Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

A universal studio: How one business is bolstering city creatives

As a social enterprise, Belfast's Blick Studios aims to bring about positive change through sharing ideas, resources and inspiration

Christine James, founder and managing director of Blick Studios

Blick Studios is one of Belfast's most exciting young businesses - it describes itself as a 'creative hub', which acts as a workspace, meeting place and business services provider for the creative sector.

One of the factors marking it out as distinctive is that it is a social enterprise and registered charity, operating on a not-for-profit basis to provide services of social value.

A group of creative entrepreneurs came together in 2006 to form Blick Studios with the ambition of providing a high quality workplace environment, which was also affordable and inspiring. Initially they took a short-term lease in a city centre warehouse, but they found their ideal home in a beautiful Victorian townhouse on Malone Road, where they have been located since 2008.

Today there are 15 commercial tenants in the Malone Road premises, with another 12 in additional premises taken on in Hill Street in the Cathedral Quarter. Blick also hosts various events during the course of each year.

Key to starting the business was £5,000 of financial assistance from UnLtd, a UK agency that supports the development of social enterprises through advice and networking, as well as funding. Soon after obtaining its first premises, Blick was approached by the University of Ulster and Belfast City Council, who pledged their support - enabling Blick to move into the Malone Road building.

Founder and managing director Christine James said: "I started Blick after meeting with a group of start-up creative entrepreneurs on a course run by the University of Ulster and an independent charity called NESTA - the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts."

Blick was responding to a clear business need, said Christine. "Most of the initial group were struggling to get their businesses off the ground," she said. "We felt in order to grow we needed somewhere we could work together alongside other creatives.

"Our biggest challenge has been developing a business model that allows us to be a financially sustainable social enterprise. Renting property for us to sub-let means we automatically have high overheads and for the first few years until we were fully established it was often difficult for us to cover our costs. What has worked well is collaboration with the private sector and leasing out parts of our building for events and other activities. For example, we work with Flow Studio Belfast to hold yoga classes in our Malone premises. By sharing the space we share building costs, administration and maintenance responsibilities."

Blick is now playing a key role in supporting the establishment, survival and development of creative businesses in Belfast.

"In this location [Malone Road] we have a range of tenants from across the creative sector such as illustrators, photographers and designers," said Christine.

"Our newly-opened second premises in the Cathedral Quarter have a lot of digital businesses, which I guess is a sign of the times.

"Some of our more recognisable tenants include Billygoat Entertainment, who in the last year have released several iPhone games, FilmTrip, who are currently in the process of developing and selling a unique mobile platform and CM Films, that are organising an event at the Belfast Film Festival 2013."

Despite its role in supporting other businesses, Blick itself is small and its turnover is only about £70,000 a year. Christine said: "We keep our costs as low as possible and only do things that add value and don't cost much. I am the only full-time member of staff as we rely on freelancers. We don't advertise for tenants, rather we use social media, our own website and word of mouth."

Blick, though, has ambitions for the future, seeking to develop sustainable ways to provide support for start-up creative businesses. It also wants to increase the social impact of Blick through outreach work with young people, graduates and others who want to set up a creative business.

Judging by its achievements to date, Blick is set to carry on providing essential services to a sector that will prove increasingly important to Northern Ireland.