Tim has built his own design business, Big Helping, allowing him the flexibility to work around other aspects of his life. But it took a while to strike a good work-life balance.
Did you go straight to university or a year out?
After Radley, I did a Foundation Course at Cheltenham College in Art and Design. My Mum wasn’t well during my A Levels and I found it difficult to concentrate on schoolwork. I had always enjoyed art and was good at it, and Radley definitely encouraged my artistic side. I had actually always wanted to be an architect but I was persuaded away from this career aged 10! To attain a place on a good art and design degree course, you have to build a portfolio, which the foundation course allowed me to do. I really enjoyed the foundation course in Cheltenham. I shared a flat with a bunch of strangers (now friends) during the week and went home at weekends.
Sadly, my mum died during my second term of the foundation course. I went home to help look after my younger brother. Luckily for me, the tutors were great and sent me projects to do, so I could continue building my portfolio from home.
When I started the foundation course, I realised how great Radley’s art and design facilities were. I was only the person who had already tried sculpture, woodwork, welding and photographic development. My experiences were already far broader than most other students.
It was the tutors at Cheltenham that told me that the Design Course at Northumbria University, Newcastle was well regarded. My older sister had previously studied there, and loved it and it was a great choice for me too.
University was a great experience, not just the course but the variety of people I met. Our Graphic Design degree course was made up of a real mix of people –– certainly, private school students were in the minority and it was a refreshing change. I had only ever gone to a private school, so after 10 years of private education, it was good to mix with people from a variety of backgrounds. Plus, I met my wife, Georgina, doing exactly the same course.
Did you have a life plan mapped out ahead of you?
I’ve always had a strong idea from an early age about what I wanted to do, from career to marriage and children. When a parent dies so young, it focuses the mind. I had always been keen on graphic design and knew that being an architect wasn’t likely, so decided I wanted to work in a design and advertising agency in London. I wanted to do a mix of things: branding strategy, advertising, packaging etc.
How did you get your first job?
During my second year at university, I had a two-week placement at a London design agency called Tango. Their clients were the likes of Nike and Ray-bans – urban culture. The placement was extended from two weeks to 2 ½ months, so I must have been doing something right! When I left university, I contacted Tango to see if they had a job. They said yes. I worked there for just under two years. It was great; a tight-knit team, like a mini family. We bounced lots of ideas off each other, worked late nights together and socialised.
At that time, a senior designer called Roberto D’Andria, left Tango and went on to set up a design agency called Bear. He was someone I admired, with inspirational creative flair and style. He called me –– Bear were looking for a designer. I accepted and worked for Bear for the next seven to eight years under Rob as Creative Director. We worked hard and played hard, we weren’t paid much but life was good and the parties we were invited to through work, such as MTV, were great fun.
In 2010 you set up Big Helping. What prompted you start your own business and how did you go about setting it up?
Whilst working at Bear, Georgina and I had married and started a family. Consequently, after our second child, Georgina ceased her Design Manager role for tea and coffee specialist Whittard of Chelsea and was freelance designing from home in Kensal Rise where we lived. The volume of work was creeping up and I started to help out at weekends. Georgina then secured a big contract from a company called Quba & Co, and it was at this point we decided I should leave Bear and start up our own business.
For six months I had been working at Bear, and at weekends working with Georgina on her clients. We were getting busier and busier and I couldn’t carry on doing both jobs. Although we certainly did feel the risk of me coming off the payroll too, and at this point our third baby on the way, we tried to minimise that risk by building up a bank of clients to keep the money coming in, once I decided to leave Bear. Our overheads were low; I set myself up on a laptop in the spare room and Big Helping was born. We continued working from home for about eighteen months. I knew I could always do freelance work or get another full-time job, if need be, but I was prepared to keep up this relentless hard graft to make Big Helping happen.
We continued to build up our client base from London and then Big Helping required more designers and an account manager to keep up with the demand. So we moved the business and the family to Worcestershire, where I am originally from, and rented a small office in Worcester. We’re still in Worcester today and employ five full-time people. Occasionally, we outsource specialist work to web programmers, animators, illustrators and photographers. We like to keep it small; it allows us to be nimble and have more flexibility. We can be more ‘hands-on’, with a more personal approach, which is good for clients.
How do you find new clients and compete with bigger firms?
We’ve never advertised; all of our work comes from word of mouth, which is the most powerful form of new business. Yes, we pitch for work against other companies but the initial contact has come from a recommendation. 85% of our clients are from London; we have a wide range, across many different sectors from the NHS to lifestyle start ups. Business is going well; we listen to our client’s requirements, we’re creative, we are great value and we care.
What has been more valuable in your career, education or experience?
Both play their part, but for me definitely education. It gave me a good grounding. Without my placement at university, I wouldn’t have got the first job that started the ball rolling.
What skills have you found vital to your job?
I think you need to be constantly visually aware and thinking creatively; also be open-minded to new ideas from other people. Collaboration is key.
You have to believe in your own abilities, I have dyslexia yet people now pay me to write their brand statements.
You’ve talked about working during the week and at weekends, do you still do that?
I have a good work/life balance now. We all talk about it and know what we should do but don’t always put it into practice. I made a conscious decision not to work weekends anymore. That’s for family time and some time for myself. I was once a keen footballer but these days I enjoy downhill biking. It’s too easy to constantly check work emails on a phone, so I’m very disciplined, I don’t carry my phone around at weekends.
What advice would you give young ORs wanting a career in the same industry?
Work experience, work experience, work experience. Also, don’t jump straight onto a Mac, I think it stifles creativity. First, draw and sketch your ideas, get the pencils and paper out! Watch what others do, be inspired by them, then bring your own twist to their designs and build on it.
Finally, what memories do you have of Radley and what life skills did Radley teach you?
Resilience! I was the only one in my Social who wasn’t made a prefect. Possibly because when I was a 6.1 in charge of some boys, I signed them off as being in their Social/bed when they were out in Oxford. No one likes a ‘dobber’.
Boarding creates a feeling of ‘in it together’, especially when you’re made to swim in the pond at 5am by a prefect! That certainly made me respect prefects. Talking about the pond reminds me that we threw the house bell in the pond. It was a boy’s job to ring the bell each morning to wake everyone up but we all found it really annoying so got rid of it.
I enjoyed my time at Radley, as did my brother. Unfortunately, when you’re there you don’t truly appreciate the splendour of the place and all that you have at your fingertips until you experience the real world; but looking back, it was a truly exceptional start.
To find out more about Big Helping, visit their website.