This week’s small business star is Joanna Culley, founder of Medical-Artist.com, a medical and scientific illustration studio. Joanna’s interest in this area blossomed whilst studying scientific and medical illustration at degree level, but initially lacking the business acumen to set up by herself her first jobs were nothing to do with art.

Nearly ten years on, fuelled by determination, Joanna embarked on the training with the Medical Artists’ Association of Great Britain which she needed to enable her to practise professionally as a medical artist.

Armed with the relevant qualifications, Joanna was keen to create a business around her skills. In 2004, equipped with the appropriate training in anatomy and having acquired business guidance, she began work as a scientific and medical illustrator on a commercial basis.

1. I began as a sole trader

Initially I was only working on small commissions and had to generate other income but as I built my portfolio, marketing and reputation I got more and more work and larger projects. It was really satisfying to have clients come back to me for new projects, often years after the initial project.

I was able to start choosing which projects to work on and develop the business and eventually went from sole trader to setting up as a limited company. Now we’re able to employ other people and extend services beyond simply custom medical illustrations.

2. We understand the value of having a blend of clients

Our marketing efforts have been international so we have continued to grow the business each year since I started by having a blend of domestic and overseas clients, which helps smooth demand.

We have found that ensuring that marketing remains a priority in the business helps sustain growth and profits of the core business but you also have to look ahead and set goals. We are working to expand our stock illustration business under the brand and website Medical-Artist.net which is important for us to be able to service the clients with smaller budgets and standard illustration needs.

We sustain our business through understanding the importance of the web by making full use of show casing our large gallery of work online. We are strict with understanding copyright and licensing management so we have built up a bank of images that we can re sell time and time again.

We create what we call products to combine our skills of illustration, writing, and digital skills to create iBooks to sell to the general public on topical health and medical related subjects. We have a work ethic only to provide top quality work alongside building on and retaining good customer relationships, we therefore have clients that have been using our services for many years.

3. Our website and social media is increasingly important to the business

We have a very good relationship with digital. From an artistic point of view skill we have embraced working with a digital pen and Wacom tablet and we are very dependent on digital technologies from Adobe Creative Suite for illustration creation, to DropBox for very large file delivery.

As we work with many overseas clients our website is important. Plus its great to hear that a client found you on Google in Brazil or followed our Twitter account. It is important for all businesses to embrace digital, especially for their marketing, but it has to be done in a way that works for their own business. We have found some things much more successful than others in the digital sphere.

4. Clear communication is key when you have differing client needs

It is vital when you are creating a unique illustration – often of a new medical technique or device – to fully understand what the illustration has to communicate. As we don’t provide a ‘standard product’ we have to understand and consider the details of what is wanted on each project.

It’s all about good communication with the client and doing it in the way that works for everyone. Sometimes simply picking up the phone and asking can save a lot of emails. We have also embraced technology for communication using services such as Skype for video calling and screen sharing.

I can have a call with someone on the other side of the world and create a rough sketch as they talk and then hold it up to a webcam for them to see. Its amazing when you think that we have these tools available to us in business – you should never be scared of using them.

5. If you are great at what you provide, you don’t have to compete on price alone

Aim high, be the best at what you do. If this takes continuous perfecting, especially as a medical artist, then it must be done. If you are great at what you provide, including excellent customer service, you don’t have to compete on price alone.

We aim to provide our clients with great value by providing the best at a fair price. With the world becoming an increasingly global marketplace, trying to compete on price doesn’t always make business sense for companies in the UK.

Find out more about Joanna by visiting: www.medical-artist.com.

For more advice and insight from business owners, visit our Small Business Stars hub.