Category Archives: Failure and Success

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.

The Success of SAM

SAMsandwichboard

November 22nd proved to be an excellent day for a student arts market. Leading up to the event the five of us had worked hard to spread the word. Flyers had been posted all around campus and the community. Emails had been sent, Facebook posts were happening multiple times a day and our website gave the instant impression of a cozy fall day. We were interviewed and featured in the State Press and East Valley Tribune along with being included in Jeff McMahon’s cultural calendar. It took a few day’s after opening up to receive artist submissions before we got some response. All of our hypothesizing and data collecting had shown that student artists need a place to sell their work and someone else to organize the event. When we weren’t getting a strong response from artists to submit to sell their work at the student arts market we got nervous. It wasn’t long, however, until the theories from effectual entrepreneurship and the idea of lowering risk by canvasing and data gathering came to fruition. Our total artist submission reached 25. The market featured a wide variety of photography, knit scarves and hats, comics, piggy banks, duct tape bags and wallets, jewelry, dresses and paintings. I was able to do half of my Christmas shopping at the market! Casey Moore’s was an excellent location for the market and they were an incredible partner to have. They were extremely supportive and enthusiastic from the first pitch. They strongly support the arts and student endeavors. We felt happy to hear that they likewise greatly appreciated this partnership. Things were rolling and when the opening of the student arts market came around at 2 pm the sun was shinning, our artists were excited, our tables were ready and our signs and balloons were hung. By 2:10 our first three sales had been made! I loved walking around and seeing the student art and engaging in conversation with them about their work. I enjoyed some delicious fish and chips from Casey Moore’s. My biggest highlight was working with my fantastic classmates. Everyone contributed greatly and I was surrounded by incredible talent. Early on in the semester we had recognized that as a group we highly value helping artists support themselves. Seeing SAM happen gave us great satisfaction. It is easy to say that the first event of SAM was perfect. Our customers were happy and spent a lot of time getting to know the artists. Our artists were happy and able to sell their work. After everything was cleaned up and taken down we finalized the books. The result was that not only did we break even but we made a small profit. SAM was an absolute success! Thanks to Linda and her arts entrepreneurship class, classmates with vision and compassion, artists with drive, Casey Moore’s with extreme generosity and a community with a growing desire to support the arts I have come away from this experience with greater confidence in my ability to bring about success in the arts market. You can’t put a price on that!

The Final Countdown…

SAM: Student Art Market is coming up soon. Very soon.

SAM4

As we dove into a week of tying up loose ends, I found myself remembering one of our first class periods. The reading that week pointed out the importance of choosing who you enter into a new venture with. As you hit obstacles, you’re going to want to have people by your side who can help troubleshoot, instead of leaving you alone to face the challenge. You want to have the type of team who will question how much work you’re taking on, not because they don’t think you’ll deliver, but because they actually care about your well-being and how far you’re willing to stretch yourself.

Throughout this process, we’ve all been pushed outside of our comfort zones. For some, that meant approaching our potential audience to pitch an idea. For others, it might have been helping to maintain a web site for the first time or building out 3 year projections. For me, it was learning to fully trust a new set of business partners. I’m accustomed to sharing major responsibilities with someone that I’ve been working with for nearly a decade. There’s a level of understanding, nuance, and safety that develops in that length of time. Although, I’ve known most of my team for about a year and a half now, the idea of creating a venture of this nature came with real risks. Would we make back our investment? Would people show up to the event? Would we all make it through in one piece? Would this project succeed or fail?

Our event is only 4 days away, and instead of feeling stressed out about the impending activities, I’m excited. While I know that our team is not only capable, but exceptional, it’s hard to predict how everything will turn out.

Stay tuned to find out next week!

Kids are smart!

We’ve arrived at a very exciting decision this past week in class: our business venture will be a Holiday Arts Market at a local bar restaurant, Casey Moore’s. We know that our customer segment is a multi-sided platform, as we will serve two groups of people: student artists who will submit and sell their work, and the other people who come and buy the art.

We are still pinning down who exactly these ‘other people’ are, where they live, what they do on the weekends and how much they are willing to spend on art, but this week’s introduction to the Empathy Map will help us. The Empathy Map looks like this:

 Empathy-Map

It is our job as founders of the business to fill in the Empathy Map as we become more knowledgeable about our customer(s). The idea is that by the time we’ve filled a map out for each customer segment, we will have a clear archetype of who will be attending the Holiday Market. Talking to people about the market and our previous ideas has really been eye opening. It is extremely exciting to find strangers that think your idea is awesome and will actually work…and on the other end, kind of disappointing when strangers don’t think your idea is cool at all. As someone particularly interested in creating theatre for young people, I wonder what may happen if I interviewed or surveyed my audience before creating a piece.

I feel confident in stating that many many many adults do a lot of assuming about what children want to see onstage. As a Theatre for Youth MFA student, I am one of those adults. I recently wrote a play for young audiences, which will be produced at ASU on November 1. It’s called Nadine’s Coloring Book and it is about an eleven-year-old girl coming to terms, in her own imaginative way, with her father’s premature death. No one under the age of twenty-five has read this play yet, and although I’ve invited the 60+ children I teach, direct and interact with on a weekly basis, I wonder if my script would have been different had I spoken to my intended audience first. This leads me to wonder what would happen if children’s theatre companies actively spoke to children (and teachers and school administrators) about the types of scripts they’d like to see. So often, the shows being done for youth, especially at theaters that rely on field trip sales, are book adaptations of beloved stories. Maybe administrators want something a little edgier, too, but no one will ever know until they ask.

Coming up, I have the opportunity to create pre/post show workshops with a partner middle school for ASU’s Mainstage TYA play. The play is about adventure, coming of age and sisterhood, and the early set design renderings are based around a playground, inspired by recyclable items and found objects. Okay, so I want to create programming that can occur outside on a school’s playground, away from the classroom, that encourage students to “choose their own adventure,” while also creating musical instruments and other practical items with recyclable objects. After learning about the Empathy Map, and listening to Steve Blank’s lectures on UDACITY, I realize that my assumptions and hypotheses are just that: assumptions and hypotheses. Why not ask the 5th and 6th grade students that I know what their thoughts are about my proposed workshops? And maybe, just maybe, they will have even better ideas to contribute.

If I Build it, Will They Come?

My goal throughout my graduate courses is always to embrace new discoveries that will help my business to thrive. As the Artistic Director of an independent theatre company, I’m finding important lessons every week as we build this new venture together. Brelby Theatre Company is close to wrapping up its sixth season of production, and I can’t help but wonder where we would be if I’d understood the importance of getting out of the building.

We spent the first few years producing shows that we wanted to see. We assumed that our tastes were universal, or that the fact that we were creating art at all was what mattered. Linda might refer to this as the “Field of Dreams” complex aka just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come.

We’ve had to learn the hard way that not all shows will resonate with audiences. Not all shows will even draw in an audience. Some of the productions that we’re the most proud of have had a low turnout, some for obvious marketability reasons. Our 2014 production of Beckah Brunstetter’s Be a Good Little Widow was a challenging sell, but I was confident that our audiences wanted to see some more challenging dramatic pieces.

When choosing the next season, I decided to survey our audience beforehand. Had I done so before our current season, I would have known that our audience overwhelmingly favors light hearted comedies and musicals.

We’ve been working for the last year to get our classes to take off in our community, to little avail. I decided that it was time to implement some audience surveying in more aspects of our organization. Reaching out to our artists and our fan base for feedback on what they would like to see, instead of just guessing provided us with some great insight about how to move forward with this initiative. Surprise, surprise. They wanted to see a lot of things that we aren’t currently offering.

I think it’s time for a pivot.

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.

Taking the Plunge

“Most of what you hear about entrepreneurship is all wrong. It’s not magic; it’s not mysterious; and it has nothing to do with genes. It’s a discipline and, like any discipline, it can be learned.” Peter F. Drucker (1985)

Discipline is certainly a necessity in order to be a successful entrepreneur, but I have to disagree with Drucker regarding the magic. There is something electric about being a member of a passionate team of entrepreneurs. I can still remember the first pitch session in my apartment for a group of Northern Arizona University theatre students that would eventually blossom into the founding members of the Brelby Theatre Company. We were young, idealistic, and certainly not disciplined. We knew that we wanted to create art together, and that was enough of a spark for us to launch a new business venture. Our first season together would not be considered a fiscal success by any stretch of the imagination. (But that’s a long story for another blog post…) It took several years, and the encouraging words of a mentor to help us realize that failure isn’t a dirty word. On the contrary, sometimes our failures are much needed stepping stones towards success.

10400769_10152657678525102_5021268827714654109_nCourtesy of the Pave Facebook Page

That being said, we might have avoided some of our initial failures had we had access to Effectual Entrepreneurship before launching our artistic venture. Luckily, my classmates and I have some excellent resources at our disposal as we prepare to take the plunge into starting our own business. This week’s class will allow us the opportunity to take stock of our own resources. We will be asking ourselves 1) who we are, 2) what we know, and 3) who we know.

In last week’s class, Linda gave us a seemingly simple activity. As a team, we were to imagine that we had been stranded on a desert island. We were allowed to collectively choose fifteen items that we would salvage from our plane’s wreckage. We immediately launched into a flurry of negotiating our own needs for the list. Would there be fresh water? Should we bring the food from the plane, or assume that we would be able to forage on the island? Would we bring matches, or rely on the wilderness skills of other team members? We came up with a list that we all agreed on, but that nobody was completely satisfied with. We realized after the fact that some of us were planning for long term survival and others were thinking of a speedy rescue. How different would our list have looked if we had stopped to ask ourselves what the purpose of our list was? The activity made me realize the importance of stopping to lay down expectations, and the need to establish a process and a purpose (especially when working with individuals that we’re still getting to know).

Chapter 1 of Effectual Entrepreneurship explains that entrepreneurs create their own opportunities. It’s about more than just recognizing possibilities, it’s about transformation. What are the first steps towards deciding if our idea is worth pursuing? According to the book, there are four questions that we’ll want to ask ourselves to assess the situation.

  • Is it doable?
  • Is it worth doing?
  • Can I do it?
  • Do I want to do it?

Even if I find it to be worth doing, will my classmates? Will I want to do what they feel most passionate about? I have no idea what our business venture might end up being, but I hope that we enter into this adventure prepared to learn from our failures, and ready to create our own opportunities.

 


1. Drucker, P.F. (1985) Innovation and Entrepreneurship Practice and Principles, Harper & Row, New York, pp. 19-33

2. Read, S. (2011). Effectual Entrepreneurship. Taylor & Francis (Ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.