Jill Smyth, artist and owner of Ginger Rosie Crafts, reveals how encouragement from her mum inspired her to follow her artistic passions and leave her corporate career behind.
Read on to discover how Ginger Rosie Crafts has enabled Jill to expand her creative repertoire, surround herself with like-minded creatives and why she feels it’s so important that you focus your efforts on working in a career that you love.
Introduce yourself and tell us about Ginger Rosie Crafts.
I’m a sole trader. In business terms that means I do everything! In addition to being the creative force behind Ginger Rosie Crafts, which is the most important aspect of the role, I also attend to anything else that may be required to run one’s own business. I often tell people that when you’re a sole trader, you are the designer, website manager, dispatch co-ordinator, accountant, marketing manager, quality controller, and cleaner all rolled into one.
I work from home Monday to Friday making everything that I sell at my market stall on weekends. I sell online through my own website too. Usually following a weekend market, I take stock of what I have sold and look to replenish those items if I can. I regularly take bespoke commissions from customers both online and via the market stall, so it can be a veritable juggling act to keep all the balls in the air at once. I rarely know too far in advance exactly what I’ll be making from one week to the next.
I always update the website every Monday morning with new market dates and other info I think may be of interest to customers. For instance, St George’s Market has just won the prestigious Best UK Market 2016 award from the Observer Food Monthly; I’ll put that up on my website and Instagram page because, even though I’m not a food trader, it is a great reflection on the standard of our market overall. In addition to the day-to-day making, I occasionally get special orders for events such as a wedding.
Do I ever get a day off? Not really. Being a sole trader definitely makes me more flexible, but I work much longer hours now than I did when I had a salaried job.
How did Ginger Rosie Crafts begin? Did you always want to work in the creative industries?
I went to Art College after leaving school but I became very disillusioned and didn’t do anything remotely arty or crafty for many years after. Looking back, I think it was a mix of the era, my own lack of confidence and more than a few people telling me I would struggle to make a sustainable career out of art which made me walk away. Regarding the era: it was the early nineties and not only was social networking not a thing yet; I didn’t even have a mobile phone! So, it was definitely harder to get your message out there compared to today’s climate.
I ended up working in a variety of different jobs, studied some more, and then became a learning and development manager for a large international company, with the responsibility of managing the training needs of over 1,000 staff domestically, and overseeing equivalent teams in other countries.
Towards the end of my corporate career, I was already quite unhappy; it was stressful and looking back now, I can see it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. But we don’t always recognise that until something happens to make us wake up, and for me, that something was finding out my Mum had terminal cancer.
Although I continued to work for a while, I realised that I wanted to spend as much time with my mother before she died, and shortly thereafter I handed my notice in. I knew I had enough money saved to pay the rent for a couple of years, so I chose to be with my family every day and I have never regretted that decision. My Mum was an amateur painter and she loved making all sorts of crafty things too, and she encouraged me to start again. Once I did, I couldn’t believe it had taken me so many years to pick up a paintbrush, and I knew in my heart that’s what makes me happy.
In the last year of Mum’s life I started doing a few craft fairs, making painted ceramics, and I had some success. At this point I had no savings left, but I also had nothing to lose, and I decided to start my business.
My Mum’s death taught me that climbing the corporate ladder is only a good thing if that’s what you want to do. I no longer wanted to spend long hours away from my family, doing things I wasn’t really interested in. And so, Ginger Rosie Crafts was born.
Give us a potted history of Ginger Rosie Crafts: the variety of work you produce, whose work inspires you and why you love it.
I started off mainly concentrating on painted ceramics and some fine art, but I learned pretty quickly that I needed to expand my range of products for two reasons. Firstly, I enjoy the variety, and having a number of strings to my bow makes my day-to-day activity more interesting and challenging. Secondly, I sell more when I have a bigger variety of products, both in terms of the type of item, but also the price. I now crochet, sew, paint, knit, carve, and weave. By this time next year, I’d like to expand that skills set even further. I now also sell some work by other hand-crafters too, all ethically sourced. This has enabled me to keep expanding my own work.
I have a deep love of painting, and I’m always inspired visiting art galleries or reading magazines such as Juxtapoz or Raw Vision, which give a voice to self-taught or Art Brut artists in particular. In regard to the business aspect, I love looking at sites or Instagram pages where I feel like I can get a sense of the person behind the product. Someone like Rachel Khoo does this very well; her site is a perfect blend of not only her recipes, but also what she’s reading, her travels, fashion etc. In today’s world, it is so important to connect on a personal and professional level.
What have been the highlights of your creative career with Ginger Rosie Crafts so far?
Without question, the most surprising and wonderful thing about my career so far is how it keeps moving and changing. Ideas spring up from seemingly nowhere and I frequently find myself trying new things or having lightbulb moments. This never happened in my previous job! I can only surmise this is because I’m doing what I love, and I look forward to starting work every day.
For the first time in my career, I feel an inner confidence, even when I do things or try new ideas that don’t work. There are times when it’s stressful – the run-up to Christmas is always hectic – but into my seventh year of self-employment, I now have a fuller grasp of the big picture. It’s easier to ride the big waves when they come, because I now know a calmer sea is just around the corner.
Why do you think it’s so important to continue to hone and chase your creative passions?
On occasion, a few of my old corporate colleagues will pop down to my market stall and ask me, “When are you coming back to your proper job?” Some of them cannot understand why I would leave a well-paid, safe job, for one that pays inconsistently and much less than what I’m used to. The answer is simple: I’m happy.
In the first couple of years, there were some very difficult times financially, and I did have doubts about whether I could keep going, but I’ve learned that I can sacrifice a lot personally to keep doing something I love.
In the beginning I did a bit of freelance writing and background artist work on some TV and films to supplement my income. Thankfully now my business is flourishing and for the past five years I’ve been able to concentrate solely on Ginger Rosie Crafts.
When someone close to you dies, it changes your perspective on life, and it certainly made me think about how I spend my time. I don’t think anyone on their death bed wishes to have spent more hours in the office; I would guess that most people would want to have been with their friends and family more, or to have had the time to do things they really loved.
It is so easy to get on that corporate treadmill, but we all need to remember that we only get one life, and although it’s not simple, trying to ensure you spend your best years doing something you love is worth all the hard graft.
I have been in a position over the past couple of years to expand Ginger Rosie Crafts, by hiring staff and delegating some work to other people. I have purposely chosen not to do this (much to the disbelief of some of my high-flyer friends), and the reason is that I’m happy working on my own, keeping it small, doing what I want every single day. I have the flexibility to spend a lot of time with my family and friends, which will always be my number one priority.
What advice would you give to those either beginning their careers in the creative industries or those looking to make their creative passions a full-time career?
I’ve had people tell me I was very brave to start my business when I did (essentially slap-bang in the middle of a recession). I don’t see it like that, because at the time, I had nothing to lose.
For those people who are in a similar position, or recently out of college or school, I’d say just go for it. You’ll have the natural enthusiasm and energy (which goes such a long way) to find your groove.
To those people who are still in the midst of a corporate world, it can seem much more daunting because you’ll likely have a mortgage or kids to worry about, and I’d recommend testing the water first before giving up the current 9-to-5, perhaps by setting up an Etsy shop or a website, or taking a space at a show or exhibition. Run the side business at the same time and eventually you will also find your way, and be able at some point to make a decision about whether it will be financially viable to leave the corporate position.
Both sets of people have to get out there and meet similarly minded folks. Hand out business cards, attend art openings or creative events in your area, and definitely have an online presence somewhere. When I began, I used to think that updating the website or other marketing activities took me away from my creativity. But, it’s essential to accept that keeping an up-to-date and interesting website is just as much a part of the job as the creative side. You need to allocate proper time for those tasks every single week.
One of the most important things is to work out who your customer is; mine are women from 20-45 and gay men from 40-55. Yes really! Once I had worked that out, my sales started to take off. I still occasionally get a customer at the stall who will tell me an item is too expensive (or another similar objection) and I’ve learned to accept and no longer question the fact that this particular person just isn’t my customer, and that it’s pointless to waste precious energy trying to sell something to someone who isn’t interested. Find your people and the rest will come.
Whatever your skill, practice it a lot, and then practice it some more, and try to challenge yourself and improve until you’re really an expert. You’ve got to offer top-class work, and then people will buy whatever you’re selling. Finally, I’d recommend setting a reasonable time-frame for testing your new career. There is no point in giving up after a month or two. A year or two is more realistic and will give you a flavour of how the seasons affect your chosen path.