Author Archives: mollieflanagan

About mollieflanagan

Individual Artist Program Director Rhode Island State Council on the Arts

Risk, Reward, and Being Wrong Yet Again

Last week, in another class, we started a short unit on social entrepreneurship.  As part of the lecture, our professor had us all take a short test to gauge whether we were suited to be entrepreneurs.  Now that I’ve had almost an entire semester of learning about entrepreneurship, both by reading and discussing the theory and by actually starting something, I was pretty sure I knew what sort of questions would be on this quiz, and what my results would be.  To revisit one of my former blog posts, I am now very used to being wrong.

We have been focusing on starting something from nothing, using the lean launchpad and putting together a minimum viable product.  This quiz, based on a tool used by Northwestern Mutual to evaluate loans for new ventures, and this lecture were much more firmly in the standard entrepreneurial world where you need a bunch of start up capital before you do anything.

Some of the questions were about your personality, basic behaviors and preferences both in childhood and now (Were you always a good student, do you like to work in groups).  Some were about finance, are you willing to ask your friends and family for money?  Are you willing to ask other people for money?  And one series of questions that set another student on his ear: questions about being adventurous or risk adverse.  Surprisingly, the answer that got you points toward an entrepreneurial personality was being risk adverse.  The other student, who has launched a nonprofit that operates in Tanzania, felt strongly that entrepreneurs are comfortable with risk, they just go in with their eyes wide open knowing they may fail.  This mirrors some of the theory we have learned, especially in our Effectual Entrepreneurship text.  I agree with my classmate.  Entrepreneurship is about awareness of risk, deciding that the risk is worth the potential reward.  We work to minimize the risk in a number of ways, including the process of “getting out of the building” and making sure our product was actually something people want, and would pay money for.  We decide how much of our own, or other people’s, money we are willing to risk, to lose, before giving up.  We do things in small parts, so we can make changes and pivot as things work or don’t work or become something new entirely.  We keep our eyes wide open, open to change, to opportunity, to failure, and to risk.

I ended up being one of four people in a 25ish person class that scored as an entrepreneur.  I would never have used that word to describe myself before SAM, and still use the term uncertainly.  I feel like I am a better manager than entrepreneur, but that a good manager has a bit of an entrepreneurial mindset.  We always need to keep our eyes open, and be willing to change things that aren’t working.  This class, this process, have taught me how to do that.

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Love It, Hate It

So, since we have last directly discussed our venture, some important decisions have been made.  We have settled on an art market with the wares made by student artists around the Phoenix valley, on a weekend afternoon.  This past week, we have been practicing and testing our pitch, an approximately 1 minute message targeted at each customer segment about the event, and one version for student artists to get them interested in selling their work.  We have also begun thinking about and testing names of our art market, aside from what we have been calling it: the Student Art Market.

I’ve been getting pretty universally positive feedback about our pitches, with some helpful tweaks and points that need more emphasis.  The name is a totally different story.  We have a list of about 15 names, I have been testing my favorite 7 out after the pitch.  And I’ve been getting some pretty strong reactions.

One the surface, these two men fit into pretty similar demographics: they are both in their early to mid twenties, they are both graduate students and self identify as artists (though not the kind that will be selling at our event).  They are both into graphic novels, have relocated from colder climates, and totally want to support other student artists.  They both had similar feedback about the pitch: emphasize the local.  And they had strong, contradictory opinions about any variation of Parking Lot Market (such as Student Parking Lot Market, Parking Lot Art Market, Tempe Parking Lot Market).

The first picked the Parking Lot Market out of our list of potential names as his favorite.  He thought it implied something unique, special and different.  He thought it made it feel space specific and local.  He thought it stood out from the other names, and that it would stand out from the rest of the arts and crafts fairs happening in the area.

The second loved 9th & Ash Art Market, but HATED anything with Parking Lot in it.  He said that parking lot ruins the warm, local feeling you get from the pitch, and the idea in general.  He thought that parking lot made it seem like everything else everywhere else, and sort of corporate.  He did like the work market, though, because it links our event to other local things (like farmers markets, supporting something we learned in our first few rounds of getting out of the building).

So.  What do you do when there are two strong, opposite feelings about your product?  Luckily we have a whole list of other name possibilities and a whole bunch of other people we have talked to to help guide us.  One thing is clear, though: I am getting used to being wrong.  Like my other hypotheses throughout this process, neither of these men liked my favorite name at all.

You Can’t Do a Show for an Audience You Don’t Know

In one of my other classes, we have spent the past month or so developing the framework for a new work.  In my group, we are adapting the bestselling book The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  We have a designated director, costume designer, lighting designer, media designer, and two “managers” (members of the Arts Entrepreneurship and Management MFA program).  The very first week, we identified a target audience of families with children ages 7-12.  And then the director moved forward with his concept, the designers built the world of the show, the managers assembled the budget and tour schedule and a marketing plan all without thinking much about our audience ever again.

I was working on this project at the same time as I was “getting out of the building” for this entrepreneurship class, and I couldn’t help wishing I could take my group out for the same sort of research, talking to the people we think our product is for, testing our hypotheses.   We were building up this rich world of our story, without ever talking to the people that this story was for.  We didn’t talk to kids ages 7-12 to find out what they want to see on stage, we didn’t talk to their parents about what they think is important in educational entertainment.

As I was writing the marketing plan, I realized that I was just making a whole lot of untested guesses.  Guesses about who this was for, about what the people with the purchasing power want, about how to reach these people.  My entire marketing plan was one giant guess, based on my very first hypotheses.  I thought about our very first guesses about our arts venture, and how much we have pivoted our thinking in just two rounds of getting out of the building and talking to people.  Just this weekend, two of the hypotheses that I had absolute faith in were not only proven incorrect, but were unanimously proven incorrect.  In light of this entrepreneurship process, these guesses make me feel like this misguided marketing director:

If we had taken even five or ten minutes to really think about, and then talk about as a group, what our potential audience behaves in their daily life, how they think and feel, what they see and hear, what they say and do, we may have kept our audience as the driver of our artistic creation, rather than as an afterthought.  If we had taken this empathy map out, and tested our guesses by talking to kids, their parents, and their school administrators and teachers, we may have created a very different world for this story to live in, and I may have tried to bring this story to them in a very different way.

My goal is to be a successful artist…or, rather, make it possible for an arts organization or individual artists to be successful, and make a living doing it.  In order to be successful, I have to create (or ensure that the artists create) work that audiences really want.  I have to figure out what will bring new audiences to this art.  The best way to figure this out is not by making guesses sitting safely in my office, and testing those guesses once the product is complete and large quantities of time and money have been spent.  If our goal is to connect with a larger audience, then we must be testing our initial guesses by talking to people, talking to our current audience, and people we think are our potential audience, and then refining our guesses and talking to people again.  This idea of getting out of the building, of empathy mapping, should not just apply to creating a new venture, but trying something new (like an organization presenting a piece of work for the first time), or even just trying to expand a current audience.

Preparing to Pivot

Over the past few weeks, I have heard the phrase “get out of the building” countless times.  I heard this phrase from my laptop speakers as I watched Steve Blank’s How To Build A Startup series on Udacity, from Linda as she talks about our next steps, from Courtney Klein, founder and CEO of Seed Spot, as she gave a workshop to a group of arts entrepreneurs over the weekend.  This week it was actually finally time for us to do this thing that we have been hearing over and over, this getting out of the building.

Over the past week, the five of us have tested our first two value propositions: a holiday craft fair and what we are calling customizable performance based telegrams.  After class, we created a quick web based survey to nail down what exactly we were testing, and also to create a quick and easy way to send it out.  We also identified a bunch of target groups and physical locations to physically get out of the building and talk to people: staff and patrons at a nearby bar that has a parking lot we are eyeing for our craft fair, staff and patrons at the coffee shop next to this bar, local artists, student artists, farmers markets, people who work in cubicles, and anyone else that would stand still long enough for us to talk to them.  I have been administrating the online survey, so have been able to watch all week long as the results come in.  We present our findings tomorrow in class, but for now (spoiler alert) I am preparing to do some major pivoting tomorrow and in the weeks that follow.  Turns out, most people (33 out of 65 respondents to the online survey) would not want to receive a customized performance based telegram.  And, there are already about 47 holiday craft fairs (this is not an exact number, but based on my wild estimation), and local farmers markets all already have too many arts and crafts booths.  We were hoping to focus specifically on ASU artists, and it does seem like there are not enough outlets for student artists to sell their wares.

Shelby and I visited ASU’s Tempe campus farmers market today, held 4 times each semester.  While we are waiting on more information from the group that organizes the market, we learned that you need to be either a student or a member of the Arizona Community Farmers Market Association.  The market is mainly composed of the booth version of food trucks, quick, hot food that would be good for lunch (I was eyeing the Hatch green chile empanadas).  There were only 2 produce booths of the kind you find at other farmers markets, along with a booth by the ASU Arboretum, selling dates grown on campus.  There were 2 honey vendors, and 2 or 3 packaged food vendors.  Nestled in among the tamales, pita chips and vegetables was one lone booth that could be considered a craft: a local soap maker.  While the representative from the farmers market that we talked to said that any student can have an arts or craft booth (after contacting the organization and setting everything up) at the markets, the official website says that only registered student organizations or members of the Association can have a booth, and arts and crafts are only allowed at specific holiday markets (the November market, Valentine’s and Earth Day).

I am really looking forward to hearing what everyone else found out.  While we kept in communication throughout the week about where we had been and who we were talking to, we haven’t talked (much) about our discoveries.  I am curious to see what pivots we make tomorrow, and what new hypotheses we will be testing next week.  Maybe we’ll go back to the very first sticky note on our wall on ideation day: cricket traps.  I guess it depends on how loud the resident cricket in our classroom is tomorrow.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Today was a big day for us baby entrepreneurs: ideation day. While Linda is off across the country, the 5 of us met sans “leader” to get all of the ideas that have been rolling around in our brains (and many that hadn’t) written down. We were cautioned ahead of time to just get the ideas out with no judgment, that no idea was too small or too big, no idea silly or stupid, just ideas. Quantity over quality. While we definitely got sidetracked on a few of these ideas, discussing them in more detail, we didn’t limit or discard anything that came from today’s brainstorm. And, as a group, we chose to talk about each idea instead of just writing our own fast and furious on our sticky notes. We made this decision because we felt like some ideas would snowball, or spawn other ideas. This working together to create each idea ended up instigating a lot of new, related ideas, and was also a great opportunity for us to see what each other’s interests and values are in action. Once we had created a giant sticky wall of ideas for our entrepreneurial venture (seen here a bit later, after we had organized and categorized), we got down to the tricky stuff: what criteria are we going to use to cull these nearly 50 ideas into a single project.

Our development of criteria was based on the Doability framework in Effectual Entrepreneurship by Stuart Reed, Saras Sarasvathy, Nick Drew, Robert Wiltbank and Anny-Valérie Ohlsson, which queries: Is it doable? Is it worth doing? Can I do it? And, Do I want to do it?. While our discussion on this criteria progressed, we ended up having a parallel conversation about guidelines for our interpersonal relationship as we work together on this project. In addition to setting the amount of time we were able and willing to spend building this product/project/performance/something, we talked about communicating our limits honestly to each other on a week by week basis, and respecting each other’s limits. While we discussed a major criterion, selecting a project that we are ALL excited about, we set the ground rule of honesty. It was important to all of us, especially as we thought about our continued investment in the project through the course of a semester, that we are honest about what interests us and what does not, and that expressing those opinions is respected by the rest of the group.

We talk a lot in the theater world about creating a safe space, a place where collaborators can share emotion, personal stories, and be willing to try and fail and learn and then try again. As the five of us prepare to try something new, with that same cycle of try and fail and learn and try again, that same safe space seems to have become important. What we heard over and over today was the word respect: for each other’s ideas, time, limitations, abilities, interests, and more. We are about to launch this process with a newly defined and heightened respect for each other, the whole person, and for ourselves. We started to create not just the road map for our project, but the far more important road map: how we work together. While we can be certain that our project will morph and change direction as we go, these principles we have built for collaborating will keep us on track, keep us adapting, and keep us collaborating and creating as a unified team.

What Is This Stuff?

On my mom’s nights to cook, my dad invariably takes one look at her culinary adventures (regardless of how not adventurous they were) and says to the room, “What is this stuff?”  Both my brother and I have come to love this question, it’s a comfortable meal time tradition that is now used to tease both parents about their cooking, and eating, habits.  The question of what is arts entrepreneurship is taking on that same familiar feel.  It’s become a common refrain of a real question, worthy of serious dialogue and lots of scholarly writing, but also something that has begun to feel comfortable.

I feel like this question has surrounded me in these first few weeks of my second semester in the Arts Entrepreneurship and Management program.  I sat and listened and took notes as the editorial board of Artivate discussed the scope of the journal, and with that came the inevitable question.  Each member of the board had a different take, a fascinating discussion of audience and discipline ensued.  What makes arts entrepreneurship interdisciplinary?  How closely related to social entrepreneurship is it? What should we be thinking about and questioning that will move this not yet defined field forward? 

In another class, Research Methods, I posited during a class exercise that artists are uniquely positioned to be entrepreneurs as the entrepreneurial process is similar to creation of a new art piece.  Both require creativity, willingness to take risks, and, perhaps most importantly, follow through.  I was questioned by my fellow students about what the entrepreneurial process is, and what skills and personality traits artists and profit seeking entrepreneurs shared.  I realized I didn’t have a great answer, and that I was mostly making educated guesses based on my person experiences.

It was in that frame of mind that I approached the series of readings in preparation for the first day of Arts Entrepreneurship, all of them centered on the question, “What is this stuff?”  I was looking forward to some sort of answer, as I am pursuing a degree with arts entrepreneurship in the name….so I was feeling like I better figure it out soon.  What I discovered was a dialogue among scholars and practitioners who all had different thoughts and theories, and very little consensus.  Is entrepreneurship the process of new business creation?  Is it a set of skills and/or traits and/or practices that make a person entrepreneurial?  What is that process? What are those traits?

We began our class armed with sharpies and sticky notes, 6 women sitting around a table.  Our guide, Professor Linda Essig, asked us The Question.  Our answers came fast and furious, and we ended up with a wall covered in sticky notes with words and phrases written on them.  We talked about the process, the product, arts being at the center, the nitty gritty business functions, personality traits, and more.  Together, though, we found some commonalities: risk taking, follow through, focused on the art, and innovation.

I am no more prepared to give a dictionary style definition of this thing that I am studying, but I am ready to discover what it means to me.  And hopefully this class can help define the words, the field, and while we’re at it, discover what it means to be an arts entrepreneur for ourselves.  I am ready to dive head first into this process of experiential learning with this team of ferocious, self-reliant women, and see what we create.