There’s a whole lot of help and support on campus if you’re thinking of self-employment and starting your own business…
There were two things I knew when I started studying at ARU – that I wanted to stay and work as an illustrator in the UK after graduating, and one of the only ways to do that was to start a business.
In my first week at Cambridge School of Art, I signed up for the Start-Up Lab (now called Student Business Start-Up Support), which is a part of Anglia Ruskin Enterprise Academy (AREA) and yes, all those words to my artsy brain looked very big and very scary.
I was told the Lab offered a one-on-one mentoring programme where I could sign up once a month to have a session with a finance professional who could help me go over and develop my business ideas. That’s how I started monthly mentoring sessions with James Barlow, discussing my ideas for a start-up.
Time quickly passed and in the third year of the BA (Hons) Illustration course, a greater focus was finally put on making sure we could make a living from our work once we left uni. Suddenly things started to get demystified. We found out that a practising illustrator only spends a third of their time drawing, while the rest of it is spent doing all the 'business-y stuff'. A lot of my friends were getting very quickly overwhelmed.
There is a culture in the arts to be self-deprecating – to paint ourselves as small and humble. This is at odds with how the business world often portrays itself – with big words that proclaim a self-assured confidence. Artists are small furry creatures in our own little holes drawing our funny pictures. Entrepreneurs are big bosses in tailored suits talking in front of graphs. We were finding out that the majority of artists are freelancers, which is just another word for self-employed, or entrepreneur, aka a person who runs their own business, a person who 'is their own boss'. This was quite a revelation.
I was taking in this new information better than most because I was already prepared for it. The things I was learning with James were starting to overlap and inform the things I was learning in my Illustration course: invoicing, how to read and write a contract, the importance of networking, etc. This makes the whole idea of running an 'art business' look not only viable, but normal.
So, when James suggested I put my business idea up for The Big Pitch – a competition for ARU students with ideas for a business, I thought, why not? This plunged me into the steepest and most rewarding learning curve I’ve ever experienced.
All of this meant that by the time my education was over, I held in my hands not only a plan for a business I believed in, but also the confidence that I could make it work because I had all the tools I needed in order to do so. After graduation, I was successful in getting on the Start-Up Visa programme and have been running the business I developed ever since.
I saw a tweet the other day that resonated with me a lot. It said something along the lines of: people tend to conflate the desire to work for yourself with the desire to do grandiose things. For us artists, we often don’t get a choice – freelancing is the norm of the industry, that’s just what you’ve got to do. But even in any other field, when you choose to ‘be your own boss’, you are not necessarily saying you want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. You can just be saying ‘I want the freedom to choose exactly when I want to work and when to rest, that I like what I’m doing and I can change it if I don’t.’
If you are a student thinking about striking out on your own after uni, the main thing I want you to take away is don’t be intimidated – nothing is ever as scary as it looks. Resources are all around you. There are people not just willing but excited to help you, just on the other end of that enquiry email you’re nervous to send. So, send that email and make that phone call. Get yourself some help. And if you don’t know where to start, Anglia Ruskin Enterprise Academy (AREA) is a great first port of call.
My website: alicecao.co.uk
Instagram: @alicecaoillustration / @mushroomnookstudio
YouTube channel: Mushroom Nook Studio
Alice Cao, BA (Hons) Illustration alumnus and entrepreneur