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An interview with The Design Trust’s Patricia van den Akker

We’ve had a long and fruitful partnership with Patricia but it’s not often we get to sit and really talk about what is going on in the contemporary design sector today. We caught up with Patricia recently and asked her to share her wisdom and experiences with us.

Design-Nation: Can you tell us about how your business began?

Patricia van den Akker: Like Design-Nation, The Design Trust was set up in the 1990s by design journalist Peta Levi MBE, in particular as a charity to provide business training for designers and makers.

I used to work with Peta around the millennium when both organisations were based in her home in North London. We would provide practical business development workshops, as well as the exhibition and manufacturing support.

After the organisations were taken over by London Metropolitan University I stayed in touch, and then in 2012 I took over The Design Trust. I realised that it needed to generate its own income, as it was without regular funding, and so I have turned it into a social enterprise model and online training school.

DN: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?

PvdA: To be honest it’s not just one person, but a combination of various people, books and courses that I have been on over the years. When I started out as an online business school I looked especially at what was happening in the USA, where they are further ahead with online learning, podcasting and running successful businesses. People like Tara Gentile, C.J. Hayden, Flourish & Thrive, and Uppercase Magazine have been influential and continue to inspire me.

These days I get influenced by books I read or courses I do. Or just by listening to our clients and their challenges and results.

DN: If you would be a designer/maker what would you be?

PvdA: Although I studied as a graphic designer and then studied arts management, I am not a ‘maker’ person. I haven’t got the patience for it. I am more of a big idea, questioning, connecting-the-dots kind of a creative.

But if I had to choose a craft I would love to do (when I am old and retired maybe?) then it would be letterpress. I love the smell of ink, and have a huge love for paper. Plus I love typography and letters. But purely as a hobby, never to make it my living!

DN: What inspires you in your work?

PvdA: Often it’s books and courses, or questions from clients. I invest a lot of time in learning and developing and have done many courses over the years. I love challenging my way of thinking and doing things.

But it’s also seeing or hearing about results that our creative clients get. I love it when I talk about costing and pricing or social media and ask my cilients thought-provoking questions rather than give them the answer, and you can see their brain working and eyes light up. When I see that spark in their eyes after a workshop, with their new knowledge, but more importantly their energy and confidence to make it work – I love that. It inspires me to keep teaching, running workshops, writing articles and books, and coming up with new ideas to teach people about business development in a creative way. To get them into action.

DN: What is your workspace like?

PvdA: A lot messier than people think it is! I have a room at the front of the house with loads of light. When I am writing for longer periods (such as for the Dream Plan Do planner journal) then I have a space upstairs in our bedroom that has views over North London and towards the city.

DN: What do you think are the most effective marketing channels for small creative businesses now and how do you think it may change in the future?

PvdA: I have been doing marketing and running marketing workshops for over 20 years now, and when it really comes down to it, actually very little has changed. Okay we have Instagram and Facebook now etc, but actually the most important factor is understanding who YOUR client is and building a relationship with them. It’s all about impact and connecting with real people. And the more expensive or unique your work is the more important.

I often share a very simple but effective marketing exercise: “Who are the 50 people who need to know of you? Really start to think about who your potential clients are, but also who the retail buyers, interior designers, event organisers, bloggers, journalists, curators, teachers, professional development organisations etc are. And then start to reach out to them properly and slowly.” It’s such a powerful exercise and yes, it will get you profile and often opportunities such as articles, sales and commissions too.

Depending on what you want to achieve there are different routes to get there. If you want to get more stockists then you do need to do your research and find retailers that are a good ‘match’ for what you do. Direct contact is the most important then. Send them something in the post or by email rather than rely on Instagram or sending them a boring and generic email.

If you want to get more online sales then working on your key words is crucial, followed by email marketing and social media. You need to make sure that you have got the best images possible that show your work at its best, and drive traffic to your site.

If you want higher end commissions then it’s really about building your profile, credibility and trust. And build that relationship with individual clients. Having the highest customer care, even before they have bought from you.

I think that events are also still a good way to promote yourself. Although some craft fairs have become very expensive, and there are so many of them these days. But events are a great way to launch new work, to stay in touch in a very easy and lovely way (who doesn’t like an invite?) and to show you are continuing to build on your practice. Choose your events well, and do promote your presence there, even to people who are won’t be able to attend.

So, no, I don’t think there is one way of marketing that works for everyone. It so depends on what you sell, who your clients are and where you position yourself in the market.

DN: What are the challenges for creative businesses right now and how can they respond?

PvdA: I think this last year has been very difficult for many makers due to the insecurity of Brexit and many of the regular buyers, commissioners and galleries are not spending as much as they used to. I think it will be even more important to stand out from the crowd, develop your unique work with your own style and point of view, and develop your relationships with your audience and clients. Be friendly, consistent and keep listening and growing.

DN: Could you describe what The Design Trust offers and what you are most excited about?

PvdA: The Design Trust is an online business school for designers and makers. We provide practical and strategic business training for creatives – from new graduates to makers with four decades of experience behind them, to people who sell giftware, homewares, stationery to high end, one off commissions and public art projects. As we are mostly online we can reach creatives across the UK (even in very remote areas!) and also overseas.

We run online workshops around topics such as ‘Costing & Pricing your work’ or ‘Starting to Sell Online’ but also longer term marketing planning and coaching courses where we train creatives about what really works to get sales, and then do 6 weekly coaching sessions. That really gets the fire back in the belly of most creatives!

We offer a Business Club membership, aimed at ambitious creatives who want to grow their business but who are too busy to do regular business training. Every month we have two new live sessions around a specific theme – with social media experts, buyers, journalists, etc giving practical advice around a topic. And we often have successful creatives talking about their own business and what they have learnt.

Our website gets around 50K visitors each month to read our blog posts, and we are very active on social media too. We promote many opportunities on our Facebook page for example (all for free).

Since 2017 I have written an annual business planner for product-based creatives called ‘Dream Plan Do’. It covers all aspects of your development, from setting goals for the year and finance, to who you are and who your clients really are, to all aspects of marketing, creating and launching a new collection, online selling, social media and time management. Nearly 5,000 books have been sold to 23 countries in the last 3 years, and we have a very active VIP club that gets additional monthly training sessions, plus local accountability groups who meet across the UK (and even one in Tokyo, Japan!).

But to sum up what we really do… we help creatives start and grow their own creative businesses, and create businesses they are truly proud of.

We want to inspire people by asking the right questions so that they can answer for themselves. Creating your own business is an ongoing journey and work-in-progress and you can always improve and get better. But ultimately you need to be proud of what you do, to get not just the knowledge but the confidence too to go out there and make great work, be proud, reach out to the right people and charge appropriately. That’s what we really do.

DN: What are the main challenges in your business?

PvdA: We don’t get any funding so like most of our clients we do need to generate our own income, every single month! And that’s both exciting but also scary, as of course right now with the Brexit insecurity many of our clients have less money to spend.

However, we see that as an opportunity to continue developing the right online courses and books, at the right time. This is the best time to be truly creative, but also to listen to your clients, and to work together.

I am very concerned about Brexit and the impact it will have especially on anybody who is selling online. The additional paperwork required and the insecurity around what duties to charge etc will make it much harder to sell abroad in the (near) future. Very few small companies are prepared, and unfortunately there are no longer any major business support organisations (such as Business Link used to do) reaching out to small business owners and to provide practical advice.

DN: Where would you like your business to be in 10 years?

PvdA: I am going to be 60 then, so hopefully a bit calmer than now!

But I am really determined to build a business with a future and legacy. I am really proud of what I have achieved in the last eight years, and I do feel a strong connection with what Peta started. I want to make more time for writing books, and would love to do more online training programmes. It’s about having a real life impact on creatives and their success – both financial but also in terms of what they dare to make and how they grow and develop.

Interview by Laura Jacometti and Liz Cooper.

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Liz Cooper


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