The following analysis and interviews were conducted by Becca Rothstein, Meadows School of the Arts and SMU student.
I conducted three interviews, two with theatre company founding members, and one with the founder of a farmer’s market organization. All three organizations were in different stages of their endeavor: The House Theatre of Chicago was founded in 2001, and continues to be a successful non-profit theatre there, Good Local Markets is going into its seventh season of operation, however has only recently incorporated to become a formal non-profit organization, and Prism Co., an LLC, is a fledgling theatre company on the eve of opening their second show. This gave my interviews a good range of perspective and insight. Unsurprisingly, even with the time and development stage differences, all three had similar points to make about entrepreneurship.
None of the interviewees had formal business plans before they started their entrepreneurial venture. All three agreed that, however, while a complete business plan may not be necessary or even possible at the beginning of an endeavor, a plan of some sort is absolutely vital to success. They also all discussed knowing exactly what it is you are trying to sell, and knowing exactly to whom you are selling it. Jeff Colangelo is still going through this process, while also attempting to advertise his company and their upcoming show. He talked about how it is difficult to advertise and target a specific audience because they are still not completely decided on what Prism Co.’s exact brand is. The House Theatre really nailed down their product of original work, a niche in the Chicago market that they filled voraciously. Then, they just had to find their audience. Jake Minton’s advice for future theatre artists was to know your audience inside and out, and know how you are going to attract them to what you are doing. Without people in seats, you have no theatre. Listening to your audience, knowing what they want, and knowing how to reach them is important in any avenue of entrepreneurship, and especially in theatre. Sarah Perry simply advised to find something that has a demand, find something you are passionate about, find a way to merge the two, and create a good product. A good product is “priority number one,” she said. When you have a good product, “it sells itself naturally.”
Becca Rothstein: Did you have a business plan when you started the House Theatre?
Jake Minton: We didn’t technically have a business plan, I don’t think.
BR: Do you think that business plans are necessary for entrepreneurship?
JM: Yeah, I think they are. I think the best thing about a business plan is focusing yourself on what it is you are trying to do. What are the steps that you need to take to get there.
BR: If you were to do this process over again, you would start with a more solid business plan? Figuring it out seemed to work pretty well!
JM: Yeah, and a lot of what worked well for us was luck. One of the people who has been very helpful to our theatre company is the main critic for the Chicago Tribune. He helped us find our brand. That’s not something we would have written into our business plan. I think a business plan needs to have a really light, flexible framework. You want to let it be a scaffold that’s really easy to construct, and that you can move around any time you need to. You never want it to paralyze you.
BR: What three pieces of advice would you offer developing creative entrepreneurs?
JM: I took some free workshops and free classes at the Small Business Administration. I found some of that stuff really invaluable. Just to hear business experts talking about getting something up off the ground, and what was necessary there. I would definitely recommend seeking something like that out. Look around in the city that you decide you want to build in, find an organization doing something similar to what you want to do, and ask them every question that you have. Oh, and find some board members that will buy you free food and make you cookies.
BR: I have one more question. In terms of theatre artists in general, what are pieces of advice you would give someone about the work force, or the environment of the theatre business?
JM: I would say think about who you want your audience to be. See if you have something in you that can attract that kind of audience. It’s okay to go out into the world and think about what kind of art you want to create, but if you haven’t given any thought to who you want to be sitting in those seats, then it’s going to be five eighty year old people. Unless you come up with a reason to attract somebody else, people are going to see a 3D movie, or they’re going and binge watch Netflix. You have to come up with a reason for why they should spend the money to be there. It has to be an exciting, engaging, fun place to be. And you have to figure out how to create that experience from the time they go to get the ticket, through the time they leave the building.
Becca Rothstein: Did you have a business plan when you started Prism Co.?
Jeff Colangelo: Not really, no. We definitely had a game plan, but we realized things kind of on the fly, and we enacted them as we went along. How exactly we established [our] brand, and how we planned to make money, I think that was really in the game plan.
BR: Would you say that a business plan is necessary for entrepreneurship?
JC: I think a goal and a plan in terms of what you want to do with your product is completely necessary. But in terms of a full laid out business plan, there’s just so much in it that you have to find out while you’re in the field. You have to find out what your product’s about. A lot of times, your audience will determine what your product is, how you should sell it, and what your ultimate business plan should be.
BR: What are three pieces of advice you would offer developing creative arts entrepreneurs?
JC: I would say really know your product, really know what you want to sell. Be very clear about that. Because you kind of have to stick with it from that point. So, know exactly what you want to sell. And what you want to do with that stuff being sold. You aren’t going to make a lot of money at first, you may have have to make a few sacrifices, but ultimately, figure out how to make a profit, how to go forward. And, that profit doesn’t mean money in your pocket, that profit means money in a lot of people’s pockets. It won’t be a lot of money, but at least you’re paying people. The best thing in terms of business is it’s not about you, it’s about making a lot of people happy with your business rather than just you happy with your business. It’s always worth it to lose a little bit of money over people being happy with your product and getting a good word around. Also, have an image. Find someone who’s really good and who can make an image for you. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling, the graphic design will do wonders for you. Actually determining exactly what that graphic design looks like is really important. And what your name is, as well. Your name and graphic design is really important in being able to tell people, “This is what we’re about,” without them having to read anything. Figure out your brand, figure out what you’re selling and to whom as quickly as you can. Then really try to push that if you can. It’s a weird balance because you have to not alienate people, but also be specific enough so that people know what you are. I think Prism is still working on that. We want to come off as hip and new, but I think we’re trying to figure out whether we want to be cool and funky and experimental.
Becca Rothstein: Did you have a business plan when you started White Rock Local Market?
Sarah Perry: No, we didn’t. We used minimal resources, and we really just started it as an experiment to see what would happen, to see what would be successful, to see how people would like it. It was only as we started going along that we decided to do certain things like incorporate as a business, and then become a 501-c(3). It was only after a few years that we really even began to raise money for the operation. Until then, we only used vendor fees.
BR: What is your business plan today, and how did you get to that?
SP: I’ve not had any training in putting together a business plan or anything, so our process of branding, getting grants, and expanding has also really been a process of forming the structure of our organization, delegating jobs, deciding who we need to hire to work for us, and seeing if our budget will work. We’re just kind of in the very beginning stages of that, of the grant period really. We’re different, we have strategic plans for our non-profit. A business plan I guess I think of something as more profit oriented.
BR: Do you think that a business plan is necessary for entrepreneurship?
SP: I think so, but I think that a strategic plan may be another name for what we’re doing. I think it’s important, it’s absolutely important. Any time you do something you need a plan, but I guess it just depends on how the scale of your project and how detailed that plan needs to be, or how long term.
BR: My last question is what three pieces can you offer developing entrepreneurs?
SP: I would say find something that you’re passionate about. It’s all about supply and demand. In order to start any kind of business, you need to think about something that there’s a demand for, and something that you’re passionate about. And then I would say definitely have some sort of plan. Advice that I’ve heard a lot of other people give is, as soon as you can, to delegate responsibilities to other people whom you trust. And really try to put together a team. Get someone who’s really good at whatever it is to help you and delegate to them. I would also say don’t get too caught up in marketing and social media. Because you find that in the end, if you do that, that ends up being your primary activity instead of what you set out to do. Priority number one would be having a good product. And when that happens, it sells itself naturally.
These interviews were conducted as research in the course Developing an Arts Venture Plan in the Arts Entrepreneurship program at Meadows School of the Arts, SMU. This assignment was to assess whether or not entrepreneurs commonly start with a plan and whether or not they believe them to be important. In addition, the entrepreneurs offer advice on entrepreneurship.