Anna Goodson is the hard-working founder of Anna Goodson Illustration Agency, a respected agency that represents some of the world's leading illustrators, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
For the past two decades, Anna has worked tirelessly to help her impressive clients – which include Tony Healey, Jessie Ford, Gemma Correll and Martin Tognola – win work from the likes of Volkswagen, BMW, John Lewis, Random House, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.
Anna also runs MeatMarket – an online portal that allows creatives to hookup and connect with the best in the photography industry.
On a business trip to New York City several years ago, I decided to take a little detour to Canada to visit Anna, who was a client of mine at the time and had become a good friend. She very generously put me up for the night and took me out around Montréal – her beloved home city, where she lives and runs her successful businesses. We went out for dinner and enjoyed oysters and fine wine in a painfully cool new restaurant, in an up-and-coming part of the city. It reminded me of Manchester – it had that warmth and embrace.
Sitting across the table from Anna it occurred to me that in all my years of business, I've never met anyone with so much passion, energy and positivity, and just a sheer love of life and people. Anna, who literally never sits still, is truly an inspiration. We caught up with Anna about what it takes to run a business, the joys of rollerblading and what she looks for when she takes on new talent.
Tell us how you got started. Where and what did you study? And/or what were you doing before you launched your own business?
I was working in advertising for about five years as a suit and decided I needed a break, so I left and went to work at Club Med for a couple of months to find myself.
When I got back, a guy I knew ran a fashion photography agency and asked me if I’d like to come work with him. I did. And after about 18 months, decided that I should launch my own agency. We had very different visions on business. He basically told me: 'you don’t have friends in business and if I wanted a friend to get a dog'.
So instead of getting a dog, I left and started my own agency.
You're based in Montréal. Is it your home city? Is it a good place to set up a creative business?
Yes, I am based in Montréal, but always had an international vision for my agency. I use to say that there are no borders that separate us from our clients, only timezones. So yes, I love my city and am happy to live and work here. I could, however, live and work from anywhere. But the cultural scene in Montréal is amazing and I’m happy to work and play, as well as raise my family here.
What inspired you to set up your own business?
Rollerblading. I was an avid rollerblader back in 1996 and wanted to be free to go rollerblading whenever I liked. I wanted freedom more than anything and that’s still true today. So I figured that if I was my own boss I could do what I wanted when I wanted.
Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?
Yes, as long as I can remember. I always wanted to make my own money. I found it very gratifying to not have to ask anyone for anything and that I could, in a way, create my own destiny and be in charge. I’m very independent and don’t like having a boss.
I actually freelanced for you many years ago. You were a pleasure to do business with and very inspiring, helping to shape my own path. Do you enjoy helping others?
I really like giving back and love sharing what I have learned with others. I have a soft spot for women who are interested in starting a business. I don’t think they have enough access to mentors and so I’m happy to mentor if someone asks me.
When I met you, you were hosting a networking event for local businesswomen. Are you still running anything like this on the side?
One thing I love to do is learn new things and in the past few years, I’ve gotten involved in the startup industry. It’s very innovative and exciting. It’s also very challenging because I’m not a "techie" by any means. I can barely use a Mac, but I love learning and challenging myself.
Yes, I am still involved with local businesswomen and work as a bridge to bring women together to help each other out.
Why do you get involved and what do you get out of it? Would you recommend it?
I would recommend learning something new as often as you can. I get bored very easily and love to try new things. When I was first exposed to the startup community I felt like an imposter and that I didn’t belong or that I didn’t have anything to offer anyone. But I learned that even though I was lacking certain skills I had others that were valuable.
Anna Goodson Illustration Agency turns 20 years old this year. Has it been the adventure you hoped it would be? Tell us more...
An adventure you ask? It’s been a crazy adventure indeed. When I first started out, I had trouble getting illustrators to let me represent them and was turned down all the time. The banks wouldn’t lend me money and I had no mentors or anyone to help me out. It was very hard to stay positive and not to be discouraged. I put myself in big debt and my parents used to give me could soup and toilet paper when I would go to visit.
So it was really tough in the beginning but I never gave up. I loved the challenge and was so passionate about starting my business. Took a few years before I saw any light at the end of the tunnel... but eventually, I did see one.
So what three business tips have you learned over the past two decades that you can share with us?
Money should never be your motivation to start a business; it should be because you are passionate about your idea. Love what you do, have fun and you will be successful. Treat people with respect no matter what.
What has changed during those two decades? Both in terms of running a business, and running an agency?
The Internet. I, unfortunately, don’t get to meet clients anymore. I use to go out with several large heavy portfolios that I would schlep around and present to clients. Have not done that in years. Every aspect of my business is now online. People barely call anymore. I miss meeting clients face-to-face.
Money should never be your motivation to start a business; it should be because you are passionate about your idea.
Has the industry changed for better or worse?
Because of the Internet business has changed for the better. We can now work with clients all over the world and that’s very exciting. We launched out first website back in 1996 and no one even had access back then. The difference today is that clients don’t care where I’m located. They just want to work with talented illustrators and they want great service. I give them that and Canadians are really nice people, remember.
What things do you look for when considering an illustrator to represent?
When I’m looking to take on new illustrators, I’m looking for a style that wows me. It's hard to describe, I just feel it when I see it. Our tagline is 'We don’t follow trends in illustration, we create them'. So I’m not looking to take on someone because they have a style that is in demand, I’m always looking for something new and innovative. I only take on illustrators whose work I fall in love with. I look at our site a lot and I’m still in awe of the talent we represent and never get bored at looking at their work.
I also look for illustrators who present themselves well and are professional and organised. I can’t afford to take on someone who is not responsible or unprofessional. Attitude is also important.
Aside from Anna Goodson Illustration Agency, you also run something called MeatMarket Photography. Tell us more...
MeatMarket is a new venture I started about five years ago where clients can hookup and connect with the best in the industry. It’s a portal that creatives from the photography industry can join as members, but we don’t represent them. There are options to search by cities, professions, or specialties, to help people find the very finest photography professionals and resources quickly and easily.
"I’m not looking to take on someone because they have a style that is in demand, I’m always looking for something new and innovative."
Do you have any tips for illustrators or photographers just starting out and wanting to go freelance?
Know what markets you want to go after. It’s very important to have a vision and to know where you see your work and what kind of clients you want to work for. You’d be surprised at a number of freelancers that have no idea.
I would also strongly suggest getting yourself an agent. It’s much easier to get clients when you have someone good working for you. Your job is to be creative and let an agent take care of the business side of things.
Agents work on commission, so there is no out of pocket fees. You get someone to do your marketing, business development, and management all for a commission that is taken on a job that is brought in.
It’s a luxury to have a great agent. The problem is finding one that will take you on.
Make sure that when you contact an agent or rep that you do so in a very professional manner. Never address your email 'To Whom It May Concern' or 'Dear Sir/ Madam'. Do your homework and find out the name of the person you should contact. You’d be surprised at all the emails I get addressed to me in this way. It's actually ridiculous and I never reply to emails that are not addressed to me or to my partner Sylvie. I mean, the agency’s name is Anna Goodson Illustration Agency, hard to screw up on that one.
I think you need to do your homework. You need to know what you want to do and whom you want to work with. Illustrators should concentrate on perfecting one style and not have too much diversity in their portfolios. They should know where their work might end up.
Make sure your portfolio is up-to-date and that you are only showing your best work. Sometimes, less is more. I like to see a distinct style in a portfolio, not a bunch of different styles. You should also have a signature so that clients can recognise your work. Be creative and original and never copy what seems to be popular out there.
Do you think it's easier for creatives to get work these days? What challenges do they face, if any?
The biggest challenge that everyone has is getting potential clients to come to their websites to see their work. It takes a lot of money to promote your work and there is no easy way around it. Social media is the best way for someone starting out. It’s free and effective. You just need to do it right.
Share with us some recent successes with people you represent. Of course, all are talented. But just to give us a flavour of some of the work that is carried out, thanks to your representation...
We've worked with so many great illustrators and clients over the years. I love representing illustrators who are complete unknowns. It makes it exciting to put them on the map and get them discovered.
One recent success story would have to be Sebastien Thibault. When he contacted me, he was only working for an underground Quebec magazine. I loved his work and immediately took him on. Since he’s been with us he’s worked with some amazing clients, won several awards and now has a fabulous reputation. He’s also a very successful illustrator. So that’s really cool.
There are several illustrators that I have taken on over the years that where complete unknowns and are now very well known and work with amazing clients.
What's currently on your reading list?
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem.
What do you do to relax and unwind?
I work out a lot, I play tennis, I ski, I snowshoe, I listen to music, and I go to a lot of great restaurants. I have lots of great friends that I see, and I love to hang out with my kids.
Who has been your biggest influence and inspiration during your career?
My father was my biggest influence, but he passed away 18 years ago. Since then, I’d have to say a few great guys that I’ve met in the startup community.
Tell us about a typical day. What's your morning routine?
I wake up very early, have breakfast, feed the kids, and make their lunch. I then work for a few hours in my pyjamas before heading out to the gym where I lift weights or play tennis.
How do you stay productive?
I am extremely efficient. What I do in a few hours takes most people a day. I get things done right away. I’m very intense and organised.
What's your setup?
I work out of my house for now, but just bought myself a little treehouse, not far from my home to go work out of. I will be moving my office there as of mid-February. There is a pool and gym in the building, which I plan to use on a regular basis. It’s on the 27th floor of a beautiful building with a great view. Can’t wait.
Many people are afraid of going freelance, what would you say to those who are too frightened to take the leap?
In life, you should always confront your fears no matter what. Never regret not taking chances. I am 100% for people working for themselves. Not everyone is an entrepreneur or capable of working on their own, but fear should not be a reason for not taking the chance.
Being an entrepreneur yourself, can you share any pearls of wisdom on growing a business?
Never launch a business to make money. Launch a business because you are passionate about it. If your business is successful and you do well – it will grow. But growth doesn’t necessarily mean more money, it can sometimes mean more headaches. Every situation is different and you need to figure out what’s good for you. Sometimes people want to grow too fast and this puts them into trouble financially. So if you want to grow, take your time and evaluate everything before you do it.
"In life, you should always confront your fears no matter what. Never regret not taking chances."
What do you hope 2016 will bring? What goals do you have in mind?
I hope 2016 will bring peace to the world. I’d also like to see someone come up with a cure for cancer. What it will bring to me personally and professionally? My goal is to have lots of fun and to keep being innovative with my two companies. I’m planning to take on more illustrators and hookup with with more international talent on MeatMarket.