For the past few years, I have been visiting the Harvard Business School campus to speak as part of a course on entrepreneurship in creative industries, and every year I’m inevitably asked the same question: How can I start a business in a creative field?
I started as a biochemical engineer and ran two biotech startups. Now I’m the co-founder and for the past few years have served as the CEO of a company that’s changing the way people are buying and selling art and collectibles. How did I “get creative?” I didn’t. As I tell other MBAs, I recognized where my talents were—and created a business that supports creatives (instead of one that directly competes with them).
1. Focus on the non-creative work.
Just like many other people, MBAs are attracted to the creative industry because of the perceived glamour. In reality, the worlds of art, music, film, and fashion are overcrowded, competitive, and driven by a group of insiders who have spent years honing their creative abilities. Rather than trying to elbow into that area, the MBA should focus on the non-glamorous business— the backend infrastructure.
A large part of the innovation that Paddle8 brought to the art and collectibles market came from making small adjustments to the non-creative aspects of the business, like shipping and logistics—elements that weren’t particularly glittery or even visible to the average consumer, but that made a dramatic difference in terms of efficiency, and in turn set us up to scale.
2. Stop looking for a big idea.
People looking to break into the creative industries often feel pressure to come up with the single “big idea” to make a splash, a la Andy Warhol and his soup cans. A McKinsey-style decision tree may take you to a business model that’s perfect on paper but impossible in practice. It is very easy as an outsider to underestimate how hard it is to change mindsets and habits, even if it makes rational business sense.
Instead look for the small improvements, which are easier to model and to test. For instance, change a part of a value chain that’s particularly inefficient, as opposed to reimagining a new one. Look for aspects that everyone in the industry seems to complain about (in the art world, everyone assumed that a complicated and frustrating post-sale process was a necessary evil—we thought that it could be done much better by making small improvements like automating insurance and shipping options.) Applying this kind of an approach to business allows you to remain nimble and to evolve within creative industries, which are often more opposed to disruption. For example, in luxury e-commerce you can experiment with different approaches—like expanding your price points or introducing new product categories—as a cost-effective way of developing your business, allowing you to gather valuable consumer data before you fully commit to a brand identity or business model. And while this approach may be a little slower and iterative to begin with, you are focusing on stability and growth for the long term—finding what works first and then scaling as quickly as you can.
3. Don’t try to be the genius. Instead focus on the platform, building a structure that enables creatives to focus on creating, while centralizing and streamlining aspects that support commerce.
Take Etsy, which has enabled anyone to become an online retailer in minutes. It would be impossible for Etsy to moderate every single product or provide active creative input into every single listing. Instead, they built an awe-inspiring platform that supports creatives and makers, and that is what scaled. In this instance the technology platform, with select curation at the front end, makes the business attractive to creatives, and scalable as a business model.
4. Respect creative talent.
More than many other industries, creative industries are driven by individual talent: an artist or cultural tastemaker is singular and not replaceable in the way that an average MBA executive—no matter how talented he or she is—may be. Finding and retaining this talent is a both a challenge and a necessity to success in these industries, something that needs to be a focus of any enterprise in the the field. Furthermore, creative industries are even more relationship-driven than other fields. Respect the Rolodexes and habits of these individuals, and the fact that they may create value in different conditions that the typical business meeting (say, a late party at Art Basel Miami Beach versus a mid-morning conference call). It requires a flexibility and a change of expectations for how and where ideas and relationships form.
Having said that, creative industries also need the “non-creatives”—the smart, hard working people who can focus infrastructure and scalability problems, which are not as interesting and not part of the core skill set for those who are more right-brained. Rather than worrying about whether you possess the creative skills necessary to make an impact, play to your strengths and focus on building the platforms that enable creatives to what they do best: simply create.
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