Ashley Smith-Hammond

We speak to Artlink Central about how they set up their own social enterprise, Creating Conversations, and whether a start-up is a viable business model for other cultural organisations.

Getting entrepreneurial

Many arts and cultural organisations are concerned to generate more earned income and become less reliant on public funding. In this context, I recalled a conversation I’d had in the past with Kevin Harrison, Director of Artlink Central, when he was about to launch a new social enterprise that would generate income and work in parallel with Artlink.

I thought at the time that a symbiotic relationship between a social enterprise and an arts charity was a good idea for an innovative, creative and mutually beneficial business model. I recently got back in touch to find out how things were going and learn if there was anything that other arts charities could gain from Artlink Central’s experience.

What follows is a summary of my conversation with Kevin and Creating Conversations’ Sales and Marketing Manager, Sharon Burkey. Thanks to both of them for taking the time to share their experience.

Making the link

Q: My understanding is that your company grew out of some work that Artlink Central were doing. Can you provide the back story to how this happened?

The business really grew out of Artlink Central’s work, which allowed the team to see and act on a gap in the market. Artlink works in communities as well as with social and healthcare partners. It has a 30-year history (this year is the 30th anniversary!) delivering participatory arts projects in order to reduce disadvantage, increase wellbeing and reduce isolation.

We had the idea as far back as 2014 to commercialise some of the materials we had been using in delivering work with people living with dementia in central Scotland. This was work that was part of our partnership with our local NHS health board. We worked on the idea for more than a year and officially launched Creating Conversations in July 2016. The company sells a range of kits and materials, which contain ideas for activities that strengthen relationships and increase happiness. Products range in price from £15 – £220 and are available via the online shop.

Q: Why did you decide to start a social enterprise?

Working in this space, we could see opportunities that made us want to innovate. One key reason is that we could see that the materials that were produced for the healthcare market were simply not as high quality as we would have wished for the end users. The visuals weren’t as rich, the imagery not as engaging, the design didn’t invite or delight. Our materials had been developed out of artistic practice and they were beautiful but still able to deliver in a way that was useful to carers and clinicians. Finally, we wanted to make materials that could transform the environment of any space – even a stark clinical one – in order to reach users in a meaningful way without them having to travel to a designated ‘art space’.

Q: What you can you do as a social enterprise that you can’t do as a charity?

Well the question was really scale up or start up. We decided the latter was more feasible because fundamentally, Creating Conversations needed a more commercial focus than Artlink Central. Plus, creating a new start-up would provide risk protection for Artlink. Leadership was an issue, too. We needed a different, much more commercial board. The skills mix on Artlink Central’s Board was optimised for its charitable purpose and we didn’t want to lose this strength. Also, geographically we knew the new entity needed to reach a much wider market than central Scotland and we didn’t want to dilute Artlink Central’s local expertise or focus.

We wanted to make materials that could transform the environment of any space – even a stark clinical one – in order to reach users in a meaningful way without them having to travel to a designated ‘art space’.

Q: Do you see yourself playing a role in removing barriers to arts and culture for Scottish audiences?

The key thing is that Creating Conversations is not primarily about art. It is about providing a set of tools to engender conversations and interpersonal engagement. However, artistic practice and products are core to the materials that make up the kit. The materials were created by artists and they’re influenced by input from users (carers and clinicians) as well as people living with dementia.

This isn’t to say that there’s no artistic engagement happening though. The evaluation has found that cultural appreciation takes place a bit by stealth. The conversation doesn’t start out about art or aesthetics but it moves that direction naturally through using the materials. So in practice, the kit ends up being about art (and many other things like gardening and being outdoors) but the focus comes from users working with the materials, not from leaders administering art as medicine.

Q: How does the business relationship work? Does the income generated by Creating Conversations get funnelled directly back into Artlink Central?

At the moment, benefits funnelled back and forth are around new product development and product improvement – as Artlink Central users feed back around what they want and what works. The thing that is working really well is the reputational benefits we are seeing across the two organisations. Creating Conversations is funded through loans not grants, so currently the direct profits are being invested straight back into the products and the business first. Down the road, the idea is that financial profits will be injected into the charity side.

Q: How’s it going so far? Was it a lot of work to set up the social enterprise? Was it worth the trouble?

The first year was really challenging, but it was worth it. There were some things we needed to learn in that year:

  • The sales pipeline was longer than we had expected
  • Proof of concept: we needed to confirm the market would pay for the product
  • How users made purchase decisions
  • We needed to be flexible and to evolve the planned business model to respond to everything as we learned more.

But yes, it really was worth the trouble.

Q: What role does digital play in the business?

We are using a basic Squarespace site to run the online shop. It’s set up for ecommerce and we find that it’s working well, especially because it is optimised for mobile. This is important because we are now serving a much wider market – one that reaches right across the UK. We are also using open badges as a way to increase awareness and encourage our users to share the toolkit.

Q: How does the mission of Artlink Central connect to the work Creating Conversations produces?

The two missions are intimately related. We work out of the same office, we have the same mission and we have the same passion. The changes to one are reciprocal in the other. For example, Artlink’s programming helps to create and improve commercially viable products that are on offer from Creating Conversations.

Q: What about your client base? How different is it from Artlink Central’s?

We’re selling a product through an online shop that’s useful across the UK. So we’re not limited to working locally or even just within Scotland. The competitors for Creating Conversations are different too. It’s other social enterprises like Active Minds, and there is a great cohort of interesting Scottish social enterprises supporting each other in similar markets through formal and informal networks such as Talking Mats, Lingo Flamingo and Playlist for Life.

It’s very, very important to know your competitors, customers and marketplace, so you’ll want to do market research in advance.

Q: What have you got in the pipeline? What’s next in terms of product or service development?

At the moment we are working primarily within care settings. Institutions are our main customers for the kit right now, but the aim is to widen this out. As a result, we are working on rebranding and repackaging the kit for the retail market in order to sell directly to caregivers in home or community settings. As part of this we’ve been trying to break into selling via Amazon, but we’re finding this process quite challenging.

We are continuing to build relationships with stakeholders to increase word of mouth and we’ve also been attending lots of tradeshows to make sure people know about our products. Another route to growing awareness that we are working on is building recognition through things like accredited hospitals or accredited lunch clubs.

We know that the Creating Conversations kit is useful for other settings beyond dementia. It can be used in other care and social settings for instance, with youth, with refugees, with speech and language therapy. So we’re also looking at how we can open things up there.

Q: Do you think that this is a model that could work for other arts charities? If someone was thinking about doing something similar, what advice would you give them?

Yes, it’s worth it! Having the social enterprise helps inject commercial thinking into the charity. This works for us because it can help clarify priorities. At the moment, we see it as a success because it’s generating awareness and new opportunities for Artlink Central, if not direct income yet. Importantly, having the social enterprise allows us to take more risks, but it’s different than running a charity. You have to hit sales targets and repay your start-up loans.

As we noted earlier, our experience is that you need to be flexible about your original business plan. You may even want to have two business plans! The primary thing is to be able to adapt quickly as you actually get to know the market. You will likely need different staff members or skills. You need the people with a commercial mindset. It’s very, very important to know your competitors, customers and marketplace, so you’ll want to do market research in advance. And finally, you have to be excited about the enterprise part. You need a passion for selling or it won’t work.