When we think of business, the words cut throat and competitive come to mind, particularly if you’ve watched too many episodes of the Apprentice. Many people take this into their freelance work, seeing it as their role to corner the market for themselves or even their mates.

An old colleague of mine even had a concept for this kind of behaviour. He called it a ‘fairy circle’, and he viewed it as a typically male practice where men formed networks to support each other’s work and subtly denigrate everyone else’s.

The practices included never recommending anyone outside of their small circle, only ‘liking’ work produced by their circle, to (worse) hints that ‘such and such’ (let’s call her Carol because it was very gendered) wasn’t a serious player.

Of course, women are quick to catch on and may end up forming their own fairy circles.

Ultimately, though, exclusionary practices don’t bode well for a thriving freelance or creative economy. Why?

The fragility of creative industries

Creative economies are fragile, specifically when the arts are facing ongoing cuts and marginalisation from government policy (not, thankfully, in North Essex). Culture isn’t just a business, it’s a community, and we need to support each other because it might get rough over the next few years.

Expansive networks

Freelancers or small businesses need to outsource, so it makes sense to build up a network of fellow freelancers. You can also get work through having wide networks of referral and recommendation, so long as everyone plays fair and is inclusive.

I’m on three different journo networking sites, and they are great for contacts, sources and pitching. You need to reciprocate though and be democratic, or your fellow online journos get grumpy.

That brings me to…

Specialisation

No-one trusts people who recommend a small circle of close acquaintances. It is understandable that, if you’ve had a good experience, you’d want to shout it out to the world (well I do – I see it as one of my citizenship roles). And it’s also understandable that you’d want to give your friends a boost. But it’s worthwhile thinking about having a more inclusive and wider circle of advocacy.

Why?

Because not everyone is suitable for the same job. Take digital web design. It’s very specialist work, and not every designer is suitable for every client. Some designers work better with creatives, others with cars, others with mums. If you recommended someone good at making sites for double-glazing to a client who wanted an online craft store, it may not go well.

As a journalist, I write about ‘hard’ research topics, like politics, the economy, transport and cities. I also write about the arts, design, culture and placemaking. I would never put myself forward to work on parenting, travel or food features (well I have done, but it’s always come out a bit, well, edgy). I’m just way too analytical to appeal to the kinds of mass audience those sectors want.

Increasing footfall

it’s an issue with concentration and footfall. Jane Jacobs, one of my favourite writers on cities, argued that, contrary to what people believe, more of the same in a district does not destroy businesses but grows them.

Ever wondered why particular streets dominate in independent artisan shops or restaurants? People go to areas when they want to do something (eat) but also have a choice. And maybe do shopping afterwards. I’m always more predisposed to picking up a piece of artisan frippery if I’ve had a drink or two. So ultimately it creates more footfall.

I’d argue the same principle works in the cultural sector, whether online or offline. If an area or group becomes known as a source of expertise, and there are lots of people to choose from, it creates more footfall (more clients).

What we’re aiming for

Part of what Wivenhoe Creatives and other regional creative networking platforms are trying to do is help network the creative sector across North Essex and beyond. We’re aiming to encourage greater collaboration (because you can never get enough of that). Plus we’re hoping to encourage people to set up shop, so to speak.

If we work together, we’ll get more work.

Originally published on Wivenhoe Creatives and Pulse.