Thursday, 23 September 2021
Bitten by the ballet bug at the age of eight, little Anne Walker MBE, dreamt of becoming a dance teacher. But when the need for college funds drove her, aged just 17, to set up her own school in Liverpool, England, her dream evolved into one that would see her – nearly four decades on – dominating the global dance attire market with her company International Dance Supplies Ltd.
Today, Anne is the creative force behind an organisation whose journey has taken many twists and turns. Here, she shares the innovative measures and mantras that have seen her business soar – techniques that can be applied to any role, in any industry.
My dance school was born of a need to earn enough money to put me through teacher training. A sideline in costumes quickly evolved simply because there was a clear need for my students to look smart during shows. I sourced costumes and sold them on for profit but I soon identified another problem: in those pre-Lycra days, leotards were boring, plain black and badly fitting. So I began making costumes myself. Teachers came to our shows, saw the colourful outfits and wanted them for their own dancers. Today, IDS is still solving problems for dance teachers, who, while creative in the fields of choreography, often lack costume design skills or, after so long in the business, are short on original ideas.
It would be nice if we all could take time to be creative at our leisure; but business means deadlines for solutions come at a moment’s notice. In those situations, I find that the right environment is key. I have an office studio I decorate with pictures and quotes that stimulate my imagination, and I’m lucky to live near the sea because I find that watching the ocean has a huge impact on my ability to sift through ideas. But sometimes it helps to distance myself from the familiar and put myself in an alien environment in order to spark random trains of thought.
“If you reach for the heavens, you get the stars thrown in!” Anne Walker at the 2011 NatWest everywomanAwards
After forty years in the dance industry I’m still hugely inspired by music and choreography and go to new shows every chance I get. But I also find inspiration in less obvious sources. For me the Sunday colour supplements are a great stimulant for new ideas; I once remember seeing an advert for Brintons Carpets. They’d draped a beautiful rug over a tall, glamorous woman as if she were modelling fashionable clothes. That had me thinking about out-of-the-box ways to market products. While out walking I saw a child jumping through puddles in a sou’wester and wellington boots and the movements inspired a new dance clothing line. I’ve also been hugely inspired by Chrissie Rucker, founder of The White Company. Her business is nothing like mine, but I’ve admired how she’s built her brand. Following her career led me into the everywomanClub and the Modern Muse project, which has in turn opened more doors. Always keep those antennas switched on because you never know when inspiration might strike or where it could lead you.
The business I’m running today bears little resemblance to the one I started in 1978. Whether or not you’re in a typically creative role or industry, you must keep changing and evolving with current trends. You might have a process that’s worked for ten years, but just because it’s still working doesn’t mean it’s optimal. One of the biggest changes IDS went through was when we broadened our target market.
There was a time we only sold to dance teachers – we wanted to give them control over what their students wore and afford them an additional means of income in the process. But we started hearing that they didn’t want the hassle of being the middlemen. So we created a web portal a parent can log into and directly purchase the clothes recommended by their child’s dance teacher, who in turn receive a commission. It took us a while to come up with that idea and we went through a lot of brainstorming to fine tune the solution, but we got there in the end – not by some convoluted creative process but by simply listening to our customers.
If there’s a chore you’re dreading – for me it’s anything admin or accounts related – putting it off will only blow the worry out of all proportion and cast a shadow over the elements of business you enjoy. My golden rule is to get my bugbears ticked off my to-do list first, and then reward myself with the fun projects I can really shine in.
Too many creative people working together equal a recipe for disaster! Everyone will want their say and nothing will ever get done. The best teams are a healthy mix of innovators and starter-finishers. As well as creatives with whom you can bounce around ideas, keep close at hand the disciplined completers. They’re just as central to a project’s successful outcome.
If you’re unsure about an idea you want to pursue, start small and take baby steps. Some of the biggest successes at IDS have come from trial and error. When we tapped into the American market, it was very much a soft launch. But persistence paid off and twelve months later we were approached by American Ballet Theatre to make their training program uniform for their global productions.
You can’t grow bigger than your dreams; if you want to succeed you have to know what it is you’re trying to achieve. I knew early on that I wanted to conquer the global dance clothes market. Having that vision enabled me to work backwards towards a realistic plan. If you’re stuck with figuring out your dream, consider what really matters to you; examine your strengths and work out what’s going to keep you hooked for the long run.