Nelle S Johnson Explores the Nature of Creative Startups

This post is part of an interview series conducted by Arts Entrepreneurship students at SMU. With this project, we are seeking to understand if, in creative entrepreneurship, business plans are necessary. SMU student Nelle S Johnson conducted these interviews and offered her analysis.

Maurice Blanks

Design Entrepreneur

Co-founder of Blu Dot

Did you have a business plan when started Blu Dot? Do you think they are necessary?

“I believe we did have a written business plan put together when we started Blu Dot. We started really planning it out probably a year before we actually sold our first product. I wouldn’t say [a business plan] is necessary when you’re starting a business, but I think that it’s good exercise go through because it forces you to be thoughtful and take everything into consideration.”

How has your job changed since you started Blu Dot?

“[my job] changed a lot. When you first start a company, you are the only employees, so every function of the business is being done by less than five people. Now, globally, we have probably 200 people working for us so when we first started, each of us would wear like six hats. And now, we may have four people that wear the same hat. Now I’m managing people that are managing people that are actually doing stuff. The big difference is that I don’t come in and say, ‘Okay, I’ve got to paint a hundred widgets today.’ I basically go to meetings and listen to people make proposals about things that we need to do.”

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

“First, I would say is that, especially for creative types, it is crucial that you’re able to understand the finances. If you don’t have those skills, then you need to get a partner that has those skills. When we started, I wouldn’t say we had the financial aspect of it figured out but we knew how important it was and we took it seriously. When we started, it was just as important to us that the company is successful as it is to us to get good designs into the world. I think what happens to some creative entrepreneurs is that they see money as something that’s dirty and gross and they don’t want to have to deal with it. Second, I would say is you need to be really good at collaborating with people. Sometimes people come out of creative fields and they are very driven and very particular about their vision. But the reality is, to be successful in business, it’s all about collaboration. The more you can do to learn how to be a positive collaborator, the better. It’s a team effort. The most successful people that I see in business are good at working with other people. The world teaches us that there is a single creative leader, but the fact is, there are all these super-talented people that do a lot of things which enable a bigger vision to come to life. You have to be able to work with those people, influence them, and get them to buy into your vision. So, to be the self-absorbed, egotistical designer isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Don’t be afraid to work for longer than you think you need to under someone else. There’s a temptation, especially for people with burning creative visions, to start a company right out of school. I was just impatient, and it would have been valuable to have more experience to help me be a better entrepreneur. I wish I had spent more time working under somebody who was really talented.”

Tod Norsten

Painter

When you started your career, did you have a business plan?

“I had no business plan what so ever. I’m an artist. I make paintings. I went to art school and started making paintings and I had a job for a while. People started buying my paintings enough so that I could quit my job and it just kept going from there.”

Do you think business plans are necessary for entrepreneurship?

“In anything you do, having a plan is going to help you to be more successful. Being an artist and someone who produces art, I have vague ideas of what I’d like to do.”

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

“Do it because you love it. The great part about painting, to me, is that it doesn’t necessarily address one certain thing and it can hold two opposing positions at once. The wonder to behold is the mystery of our existence and how it is that we’ve come to be here as beings. You need to ask yourself, how can we as human beings look at things that are amazing, in the face of things that are really horrific and unfair and how do deal with the contradictions of the world? Paintings can dress both of those ideas at the same time. I’m pretty serious about the world. The world’s an absurd place. I guess in relation to who I am and to how I do things, I express myself through things that can appear to be funny and maybe are funny, but there are different levels to it. I’m pretty serious about the joke-ish looking, half-ass looking qualities of my work that makes them both serious and light. Know that everyone comes from a certain place, and it’s not the same place that you come from. Have compassion for who other people are. Be patient with who you are. Allow your work and your ideas to develop and be patient with other people.”

Meg Braff

Interior Designer/Author/Designer

Meg Braff Interiors Inc.

When you started Meg Braff Interiors Inc. in 1994, did you have a business plan?

“My plan was to spend as little money as possible. I worked out of my apartment for a year and a half before I could afford an assistant. For me, it was just about keeping my overhead extremely low, working hard, and making good, efficient use of my time. Probably, after three or four years of working out of my apartment, I was able to afford an office. I was just trying to not get ahead of myself. There are times when you think you need to spend money to make money. You have to be conservative because it’s really easy to find yourself in a hole.”

Do you think business plans are necessary for entrepreneurship?

“It’s a good idea to have something on paper that lays out what it’s going to cost you to run your business, even if it’s basic.  It’s important to have a business plan on paper so you can add up the numbers and look at it as say, ‘Does this make any sense at all?’, so you can identify your margins. You have to really focus on your margins.”

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

“It’s important to work for other people that are in your field that you look up to. You learn as much about how to do things as about how to not do things. Every person has their own process. You can learn something from everybody. So, you can gain some perspective through other professionals’ processes, and it is nice to have the experience. Don’t bite off too much. Try to do something and do it really well and really own it, as opposed to trying to dip your toes in a lot of different things and not being as successful in any of them. Don’t try to do too much. Focus on something that you know you can be successful at and just crush it. I think the hardest part is my design business and its so labor-intensive. I can’t delegate that work to someone else. Decorating can be very creative, but it’s also exhausting. What’s really nice about having my own wallpapers and fabrics is that they are already created. It’s an easy business to run and it’s profitable. The thing that’s giving me the most joy right now is my store. I love having a store, it’s like a little think tank where we can try new things. The store is a really nice way to experiment and it’s fun to see what people are looking for when they come in. Be conservative in spending. Don’t assume you are going to make money because you can easily find yourself in a hole if things don’t go exactly the way you planned”

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