciation for a girl who hustles and are happy to support and trust someone who owns her own business and works hard.”
Nicole Howe is a wedding photographer, with a modern romantic style. “My brides are typically fashion forward, trend setters. There is always a name on the gown, the shoes, the jewellery – the venue is always a show stopper but most of all they are overwhelmingly in love. Regardless of all the beautiful detail they put into their wedding day, the idea of family and closest friends filling the same room for one day and night only is something they’ll always be thankful for. It’s the most important part to them. We are compatible. I think the same way, visually and logically. Everything behind the day has meaning and I love capturing it all. I will never tire of shooting weddings. Ever.” This impulse is all part of Nicole’s journey to starting her creative business.
Vicky Shilling is founder of The Flourishing Pantry, a blog and wellness service for busy entrepreneurs who want to find a healthy way to eat and live. “My clients are ambitious women who, like me, are creating businesses or believe they have more to offer than the 9-5 and may have a side-hustle they dream of making income from.” Vicky saw a business opportunity in the need to support the physical and mental side-effects of all-consuming entrepreneurship. Long hours, late nights, hours at a computer screen, leaps and shifts in mindset and going through change are exhausting and draining. “What I want to do is empower women to put their health first while they build their businesses. My blog, e-course, retreats and shortly my coaching packages offer accessible ways to feel healthier that you can apply right now.”
Why did you set up your own creative business?
Photographer Nicole defines her WHY according to the life she wants to live: “Setting up your own business is obviously going to come with many difficulties and worries but I feel the benefits far out way those. Aside from being passionate about capturing love stories, I wanted flexibility in my life. I want the freedom to roam. I have two little humans to take care of, sometimes alone. I want to be there for every moment whilst pursuing something I’m obsessed with. One big reason is the income. Do I want to stroll into my local Mulberry boutique and buy the handbag I want? Absolutely. Do I want to book that last minute trip to Sorrento with my girlfriends without having to ask my husband? Of course! I wanted to meet like-minded women, including mothers, who are working towards creating a more interactive, interesting home and work life. I love to travel, I love to capture people in love and love to be surrounded by strong, creative females. That’s why I feel this route was the only option going forward with my career.”
Cakemaker Ella’s WHY is a daily visualisation. “There are 4 reasons that make up “my why” – I have them printed off and on my pin board and I read them every day:
“To be profitable enough to give up the day job.
To have flexibility conducive to starting a family.
To fulfil my creative needs.
And, because I love baking.”
I love this idea of pinning the WHY up on a board – I do the same. There are lonely moments to entrepreneurial life, and sometime those WHY prompts are a very positive call to action in moments of isolation or uncertainty.
Food blogger and wellness coach Vicky’s business came about due to her desire to explore and conquer her own illness. “I set up The Flourishing Pantry as a passion project that has turned into a business. Having struggled with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) for many years, I started to chronicle what I was learning about my lifestyle changes and the recipes I was making via my blog, The Flourishing Pantry, and it’s grown from there.”
“Simultaneously, I was falling out of love with my full-time work and thought there was more to a career than just promotions and pay-rises and better job titles. I wanted to do something where I actually felt I had an impact. The world of blogging opened up my eyes to so many other possibilities and ways of earning money and finding meaning and value in the world. It’s taken a very long time to transition from the traditional attitude of earning money by being employed by others, to believing I have value and worth I can add to people’s lives through my own skills and expertise. But it’s a worthwhile journey.”
How long did you spend thinking about your business before you took the plunge?
We have three very different answers coming up. First, Nicole and I share a similar story. I didn’t think about creating a business. I wanted to get rid of some drawings that were in the way at home and so contacted a local boutique. To my absolute surprise, they offered me a window exhibition. I felt I need to pull together a logo to make it all look a bit more official. There was no strategy, no website, no marketing strategy. Just a handful of drawings and a logo. Nicole concurs: “Between picking up my first DSLR and starting my business was about 4 months. I just knew. I loved the feeling the camera game me. I loved going home after a shoot (which was always free of charge) and editing beautiful images I had managed to get that day. I knew that if I could be this happy doing something for free, I had to turn it into a business opportunity.”
“Following that,” Nicole continues, “I started to discover people who were in the same situation in the wedding industry. I joined a group of female bosses under the wonderful and highly experienced Faye Cornhill and I’ve never looked back. I just know I’m heading in the right direction. We are a group of entrepreneurs all with different creative talents supporting and pushing one another to be our very best.”
Ella went down a long and winding road: “It was a day dream for a very long time. Years! Every time I baked a cake for family or friends, and every time I posted a photo of my passion I’d get questions asking me when I was going to start doing it as a business. I was scared turning a passion into a job would take the fun and love out of it. There are certainly bits I prefer more than others, but I am loving the ability to earn doing something I love.”
“Do it because you can’t not!” – Vicky Shilling, The Flourishing Pantry
Vicky explains that “taking the plunge” really meant committing wholeheartedly to her own vision and values: “It was a two-part process for me – I took about 6 months to take the plunge and start the blog. The idea built and built until I couldn’t not do it, which is something I tell others when they ask me about getting into blogging. Do it because you can’t not! It’s like a compulsion and it’s become a huge creative outlet and source of pride for me, regardless of whether it makes money.
“The second time I ‘took the plunge’ with this business was 8 months after I’d quit my full-time job. I suddenly realised I was still working for other people, just in a freelance capacity. I’d kidded myself into thinking I was in charge when really I was at the beck and call of others and still not really earning for myself. It was leaving me exhausted and unfulfilled and so I stepped away from two contracts, freed up some time and focused purely on where I was going to take The Flourishing Pantry instead of serving other people’s businesses. It wasn’t an easy decision, particularly financially, but I think will be the right one in the long-run.”
Was there anything that almost stopped you launching your creative business?
“It’s probably the thing that could stop me from pushing forward with my thoughts and ideas: fear” – Nicole Howe, Nicole Howe Photography
It’s a daily battle for Nicole: “I feel you could ask me this question every day of the week and there would be a new answer each time. I have doubts, everyday. It’s probably the thing that could stop me from pushing forward with my thoughts and ideas: fear. Sometimes it’s all consuming and I wonder how I’ll ever push past it, but I do. My creative side is far superior to my fearful side. That’s the only thing I feel that could get in my way. I know where I want to take my photography and the drive is there. Time is a factor for me also. I can end up being a single mum for a lot of the year with no family around me to help. It does worry me but I won’t let it stop me. Even if I can’t conquer everything in the time-frame I want, I will do it eventually.”
“My lack of self-belief and courage stopped me launching my business for a long time,” Ella reflects. “In fact, I launched my business (almost) out of force! I’d made my best friend’s wedding cake and her wedding was being featured in a magazine and on a blog. She wanted to include a list of suppliers, including me. Instead of just giving her my mobile number to submit, I very quickly bought the domain name and had another friend make up a website with the bare essentials, et voila, Ella Rose Cakes was born.”
“Tackling my mindset and identifying what drives me and scares me has been an important part of the process.” – Vicky Shilling, The Flourishing Pantry
Vicky agrees that the fear factor is at times crippling: “There was a voice in my head saying what I was offering wasn’t of value. The comparison trap and imposter complex. Now I listen more to my own mind. I am aware that the only thing that stops me doing any of this faster, is me. Tackling my mindset and identifying what drives me and scares me has been an important part of the process.”
What are advantages of owning your own creative business?
“I’m empowered to say yes to the jobs I want to take on and no to the others.” – Ella Hulbert, Ella Rose Cakes
Freedom is the overwhelming response: Vicky explains, “I have the freedom to work wherever and whenever I want. When I wrote down my own version of success, one of the things I put was the freedom to take time off when I wanted and to travel to see my family back in the UK when I needed (I moved to Dublin shortly before quitting my full-time job to be with my fiancé). I love that I can work to a schedule that suits me and be flexible to ensure I never miss the important things that happen in life and the people I want to spend time with.”
Ella concurs, “I have the freedom to run my business exactly how I want to. I’m empowered to say yes to the jobs I want to take on and no to the others. I’m free to pop to the cake supply shop and stop for a cup of tea whenever I need to. Being a business owner is truly liberating. “
“I have to work hard and consistently to keep the business growing and profitable but, in having a day job in the corporate world as well, I’ve seen Nth rounds of redundancies and it dawns on me daily that my career is somewhat in the hands of someone else. Having my own business means I’m in control of my career and business wise I’m able to make necessary changes to meet market changes and demands. “
What have been the stumbling blocks? Any unforeseen challenges?
The answers are both psychological and logistical.
“Money and knowing how much and where to spend it,” suggests Ella. “There is a lot of investment that goes into starting a business and growing it successfully. And there a lots of people who will tell you that different aspects are the ‘most important’. Pacing myself and my spend has been critical, I’ve done it little by little over a few years and always been aware that there will be some things that are more costly and some things that are risky, but will get rewards.”
“Pacing myself and my spend has been critical” – Ella Hulbert, Ella Rose Cakes
Vicky described how her stumbling blocks have mostly been in her head: “Believing in myself and having clarity in my vision for what I want to achieve are the biggest blockages. And actually I think those things take time to work through. It’s very easy to be lulled into the impression particularly online that you can quit your 9-5 and start a multi-million pound business overnight. But building an audience, a product offering, a clear ideal customer profile and believing in yourself 100% takes time and work. And also these things change. I fully expect that what I offer will look very different in 12 months’ time and I am open to that.”
Any regrets or lessons learned?
There is a united response to this question. We all simply wish we’d done it sooner.
“My only regret is that I didn’t pick up a camera sooner,” explains Nicole. “The lessons are coming thick and fast, luckily I have experienced women to look to and guide me through my business journey. I seriously recommend that to anyone going into business, in any industry. Find a business coach or a group of people who are experiencing the same highs and lows in business that you are. Help guide, shape and encourage each other and I have no doubt you will thrive.”
Ella adds, “I believe everything happens for a reason and things happen at the time they are meant to so I don’t regret anything. I wish I’d pursued a business in cake making sooner, but I wouldn’t have the experience in marketing and PR that I have from my day job. I’d have loved to have had a business coach earlier, but actually I learned so much organically in the preceding time I was baking and running the business, so I can make more informed decisions now.”
Vicky agrees, “Not doing it all sooner. I don’t necessarily regret the journey I’ve been on, I just perhaps wish I had given it more attention and addressed things sooner to get the change I wanted. But it’s all part of the process.”
I strongly believe in the #communityovercompetition philosophy of business. Why do you think it such a talking point amongst female entrepreneurs?
Vicky beautifully articulates the changing tide: “I think historically women who have been seen to succeed have often been portrayed as adopting masculine qualities. They had to operate in a ‘man’s world’, climbing ruthlessly over others, including other women, to get where they want to go. The talk of surviving on 3 hours sleep a night, the glorification of ‘busy’, the holidays interrupted by our BlackBerries and the race for the top were where the conversation sat. It was pretty depressing and you were always left feeling there was more you should be doing.”
“Watching what other women have done in their own creative lives has affected me and opened my eyes” – Vicky Shilling, The Flourishing Pantry
“The Community Over Competition philosophy is a talking point because it is so uplifting!” Vicky continues. “ It’s about sharing our own knowledge and expertise and celebrating the wins and supporting through the challenges. We’ve never really had that before. But it feels amazing to help others through my work and to show people who might want to follow in my footsteps how they can start. I think ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’ is a big part of this. Watching what other women have done in their own creative lives has affected me and opened my eyes and mind to the ways women can work now and create a life that suits them.
“There is room for us all.” – Nicole Howe, Nicole Howe Photography
“I really am SO passionate about this,” add Nicole. “There is enough room for everyone. Every special, talented, creative, wonderful mind. There is room for us all. I think everyone is talking about it because they have come to the realisation (finally) that we can all help and support each other. There is nothing more beautiful than a group of like-minded women coming together to support one another. Why should your biggest fan be your competition all the time? No one can ever replace or re-create what you do but people can learn and be inspired by you. It shouldn’t be scary or intimidating, embrace it. Take the compliment. It’s a fabulous thing to inspire one another and pushes us all to be our very best.”
Ella adds, “I think it’s all too common that women compare themselves to others. We put ourselves in competition and it’s so unnecessary! I have to remind myself daily that it doesn’t matter what others are doing – my pace is perfect for me. There really is nothing better than community. I’ve found an amazing sisterhood in a coaching group recently and more than anything I’ve felt so much relief that I’m not the only one feeling certain ways about growing a business. Support is essential, and having people who ‘get you’ are the ones who bring all the good vibes you need.”
How has becoming a business owner impacted your own personal development?
Ella’s learned to work to her own pace and listen to her gut instinct: “I’ve always been a very organised person, but having my own business has developed my skills to a new level – I like my lists and having a printed calendar of the month ahead to plan baking days vs decorating or delivering makes me feel more in control. Juggling a full time day job as well as running my home, being a wife/sister/daughter/friend and trying to get to the gym are all things I have to schedule too. I’ve realised I’m even more of a hustler than I thought I was. On weekdays, I get up at 5:30am so I can fit in a workout 6-7am. I know that if I leave it to later in the day I don’t make time – and trust me, with the number of cakes in my life, the gym is a must. My confidence is growing daily, in my own ability and my own needs. I’m learning when to say “no”, and when to listen to my body and just lay on the sofa (and not feel guilty). I work hard and I work a lot, even the fun parts are still work, so I’ve realised it’s imperative to listen to my body too.”
“I feel like I’m just about maxed out on personal development right now and need instead to focus on giving back!,” says Vicky. “Being a business owner has helped me focus a lot on personal development – I’ve taken courses, watched videos, gone to talks and read countless books. They have all been amazing and have shaped who I am and where my business is right now. But I think there must come some sort of end point with it, where you believe you are enough and that you have something to give back right now. You don’t always need a seal of approval from someone else.”
In my experience, that sense of needing or craving permission has been critical. Sometimes I feel as though I am waiting for someone else to say “you are good enough” or “you can do this”. But even if they do, it’s not enough. A creative business is a creative process. And while we all strive daily to amaze our customers and impress our families, the only voice that really defines the journey is our own.