If We Can You Can: Sail Creative

Mandy Barker

If We Can You Can: Sail Creative

Sail Creative is a community of freelancers which aims to challenge to traditional agency model. Founder Mandy Barker tells us more ahead of this year’s If We Can You Can competition.

What did you do before setting up your business?

I was from a working family that had no academic experience, so I was encouraged into working life from 16. This was a real benefit, as I had no idea what I wanted to do at 16, so it gave me time to experience different roles and think about what I enjoyed. Until 24 I worked in various business roles in Yorkshire, estate agency and customer services (with a bit of travelling in-between) learning many business and communication skills.

I was the first person in my family to go to university aged 24. I got in without any A-Levels, proving that it’s more than what’s just written on paper that gets you to where you want to be. Before graduating from York University I was offered an in-house design role in Newcastle for a software company. I took this for experience but my passion was to work for a studio, so I was pleased to be offered a role later down the line, at Newcastle-based design agency JUMP. I was at JUMP for approximately 18 months before leaving to set up on my own. Both of these roles provided me with experience and transferable skills. 

What inspired you to set up your business?

I felt I hit a wall with employment – I didn’t feel I was growing or developing professionally after working as an employee for various companies. I also knew my passion lies in working on projects that challenge the status quo, working with organisations that make change in the world, and I knew that if I went out on my own I could direct my work towards this. I knew I had more to give and I always had a desire to want to work for myself. I therefore took the leap in July 2016, (albeit with a lot of uncertainty and shoestring cash in the bank, but nothing to lose). I trusted my gut – I knew I had the commitment to make it work, and if it didn’t – I knew I wouldn’t regret taking the risk.

I want to be part of pushing the North East forward creatively and economically, I feel it’s a really exciting time of regeneration of the region, and an opportunity to showcase the talent and businesses that are here.

What makes this business different?

Sail Creative is a community of talented and trusted freelancers. The big idea is to bring together the right people for the right project from creative strategy to output. Sail was set up to be less rigid in its structure and delivery.

Every collaborator of Sail loves what they do, and because we defy the traditional agency model, we’re able to offer a wide range of expertise and skill at an affordable price, without sacrificing on quality. We offer agility and flexibility, committing to client relationships and each and every project.

Our goal for each project is to have impact, to engage and emotionally connect with people. The feedback we get from our clients consistently compliments the level of service we provide. 

What inspired you to enter the If We Can You Can Challenge?

I saw the finalists of the 2016 IWCYC challenge at Newcastle Start Up Week, it was clear that being a finalist had impact on confidence, along with networks and opportunities. IWCYC will help raise the profile of Sail, and help me develop and grow in terms of networking opportunities.

Where do you see your business in three years’ time?

My long term goal is to be known as an expert, creative and collective design studio for arts, cultural and non-profit sectors. I want to establish long term and committed relationships with clients, helping them have impact and clarity through their branding.

It is also important to me to support the freelance community, in terms of collaboration. The business landscape is changing; it is no longer about traditional agencies or business models.

What has been the most rewarding part of your journey so far?

It sounds cliché - but every day! Being self employed brings so many rewards including working when you are most productive, and a benefit on lifestyle. If you have a positive work life, it means commitment and personal investment for each and every project-resulting in the absolute best work for the client.

I will try and be more specific here too – the work Sail does is steering towards being equality focussed. This is something I am really proud of. For example, we worked with the brilliant Curious Arts, an LGBT festival in the North East. Curious was set up to be an alternative to Pride, to give the region more depth and political influence.

What has been your biggest challenge?

In September 2016 – I had a difficult time in my personal life. Instead of walking away from self employment, I used it as an opportunity to put all my energy and focus into Sail. I haven’t looked back. I have grown and learnt more than ever over the past year, and coming from an unconventional academic background, have proved it is more than ‘grades’ that are needed to take the leap into self employment successfully. It is about determination, passion and hard work. I want to use my story to empower young people, particularly young women, to support gender equality in business.

Who/what gave you support or advice?

Support and advice is out there – but it will not come to you, you have to do the research, and find the right support for your business needs. I have had help from the local Enterprise team, Virgin Start and Grow, Princes Trust and IPSE, Entrepreneurial Spark, along with many other freelancers and start up businesses. Listen to others-learning from other entrepreneurs/business owners is the most valuable knowledge out there.

It is also important to take responsibility for your own learning. The best thing you can do is take it upon yourself to develop your skills. There is a wealth of resources out there. I am constantly learning: reading books, watching tutorials, going to events and learning on the go. I want to continuously learn and train my mind in business development, so I can give the best service to my clients.

What advice would you give to someone looking to set up their own business?

Be prepared, have money in the bank, if this is not possible then do it alongside a part time job, the extra security will help you build a business you want without having to take any job ‘for the money’. Know your strength and what makes you different. Know your market, and your clients needs. If you admire someone in industry, or in the business world, do not be afraid to pick up the phone and ask if someone will meet for coffee for advice. Everyone started where you are and most are willing to share their story. Learn all that you can, things change along the way so be flexible, and prepared for potential change in direction. Get out there and find support, there are many organisations offering help – use them!

If you have a skill and a passion along with commitment and determination you can make it work. It will be hard work but the benefits including autonomy, control and flexibility are invaluable.