Creative Entrepreneurs in the Spotlight, Interviews by Kellam Witherington

Thomas Hoeber 

Kellam: I read in your bio online that you are from NYC originally. Why the move?

Thomas Hoeber: Well yes, I was born and raised in NYC, but I moved to Canada and started working with a phyotographer up there who served as my mentor. I eventually left that business and moved to LA in 2009 to pursue my dream and start my own studio. One day while reading the photography magazine, PDN, I saw an article that talked about Dallas as an immerging market in the industry, so I decided to move down south. It was a big city that was pretty receptive to new ideas, and it had a thriving creative arts scene. I kind of bounced around here for a little while, looking for spaces to use, and eventually I found this studio that met all of my needs, and now this is my business.

Kellam: Did you have a business plan when you started your photography studio, Glasshouse?

Thomas Hoeber: Yes… a very simple one. The initial business was studio space for rent, 12 rentals a year, enough to keep the business going while creating room for expansion. After that, I looked around to see what the competition was doing. I saw that there was a need for a full service photography agency, so I am now aiming to meet that need. There are a lot of expensive steps along the way for a creative in the photography business to achieve a vision, and my goal is to group all of the necessary people from the different steps together. The key is making them understand that we are all reaching for similar goals, and if we work as a team, those goals will be realized faster and for less.

Kellam: Do you think business plans are necessary for entrepreneurship?

Thomas Hoeber: Yes. It is necessary to have the details written down in order to see if a vision is realizable. You have to look at the numbers in order to understand what you are doing and where you are going. Know where you are going, and know why you are doing what you are doing. That is the key.

Kellam: What three pieces of advice can you offer developing arts entrepreneurs?

Thomas Hoeber: Just go for it. Put yourself out there. Ditch the part time job and live uncomfortably for a bit. You have to assume that risk if you are going to get anywhere with your business.

Look at your business, compare it to similar ventures, and understand your market.

Separate the creative side from the business. Find someone who will manage the business side so that you don’t become distracted from what you are trying to create… unless you are the business person, in which case, find someone creative so that you don’t get stuck in the numbers.

I’m going to give you a fourth. Close your eyes and imagine your ideal week, start to finish. Keep this vision in mind as you build your business.

Thomas Riccio 

Kellam: Tell me a little about your performance group, Dead White Zombies.

Thomas Riccio: We started our non-profit in 2011 because a group of us felt that other companies didn’t understand what we were doing.   We did one show in a semi-traditional theater space, and thereafter started using site-specific spaces, primarily in west Dallas. We create pieces that blend installation visual art, sound art, and performance art… sort of post-disciplinary. Basically, we don’t care about boundaries.

Kellam: Did you have a business plan when you started your performance group, Dead White Zombies?

Thomas Riccio: I had run a few companies before, so I knew the templates, and I basically got to pick and choose the aspects that work best for a small, rambunctious performing arts company. What you will often find are companies that choose one, previously successful template, and then they become victims to that template. I was cognizant of that, and I let the work define how we work. If you use someone else’s template, you may find that that business you create is no longer your business. That’s what’s happening to a lot of theater companies who adopt cookie-cutter management styles. They are focused on creating work that is outdated, and while that worked 20 years ago, it doesn’t work anymore. It’s not nimble.

Kellam: Do you think business plans are necessary for entrepreneurship?

Thomas Riccio: Our approach is quality output first, and then shape the plan around that. People follow past models and it becomes cliché. We believe that if we stay true to our core and produce a quality product, then the business will come. We spend very little on advertising and rely mostly on word of mouth and social media. The content leads. People are attracted to that because we don’t create an expectation. Nobody knows what this is about when they come to the first show, and we love that! We can attract a crowd that is disenfranchised and will appreciate the spontaneity and the unconventional collage of different art forms.

Kellam: What 3 pieces of advice can you offer developing arts entrepreneurs and creatives?

Thomas Riccio: Do what you love, because you have to live with it. You can fake it, but it will catch up to you.

Do something that no one does, and do it with quality. Quality is key, and it will sell itself. You want the user to be a part of the work.

Make a genuine human connection. It creates stronger content.

Charles Smith II 

Kellam: So you were born in New York. How did you end up in Dallas?

Charles Smith II: Originally basketball. I played all throughout high school and college and then in the NBA development league out here in Frisco. When I was 14 I got recruited to be a model, so I traveled a lot for that too. I ended up in Milan, which is basically like model boot camp, and I found myself modeling all over Europe. I started designing my own clothes once I was done modeling, and I was settled back in Texas. I picked up the constructing skills as a student at the Art Institute of Dallas and applied the things I learned in school to my work and my vision. Now I am done with basketball, and spend all my time designing clothes for my clothing line, Smith The Second.

Kellam: Did you have a business plan when you started your fashion line, Smith the Second?

Charles Smith II: As a creative, I have to be honest… I wasn’t thinking business at first. I started with a vision of what I wanted to create, and I wasn’t necessarily concerned with selling. The first step was getting my name out there to a point where I was recognized in the fashion community. Once I had some of that notoriety, people started to take interest in what I was doing, and I became more conscious of selling my work. I have been designing for a long time, but I am now just starting to apply a business structure. I had to make sure that I knew who I was selling to before anything else. In this industry, it’s really about understanding people first. I guess I have been marketing myself and my brand from the start, because that’s the nature of what I do, but it wasn’t necessarily a business plan.

Kellam: Do you think business plans are necessary for entrepreneurship?

Charles Smith II: It really is important. I wish I would have known what I know now when I started. It is hard to make adjustments now that I am already going. As a designer, make sure you have a plan before you start actually making stuff, because that’s where you really have to start thinking about the money. Figure out how you are going to pay for the costs of fabric, inventory, and how you are going to get a return on your investments. Figure out where you are going and really understand what you are doing before you take a certain route. I hate talking about money and the business side, but it is necessary to understand it.

Kellam: What 3 pieces of advice can you offer developing arts entrepreneurs?

Charles Smith II: Understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Make sure you don’t feel like you’re working, but understand that it is work. You have to wake up every day and be excited because it’s going to get hard, and you can only push through the pain if you love what you do.

Don’t be afraid to speak your truth and stand behind what you want to get across, but throw pride out the window. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Analysis by Kellam Witherington

In general, when talking to creative entrepreneurs, their strategy often seems to be action forward, adopting an act-first, plan second mindset. While some of them had preliminary plans for the short term, long term growth came from learning and adapting to their surroundings. This is likely due to the small size and creative nature of their ventures. A small company or performance group can act quickly to meet the changing wants and interests of the end user. In the art industry in particular, consumer preferences can vary vastly and change quickly, so it was important for all of the individuals who I interviewed that their business strategy be flexible. Even outside of the fine arts, this mindset is applicable for small start-ups and can be leveraged as a major asset. Start-ups, naturally small when beginning due to cost necessity, can adapt much more quickly than large companies, and therefore they can effectively change directions to meet a new market need where large companies might be slow to capitalize.

That being true, all three of the creatives that I interviewed all agreed that a business plan was important for business growth in the long term, as understanding costs and revenue are vital to business survival. Without money, there is no business, so they all agreed to some extent that a balance was necessary. All three being creatives, they shared similar fears, however, about the integration of business into a creative venture. Whether it be physically allocating business work to an associate or third party, or simply finding an inner balance, some sort of separation had to be made between the creative and the business side. The danger with combining the two was an inevitable intertwining of creative joy with business drag, thus sucking the life out of what they loved and originally envisioned. All of them agreed that in order to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to love what you are doing, and wake up every day excited to do your work. Creativity comes from the love of making something new, and so much of business revolves around routine. So, in short, while understanding business templates and necessities was important to all of them, having a set, unwavering plan was a concept that none really liked.

Another piece of advice that seemed to be pretty unanimously important was the necessity to understand your market. All of the entrepreneurs stressed the importance of knowing who your audience is and knowing what they want. Even Charles Smith II, who primarily built his brand around what he likes to wear, stressed that the most important thing that he does is find the right balance between his vision and what his retailers will actually buy and show in their stores. Thomas Riccio’s last piece of advice was to make a genuine human connection, a concept that I really liked because it excellently exemplifies the notion of building a business (or in his case, a show) around an end user. Personal connection with a business, service, show, or any other inanimate entity brings that entity to life in the eyes of the consumer. An entity that is alive can then have a personality, and a personality allows for relationships and trust. And in their cases, trust leads to sales.

The last trend that I noted was a unanimous acceptance of sacrifice in the short term in order to realize a long term vision. Thomas Hoeber actually advised me to give up my part time job if I ever wanted to see my dream company become a reality. While seemingly foolhardy, I understood how that could be beneficial. Taking away money, a resource so fundamentally necessary, transforms your business venture from a project into a part of you. That is a serious risk to assume, taking away all other crutches, but what better way to motivate an individual around the success of their venture? While this strategy seemed a little drastic for my liking, I understood his point that if you want to see your business succeed, it has to be more than just a business, it has to be a part of you.

These interviews were conducted as part of an assignment in the course Developing an Arts Venture Plan in the Arts Entrepreneurship program at Meadows School of the Arts, SMU.

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