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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Creative economies are stirring across the world, but they need help to grow. And creative entrepreneurs need business skills to make the most of their ideas. The Creative Enterprise Programme is bridging that gap, one workshop at a time.

Creative Enterprise Programme participants in Nigeria, West Africa

Creative Enterprise Programme participants in Nigeria

Svitlana Bovkun happily admits her business used to be a hobby. She ran events in Ukraine, showing off everything from traditional crafts to technology – and helping the two connect. But things have changed; she now runs five events a year, not three. And they’re bigger, attracting up to 200 exhibitors and 6,000 visitors.

Most of all, she’s clearer about the purpose of her business. It’s not just a showcase for makers, but a network and a way for them to learn more about doing business. Svitlana says: “We used to have a vision that went as far as our next event, and we had a budget. But we didn’t have a business model. We needed something extra, more strategy.”

For Svitlana, the difference was down to the Creative Enterprise Programme. The programme was created by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, and is delivered in partnership with the British Council around the world. As the name suggests, it’s for people running creative businesses. They could be anything from designers and app developers to printers and publishers.

Laying lasting foundations

In three-day workshops, the programme helps entrepreneurs define what their business really is, what it offers and what it could be. In the process, they pick up fundamental business skills. They learn what it takes to understand their market, the importance of customer insights, and how to turn potential customers into actual ones. They also learn to think about the nuts and bolts of running a business, whether it’s finance, the law or supply chains.

Svitlana is one of more than 800 creative entrepreneurs to participate in the programme following its redesign by Nesta in 2016. Workshops have since happened in 15 countries, including Jordan, Moldova, Nigeria and the Philippines. And interest is strong – for a recent round of workshops in Ukraine, 524 people applied for 80 places.

Participants at the Creative Enterprise Programme in Ukraine. Photo by Volodymyr Bosak

Creative Enterprise Programme participants in Ukraine. Photo by Volodymyr Bosak

From learning to results

Experiences like Svitlana Bovkun’s are common. Mario Milakovic, who attended a workshop in Macedonia with an idea for a hotel-cum-mini design museum in Serbia, says: “The programme was where I was born as a future entrepreneur.” He’s since gone on to run a successful crowdfunding campaign to launch a social enterprise giving retired women the opportunity to top up their pensions by supplying cafes with traditional homemade cakes.

In another Macedonia workshop, Antonio Kuzmanovski learned the value of prototyping when it comes to winning investment. He’s since used that knowledge to land a €30,000 government grant for his website and app offering Balkan tours hosted by locals. And in Egypt, Esraa Fathy has taken her traditional textiles business from a one-women operation struggling for support to a business employing over 30 people full-time. She’s now one of four associates in Egypt who Nesta and the British Council have recruited to run workshops in the region.

Entrepreneurs at the Creative Enterprise Programme workshop in Nigeria, West Africa

Creative Enterprise Programme participants in Nigeria

Transforming tools into training

The programme’s roots lie in a toolkit Nesta designed over ten years ago. The Creative Enterprise Toolkit was mainly for entrepreneurs to use by themselves, but it’s also used as a higher education teaching aid. It’s become one of Nesta’s most popular downloads and has been translated into nine languages.

Updating the toolkit in 2016 was the cue to overhaul early efforts to create face-to-face workshops, says Nesta’s Head of Innovation Learning Programmes, Sonja Dahl: “We wanted to redesign the toolkit content and create a programme delivery model that would help us embed and scale-up activity on a local level, as well as allow us to measure our impact more easily.” Pilot workshops in Chile, Colombia and Macedonia followed.

The result is the current programme, delivered by a rigorously recruited team of workshop associates, who are usually experienced creative entrepreneurs or design consultants themselves.

The Creative Enterprise Toolkit

The Creative Enterprise Toolkit. Photo by Pavel Poboruev

Supporting creative entrepreneurs

The popularity of both programme and toolkit is a clue that something is missing in many creative economies. Creative industries might account for three percent of global GDP, but the vast majority of that comes from micro-businesses that often don’t last. In countries like the UK, creative business has become a mainstream career choice, but in many parts of the world, the notion of making a living out of creativity is still unfamiliar. So it’s no surprise that business insight and skills are largely missing from creative degree courses.

“If you want to be creative, you go to design school, theatre school or dance school, but there’s no business component to that.”

Anna Karnaukh, Senior Arts Manager, British Council Ukraine

This is part of a wider attitude that is unsure where to place creativity in national policy, she adds: “The creative economy is a new notion. Government bodies can’t decide who’s responsible for it – the ministry of economy or culture.”

Also, while technology clusters are increasingly common hotbeds for IT entrepreneurs, in most emerging economies there is little in the way of support and networks for creative businesses. The people behind them are often isolated. In Ukraine, around eight out of 10 programme participants surveyed by the British Council said they worked from home.

Often, participants are found through ‘creative hubs’ – environments where creative businesses come together in shared workspace. More than just offices or studios, hubs are a catalyst for creative networks to grow. Entrepreneurs share ideas, draw confidence from each other and collaborate.

Rachael Campbell-Palmer, co-director of Belfast arts venue The Black Box at the Creative Enterprise Programme workshop in Russia

Rachael Campbell-Palmer at the Creative Enterprise Programme workshop in Russia. Photo by Pavel Poboruev

Posing fresh questions

The programme mirrors that ethos, says Anna, who has organised 15 workshops in eight cities in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova since early 2017. “[The programme] gives you the skills any successful business needs. But you’re with 25 other people going through the same problems and successes – people you can establish relationships with and share ideas and feedback with. And you end up with a clearer vision of what you’re doing, who with and how. You ask yourself questions you’ve never asked before.” She says nearly nine out of 10 Ukrainian participants have kept in touch and over a quarter have gone on to collaborate.

At every stage, including in the welcome pack participants receive before they arrive, the programme urges participants to collaborate, share ideas, give feedback and be ready to receive it. They also prepare for the workshop by thinking through their businesses ideas and preparing an ‘elevator’ pitch.

That means they’re ready, on day one, to explore their own and each other’s business ideas and vision, and how they relate to their personal values. Catherine Docherty, a workshop associate who also co-wrote the original toolkit, says:

“We ask them to think again overnight about the elevator pitch – the idea, who benefits and how. They deliver it on day two and again on day three. It’s interesting to see how it evolves as they come to understand their customers better. The feedback they get is also important.”

Catherine Docherty

On day two, the focus shifts to customers – who they are, how participants’ businesses benefit them, and what it takes to reach them through marketing. “They often think they have customers, but can’t define them,” says Catherine. “Thinking about them in detail, right down to their personalities and preferences, helps the entrepreneurs understand their market. That lets them make projections, which feeds into what we do on day three, looking at the financial model, pricing and where sales come from.”

Day three also looks at practical issues – how to make a profit, what functions and relationships the business needs to move from having an idea to making a sale, and how it operates. Entrepreneurs also pretend to be CEOs of each other’s businesses, prioritising what they’d do – and stop doing.

Participants bring together everything from all three days on a business model canvas, a single worksheet. Similar to how designers pin emerging work on walls to stimulate and channel the creative process, the programme urges participants to get ideas out of their heads and down on paper to spark responses. “The canvas helps them make connections between what they’ve said and done, and articulate where they’re at,” says Catherine.

Emre Erbirer of ATÖLYE, a creative hub in Istanbul, at the Creative Enterprise Programme workshop in Russia

Emre Erbirer at the Creative Enterprise Programme workshop in Russia. Photo by Pavel Poboruev

Making the programme sustainable

Nesta and the British Council have strategic plans for the programme to grow roots in each country and help foster creative networks that can ultimately support themselves. That means adapting some of the workshop content to make it as relevant as possible to the audience, whether it’s using translated workshop materials and interpreters, local case studies or guest experts who advise on the technicalities of business plans, grants or taxation.

But perhaps the most important part of making the programme sustainable is giving it a local face through the workshop associates themselves. UK-based associates have run the bulk of the workshops so far, but local associates are already taking on the task in East Africa, Egypt, Ukraine and West Africa.

Anna has recruited four Ukrainian associates. Just as it is for the UK associates, the list of attributes they need is demanding, she says: “They need experience of running or advising a creative business. They need to understand business in general. They need soft skills to run workshops. And they need good English to collaborate with Nesta, as well as regularly being able to take a week out of their professional lives.”

Participants value the UK associates’ expertise and experience. But, says Esraa, they engage in a different way with associates from their own background and culture. She says she wants to help Egyptian businesses avoid making the same mistakes she did, like hiring a lawyer to complete registration documents she could have filled in herself. She also wants to share sources of advice she’s found through building her business.

“We’re giving people something they really need. I was in their shoes once. I’ve been through exactly the same things. That’s why I want to help them. It’s the greatest job I’ve ever done and I want to keep on doing it.”

Esraa Fathy addresses Creative Enterprise Programme workshop participants in Egypt

Esraa Fathy addresses Creative Enterprise Programme workshop participants in Egypt

Building for the future

Running the programme has underlined that creative networks need other support. For instance, creative hubs need help to build their leadership and business skills, so Nesta and the British Council, with the Dutch development organisation Hivos, are piloting a new learning offer.

In 2017, a workshop in Russia focused solely on creative hubs with participants from Russia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Turkey and the UK. Among the participants was Emre Erbirer, who works at ATÖLYE, a creative hub in Istanbul supporting about 120 freelance creatives. The hub is so popular that it can only accept 15 percent of those who apply to join. Emre says demand is high because, as research by ATÖLYE’s founders shows, creative businesses are crying out for a place to work and others to collaborate with.

“Gamers, for example, need designers, developers, researchers, strategists and finance people,” he says. ATÖLYE fosters this by keeping a precise balance in its ‘community’ between creative industries, tech entrepreneurs, social sciences and business strategists. It also runs a design team that works on its own projects, bringing in community members as needed. Emre says:

“Among other things, the Creative Enterprise Programme taught me to communicate more clearly about our hub and how it’s unique.”

Emre Erbirer

Rachael Campbell-Palmer, co-director of Belfast arts venue The Black Box adds: “I now have a whole international network I can draw on for support, advice and ideas.”

Nesta and the British Council see all this work as part of a long-term mission to help creative industries fulfill their economic and social potential, and make economies more inclusive. “Creative enterprise creates jobs, but there’s a wider social benefit,” says British Council Creative Economy Programme Manager, Rebecca Shoesmith.

“It promotes cohesion by encouraging diversity and inclusive growth. This is how we encourage policy makers to move creativity up the agenda. For us, it goes beyond a training programme that lasts a few days. Training is a tool that helps us achieve an ambition.”


Jan Dekker

Jan is a writer for brands and business. He makes complicated words make sense, and sensible words sound human.