IN this week's SME Focus we meet a woman whose love of art and learning was the spur to create a business with designs on the UK market.
Name: Joanne Robinson.
What is your business called? The Little Art School Company.
Where is it based?
We have schools in Ayr and Troon.
What does it produce, what services does it offer?
We offer art classes to children of all ages, forming a structured art course available after school, at weekends and during the holidays. We are about to start our first adult classes in both schools called Drawing And Painting For Those Who Think They Can't, and our newest venture is corporate entertaining with our Prosecco and Painting evenings.
Who does it sell to?
Parents in Ayrshire who have children keen to learn more about art are our primary customer. We also sell to adults who want to learn to draw and paint and businesses looking for a team-building experience.
What is its turnover?
Our estimated turnover for our first year is £100,000.
How many employees?
Ten and rising!
When was it formed?
I held my first art classes for children in July 2013 and we registered the company on January 1 2014.
Why did you take the plunge?
I am a mother of four children, aged three to 12. When one of my children had to change schools, I offered to go into her class to teach drawing skills. It was fantastic to watch the children's delight as they used simple tips to improve their drawing. After several visits, I was approached by some mothers asking me if I would consider running art classes.
They pointed out that a child interested in sport, drama or dance had many options for after-school clubs but there was nothing for those who love to draw and paint. I decided there was a huge gap in the market for a structured drawing and painting course. I ran some informal classes in the summer holidays to gauge reaction and began to look for premises.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
I had a varied working background after graduating in history from Oxford University. I worked in Japan then served as an officer in the Royal Air Force for six years. I learned how to draw and paint while I was in the RAF and struggled for many years in evening classes.
After leaving the RAF, I gained an MA in Museum and Gallery Studies and twelve years after my first art class I finally felt that I had the skills to design the course I wish I'd had available as a child, or as an adult looking for a new skill. Everything I have done before has contributed to how I run the business. In Japan I visited schools, which I am now doing all the time. In the RAF I was taught both leadership skills and the importance of the team. My MA (done when my children were babies) taught me to work when you can, early in the morning or late at night.
How did you raise start-up funding?
I invested every penny from paintings I sold to begin the first set of courses, then took a personal loan when we decided to take on new premises and expand.
What was your biggest break? While I had interest from parents, the support I received from Business Gateway helped me to actually turn my idea into a business. As well as providing practical help and advice, my Business Gateway adviser put me in touch with other organisations that have contributed to me learning new skills and becoming a confident business owner, including the Chamber of Commerce and Ayrshire Association of Business Women. My adviser also helped me find premises, and office space and get funding via South Ayrshire Council.
What was your worst moment? An hour before the first class at our new school in Ayr I realized I had left the Number 10 watercolour paintbrushes in Troon; to anyone else this is unlikely to sound like a disaster but after a week with no sleep it felt like the world had ended.
What do you most enjoy about running the business? Watching children's self-esteem grow and seeing someone who thought they couldn't draw realize that they can.
What do you least enjoy?
The long hours at the moment do mean I'm seeing less of my children but that will change as the year goes on.
What are your ambitions for the firm?
Our aim is to have Little Art Schools across the UK from Inverness to St Ives. We are setting up booking and payment procedures to simplify everything for parents so that as each school opens we can operate efficiently.
We are also working hard to create a flexible working environment for women returning to work after taking time out of careers to raise small children. As we have all been part of this group we think it is an incredible untapped resource of talent and energy.
What are your top priorities?
To have a fast and efficient booking and payment service; to increase the number of classes in Troon and Ayr; to expand into Newton Mearns; to plan our expansion across Scotland and into England; to promote our Flexible Working policy to encourage more talented women back into the workplace; and to begin our merchandising arm. We hope to sell high-quality art materials with Little Art School projects and easy-to-follow instructions and tips
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?
In a start-up the need for cash is often immediate and some of the grants and loans available can take weeks or even months before you see any sign of the money.
I think speeding up the availability of loans for new businesses would be invaluable.
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
To step back and trust my amazing management team.
How do you relax?
I'd love to say with a daily jog on the beach but the truth is with a large glass of red wine and an episode of Parks and Recreation.