Interview with Artist Entrepreneur Willie Baronet

Xinia: Tell us a little bit about yourself

Willie: Right now, I am a full time professor at SMU in the Temerlin Advertising Institute. In addition to teaching, I have an art practice, I also still do some consulting and design work for very few clients and I also do some life and business coaching for a variety of clients, but a lot of them are entrepreneurs and some specifically creative entrepreneurs.

Xinia: What do you like about your job?

Willie: Well, one of the things that I like about all of those things, the intersection will be creativity and sharing and teaching. I really like watching someone else have a creative breakthrough or getting in touch with the power of their own creativity. So I really love encouraging people. I love to see students that get excited about their work and start to see how those connections can make their work stronger. I’m an extrovert so I also like talking to people; I like conversation. I like learning a lot, learning for me is one of my core values, so anything that I feel like it teaches me, and students always teach me. And creativity. So, I love making stuff, designing stuff, coming up with ideas so all of the things that I do, I sort of get to do a little of those things.

Xinia: So you were previously in an advertising agency, correct?

Willie: Right. Well, I worked for several firms, then I started my own firm in 1992 and I worked as the owner of that firm for 15 years.

Xinia: How was that experience of owning a business?

Willie: Wow! The biggest education ever. So my degree in college as an undergrad was advertising design. I was not trained as a business owner. I was not trained as a manager. I was not trained as a salesperson and I ended up having to really learn how to be all of those things as an entrepreneur, as an owner of an ad agency. The experience at times was thrilling, and at another times it was heartbreaking. It’s not for everybody. The entrepreneurial endeavor is not for everybody.

Xinia: Why did you decide to start your own agency?

Willie: Well, I think I had the hair brain idea that I was going to have more control if I started my own agency. But I think I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to take the risk and not have really anybody else to blame, so that meant I was going to have to “the bucks stop with me”. You know, I didn’t do it for me the money at the time. I never dreamed it would actually be all that profitable. So it was more that I just wanted to do it for the autonomy and I think just part of me wanted to see if I could.

Xinia: What role, if any, does a business plan play in building and launching and Arts Company?

Willie: A business plan, I would say, is just like building a house. If you don’t have a blueprint, you may end up with a kitchen that doesn’t have a sink or a bathroom that’s right next to the living room or stairs that are impossible to climb. A business plan is a plan; it is a series of steps that help you identify where you want to be and the necessary steps to getting there. So, I think it’s critical and we didn’t have one. When we started our business we didn’t have a real business plan. We started planning after we started and then we realized, “Ok.” So, yearly we would put together yearly goals and what essentially function like a business plan, but we did not even think about that until we started it.

Xinia: What three pieces of advice would you give to aspiring artist entrepreneurs about planning?

Willie: I would say spend enough time thinking about the end. Think about what it is you truly want to get, to have, to make, to do, to be, and I would also say don’t forget to think about how you get out. If you have partners for instance, an exit agreement of some kind of buy/see agreement critical if you are going to have partners, critical. Think about your exit strategy even though that may change. Plan to have fun. I mean seriously, make your life the kind of life you want to have, not just how to make a dollar and pay the bills. That’s part of it. But plan on the emotionally gratifying parts of your job, how are you going to build fun and learning and a spirit of doing good in the world, you know. What’s the mission of your company? Get clear on that.

Xinia: What do you believe are necessary qualities, if there are any, for artist entrepreneurs to possess or develop?

Willie: Flexibility, compassion, perseverance, optimism, those are the biggies.

Xinia: What were some of the most difficult moments that you have gone through during the process of you starting your business? Like a major transition?

Willie: Well, the first time I had to miss a paycheck and I literally had to feel the fear of “Oh, my God, what if this doesn’t work?” That’s where optimism is important. There are several. Having to fire or let go of the first employee was a huge turning point for me because it was so difficult, and I didn’t want to do it. Losing a big account for the first time also traumatic. Moving offices, another huge huge headache, I mean there are so many. First time, I had an employee with a drug problem and I had to deal with an employee with really difficult personal issues. I mean there’s so many. I can problem list like ten more of those. There are so many.

Xinia: If you could go back in time and do this all over again, is there anything that you would change?

Willie: Yes

Xinia: What would that be?

Willie: Well, I’d like to know now what I know now at the beginning, because what I think it would change would be, I think I would have developed a more mature leadership style, in the beginning, and by that I mean I’d have been both more compassionate and more willing to set boundaries. See, in the beginning, I didn’t want to fire anybody, so I kept them for many, many months longer than I needed to and that hurt the company, and if I could go back I would realized that that’s part of running a business, that is part of what happens, and I would’ve done it, instead of anguishing about it forever and ever. I’d say it’s more of a mature leadership style. In terms of like the culture we created and the fun that we had as company, I wouldn’t change a thing; it was the best 15 [years]. I can’t imagine a more fun company to be a part of, even though it was tough at times.

Interview by Xinia Hernandez

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