Cowal Frames, based in the village of Innellan, Argyll, was launched in late 2006 by Alan Forsyth. Alan became interested in picture framing as a direct result of mounting and framing his own photography. He is now offering mounting and framing services to artists, galleries, art groups and residents in a wide, local area. He is also one of two new trainers to start work with DIYframing, leading much of the training programme in Scotland.
Alan did not start out in framing or anything specifically related to it. His background is in the electronics industry, where he worked for 20 years, 5 years of which was spent in the US. Very much an “outdoors enthusiast”, Alan would list cycling, walking and photography as being essential parts of his lifestyle. However, a work-related injury has meant leaving that life behind. Although the photography remains a leading interest (and now a means of income), the only good to have come from the injury is that he, ironically, became an expert on Ergonomics RSI (the cause of his injury). He acts as a consultant to companies and their work forces (also running a specialised blog, www.ergomatters.co.uk/blog ).
Living in the west of Scotland, Alan is well placed to promote and develop his photography business. Learning to frame his own work was just a first step, on the way to setting up Cowal Frames. Needing to find an income urgently, he decided to develop framing as his main business. He learnt the basic skills with DIYframing, during one of our Photo Framing weekends. He immediately bought the DIYframing Pro Workshop kit rather than have to upgrade from smaller gear a few weeks down the line. This is based around three core elements: Framers Edge Mountcutter; mitre chopper / guillotine; Alpha Underpinner. Without an alternative income, the business had to start earning from the outset. Three months after completing his first frame, he was fully kitted out and signed up for the Business Development Week with DIYframing.
Alan works from home. He uses his workshop for the “dirty work” – cutting mouldings, glass etc and a room indoors for mount cutting and assembly. Storage is more of an issue than work space. In particular, mountboard doesn’t take well to damp conditions, so keeping it outside in your workshop in the west of Scotland is not an option. As a result, the house quickly becomes a warehouse!
In remoter parts of Scotland, away from the cities, the population can be widely spread out. Home visits are important. Alan has used the consultancy as a feature of his service. It works to everyone’s advantage but visits need to be carefully timetabled otherwise they take over the working week. Alan also offers a “mail order” service with on-line and telephone consultations.
Filling your order book is vital. Alan had to go out and find the work. Initially, it was approaching local artists and groups, being competitive and making sure customers got to see what he had to offer. Establishing a reputation for doing good quality work at affordable prices (and on time) was essential. A unique selling point is the use of quality products, giving longer life to artwork. Alan’s customers are learning they get more for their money than with some of his competitors. The upshot is that he has become the preferred framer for several local artists and groups. Also clever use of a few key marketing elements has sped the process up. Taking out adverts in newspapers, producing brochures for distribution and having plenty of business cards to dish out, always create the right impression. Not having a shop front, it was important to find other ways of getting services, products and work seen on a wider stage. A huge strength of Alan’s business portfolio is his “web presence”. He has set up three websites: one for each core activity.
So several months down the line how is the framing going? “It would be easy to say life is good. However, a more honest answer would be that life is hectic, busy and I have probably never worked so hard before. It takes a while to get past the “IKEA frame” mentality (including the expectations of some artists).” Alan goes on to say, “You can spend a lot of time working on the non-paid stuff such as invoices and ordering supplies.”
But he is also quick to point out that his framing is now moving on with “word of mouth” being the prime marketing agency. And that the start of this year has been much better than last year’s.
For any of you anticipating a similar undertaking, Alan has a few pointers for guidance:
“Getting your first order is always very satisfying especially as it proves it can be done. It is especially good to get that out of the way as soon as possible.”
Of all the case studies we have shown, this is the first where it has been a “make or break” situation. Alan had to find a way of making a living from his new businesses. No leisurely start-up, just plain, hard work until it takes off. It sounds as if Cowal Frames is coming good though. We wish Alan every success and thank him for taking the time to share his story with us.
As this month’s Star Framer, you will pleased to know Alan Forsyth is leading DIYframing’s Art & Photography Framing Weekend in Glasgow on the 7th & 8th March 2008 (still a few places left). As well as learning how to do your own framing, you can pick his brains for business ideas.