Outsourcing Versus Hiring Someone Overqualified for More Than You Can Afford
The so-far surprising story about false economies...
Bootrstrapping is Better than Borrowing
For someone used to bootstrapping tiny arts ventures and having had a mixed bag of financial success over 20 years with this, I’ve always been cautious of the ‘you’ve got to spend money to make money’ mantra. Broadly speaking I know this is true on many levels, but I’ve also seen it used to justify spending cash that people can’t afford on ventures that do not see a good return. They end up bitter and broke after a few months and either believe themselves to be art failures, move on to a different sector or both. These aren’t good personal outcomes, nor good for the industry.
In microeconomics art industry terms, a good return could be anything from creating a satisfying resolved outcome to building on academic research, to earning some money from art endeavours to keep a roof over your head. We don’t need to consider the notion of return in the way that a hedge fund manager might but it is still a factor in assessing the success desired outcomes. I’ve done many projects that I started out knowing wouldn’t directly earn money for me but they had value of their own for either my professional practice, my understanding of my creative field, or to put something in to the world that I wanted to, which is at the heart of many a creative practice.
So with all my caution I’ve dipped my toe in the water of investing in something or someone that might help make my project successful but I’ve never fully committed to any giant plans. For context, my creative projects have been setting myself up as a sole trader (self-employed in the arts) in the areas of illustration and prosthetic makeup design. I’ve run a range of things including tiny film projects and curatorial projects, which were all more to pursue creative and research ambitions than make money. I have worked as a freelance illustrator printer, writer and editor and much much later on I set up a tiny publishing company as well as co-founding an art award.
Due to the above caution I never took out a loan for any of these projects, nor sought external funding. The obvious effect of this being that whatever I did meant a giant pile of work for me, no guaranteed financial return and a very long / slow timeline on everything. The effect of this timeline has not been felt anywhere more than Pudding Press Ltd, the aforementioned micro-press.
Obviously, all of the above cost a little money, but I’ve been so used to running things on an absolute shoestring that I discovered it is surprising how little money you can use to do quite a lot.
I’ve funded a lot by myself by ploughing money from my paid jobs in to other creative projects, rather than something else like holidays or hobbies. Sometimes, especially in the earlier days, I’d even been a bit too reticent to use money for decent accommodation and proper food when I could have used it to complete another art project. At times this has been the economics of cannibalism and not recommended, nor is it even accessible to people who don’t have a certain level of healthy economic privilege. After all the money mentioned above might have been a relatively small amount, but it was in some way spare as I’m still here, well-fed and not homeless.
So why do I think that bootstrapping is better than borrowing? Ultimately for me it has been because I have worked on a range of obscure, niche or less than mainstream projects and while profitability of some sort is necessary to maintain your role as a professional artist, nightmares about owing money for a project that isn’t guaranteed to be a commercial goldmine wasn’t the kind of pressure I wanted to be under. I don't deal with financial stress well so I didn't want to cause myself any extra.
Not only did this approach keep me from venture capital horror fear, it meant I had total freedom to do what I wanted and run things how I wanted. For the projects I ended up hating, that didn’t work out or weren’t financial successes, it meant I could measure them partly on the experience and learning I got from them rather than be ground down by failure. This means that I have learned a lot more, and have more comprehensive and helpful track record than the people I mentioned before who had a couple of failed and expensive adventures that led them to depression and abandoning what they wanted to do.
So if you’re reading this and thinking about a creative project idea you want to put on and only have the requisite £50 in your pocket, rather than the £10k advertising fund you think you need, I still say think around all the ways you could complete the project without bankrupting yourself. There definitely will be a low-budget way, and you'll be the better for it.
But It’s 2021 and Things Are Changing – Outsourcing to India?
So after this, why am I now spending a bit of money on Pudding Press? Well, to start with, while bootstrapping things works, you sometimes do hit a wall that you can’t go beyond easily. For me it’s less a financial wall of desired mega-growth than a time wall of having so many work projects that I just don’t have the time do 100% of all of the work that kept things free (in cash terms) or cheap by myself anymore.
Of all the projects I’ve done, Pudding Press was always the most neglected and sorry for itself. Limping along with one small book of short stories that was never marketed properly even from the beginning. This wasn’t really what I ever wanted for it. I had set up the company because it provided me with an editorial and economic structure to publish my own as well as other people’s work. I was also interested in looking at these different micro economic circumstances to see what could be possible away from the mainstream and with independent projects. That said, I’m not a philanthropist, nor rich nor masochistic so I really should always have been looking at ways to make this little concern either profitable or at least make enough money to run itself (to date it’s probably the most expensive venture I have set up costing a few hundred pounds a year I’ve found increasingly hard to find).
Setting up the Refresh Art Award with Georgina Talfana in 2017 taught me that art projects can indeed gain traction and also that working with someone else at the helm helps you get twice the work done. In some ways our success or not (it’s open for entries again) with Refresh is always interesting to me in the sense that I feel if it can be successful then other people could work like that too, in an independent and ethical way that enriches the industry. It’s as much about proving that these things are possible as it is earning a living, and as both of those things are important I’m always very motivated to dive in.
In terms of getting the help I need to do something sensible with Pudding Press, I thought about that murky world of outsourcing much beloved of wealth and business gurus. I’ve known a lot of people who have done this to varying levels of success. Unfortunately, if you start from the point that you only have a very small amount of money to do anything, and that it’s going to be a trial paying for it, then you’re not going to get the best value from employing someone else to do work. Luckily before I outsourced anything to anyone I realised the truth of this and held back.
Outsourcing experiments for arts businesses I was witness to included everything from paying a young student under 21s minimum wage to do things, to using sites like Fiverr. I was trapped between recoiling from these things and realising that I didn’t have the budget to do anything else, so I carried on for years without help and neglecting projects.
In conclusion though, all of these witnessed experiments eventually bore out my initial assertion that this wasn’t the way to actually earn money for a small arts business. I can recognise with other commercial ventures that it could be profitable but when considering an industry that is collaborative and communal by nature, is a bargain basement attitude to recruitment really going to provide the nourishment that each project needs to become a success?
In recent years for smaller projects I’ve managed to hire people at a fair rate to complete something for the project, and every time it has let to the building of a decent relationship, achieving a high quality project and getting input that exceeded what I paid in cash. It’s also worth noting that I had managed to do this from the project budget each time, so neither subsidising this with personal money nor bankrupting myself.
That said, while I felt this approach might have been more aligned with both my personal values and project aims, it is much more of a financial puzzle with a big, ongoing concern such as a publishing company.
Drowning under admin last autumn I started looking at outsourcing something once again. I have a new author I want to work with at Pudding Press, who also wants to work with me despite my imploring him to try and get his high-concept book published another way. Therefore, I knew that I owed it to potential collaborators to get the company in functional shape.
In the autumn I looked at outsourcing admin to India. I found a great, small company that pays its workforce properly and has an affordable service that you can book in blocks. The basic admin service could get me at least twice what I could for a relatively low-paid admin assistant here, who wouldn’t be half as qualified, motivated or experienced.
In principle I would really rather do this than pay someone minimum wage here. What’s the saying about minimum wage that you know if you’re on it then your employer would pay you even less if they could? So it starts out by making people feel undervalued? Minimum wage is also almost impossible to live on in the expensive city I’m based in, so you start out knowing that you’re providing someone with not quite enough.
Getting an assistant in Bangalore who is paid well sounds a lot better to me, and being half Indian I’m not bothered about jobs going to Indian workers. The best thing for me about the Internet (and there’s lots of terrible stuff) is that whether we’re ready or not for it, the Internet has demonstrated we’re all really borderless and connected. Our cultures and economics are either going to adapt to this in the future or they won’t, but it’s still a fact.
Possibly the thing that stopped me hitting the pay £60 button and getting the Indian assistant of my dreams in the end was my sub-conscious telling me that being burned-out and over-committed is not the same as drowning in admin. In fact, I’m the person that usually finds admin soothing when other work things are getting too much. I couldn’t actually find enough admin for my £60 that I thought would make a big enough difference to provide value for my spend.
My main problem was that I needed to achieve certain things within the company to make if more profitable, and better filing wasn’t going to contribute. I looked at the projects I’ve run that have done well and all of them gained traction in a way that Pudding Press was never going to with a bi monthly tweet about short stories.
Open Research: New Employee and Now Watch What Happens…
I didn’t know what the answer to the puzzle was until I went to see a show with a couple of friends that we had artwork in. Semi-lockdown etiquette involved masks and a QR code on the wall that opened up the exhibition catalogue. None of us had figured out the QR code until a gallery assistant approached, introduced herself and explained. 45 minutes later I had offered her a job partly based on how she might have faired on a high-end makeup counter 20 years ago (details probably in another post one day).
I was actually still under the illusion that I was going to figure out this whole Pudding Press issue with admin, and all I had to offer was a few hours here and there maybe working on social media or answering emails. The thing is though, I decided to pay what I thought would be reasonable for someone just out of uni, who was looking for part time freelance work in the arts, and in truth that works out a a fair bit above London living wage. All well and good until the prospect of actually paying the wage meant that I had much less work to offer (the Indian admin person would have done 3 hours for every one of my new assistant) and also that I had to think about how this was all actually going to be of practical use to me.
Going back to the witnessed experiments I realised that one of the reasons people often didn’t get much value from the assistants is that if you’re only paying a fiver here and there you don’t have to think so much about what you’re getting back in return.
So 4 months later, and to prove I’ve not suddenly gone from bootstrapping a whole creative project on £10 startup money to being fancifully spendthrift, we have had a series of meetings and planning sessions. From the beginning I was so happy at finding someone who put an immense amount of work in and likes doing the things I don’t but also knows quite a bit about the industry. Somehow she’s now talked herself in to a regular few hours a week by being completely motivated and indispensable to upcoming plans, with the caveat that this is all about regulating the company’s books and that she needs to really get it paying for her work too in order for this to become longer term.
This arrangement has also spurred me on to magically finding the time to do work for the company, simply because it’s been presented to me in small, defined blocks of items I need to get done. Plus I’m finally getting to plan something I wanted to do for ages… Hopefully all in time for the book launch of Hungry that I need to finish working on, and that has been in the pipeline since 2003.
In short, watch this space to see what happens. Pudding Press has been a frustration in that it’s always been the thing I didn’t put enough effort in to and that I wanted to launch so many more projects through than I have been able to. Every time I looked at the website or social media it felt like looking at a neglected pet and that didn’t make me feel good about myself.
Making a small investment of a project assistant for a few months has so far given me the will and the belief to get this back on track and do those things, that I don’t think I could have got from outsourcing admin on the cheap in the hope of instant sales. And as with the economic setup with all the creative projects I do, if it works then it means it is generally possible. How amazing if this could encourage people to move away from paying £5 for someone’s time or graphic design skills and in to finding good quality staff and collaborators who are rewarded fairly for their input, and that this could be seen as a positive for the success of projects as a whole rather than a financial drain on resources.
A quick word about our newest PP assistant – this is someone who did an arts degree and graduated not only in to Covid disaster year 2020 but also a situation where the economy and the creative sector has been starved for over a decade. Being a university lecturer, it matters a great deal to me that higher education is not just an enjoyable road to nowhere. It is important that the creative sector can be a practical and aspirational career choice because we need creative thinking, the arts and design in order to live, eat, thrive and stay well. Even the Covid vaccinations get packaged in something made by a designer, but in 2021 should our only aspiration for society be a basic animalistic level of survival? If the answer to that is wanting things to be more nourishing and life affirming, then one place to start fixing our industry is in the small companies and grass-roots projects themselves.
In one way, I started this blog to think about these things. I’m writing about this particular project now so you can see for yourself if putting some tlc in to my company changes anything in the next 6 months, if a more wholesome approach to finding employees proves to be any better than cheap labour, and if it really is possible to have more social integrity in arts recruitment even for small projects with micro budgets.