Having never even worked in a business before, ex-forces art enthusiast Joanne Robinson embarked on the journey of setting up her own business providing art classes for children. Three years down the line, The Little Art School has taken shape in a way it would have been difficult to predict. We caught up with Robinson to hear her story.
When Robinson first created The Little Art School, the aim was to teach children as young as five the basics of drawing, and show them how to create works of art by means of a structured course much the same way as a child might learn to play an instrument.
The idea for the business came from Robinson’s own experiences. Having given up art herself at 13 when her school art teacher told her she was rubbish, Robinson went on to study history at Oxford University before joining the Royal Air Force as an officer.
When Robinson left the forces, she took a class in oil painting, which she described as a series of moments of going, that’s really obvious, why did nobody ever teach me that’s how you hold a pencil, or it all begins with a shape.
The course she has created is essentially the one she wishes shed had as a child, although she finds her experiences have helped her become a better teacher, as many artists don’t remember a time when they couldnt draw? making it that much harder to understand where their students are coming from.
From these humble beginnings, the business took a life of its own parents could see how much their children were learning and wanted to take part. Robinson expanded her offering to include classes for all ages, and now the student age range is five years-old to 102.
She could also see how helpful the classes were to vulnerable children and adults alike, and so the unusual move was made to operate the business as a hybrid The Little Art School is a business and a fully registered Scottish charity.
Robinson admitted managing the balance between the two is really hard, but it works really well: it’s not art therapy that were offering, it’s a structured course, were teaching people a skill but we could see that the benefits to [more vulnerable people’s] wellbeing were enormous.
Her grandmother had dementia, so she knew she wanted to offer something for dementia patients, and the team also offers a scheme for young carers. As the ethos of the business has always been to help raise self-esteem, Robinson has found the charity sits comfortably alongside the core business.
The emphasis on raising self-esteem is part of the school’s aim to break apart the myth that the ability to draw is an inherent skill it’s not like red hair or blue eyes, it’s a taught skill.
Robinson said she must have asked over 3, 000 children if they think they can draw, and while every five year-old said they can, by the time they got to 11 less than half believed they could.
As part of this myth-busting effort, every term the school focuses on a different great artist to tell their story. People think it magically came to them, Robinson said, but the truth is many spend hours a day on their art, and produce masterpieces out of ‘sheer effort.
The first Little Art School opened in Ayr in Scotland, and has since expanded to four permanent art studios. It plans to open another school in Glasgow later this year, then two more in Edinburgh next year. At that point, Robinson will consider whether or not to grow the business as a franchise it’s a very scalable business, and the cookie cutter? course can be easily replicated across all sites. The plan is to open 100 schools within seven years.
To help her reach these growth targets, Robinson signed up to the Entrepreneurial Spark programme. I have never even worked in a business before, let alone run a business Im ex-forces. Im a trained leader and Im good at teamwork, that’s the training I had as an officer, but I don’t know how a business works, explained Robinson. [Entrepreneurial Spark] has been like a university education for me it’s intensive training in how to be an entrepreneur.
Another way in which Robinson has sought to secure her business is by taking on a business partner, Melissa Haddow, who she met through her children’s Parent Teacher Association. Haddow has a corporate background and between the two Robinson says they have an incredibly complementary skillset.
I feel like together weve created the perfect entrepreneur, but without her Im half-a-preneur, she joked.
Robinson believes that, for her, this is the key to success. Acknowledge your weaknesses, she advised, and find somebody who’s strengths are your shortcomings.