SMU Student Samuel Ligon Interviews Creative Entrepreneurs

Interviews by Sam Ligon

Kayli House Cusik and Shannon Driscoll run Oil and Cotton, an art studio in Oak Cliff.

Interviewer: What’s your creative development before Oil and Cotton?

Shannon: I was an art conservator. That was my first career, repairing damaged artwork. I got my undergrad in art history, after that I worked in museums and missed using my hands. I had a private practice repairing works of art on paper, and then I met Kayli during a project called the Better Block. We decided to do a pop-up art studio, and it was really successful. This came up for rent, and our pop-up studio was just a door down, and we just decided to go for it. We opened Oil and Cotton almost 6 years ago.

Kayli: I was a music major, a pianist. I was also a math minor, so I enjoyed working in a business-minded way that was more direct and specific. One thing that has come very natural to me is cutting shapes and colors. For me, I cut it out, then draw it. Then you don’t have to have a hard-black coloring book situation, you can see it. As a pianist, I would never want to play a synthesizer. You have to have the physical resonance. There’s always going to be a digital element, but your body can tell somehow.

Interviewer: Did a business plan play a part, and was it necessary?

Shannon: I was already teaching adult classes at my conservation studio on the side. Kayli was a piano teacher already, and her family had an art school for kids, and so Kayli had created an entire 8-year curriculum. We did everything with the very little bit of money that we had, and we don’t even have a credit card. It’s good to start small.

Kayli: We did not go down to the bank with a 20-page document and get a loan, if that’s what you mean. We wrote a lot of business plans, mostly me thinking late at night. It’s worth the piece of mind to know what you’re doing. I love pulling profit and loss, and Shannon and I would look it 3-4 times a year, and I look at it once a month. The main thing with us is that we were never interested in debt. We put in $5,000 to start the business, and now we have 6 employees, and 50 contract laborers.

Interviewer: What advice do you have for developing entrepreneurs with staying true to their passion?

Shannon: We met during that volunteer project, and we were lucky that we really do get along, and we both respect each other. We’re not only partners in business, but we’re very good friends. We wanted to create a place where we could both do the things that we loved, but also take care of our families and our friends and be healthy outside of our business, as well. We want this to be a place that is welcoming to children, but they don’t feel like it’s a kid-place, like we don’t use primary colors and use a “z” when we spell “kids.” We’re very thoughtful about the programing we bring in here.

Laura Fisher co-founded TreePress, an online marketplace for educational theater.

Interviewer: I want to get a little bit of your story, leading up to TreePress, about your life and personal passion.

Laura: The best place for it to begin is the problem. Adrienne was my boss 8 years ago, when I was a TA in the drama department. We became playwrights, producing our own content. Publishers have a requirement that anything that the publish needs to have a professional life, and on a professional stage, every actor is an employee. If there is a show with 4 characters, with one actor doing it as a double, that show is gonna be a lot cheaper than one of ours, with 30. To them, it wasn’t commercially viable. We began TreePress with a crowdfunding campaign, which was hard to sell, being a service. When our target was exceeded, we kind of had validation that we should actually put time into this. We got accepted to Bethel Green London, which is an accelerator for social businesses, trading equity for seed funding, free office space for 6 months, and a great 12-week training program. That was the catalyst for us to leave our jobs last year. Now we’re three weeks away from the public beta launch.

Interviewer: Did you have a business plan and was it a necessity for you?

Laura: Yeah, we did. I think we probably had a more formal process than perhaps others, part of that was my background in consulting. Without that planning, you can get very mixed messages; you can try to build too many things. We wrote one up quite early on, to set our vision, mission, and goals. Those are still in our plan, though our marketing strategies and other things change all the time. Our Full Service Model sits on our wall, it’s printed 3 meters wide, and we use it almost every day. Like today, when we’re designing our home page. It’s very much a living and breathing document, it gives a structure. If investors ask for our due diligence, it’s a 60-page version that explains every assumption that sits behind TreePress.

Interviewer: What advice do you have in regards to working with a team for young entrepreneurs like me?

Laura: I think I would not have survived. I’m gonna define team in two ways: there’s our immediate TreePress team. I came from this world of business and structure, and Adrienne left the world of teaching. We had to figure out what gives us support, whether that’s emotional, or our values. The wider team, in our co-working space, we have a couple businesses we went on this journey with. Having this group of people that are facing the same crazy stuff as you, sometimes you just need a group of people around you to vent and be real. That vulnerability keeps us going.

Thea Temple founded The Writer’s Garret, a non-profit literature organization.

Interviewer: How did your passion for literature develop?

Thea: My mother used to quote Kublai Khan to me when I was 8, but another thing she did was get me into comic books. The captured my imagination as a young girl, because there was a lot of emphasis on powerful women having to hide their powers as dumb blondes. Comic books had one woman, Supergirl, Catwoman, these unapologetically powerful women that didn’t pretend to be less. I was a visual artist as well as interested in reading and writing; comic books were good because they brought those two together. They touched on multiple disciplines that carried over into my adulthood: reading, feminism, history, science, and the imagination. It doesn’t matter where you start, what matters is the process of developing a mind. Paper is fragile, a book is just a technology––it used to be stone tablets. As much as I love books, what matters to me is that the narratives endure.

Interviewer: Did you have a business plan in the process? Are they necessary?

Thea: We focused on the non-profit process, and later won bids for consultants to come work with us and develop our program. There’s a change of demographic all the time, and you can’t approach fundraising the same way over time. From the beginning, we wanted to send writers into the schools to teach. The problem was there was no infrastructure for that the teachers in Dallas have been traditionally raggedly overworked. Arts Partners wasn’t sustainable as-is due to the funding, but it came along much later and distributed money to primarily elementary schools, to be spent on artist partners to come in and teach, in a time that had been so test-driven that eliminated the arts. We start of with 6 kids, in 3 or 4 years, we were in 5 districts and we were teaching about 6,000 kids. We were doing it individually through the schools, through Arts Partners. We had wanted to do that up front, but there was no credibility, there was no infrastructure, and no money. Now, just 6 years later, there’s suddenly infrastructure, money, and we could do it. Basically, you want to position yourself so that when opportunities present themselves you’re ready.

Interviewer: What advice do you have about responding to change for growing entrepreneurs?

Thea: It’s very hard to raise support for the arts in Dallas. Partnerships are a strong way to go. They’re a pain, there are many partnerships that we had where we felt we carried the brunt of the relationship. But we have had so many wonderful partnerships over the years. These organizations like a literary component, but they don’t want to create an infrastructure for literature––they just contact us. Also, the fact that the internet is text-based, and so is literature, we’re spending the next year expanding beyond our physical constraints with technology.

 Interview Analysis by Sam Ligon:

Each entrepreneur was unique in their approach to the craft of organizing and carrying out their vision. Some similarities were found across the board, however. All of them had a creative development stage where they faced an absence of something that they are passionate about. Kayli and Shannon saw a lack of art in Oak Cliff, Laura saw a disconnection between playwrights and education, and Thea saw a lack of literature in Dallas culture. This leads me to conclude that entrepreneurs are made when their passion hits an obstacle or void, not simple enthusiasm. The creative entrepreneur is positively motivated, out of the desire to fill and create.

All three did have differences, and not bad ones either. Kayli and Shannon are bootstrapping extraordinaires, working the for-profit sector with self-made pride. Their specific focus on Oak Cliff required this of their model, that growth be organic and responsive to the existing community’s culture. Laura is doing a for-profit model that serves investors and society at the same time. It is a struggle to rectify profit and arts for many, but for Laura, profit proves sustainability as well as growth potential. Pursuing profit serves her mission to serve many communities, while Kayli and Shannon are more concerned with dedication to one single community. Thea, on the other hand, is in the non-profit world, which is much slower. Having a greater weight on artistic craft, but less on sustainability and growth, gives her organization more time to develop different tactics in the same market. Like Kayli and Shannon, Thea is concerned with the Dallas community specifically, but elevates her art form above the immediate circumstances. Dallas still struggles to accept literature, but her faithfulness to literary art and the city paid off by being ready for the right moment, when Arts Partners came into the picture. Being a non-profit slows Thea’s growth, but she has lower demand elasticity because her donors are invested in her vision, while the other two serve customers with more elastic demand. From Thea, partnerships were essential to escape non-profit limits and grow, but for the others internal planning and independence from others in the field helped them much more.

Business plans were used by Kayli and Laura as living documents to reference during the process and help them pivot when problems arose. Thea is much less concerned about plans but went through the non-profit process, which forces organizations to plan at least once to receive non-profit status. However, it’s not a central part of her process. Thea chose to spend her time on the art form and solving problems when they arise, rather than over-preparing in advance. Kayli crafts plans often, and it’s just the right time investment for her. Laura uses business plans most frequently and pursues greater depth, but she has a complex business model that serves investors.

Each entrepreneur chose a different model for their idea, which changes how each used business plans and saw growth. At Oil and Cotton, each partner brought different structure and products, while Thea had a standard non-profit structure and offered educational service. Laura is still creating her structure and developing her service offering, so her intense analysis of her business is crucial, especially for outside stakeholders in her company. Each entrepreneur chose different models that served their creative values, and used business plans as they pleased to fit personal goals. Entrepreneurs must customize their plans to what they need, and no more.

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