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“Most of us don’t want to be millionaires, so what does growth mean?” designer Patricia van den Akker begins her talk at Small is Beautiful 2016 in Edinburgh.

Patricia is director of The Design Trust, an online business school for designers and makers. She has worked with hundreds of small creative businesses, freelances and sole traders as a creative business adviser, coach, mentor and trainer.

Growth isn't linear

She says the growth spurts of her daughter, her “creative hero”, is a good example of the journey of success experienced by designers and artists.

 “A lot of growth isn’t linear,” she says. “How do small creative businesses grow? It’s a pretty bumpy ride. When do businesses grow? When do they get stuck? Is there a predictable pattern? What is success for a creative business anyway?

“Imagine you are at the top of your success. What is your dream salary? How are you going to do that? Lots of creatives undersell themselves.

“Is it possible to predict who will be successful? How does your personal life impact on growth? What are the excuses and real reasons you aren’t more successful? And what can we learn from creatives to make more creatives successful?”

Define success

She asked more than 200 designers, makers, freelancers, visual artists, home and giftware creators what success meant for them.

“Living up to your own standards, being happy and becoming the person you envisaged as a child,” said one respondent. “Getting to the end of my life with no regrets,” said another.

And success isn’t just about money, it seems. “Why do you do what you do?” Patricia asks the audience. 

People get motivated by four different elements: intrinsic – inspiration, the joy of work, purpose; extrinsic – rewards, reputation, fame and money; personal – staying true to yourself, harmony, beauty, creation; and social – commitment, collaboration, copying and reselling.

Growth is about having a vision, planning, continuous learning, understanding your market and selecting entrepreneurial opportunities, she suggests.

“Decide what is your definition of success, create a business you are proud of, create a business that is successful in your terms,” Patricia says.

Five tricky questions to ask about success

Low incomes

Why do so many creatives continue on such low incomes? Is it because of expectation (of ourselves and society) or is there too much invested to give up?

Profile v profits

Are we fooling ourselves, wearing masks, pretending life is better than it is? Perhaps your profile doesn’t equate to profits. “Mid-career creative salaries have dramatically gone down. There are some big names with small incomes,” she says.

Failure v evolution

Do small creative businesses fail, or do they evolve, disappear, move on? Is it taboo to fail, to move into part-time, full-time or consultancy work?

Personal life

Why are so many high-earning creative business owners divorced? Is the work the cause of the marital split or does the marriage breakdown fuel people to build their business and support themselves?


Is success a result of mindset rather than talent, knowledge and tools?

What's next?

Find out more about Patricia's work and The Design Trust.

Learn more about the speakers at Small is Beautiful.

Learn about the Small is Beautiful Breakthrough Fellowships for Creative Graduate Startups funded by Skills Development Scotland.

Read more about the character, reach and scale of Scotland’s Creative Industries by taking a look at the Skills Investment Plan.

Find out more about what Skills Development Scotland is currently supporting in this key sector.

Learn more about the Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design 2016, including a toolkit to help businesses promote themselves.