British-born, Hong Kong-based artist Simon Birch discusses his journey as a creative entrepreneur, how he handles setbacks and why it's important for entrepreneurs to be realistic about their product
From an early age, Simon Birch had to hustle to get by. Born and raised in industrial England with no education, life forced him to develop his wits on the streets. For years, Birch worked a plethora of odd jobs—a factory worker, bouncer, construction worker—and in the '90s, he was a DJ who organised his own parties. While he ran around the Midlands in the UK putting together cool, he had no idea he was developing the entrepreneurial skills necessary for the international art projects he’d build in the future.
In 2017, Birch presented The 14th Factory, one of his most ambitious art projects to date: a 100,000 square foot industrial warehouse on the outskirts of Los Angeles with 14 interconnected immersive spaces with video, installation, sculpture, painting and performance. Despite the successful appeal of Birch's projects, many remain unaware of what he had to endure to make it happen: budgets, timelines, stacks of legal contracts, delayed shipments, artist management, equipment and insurance to name a few.
But his early life experiences taught him how to deal with new challenges as they come. He is currently building a 250,000-sq ft plan of The 14th Factory in Hong Kong.
We sat down with Birch to talk about his hustle and how he became the creative entrepreneur he is today.
Describe your journey to becoming a full-time artist.
Simon Birch (SB): I grew up in industrial England in a working-class family with little education. I dreamed of being a comic book artist but I never really had the opportunity as a child to take advantage of my creativity. I never thought being an artist would become a career.
In the ‘90s, I was a DJ and was promoting events, organising rave parties and stuff like that. But that never really worked out. I guess I got to a point where art was calling me and I tried to get into art school, but I couldn't get in anywhere. They just wouldn't let me in because I didn't meet the requirements. So I decided that I would just do exhibitions myself. I was sort of this self-sponsored artist early on, but very quickly, I met people who loved my work and wanted to help me out.
When would you say you started developing your entrepreneurial mindset?
SB: When I was 16 years old, I was a club promoter handing out flyers for parties. I developed this unusual set of skills at a young age. All of that energy and desire to either put together an art show or a rave party is to get people in a room to experience creativity, whether it’s musical arts or the like.
Eventually, I started wanting to do more than just painting, it became difficult because I couldn't find the necessary resources to support my more experimental ideas. I was interested in working in multimedia so I decided to start some projects and put on shows I’ve had to run independently.
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What is it like to realise a project on the scale of The 14th Factory?
SB: We've tried to build The 14th Factory over the last seven years in probably 30 different venues, all of which failed except the one in Los Angeles. where it finally happened. I've redesigned this project dozens of times, for dozens of different venues all over the world. We’ve even tried New York, London and Sydney, taking it from the design stage to planning to budgeting, only to hear “no” in the end. I don’t know if it’s just bad luck or if the project's just too new. It's not even worth thinking about because there’s never a clear reason. This project happened once in the seven years of planning; hopefully, it's about to happen and many more times ahead.
What advice would you give to people who aspire to take a similar path as you?
There are two key things.
Firstly, you have to be clear about what you are selling and what your product is. You better be sure it's good. There's a lot of talk about just going for it and believing in yourself. That’s such BS if you don't have a good product. You shouldn't "go for it" if your product isn't right. Like, you shouldn't be going to be a singer on American Idol if you can't sing. You're not going to win.
Be realistic about what you are offering and make sure you have very good criticism and advice from very experienced people.
Secondly, you need stamina. The truth is I've spent the last seven years trying to develop this project. Setback after setback after setback, running out of money and dealing with investors who say they will invest in it but they end up ghosting me; it’s been a humiliating and heartbreaking experience.
You need absolute stamina and a strong heart and soul and for sure, the support of people who are far smarter than you. It's like climbing uphill and being punched in the face thousands of times. It's exhausting. Most people don't realise it until they’re really in it.
This piece is part of a collaboration between Gen.T and Eloquence (EQ) International, a creative agency based in Hong Kong with a proprietary 360 brand-building method SBM (strategy, branding, marketing). With a mission to connect brands and people on an emotional level through the power of storytelling, EQ builds brands and experiences that cut through the noise,