Business Plan as Artful Evolution
Knowing what I know now, I think “opening a business” is a creative act. In fact, the ancient Greeks would probably have ranked it as a form of art.
The Greeks’ word for “art” was “techne.” That word didn’t describe something pretty to look at. Instead, it described something very practical – a method or process for producing something. The Dictionary of Philosophy defines “techne” as “the set of principles, or rational method, involved in the production of an object or the accomplishment of an end.”
So “art” as “techne” resulted in something. There was a product.
The more things change, the more they stay the same … fast-forward to today. Take a look at a book published in 2011 that entrepreneurs now study like their lives depend on it – “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. Ries maintains that the fundamental activity of a new business is to turn ideas into products.
Sounds pretty close to “techne,” right?
“The Lean Startup”: Finding Art in Business
“The Lean Startup” is a massively inspiring book that any “creative” or “artsy” person would enjoy, because it re-imagines starting a business as a creative act centered around learning and building.
Ries writes: “Startups exist not just to make stuff, make money or even serve customers. They exist to learn how to build a sustainable business. This learning can be validated scientifically by running frequent experiments that allow entrepreneurs to test each element of their vision.”
That’s Not How I Saw It
For years, I had a whole different attitude about art and business. I thought the two couldn’t mix.
Since age 12 (when I realized I was destined to be a filmmaker) and continuing up to the time my sister and I started Indywood, I never thought of myself as a businessman. Business was what Tulane frat kids studied. Me? I was a lofty Film Studies major.
I considered myself an “artist,” which to me was the antithesis of “businessman.”
But soon after we launched Indywood in 2013, I began to see how “business” needs “art” (that is, practical creativity, especially as it relates to daily problem-solving and meeting the evolving needs of your market). To think that the two don’t mix just isn’t true.
I Had Plenty of Misconceptions
I think most “artsy” people are intimidated by business, because it involves money and seems ultimately motivated by greed.
I was in that camp. As a non-business person, I thought starting a business went like this: You come up with an idea. You take out loans or become beholden to outside investors. You spend almost all your startup money trying to design a perfect product. Then you put that product on the market. If it succeeds, you hope your company gets bought for millions of dollars by a mega-corporation. If it fails, you fail. You lose all your money. Game over.
I’m not too motivated by money, so I looked at this stressful, high-stakes game with dread. It seemed heartless and massively intimidating.
“The Lean Startup” Set Me Straight
In “The Lean Startup,” Eric Ries re-imagines the process of starting a business. Using his design, you don’t invest a lot of money from the get-go. Instead, you spend the least amount possible in order to learn how to grow your product and company from their roots.
Here’s how you launch a business using Ries’s model:
You come up with an idea for a product. You don’t have any money (yet), so you break your product idea down into basic assumptions about why it’s going to work. For example, at Indywood, our most basic assumption was: Even in the age of Netflix, people will still pay for the classic cinema-going experience.
You spend what little money you’ve scrounged up to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), a simple “first draft” of your product. Then you charge money for it.
At first, you’ll probably fail. But that’s okay, because you haven’t spent much yet. In fact it’s a good thing, because you learn from your failures.
Once you’ve tested your MVP on people, you learn what aspects of your idea they’re willing to pay for. Then you spend a little more money amplifying your successes.
You build the business bit by bit, spending your meager revenue on efforts to refine the product.
Using this process of “validated learning,” you grow your business like an organic entity. You plant the seed of your idea in the “soils of extreme uncertainty” (as Ries describes the turf that any new business begins in). Slowly, you learn what nutrients your idea needs if it’s to grow.
The lean business model reminds me of Darwinian evolution: The entrepreneur makes many small mutations to her idea. Most fail, but the successes are real and validated by the environment in which her business is taking root.
In art schools across America, students are given many conceptual tools for crafting their artistic vision. But in order to be a contributing member of society, “vision” isn’t enough. You have to actually make something that people consider valuable.
“But value is relative, maaaan,” says the student about to graduate $100,000 in debt for his Art History degree. “I shouldn’t have to compromise my art just to appeal to the masses.” I roll my eyes, and so do the “masses” of hard-working people.
Value is not relative. Everybody has to make money to survive. Any professional artist eventually has to put a price on his work.
This is what they don’t teach you in art (or film) school – how to make money.
Because I graduated in Film Studies, I know how to make a movie and I know how to write a 20-page critical analysis of one. But I wasn’t taught how to craft an independent film that would make money. In fact, most of my professors were so jaded from working in the film industry that they scoffed at the idea that I could ever make a living as an independent filmmaker.
But in spite of them, my sister and I believed it was possible to help independent films make money. We built an MVP to test and validate our dream.
You Can Do It, Too
It’s been tough, but after many failures – I remember one night early on when we held a “backyard movie” event, using a screen that was basically a bed sheet, and the wind and rain picked up, and the movie billowed so badly that the audience got kind of seasick – we’re learning, and we’re beginning to cultivate successes.
After starting Indywood, I’m convinced it’s possible to grow a business in an artful way. I encourage all creative types to consider becoming entrepreneurs.
And here’s Step One: Read “The Lean Startup.”