For this month’s interview, we caught up with Sandy Thomson who is a part-time in-house advisor for Cultural Enterprise Office. Sandy’s role involves providing free, impartial advice for creative and cultural organisations in the Dundee area through face-to-face meetings. The rest of Sandy’s week is spent running her own theatre company, Poorboy – an international performance ensemble which has produced many successful productions over the years.
I’ve been an in-house advisor with Cultural Enterprise Office for 7 years (which is longer than any other job I’ve ever had – apart from running my own theatre company!). The role is like a catcher’s mitt for creative or cultural business across any discipline who have a “what next?” question. This could be a business starting up to an established brand looking to expand.
It’s a very interesting job because each week, the people I meet with are from a range of disciplines. The important thing is that users get a chance to talk through what it is that can take them forward with someone listening to them. I then need to decide what advice they need, provide further information, or signpost to other organisations that can help them. Sometimes it’s about telling them what they just told you – people will often come in with the answer and not realise this. When I explain that they already know the solution to their query then it suddenly clicks, it just takes someone to sit down with them to discover that they’re on the right track.
We can also give a great overview of the landscape. As we meet with people over a range of sectors, we’re able to identify issues across the board and provide advice for different organisations who are at the same level.
It’s open to anyone who is aiming to run a sustainable small business in the creative or cultural sector. It’s a very broad remit but the aim is to make the creative and cultural sector sustainable. We don’t just help people at the beginning of their business, our service is for organisations at all levels who have less than 25 employees.
There are a range of organisations that provide support so it’s important that we lay alongside what everyone else does without treading on their toes. That’s why we’re also a signposting organisation – people may come to us not knowing about other support businesses so we try very hard not to duplicate. We need to remain aware of what other support there is.
For my role in particular, because I’m based in Dundee, I need to know what is happening on a regional level. The activity landscape for the sector is like the sea, it’s constantly changing. Often I can talk to someone and if I know what the landscape is doing, I can then direct them to where they should be looking.
My background is in theatre and performance. I started out with Dundee Rep’s Youth Theatre at 14 years old, which was the first year that they had a youth theatre! I’ve had my boots on the ground here for a long time, becoming a venue programmer for a local authority in the area then working all over the place before circling back to Dundee.
My journey towards Cultural Enterprise Office was the same struggle a lot of creative practitioners have – I wanted one day a week to do freelance work for someone else whilst I built my business. Directing a theatre piece is people centred – my job doesn’t start until other people walk into the room – so when I was starting out I would have loved a service like Cultural Enterprise Office. Instead, I learnt it all on my own and made mistakes so I feel uniquely placed as I can advise people not to go round in the same circles I did.
Every in-house advisor has their own creative practice, which is important, so they can provide advice from a personal and professional level. I run a theatre production company called Poorboy which has been going for 13 years now. We’re story engineers and work with narrative, film, games, short stories etc. and I work with 8 ensemble actors.
When you’re running your own business, you are underwriting everything. There’s a difference when talking to someone who knows what it’s like when something urgent comes along and understands that it’s important to remain imaginative and resilient under pressure. It takes a certain type of innovation and flair to work in the industry. One thing you notice about the creative sector is that everyone is passionate and determined – if you could harness all of that energy then you could change the world.
I think of business planning as a creative skill. I’m impressed when people come in with ambitious plans with sustainable ways of doing it – there might be gaps in it but they know the areas they need to work on. It’s makes me think of a mechanic building a car, you can see that they’re building the business plan around a person or group of people – a bit like a mechanic builds around the body of a car.
We work with students because there’s a recognition that businesses which start on graduation day have actually begun a year or 2 beforehand. The best way is to contact us via our website’s ‘Get in touch’ button. All the diaries of in-house advisors are managed by the office so if you fill out the online form or call, we can work around your time.
The website is enormous and fascinating. There is so much information on there! The Support Directory is our current snapshot of the landscape – funding, events and networks. The Resources section is things that we’ve made in response to questions we’ve been asked by clients for example a calculator which works out how much per hour you should be charging.
There is also a whole raft of industry associates who don’t take initial appointments but I can advise someone meets with them. There’s also a list of contacts who work in different creative and cultural sectors who I can advise people get in touch with if it’s a specialist question. We’re very much a client centered service. The service is very adaptable to what the user needs because they’re not signing up to commit to anything, and they don’t have to go through a pre-arranged package, we try to build everything around the individual. It’s also important to know that we’re free at the point of delivery for everything.
Programmes team are a separate entity to the in-house advisors. As an agency our core offer is face-to-face time but we have Programmes to assist individuals and organisations including Fashion Foundry and Flourish Mentoring.
Fashion Foundry helps luxury designers looking to make connections internationally, which includes mentoring and incubator studio space. This allows emerging luxury designers to expand their business to increase its sustainability.
Flourish Mentoring occurs every 3 months and allows people to benefit from speaking to an individual who is further along in their career. It’s a really useful service as when I was starting out, I would have loved to have someone tell me, “On a scale of 1 to 10, you’re aiming for a 10” so that I could understand the difficulties in trying to do too much at once.
Be a good boss – even if it’s only you in the room. There are a lot of people I talk to who have had the experience of working for someone who is not good at being a manager, however when they sit down and explain how they manage themselves, it turns out that they give themselves far too much. It’s important to learn how to be a boss even if you’re only working for yourself. Often when it’s just you, you don’t realise that your boss is waking you up at 3am to remind you of things you didn’t to. Understanding this is key to being sustainable.
I’d also recommend people have a look at our website to see what tools we have available and then book an appointment with an in-house advisor to receive tailored support and advice depending on their business and current situation. For Dundee specifically, I often recommend people visit Creative Dundee because it’s a hub where people can get involved in a creative sector and there are initiatives which others don’t do. When working alone in a studio, it’s important to be involved with an organisation which can help you to become part of that cohort and meet other creatives.
To find out more about Cultural Enterprise Office, their resources and how to get in touch with them, check out their website – culturalenterpriseoffice.co.uk. For info on Poorboy Theatre and their upcoming productions, please visit their website – poorboy.co.uk.