We chatted with Beth and Dom from Common Story about their business, their experience with the University of Warwick’s Creative Futures Incubator and life at 1 Mill Street, now that they’re coming to the end of their time in the incubator’s first cohort.
In January 2020, standing in a shed at the bottom of Dom’s garden in south Warwickshire, Dom Sant and Beth Newell signed the papers to launch their first joint business venture. After 15 years working together in London-based TV production companies and filming around the world, Beth and Dom set their sights on the West Midlands. Soon after, Common Story was born – their independent production company which makes TV, films, video and audio content across a range of platforms.
When they signed their company registration forms, they of course had no idea of the challenges – and opportunities – that lay just around the corner with Covid-19. Fortunately, the University of Warwick’s Creative Futures Incubator programme came along at just the right time.
Joining the Creative Futures Incubator
The Incubator aims to inspire, educate and incubate start-up and creative businesses like Common Story. It supports the largest cluster of creative businesses outside of Greater London, here in Coventry and Warwickshire. Creative companies and start-ups that successfully apply can make use of the new co-working space at 1 Mill Street in Leamington Spa. They also have access to business advice, mentoring and networking to support the growth of creative ideas, enterprises and innovation.
Mentoring, one to one coaching and the accountability that comes with that is part of the Creative Futures Incubator programme offering. After nine months of navigating a new business during the first round of Covid-19 restrictions, Beth and Dom found this accountability and mentoring exactly what was needed to give them a creative jolt again. They were able to agree milestones and feel a strong sense of community with a network of creative peers and businesses, thanks to the incubator process. Beth described this as like having a ‘critical friend’, who would sit with them, help create structure and focus their purpose and ambitions in the form of a workable business plan. This was much welcomed, as starting a new business and chasing a vision can often feel lonely and incredibly difficult – never mind trying to do so in the face of a global pandemic via video meetings.
When government restrictions have allowed, having a physical space to meet has been a real asset too. As much as Dom loves his garden shed, an external and communal workspace can be hugely valuable. As Beth put it:
“There’s nothing that compares with those informal conversations you have in person in a place like 1 Mill Street. As human beings, we’re wired to interact in person. When it comes to new ideas, brainstorming, finding a spark and those alternative approaches, you just can’t do that in the same way during a focused hour or two online session.”
At 1 Mill Street, Beth and Dom both found that ‘spark’ – as they put it, that moment where you go “Ah! Let’s see where that takes us”. It’s a place where you can bump into people from different backgrounds and industries to kindle those creative conversations. “That kind of space is so important for your own enthusiasm and creativity. It also inevitably leads to connections with other people in the Incubator.”
Making those connections
Prior to becoming a part of Creative Futures, Beth and Dom had known Leamington Spa would be a great home for Common Story.
“There’s a huge number of incredibly talented individuals, businesses and opportunities in this area, with many untold stories ready to tell. There’s also a huge amount of energy and momentum building around the creative industry in the region and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to be a part of that community.”
And that idea of community really is central to Common Story. Coventry and Warwickshire has a thriving creative community; tapping into the vibrancy that’s so deeply embedded in our region means they’ll be able to build a diverse team from different backgrounds and communities that their programmes will ultimately reach.
Recently, the Common Story duo pitched for some work for BBC Learning and needed a designer to help them. It was important to Beth and Dom that they work with local businesses and they were able to reach out within the Creative Futures network to another member of the cohort, Creative Leamington, who were able to recommend a fantastic local designer whose style and ideas were perfect for the project.
For Beth and Dom, this was a great moment. From the very beginning they’ve wanted to tap into the local creative community and Creative Futures has enabled them to do just that. They’ve found that the University’s role in creating these networks and fostering collaboration and innovation between businesses helps to join those dots. In this case, Beth and Dom feel like they’ve been able to kickstart their vision for Common Story and link up with people quickly through this contact network, including with some Warwick students, who form part of the local talent pool.
A positive outlook
When we asked Beth and Dom about what their experiences might have been like as a new business without the Incubator, they flipped the question; they talked about how Creative Futures has made them feel. And it’s everything we’d hope a new creative business should feel – optimistic about what they’re doing with Common Story, upbeat and vibrant.
“There’s no denying the reality of a new business is that it’s incredibly hard work, and when it’s just two of you it can feel difficult to keep that creative focus and vision clear.”
What the Creative Futures incubator has done for Beth and Dom is to strip back their thinking and give them a clear focus, leaving a really positive outlook on what they’re trying to achieve. Beth described it as being like a springboard that moved them forwards in all the areas they want to be involved in, thanks to the conversations they’ve been able to have and the connections around the region that Creative Futures has enabled.
Part of the community
Dom hopes that Common Story will quickly embed in the creative community and begin fulfilling its role as a local employer – building a diverse team in the area and from the area so new and existing talent can be retained in the West Midlands. “It’s part of a cycle where working together makes us collectively stronger and able to keep improving.” For Dom, that’s what it means to be part of a community.
For Beth, her experience with the Incubator has been eye-opening about the role universities can and do play in their local region. Before she got involved with the Warwick programme, she hadn’t thought about how effectively a university can nurture entrepreneurs, start-ups and help local businesses to grow. She noted how our expertise, connections and support plays a vital practical role in local communities – and was pleased to have collaborated.
Dom sees the future of Mill Street and the incubator programme as a ‘one stop shop’ – he reckons if you have a creative problem, there’ll be a company in there that can help. If you’re a business needing creative input from interesting and remarkable people, then the people of Creative Futures and Mill Street are a good place to start that search. His challenge to us was to keep building that momentum and make Creative Futures a creative present. At Warwick, we’re incredibly excited to see how Common Story develops, as well as seeing how the next Creative Futures cohort develops, after its announced very soon.
Beth and Dom in 1 Mill Street, introducing Common Story back in December 2020
About Creative Futures
The Creative Futures Incubator programme is part of a whole host of wider creative community activities that Warwick is involved in, which includes connections for businesses back to the University, visits for students to games studios, creative talent connections and discussions around diversity. It’s also part of Warwick Innovation District, a large innovation ecosystem, powered by the University of Warwick, which enables collaboration, networking, innovation and business growth across Coventry and Warwickshire, including sites like the University Hospital Coventry & Warwickshire, Wellesbourne and 1 Mill Street in Leamington Spa.
The Creative Futures scheme is supported by the University, 1 Mill Street, Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership, BT and Warwickshire County Council. We’ll work together to hone the next generation of regional entrepreneurs and innovators as well as helping to educate and incubate start-up businesses in a bid to support the largest creative cluster outside of Greater London.
The businesses in the Creative Futures Incubator will now also have access to the UK’s number one 5G network, from BT Group, offering ultra-fast speeds, lower latency and enhanced reliability. BT recently switched on its 5G network on the University campus and surrounding areas, as part of the innovation alliance between BT, University of Warwick and Warwickshire County Council to accelerate innovation and economic growth for local businesses.
If you’d like to find out more about Creative Futures and the incubator, please contact Clare Green on firstname.lastname@example.org