Blog: Growing a Creative Business

Our blog this month comes from Alasdair McGill, who is Managing Director of Ashton McGill, a Dundee-based Accounting & Consulting business that specialises in working with creative businesses. After qualifying as an accountant with EY, Alasdair has spent 25 years starting, growing and running businesses in a variety of industries. He is currently the Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Dundee, and was recently named as one of Scotland’s top ten digital disruptors.

Unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I’ve not spent my career in a single industry. In fact, my background is about as eclectic as it comes. But my passion has always been for innovation, borne of a restless curiosity and a desire to do things better and to help people.

In 1989 I moved from the Perth office of global accountancy business Ernst & Young to their Dundee office at City House in the old Overgate. It was an interesting time to be working in the City – the embers of it’s industrial and manufacturing past were slowly dying out. By ’93 E&Y and fellow accounting giant KPMG would both pull out of the City. I moved on in ’92 – making my first steps out into industry as an accountant and entrepreneur.  A journey that 25 years later finds me back in the City of Discovery.

After almost 10 years in Aberdeen, we moved back to Dundee in 2013. By then, I’d been working in and around the creative industries for several years. I’d become pretty good at the business side of design, and quickly immersed myself in the Dundee creative community.

In 2014 I was appointed as Head of Enterprise & Entrepreneurial Strategy at the University of Dundee, where I oversaw the creation and implementation of a strategy with design at it’s heart. It’s great to see the new Centre of Entrepreneurship opening, as this was a core part of the vision we set out for Dundee.

However, there’s always been this thing niggling at the back of my mind. In Dundee we produce some of the UK’s most amazing creative graduates. DJCAD is right up there in the league tables, and consistently among the big awards at New Designers, Free Range & New Blood. Yet we’re not seeing that talent translate into Creative Business growth.

Best estimates suggest that approximately 3,000 people earn their living from the creative professions in our City. Most of them are self employed or one-person businesses. My work in this sector means that I know how many of these people are struggling to make ends meet. They don’t have the business skills or the support of an entrepreneurial ecosystem to help them grow.

Now, not everyone wants to build a business, and that’s absolutely fine. But one of the challenges that the City faces is the ‘brain-drain’ of creative graduates. The opportunities just don’t exist for many of them in Dundee. I know this from personal experience – my own daughter Rebecca graduated in Textile Design from DJCAD back in 2014 and has been living and working in London ever since.

But imagine the transformation that we could make to the City if every one of those self-employed creatives could employ just one more person. The size of our industry would double overnight. Dundee would become a hotbed of creative business; a place where graduates want to come to. Instead of feeding other Cities, we’d start reinventing ours.

Not only would there be an economic benefit to this, there would also be a social impact. Because the thing about designers is that they care about making a difference. You don’t need me to tell you about the social issues in our city. Imagine what more we could do with another 3,000 creative brains….

This all sounds wonderful, but is it realistic to believe that we could do this in Dundee? Well it’s been done before in other cities. Ten years ago Bristol was in a very similar position to Dundee. Fast forward to 2017 and it’s been ranked as the 4th most inspiring city in the world. Not in the UK, in the world. We can do that here too.

So how do we go about doing that? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Teach business skills in Art & Design education. Too many students graduate with brilliant technical skills, but have no clue how to turn this into a business. That needs to change, or else we’ll continue to lose amazing talent.
  2. We need more creative spaces in Dundee. Co-working spaces where creative businesses can be nurtured and grown. District 10 should have been a catalyst for this, but it’s not. We’re doing good things at The Circle, as are the guys at Fleet. Where else can we create clusters of creative businesses?
  3. I’d love to see a creative Accelerator programme in Dundee. When I started my job at the University 3 years ago the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the City was pretty barren. This year we have 2 accelerator programmes launching, with other interesting developments in the Games sector led by Chris van Der Kuyl. I’d love to see an accelerator programme focused on creative businesses. I might even launch this myself!
  4. Dundee’s economic development strategy for 2013-2017 ‘foresees strengthening business support for creative enterprises, as well as reviewing the availability of affordable creative workspaces and developing opportunities for artists/ makers to sell their work in the city’. It would be fair to say there’s still some work to do there.
  5. See yourself as a business. I meet too many creatives who don’t like, or feel alienated from the business world. But those assumptions are based on an outdated model. Business has changed. Yes, there will still be some who behave badly, or use management-speak, but there are many who don’t. People who are open to collaboration, to doing things differently. Embrace it, be bold, learn some new skills and imagine a different future.

There are so many good things happening in Dundee right now. As the UK’s only UNESCO City of Design I’d love to see us rethinking how we support and grow creative businesses. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we could do this.