Self-Starter Stories: From a high-flying corporate career to soaring in the art world
This week's self-starter story features the phenomenally talented Anna Jacobs. A London-based artist, homewares designer, and tutor at Chelsea College of Arts.
Anna's professional story is a fascinating one, it starts from being a singer in an all-female acapella group, somehow leading to an 8-year corporate career at a major law firm in the City (as Head of Marketing and Business Development), to becoming an artist in her own right.
I hope Anna's story inspires you as much as it did me.
Interview with Anna Jacobs
Looking back, what lead you to be where you are today?: Despite doing well at school, art was always my only real natural talent. My art teachers all encouraged me to earn my living through art but I was too scared. I lacked the confidence to turn myself inside out and show it to the world with vulnerability, which is what showing your art in public is really.
I constantly found excuses to earn money in other ways, which I was successful at, but by the time I found myself at 40 yrs old as a single parent on benefits with a baby and a toddler I had nothing more to lose. I knew that if I didn't do it now, if I didn't fulfill my burning desire to create now, I would live to regret it.
What was the most challenging part of starting a business?: The most challenging part of starting a business was showing my first sample products for the first time! Excruciating and nerve wracking!
What did you want to be when you were a child?: I wanted to be a doctor! Then surprisingly I did much better in my arts O'Levels than my science O'Levels, so then I wanted to be an Actor.
What was your last job?: I was Head of Marketing and Business Development at Slaughter and May, a big City law firm in London. I was brought in to start the department and only intended to stay for a year and somehow ended up staying for 8 years!
When did you choose to PICK YOURSELF instead of waiting to be chosen by someone else?: I had been burning to be creative for quite some time. I'd got to the point at the law firm where by Fridays I was restless in my seat all day, not because I wanted to go out, but because I wanted to get home, rip off my corporate suit and start painting.
Then in 2010 I found myself at 40 years old and pregnant with my second child and I thought, "this is the moment, it has to be now or never". So I resigned from the law firm and started exploring the possibility of creative jobs.
Very soon afterward my partner left the relationship, so I found myself on my own with a 9-month-old baby and a toddler, and with no job and no money! So then it became clear that the best option for me was to start my own business so that I could work from home and be flexible for the children.
What did you learn from your worst boss?: That if you can encourage people to feel invested in or inspired by the work they will be much happier and work much better.
What is your favourite business book and why?: 'Maverick!' by Ricardo Semler, because he takes such a radical approach to running his business in the most democratic and egalitarian way, that almost seems crazy, but is so full of humanity and heart that it has worked extraordinarily well. He inspires me enormously!
Do you do everything yourself? What do you outsource?: I started off doing absolutely everything myself. As I got more orders I trained two women in Dover to make my lampshades and they also do all my shipping. Just recently I took on a part-time freelance admin assistant.
What is your productivity secret?: It's easy to be productive when your creative juices are flowing. The hard part is when you're feeling dispirited or tired or overwhelmed, or all of those things at the same time! So when I feel like that (surprisingly often!) I force myself just to take one step at a time, or even just work for 15 minutes at a time and keep going like that throughout the day. It's those kind of days that test your mettle and that make you truly productive.
What is your favourite app?: At the moment it's my Shopify app, because hearing the 'cha-ching' sound when an order comes in is so deeply satisfying and encouraging! Plus it's fantastic that I can get a quick overview of my financials and edit my products etc all from my phone.
How do you market your business?: I market my business in several ways. For wholesale buyers my primary marketing channel is a trade show at Olympia, called Top Drawer.
For direct sales customers I market through my open studio events, House & Garden magazine's Spirit of Summer of Fair, social media and press coverage. I've found that the best marketing tool is the story behind the designs, so when I'm at events I emphasise this to customers and also aim to tell that story through all my marketing communications
When you first launched, how did you get your first paying customers?: I showed the first samples of my products at a local artists' open studio event, the Dulwich Artists' Open House. It was very nerve-wracking, but everyone loved the products and people started buying!
How did you get your first traffic to your website?: I sent an email to all my friends and posted on my personal facebook page. One of my friends immediately placed an order for £1,200!
What would you say to someone who is toying with the idea to start a business but haven't yet?: I would ask, "Are you really passionate about this?", because it will take up so much more of your time than you realise! I would also suggest they get very clear, right from the beginning, exactly what their goals are. During their journey, they should be flexible enough to walk through any unexpected doors that open but regularly refocus on their original goals.
If you could have dinner with one entrepreneur, who would it be and why?: Diane von Furstenberg. I love her strong, independent female spirit and drive. She has forged such a successful business through design that I would like to ask her about how she balances her creative time and running her business and also about any mistakes she has learned from growing a hugely successful global brand.
To follow Anna's journey, you can do so via her social media channels and website linked below.
Anna Jacobs has qualified for the #PickYourselfUK Small Business Entrepreneur of the Year award 2017. If you'd like to enter yourself or nominate a small business entrepreneur for this award, please submit your story below.
Voting for the #PickYourselfUK Small Business Entrepreneur of the Year award 2017 will take place in November 2017 so make sure you get your entry submitted to qualify.