Switched on to Arts; Sophie Green
Back in November, on a gloomy afternoon, I found my way to the Gostins Building on Hanover Street where I had planned to meet the very talented artist, Sophie Green. I honestly did not know what to expect, having never been in a professional artist’s studio before and having a certain lack of knowledge and appreciation when it comes to contemporary art. However, as I entered Sophie’s world, I was absolutely blown away. Her studio is blazoned with bright colours and beautiful work, which matched Sophie’s energetic and welcoming personality (and rich red hair!). Despite this, what I found the most interesting (and this included a huge blue rhinoceros called Spike) was Sophie's business acumen; her knowledge of how to make a startup business successful was incredible, demonstrated not only by her own success, but of her knowledge regarding what creates a successful business in any industry.
Tell us about your business.
I am a freelance artist and illustrator, and have been for about six years since moving to Liverpool about seven and a half years ago. Previously I was a graphic designer and worked various jobs, after having studied Graphic Design at the University of Derby. I moved to Liverpool for love (ahh), and we are still together so that worked out really well. Initially when I first came to Liverpool I was looking at getting a new job as I had obviously quit my old job to move over here, so I began to indulge my more creative passions. Obviously graphic design is creative to a point, but it still had that corporate feel to it with its office work, and 9-5 mentality, which didn't allow me to explore my own creative outlet as much as I would have liked. I decided to get involved in the Liverpool art scene when I arrived, and received my first illustration commissions quite early on. It's been slow to build, but it's there now and the last few years have been really busy.
Has becoming an artist been something you have always wanted to do?
When I was younger it was either going to be art or archeology, as I had a big fascination for the natural world. Then I thought, “Archeology…quite a lot of work isn't it!” You're either in mud or dirt for weeks on end, or you are studying incredibly hard till your head explodes. I find being an artist incredibly easy; I’m doing something that I love sat in a warm studio, and it's up to me to make it work, so it was a no-brainer really.
However, coming out of university I didn't really know what it was I wanted to do, and personally I wasn't in a particularly good place. I didn't have the spur or the excitement about me and I went from job to job, but at the back of my mind I always wanted to be my own boss, to work in illustration and to be paid to do something I love. All of the horrible jobs I had in the past when I was a student coming out of university (including working in explosive factories and milk processing plants) I am now able to look back on, and they spur me on with what I do today. I make the most of what I do, and everyday I try to get as much from it as I possibly can. I still do have the 9-5 ethos which was instilled within me during those ten years of corporate work, which has really helped me going freelance as a lot of creative people find this quite difficult to incorporate. If you are creative, you want to produce things, but it's hard to make that into a business – I think I have the balance about right now. I want to paint, but I also want to sell my work.
You have mentioned earlier that you also work on a commission basis – have you ever been able to decline any work?
Yes, people have asked me for tattoo designs which I haven't felt entirely comfortable doing and various jobs of which I don't feel I should complete. However, when I started I pretty much did say yes to everything! I had lots of PR companies contacting me because I was a new registered business, and a couple of them did manage to take advantage. I managed to learn very quickly that they weren't worth my time, and once I was in a position where I had enough work, I was able to flat-out refuse things which was great. I'm busy now, and I don't really have time for any nonsense; if somebody wants something then they ask me, they pay the deposit and they get their product - that's how it works!
It must be a lovely feeling having so much control over your business, being in the position to decline work you don't feel you have to create!
It's very good, but it is incredibly difficult when you start out to get into that position as it takes a long time to be able to do so. It seems to be getting much better every year, which is great as I think you begin to understand what people like and what works for you, and what events work for your brand. You tweak things and make the process run smoother, which only comes with time and experience. I've only just launched an actual eCommerce website, and that's going to help drive my sales much more - my previous website was quite static and the images weren't great which isn't the best when you're trying to sell artwork. In terms of social media, Facebook has been really good for me as it feels like there is a nice little family on there who share and buy my work. I've invested a lot of time on Facebook over the last few months to get more people visiting the site and it seems to be working.
Did you find social media quite tough to handle as a startup business?
It's almost like a full time job! I'm on social media all the time; I have my personal account, my business account, and the other organisations which I work for or have set up. There is constantly something to keep up to date with, and there is always a conversation I need to be involved in, so it can be difficult to step back from it all as it can take up so much time.
Have you ever considered taking on an apprentice or an intern to do some work experience?
I’ve had three students intern for me: one college student, one A level student, one GCSE student, and I might be having another in a few weeks. I've done that in the last couple of years as I wasn't really in the position to do it till fairly recently, but it's been great to have them in now that I'm able to. It's difficult sometimes as I never really know what the setup is going to be like for me, as I'm never quite sure what I'm going to be working on so I always make sure they have their own project to concentrate on. I don't want them to think their time with me is ever boring, which it can be sometimes, just like any other business!
What is the art industry like in Liverpool?
Liverpool has been incredibly supportive of my work, which has been fantastic. There seems to be a lot of creatives in the city, and loads of events that take place to celebrate art. I did a lot of networking when I first came to Liverpool to try and find my feet, but I don't really do much of that now I'm more established. When I started out I didn't know what I was doing, who to speak to or where to go, so I found myself riding on the coattails of my partner who had set up his own business, so I'd usually just go as his plus one. Many of the artist networking events seemed unnecessary to attend for selling purposes, as I wanted to attend events where people would go who were looking to buy art! So, I decided to change networking from art to business, as there were no other artists at these events. My networking is now mostly online, through word of mouth and meeting people - whether this is achieved through run club, hula hoop lessons, salsa, or whatever else I get involved in. That is my networking! Primarily though, you do need to get out and speak to as many people as you can.
How did you go about getting your own art studio?
I had a space in the Plaza on Old Hall Street, as they were redeveloping some space and had an area I could work in. This was through Dot Art – an organisation who supports local artists – but they had secured this space so it allowed me to work from outside of my kitchen! Unfortunately that fell through, and I managed to find this space and I've been here ever since. This was about three and a half years ago, which was when my business was really starting to pick up. I really believe this was to do with getting my own studio space, as once I had this, it meant I was leaving the house in the morning and working all day with no distractions, just me and the radio. Work creates work, so if you're busy more work will come.
What about weekends?
No, the weekends are mine! It's an important habit to get into, however when I was putting up my website it was taking a lot of time, and I was working weekends then which was unfortunately necessary. You also factor in social media which can take over my weekends as I make a lot of sales through my pages. My weekends can therefore be so busy, I sometimes actually look forward to Monday morning!
You've mentioned that you often work alone, how do you manage that?
It can be quite lonely; I'm sat here sometimes on a cold winter morning and I just think “What am I doing? Just go home, it is freezing!” I try and break up my loneliness from being active, joining in with sports activities as you just have to. You have to get other things in your life, especially if you work at home. You must get out of the house every day, as I know people who work from home and their body clock just goes out of sync – they don't know what day of the week it is, they can't sleep, it's a nightmare! I love a routine, so get a routine and stick to it. There are networks available to attend, for example the Jelly network who meet at LEAF, who are techy and creative freelancers who meet to work or chat, which hands down beats the home worker routine.
What has been your biggest struggle and your biggest achievement?
I struggled to develop my reputation and name, as it took a long time. It seemed almost impossible to start with, but I just kept going with it and eventually people started to recognise me and my work. My biggest achievement in terms of my art is hard to pin down, as I don't really know; there's been lots of little things to mention, but what comes to mind is that I now think every piece of work I produce is good. I never used to think that about my work, I never used to like it. But through the last couple of years it has seen a bit of a shift, where now I have found that I like what I put out there. That is my personal achievement - that I believe in what I'm doing and the projects I'm working on. I'm happy, I love what I do, and it all fits neatly into my life - it's very much a part of me. I've found my style, and when I started out I used to compare myself to everybody else. I stopped doing this a few years ago and it made my life a lot easier, by doing my own work and not giving a stuff about what anyone else is doing! The community I have around me is fantastic, so again up my biggest achievement isn't really something specific, it's just the whole thing.
Interview by Bethany Atkin, Switched on to Business