Aug
08

How Do You Become an Arts Entrepreneur or Are You One Already?

This post appeared on the 2AMt blog. It’s an interesting post, but the reality is developing an entrepreneurial mind is a lot like how you learned how to create your art form- with the regular guidance of a highly skilled teacher and mentor over a period of time whom you admire and trust. There is no question Rocco Landsman and I agree that for artists to succeed they need to see themselves as entrepreneurs. And yet having worked for more than 20 years to help artists develop their own entrepreneurial abilities, I can tell you it takes about two years of effort, at a minimum, to begin to regularly think like one. Are you ready to learn how to?

written by Jacob Coakley

WTF Is an Entrepreneur?

“I think that artists are, in fact, small businessmen. They’re entrepreneurs.” Rocco Landesman in an interview with Bryan Reesman in Stage Directions August 2010 issue.

I’m serious about the title of the piece. Look, I trained as an actor and a poet. (Yes. Honestly.) When I was in school I was learning all I could about analyzing text—whether that was to make sense of a T.S. Eliot poem or a Chekhov play so I could act it. Either way—that’s what I focused on.

Which is not to say I’m fiscally ignorant—I also took the requisite econ courses, I know how to balance a budget. I have a prudent cash reserve. I know how to forecast earnings, save for expenses, etc., etc.

But I still don’t think I think like an entrepreneur. MORE distressing to me—I’m not even sure what that means. How DOES one think like an entrepreneur? What are the qualities of an entrepreneur? Do I already possess them, and simply don’t know how to act on them? Do I not view my circumstances in an entrepreneurial way? How can I change that?

That’s the big thing for me. How can I change that? How can I begin to think entrepreneurially? (Or even recognize when I am?) And this isn’t just because Rocco is harassing every artist out there to be an entrepreneur—because he’s not harassing us to become something, he’s saying we ALREADY ARE. So what about my current behavior is entrepreneurial? Because if I want to succeed as an artist (and I do), then theoretically I need to learn better, more successful tactics of behaving entrepreneurially.

So I did the first thing I always do when confronted with something like this. In my finest analyze-the-text tradition, I went to the library. I checked out a bunch of books about starting a business and becoming an entrepreneur. Most of these books had a section that listed the “qualities” of an entrepreneur. (One of which was “impatience”—if I disliked waiting in line, I might be an entrepreneur. Maybe, but that’s also the character trait of a petulant child. How does that translate into running a successful business?)

One thing that did stand out to me in all the lists of entrepreneurial traits was the idea that entrepreneurs A: Always think they’re right and B: Have a need to be in charge. And that got me thinking about all the small theatre companies that have popped up everywhere. How many of them were formed because of dissatisfaction with current offerings in their community? How many times have I been tempted to start a theatre company to show people how it’s really done? Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to get over the hurdle of expenses in operating a small theatre company. I don’t want to risk that much of my money in what is, essentially, a losing venture. (Not that this is unique to theatres—how many small businesses fail within the first five years?)

Which brings me to another trait of entrepreneurs: Risk-taking. There are actually a couple different schools of thought about this. Some people say that entrepreneurs have a stronger stomach for risks. So, at first glance, my inability to risk starting a theatre company precludes me from being an entrepreneur. But other people take issue with the idea of risk-taking. They say entrepreneurs aren’t any more likely to take risks than anyone else—but that entrepreneurs HAVE carefully weighed the risks, and developed a solid-plan for success based on research and observation of past failures and successes. In other words, they take very calculated, very measured risks—risks that have a high chance for reward. So what makes a successful entrepreneur is not their gung-ho, damn-the-consquences attitude to risk taking, but actually their preference for risk aversion. What makes a successful entrepreneur is someone who actually hates risk, and will do everything to minimize it. Penn Jillette (of the famed magician duo Penn & Teller) originally didn’t want to be a magician. He actually wanted to be a rock musician. But when he surveyed the field he saw that the number of people applying to be a rock star was HUGE (duh) and that it was filled with absolutely incredibly amazingly gifted talented people, which he could never compete with. Then he looked at the field of magicians. And saw two or three people. He decided that field had a high ratio of reward to risk, and took it.

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that passion plays a huge part in successful entrepreneurs. If you don’t have a passion for the field of business you’re entering into, you’ll never survive. And that doesn’t take any translating into the theatre side of things.

So what about you? What traits are typically entrepreneurial in your view? How can they be applied to theatre? Tell me how can I sharpen my entrepreneurial thinking!

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Resource Center for Arts Entrepreneurs by Entrepreneur The Arts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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