Category Archives: Pedagogy

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.

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.

Cross-post, from the instructor

This post was originally published on Linda Essig’s Creative Infrastructure blog.

With some frequency, I am asked to provide a definition of “arts entrepreneurship.” I have a short working definition (the cocktail party version is “Arts entrepreneurship is entrepreneurial action in the service of art”). I’ve written longer descriptions of arts entrepreneurship practice and defended the concept against assertions that it does not exit. One question I am sometimes asked – the answer to which is embodied in the cocktail party response – is “how is arts entrepreneurship different than any other sectoral form of entrepreneurship?” Are the actions of an artist starting, for example, a new collective gallery any different from someone starting a new dry cleaning company in the shopping plaza down the street?

This is the question that has been occupying my mind as I teach a graduate course in arts entrepreneurship. You can read here about how we are using the Osterwalder Lean Canvas for business model generation and Steve Blank’s video lectures about it to explain entrepreneurship writ large. The translation of this method, tested and proven in the technology sector, for the arts is the challenge I face as the instructor/facilitator. In facing that challenge, I am keeping art at the center (or trying to) and applying a process from one domain to a domain with different (and sometimes unique) economies associated with it.

Big_Day_Out_(8392285402)This week’s class will include an overview of the 9 blocks of the lean canvas as well as an introduction to Blank’s directive to “get out of the room” in a process he calls “customer development.” For my course, we translate “customer” to “audience” or “community.” Thus, when we talk about “getting out of the room,” it is to talk with our audience members or potential audience members and members of the communities our students want to serve.

There are other points of translation, but this seems the most important – and why this lean launchpad technique could be really useful for artists and the arts generally. The customer development process isn’t (only) asking potential customers what they want, what it is really about is testing hypotheses. Think about what this could mean for artists: it could mean bringing audience in early to a development process, it could mean partnering with a community to develop work that might be interesting and useful to that community, it could mean minimizing financial risk while still enabling artistic risk.

I have often heard my friend Aaron Landsman preach a gospel of “do less with more.” This idea of doing smaller bits, developing and testing them — and getting them right — rather than trying to be all things to all people right out of the gate, aligns well with the lean Launchpad method: fail early and often, iterate your concept, and keep getting out of the room to see if anyone else cares.

(Photo “Big Day Out” by Eva Rinaldi, Creative Commons license)