Friday, 10 May 2013

Mentoring Series - Patricia van den Akker of The Design Trust

This week on the blog I'm pleased to welcome Patricia van den Akker of The Design Trust who is going to tell us all about her experiences as a Creative Business Mentor and also all about the new Mentoring Programme the Design Trust has just launched. I've been following the Design Trust for a while now and they provide heaps of useful business tips and resources for creative business owners like me. When I heard on Twitter that they were starting a mentoring scheme I thought it would be great to find out more about them and their new programme.

How long have you been mentoring?
I have been a creative business adviser and trainer for nearly 10 years, a creative business coach for over 3 years, and I have been working as a mentor since I took over The Design Trust in November 2011. As an adviser I advise creatives on business planning and business development, in particular around business models, income streams, marketing and selling. I train people individually and in groups through workshops, webinars and 'business games' on 'how to' do things e.g. create a business or marketing plan, write a good intro email, how to calculate your costs and identify the right price for your work, how to get ready for a trade show or crafts fair. As an adviser I give information and answer the creatives' business questions. I am the Design Doctor for Crafts Magazine and I answer many craftspeople's business question in that magazine.

I realised that as a business adviser I only could go so far, and that although we would have a great meeting many of my clients didn't make much progress by the next session. I realised that often 'something' was holding them back. So when I was expecting my second child, I decided to retrain as a certified business coach (with the Coaches Training Institute). As a coach I deal with the emotional and 'bigger picture' side of running your own creative business - what is stopping you, what are the obstacles, what are your fears and what can you do to overcome these. As a coach I ask those awkward big questions you probably prefer to hide from! 'What is your dream or legacy?', What is really important to you?, What do you want to be easier?', and my clients answer them (so actually the reverse of being an adviser!).

And finally as a mentor I share my own experiences of running my own business The Design Trust, which combines a bit of all the above roles, but especially it is about the knowledge and experience I can share of being a soletrader. I am really proud to be working especially as a mentor ('a Titan') as part of the School for Creative Startups programme:

What made you decide to start a business mentoring programme?
I have always loved seeing creative people develop over time. When I studied graphic design my tutor told me already that I was better in managing other creatives than doing it myself - and he was right! I currently run a programme called 'The Design Trust Get Clients Now! coaching programme for designers and makers', which combines online workshops (webinars), with online group coaching, and individual coaching/advice sessions and a feedback session. I really love the combination of these different formats, as they really help people with practical questions they might have, but especially the group coaching programme is great to learn from other creatives and to get stimulated by them too to get into action! You can find more info about this programme here:

What kind of people do you work with and what kind of topics and issues do you cover in your mentoring sessions?
I work with a variety of creatives: from recent graduates and starters, to women who decide to start a creative business when they have been made redundant or started a family, to well established designers and makers in mid career or those who are approaching retirement. I work mostly with freelancers, sole traders and small business owners in design and crafts. I work especially with people who are professional, want to create high quality and original products and services, and who really want to get into action and be more pro-active. I particularly like working with creative social entrepreneurs, who have a broader mission and want to create a creative business with a social, educational and or environmental impact.

As I am Dutch I like working with people from across the UK but also overseas, and about half of my current individual clients are from Europe. With them I work on the phone or via Skype, which is fantastic. Designer makers at the beginning of their careers often have practical questions around 'how to do' things such as writing a business or marketing plan, or how to price their products or start marketing their work on a low-cost budget. Many of these questions I answer through The Design Trust blog posts now, and in The Design Trust Guide to Start & Run a Successful Craft Business:

More mature makers often have 'bigger' questions about how to juggle their work with other commitments, or they are at cross roads and want to change direction but dont know where to start or lack the confidence to do so. Or they want to grow their business without loosing control over it. Some people at the mid career stage start asking questions around what they are doing and why, and the impact they want to make as a creative, which I find particularly interesting.

How do you structure your mentoring sessions?
I first have some email correspondence and phone conversations, before we get started. I then email a questionnaire with a series of questions to get people really thinking. We then often meet in person for a 2 - 3 hour brainstorm meeting to really understand their particular challenges. I then create a 2 page action plan with my recommendations, and this is followed by 5 - 6 mentoring/coaching sessions on the phone over a couple of months. They are in the driving seat in how slow or quickly we work together.

What kind of benefits could someone gain from having a mentor?
From 'pure' mentoring the benefits are especially about having somebody with personal experience of running a creative business who can share their own personal experience, knowledge and potentially their contacts with you. Coaching is particularly helpful if you are struggling with certain challenges each time, or if you lack confidence or certain things are holding you back. But it is also great to look at the bigger picture with a coach, to get you dreaming a bit bigger, with a clear vision of what you want to be, do or have in 20 years time or so.

A good coach can really help you find what your strenghts are, and help you to create something bigger than you ever thought was possible! They definately can help you to get into action, and stop procrastinating! As an adviser I help people with the practical questions so that you learn how to do something, without feeling stupid. I often can answer people's questions around planning and marketing fairly quickly. Most creatives haven't learnt about business or marketing, and I love to be able to show them how creative running your own business actually can be!

What are the benefits/rewards of being a mentor?
I love seeing people develop over the years. It is fantastic to see creatives grow in confidence, in more creative and daring work or fantastic design solutions, and in financial terms or taking on others and teaching them their skills. I recently got an email from a client who I saw 3 years ago, and she told me that without me she wouldn't have been able to make some major changes in her life. Very often people tell me years later the impact that some of my questions had on them. It's about getting the best out of YOU. Very powerful stuff, and very humbling too.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering working with a mentor?
The more that you know what you are looking for the easier it is to find the right person for you. Write down your creative or business questions or specific challenges and research potential mentors or advisers, and ask other creatives for recommendations too. There is a huge difference between advisers, coaches, and mentors. Make sure that you find the right person and role for you to answer your questions or to help you develop. It might be that you need to look at different people for different aspects of your business. Sometimes reading a good business book will help you further! (I recommend my favourite creative business books on The Design Trust website).

For a good mentor look at somebody who is 5 or 10 years ahead of you to see if they want to mentor you. If you lack business skills then a really good business person (not a creative!) might just be the right one for you! Or are you looking for more creative skills, then you might need to look in that area. Really think about why this other person would be interested in working with you. What would be in it for them? Especially if you are approaching another creative, why should they be giving you access to information and skills that they have taken years to develop themselves? Mentors (e.g. rolemodels ahead of you) provide some mentoring for free or as part of a business support package (e.g. School for Creative Startups). But advisers and coaches do this for a living, and will need to charge you!

A big Thank You to Patricia for taking part in the blog series. If you don't already know all about The Design Trust then check out their website here, there's loads of lovely help and information on the website.


  1. An excellent interview that gives a lot of insights into what we should look for in mentors. I feel that a lot of people still attach a 1990s stigma to life coaching and see it as an admittance of weakness, but it's just not the case. I've been working with lifestylist Nikki Armytage for a long time now and I can wholeheartedly say that my life has improved and I've improved as a person.

  2. Hi Loni, thanks for your comment. I agree completely, I think if you find the right person great things can happen


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