Deborah Keogh & Roanne Dods from Small Is Beautiful on why small is the future of business

Deborah Keogh and Roanne Dods are co-producers of Small Is Beautiful – an annual conference in Scotland which offers insight, intelligence and ideas for micro-enterprises, which are on the rise across the UK and internationally.

They believe this is not a direct consequence of the economic crisis, but that people are making choices to thrive in ways that sustain their relationships to family, community, networks and to the planet.

Small is Beautiful is a conference for people who commit to small – inspired by some of the thinking in the book of the same name written by EF Schumacher, first published in 1973. The event will give you an opportunity to learn from globally recognised speakers: some of the world's leading thinkers on solopreneurship.

We caught up with Deborah and Roanne to discover more about their conference, why they believe micro-enterprises are on the rise, and how they reached this point in their mutual journeys...

You both have rich careers grounded in the arts. Tell us how you got started, what did you study and what were your first jobs?

Deborah: I trained to be an actor at the Samuel Beckett Centre, and my first job was as an extra in Big Maggie by John B Keane at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. After a hasty career change, I then studied Arts Management, and my first role was as an intern with Rough Magic Theatre Company, working on a women’s playwriting competition.

Roanne: My first job was as a lifeguard at the Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh. I trained as a lifeguard while doing a semester at a Canadian university – Dalhousie in Halifax, Nova Scotia – it was hardcore training but I totally loved it. I started dancing when I did my law degree and set up my own dance company with a friend who was doing a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence: suddenly last summer.

It was the early days of contemporary dance in Scotland and we performed regularly in great places around Glasgow and Edinburgh – I was lawyer by day, contemporary dancer by night for several years. I managed to raise enough money to go dancing school and headed to Laban Centre in London before I was too old and never looked back.

Deborah you are from Dublin and Roanne you are from Lima, Peru. What drew you both to Glasgow, Scotland and how did you start working together?

Deborah: Love took me to Glasgow. My husband was from here, and we worked together in a Glasgow/Dublin Theatre Company, producing new plays with great people focused on human rights issues.

This has been my home now for 20 years and the city still inspires me. The energy, the architecture, the people I have met and worked with, and the great cultural legacy of the city has been hugely motivational for me. Roanne and I met while she was working at the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and I was at Cultural Enterprise Office, and we initially collaborated together on a week-long laboratory for artists and policymakers – Artist as Leader.

Roanne: Yes, I was born in Lima and went to school there. My father happened to work for a Scottish textile company based in Lima. I learned how to draw the Peruvian flag and emblem, and I can still recite the Peruvian Declaration of Independence in Spanish after a couple of glasses of wine.

My family was originally Scottish and I have always felt deeply connected to Scotland. Glasgow is a vibrant, complex and very funny place – I love its character and characters. Its creative community is busy, international, passionate and highly innovative. Also, it takes less than 20 minutes to be out in extraordinary landscapes and lochs.

Talk us through your manifesto for Small Is Beautiful?

Deborah and Roanne: It’s a bit wordy, isn’t it! We wanted to say so much! We got very passionate about everything that we wanted to convey – that’s why we have commissioned Leena from Just Kiss My Frog to make it into a shorter, more poetic video. We are very earnest about all this stuff even though we want to laugh lots too – as you can see from the number of comedy folk involved this year: Simon Caine, Jackie Kay, Brian Hennigan and Charles Davies.

We are both passionate about supporting artists and creatives, and at the same time see that the ways that artists work and live are actually more in keeping with the wider macro issues of our time. We know we can't offer the day-to-day support that other organisations can, but we want to inspire and celebrate the best of the ideas to help not just artists and creatives, but also those who are on the freelance and micro trajectory.

Of course, there's also a political message about growth – we don't need it and can't sustain it any longer, and about wellbeing – our working lives need to be able to balance our wider lives and we believe that smallness can be at the root of helping address these issues.

Small is Beautiful is hosted in Edinburgh this year. Can you tell us about the local creative scene?

Deborah and Roanne: Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It's full of artists and creatives from all over, who come to appreciate its beauty and history. It is a very diverse community, with some excellent support organisations like Creative Edinburgh and CodeBase – enabling real innovation in the city.

You host a very eclectic mix of speakers from former Founding Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U Jocelyn K. Glei to folk singer and songwriter Karine Polwart. What’s your philosophy behind this?

Deborah and Roanne: We love the question and thank you for noticing! It doesn’t feel eclectic. We try to find voices who are articulating new metaphors and values to the operating side of their work while maintaining an artistic practice that has a deep integrity that isn’t just about the financial bottom line – Karine did that so beautifully in her talk.

We’ve had people using biomimicry as a way of writing a business plan, a designer singing a beautiful lullaby to express the importance of storytelling in her practice and her communication, as well as the hardcore issues of managing procrastination and time via Rory Vaden, making money with your values thanks to Tara Gentile and keeping on top of your wellbeing with Sherry Walling.

Deborah, you were CEO of Cultural Enterprise Office in Glasgow for over 11 years, can you tell us about how this experience shaped your approach to supporting creative micro-businesses?

It has completely shaped my approach to understanding independents and micro-enterprises and my awe and appreciation of how they do what they do and more importantly, what it takes to do what they do.

My organisation started out at a time when business support was much more of the ‘one size fits all type’ – and we could see how hugely frustrating it was to be a small but innovative creative indy if you didn’t fit certain boxes in order to access the kind of support and expertise that was going to move you forward. Setting a business up from scratch is so wholly absorbing, that working within development agency support frameworks was often counter-intuitive, killing the spark that was driving the business idea in the first place. Our aim was to create bespoke support that could be accessed on an ‘as and when you need it’ basis and an open door so that people could come back when the time was right.

You quote 99U Conference and EF Schumacher's book Small is Beautiful as inspirations, tell us more?

Roanne: I went to 99U in 2011 on a bursary and was blown away by it – the atmosphere, the talks, the sense of realising that there is a tribe of folk out there who think about things like I do. I wanted to be able to have something that was closer to my artistic world and connected to all my work on people and new models in the arts, and of course with a real sense that smallness might just be a way of helping new conversations and activity happen around meaningful living, environment, and independent artistic/creative practice.

Deborah: "Like Roanne, I wasn’t seeing conferences with this particular angle in the UK and I was for a while searching around for a conference model for the creative micro-business client group. I was a huge fan of Scott Belsky’s book 'Making Ideas Happen', and heard him speak in 2012 at the Districts of Creativity Network Conference in Flanders. It was that sense of breaking things down, starting bit by bit, and being very realistic about what it is that you are trying to do that really resonated.

I had also bought the 99U action diaries for the team at Cultural Enterprise as their Christmas present, and loved the whole product range. Roanne and I then found we had common ground in seeking something out and she gave me a copy of Small is Beautiful which I hadn’t read. It is a great read and resonated so much with all the work I was doing. The constant focus on growth can be counterproductive to steadily building your business around your values and passions, and for the benefit of others.

"The constant focus on growth can be counterproductive to steadily building your business around your values and passions, and for the benefit of others".

I think the traditional understanding of going into business comes with the misunderstanding that constant growth is the real measure of success. How would you advise independents to combat this?

Deborah: I think it is really important for independents to take the time to clarify and define what success will look like for them. At Small is Beautiful, we are encouraging people to think of 'growth' in a much more rounded way – we see one person businesses making huge investments in their professional growth by undertaking training or perhaps by coming to our conference, or by making the decision to purchase a game-changing piece of kit or equipment.

"We also see growth as maturity, a maturing business, being more selective about the kind of clients you want to work with and why, decisions that can focus and enrich a business, deepen impact and support their growth. Of course, this may also improve their bottom line growth, but that as one of a number of factors, rather than the key driver.

There seems to be a general shift in people becoming more mindful of their work/life balance and questioning it. What are your thoughts on this?

Roanne: There is. The RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture, and Commerce, London) commissioned a major piece of research into The Power of Small, supported by Etsy to look at the growth of small and the issues that micro-enterprises face.

The fact that we have explored the topic at our last two conferences suggests that work/life balance is becoming more important. But I think that our larger organisations, institutions, and corporates are often struggling to move with the times and have become increasingly dysfunctional places to work – not all of course, but many are guilty. The emphasis on quantitative impact – whether bottom line or bums on seats or number of Twitter hits – is more important than people, environment, integrity, and purpose of the work itself. And people can see that they have a choice to be independent.

Do you think the skill base of the creative industries is changing, moving away from larger agencies to a bigger market of highly-skilled individuals?

Deborah: Hmmm, I think the big agencies and companies are actually getting bigger and they will always be a huge force and influence on how the rest of the system works. I think in terms of skills, that being able to establish and run your own company continues to be a vital skill that can enhance your opportunities, open up new ways of doing things as well as provide the talent and ideas pipeline that the big agencies need to succeed.

Roanne: It does sometimes look like that, but it's hard for me to tell. My personal interest has always been in artists, in talented or skilled individuals and how they make great things happen – people that are not always suited to or even recognised by large organisations. People whose values and practice are not in the current mainstream but who have so much to offer from who they are and what they do – particular artists from all art forms.

"What I’m loving as we get under the skin of what Small is Beautiful really represents – is how much there is out there to help people thrive independently, live meaningfully within it, and really do what they love and want to do.

There is a consistent theme in your work around values, integrity and meaningful, deliberate living.

Roanne: Yes. I want the world to be a better place. Particular the world of work and money-making. I think, hope, that offering a bit of yin-yang approach to the value placed on high-growth, large organisations might offer a bit of humility in the system and right the balance between an overemphasis of policy on organisations to people and planet.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to regain control of their work/life balance and live deliberately?

Roanne: Read lots, really get to know yourself, watch Patricia van den Akker’s videos on the smallisb website and follow her exercises (even if you are not a design person) about how much you want to live on, what kind of work/life balance you want, give yourself some short and long-term goals. In fact, just watch all of the Small is Beautiful talks!

Deborah: Get a coach! I would say that, as I am one. Get clear on what it is you want and need, who and what could help you to move towards that and what is getting in the way.

Is running your own business a pipe-dream, or is it something that you are willing to give yourself over to? I used to get very annoyed at the overuse of the term ‘lifestyle business’ as a way of describing micro-businesses as though they are little hobbies or sidelines. Instead, we used to say that they are ‘whole life businesses’ because that is closer to the reality. Is this the right step for you? Really important to get to grips with that early on.

How important is it to say no?

Roanne: Ha! That is a tough one. I like saying yes. Yes is a great word – positive, hopeful, open to possibility! I think it is much more about getting clearer and more specific about what you are actually interested in, wanting to do – clarity around mission, vision and purpose so that you will attract the right things your way and it might be more like 'YES!' or 'No, But...'.

What are your future plans for Small Is Beautiful?

Deborah and Roanne: We want everyone to love and appreciate small – even if it isn’t for them as work, but for them to see the value in working with small. We have immediate plans for two books, two labs and regular online masterclasses.

Who have been your biggest personal influences and inspirations over the years?

Deborah: Oh, so many. The city of Glasgow, as mentioned before – Siobhan Bourke, a Theatre Producer I worked with in Dublin many years ago, who told me not to waste time on things that I could bring others in to do better – a brilliant foundation in achieving anything. Also, Paddy Higson, doyenne of Scottish TV and Film for many years, and I worked at her company for about 5 years – the best advice she ever gave me was to remember that a good deal is only a good deal if it’s good for both parties. Something that has always stuck with me, through the years when negotiating anything. My husband, who is a filmmaker for his dogged determination and my kids who help me to see things in new ways.

Roanne: So many but specifically, Clare Cooper – indefatigable warrior for a better world who has about three or four riveting micros on the go at the moment and is always a step ahead of macro thinking; Fi Scott of Make Works who spoke last year at the conference about the challenges of being a value driven entrepreneur in a Silicon Valley oriented by incubators and investors. I love the way she is rising to the challenges of making Make Works work – and the idea is genius; and I know it is a bit corny – but my 13-year-old son. He so does not share the same values as me – he likes big, he likes money as the goal, and he forces me to be less singular in how I think about this – even though he is coming round a bit!

Being a freelancer or solopreneur can be challenging. What advice would you give to those worried about taking the leap?

Deborah: Start small. Do a prototype. Get it out there. Get some feedback.

Roanne: It is always going to be about feeling the fear, knowing yourself well, talking to others who have done it and are loving it, and making sure your offer is to people and ideas that you love and want to work with... and just do it!

If you could give just one piece of advice to aspiring freelancers, what would it be?

Deborah: There are many ways to skin a cat!

Roanne: Make lots of friends with other established and aspiring freelancers!


Small is Beautiful takes place at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh on 14th and 15th June 2016. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website at www.smallisb.com.

Image credit: Paul Harkin