Building a Business Base for Creative Entrepreneurs

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This story appears in the November 2011 issue of . Subscribe »

Special Report
State of the Creative Nation
Creative arts entrepreneurs are building new businesses while reinvigorating cities and towns across the country. We checked around to see who's creating what, and how this growing creative class contributes to economies small and large.

In the drizzly Pacific Northwest, Andy Fife is a rainmaker for the region's thriving arts community. Through Shunpike, a Seattle-based arts organization, he has helped nurture more than 2,500 creative enterprises across Washington, providing a solid financial foundation for the region's most prominent entrepreneurial artists.

So what's his big secret? "We mostly focus on writing a business plan, creating a marketing plan, securing funding, establishing lines of credit," Fife says. "That, itself, could be considered innovative in the art world, where most people aren't trained in the business fundamentals."

"Artists always do badly with money," admits Jennie Shortridge, a Shunpike client and co-founder of Seattle7Writers, a collective of published Pacific Northwest authors. "We just aren't very good with spreadsheets and bank accounts and, frankly, we don't always want to be."

That's where Shunpike comes in, offering two tiers of service for its financially challenged members. "Basically, we're a service hub for all the back-office functions," Fife explains. "Our mission is to handle all of that for them and let them spend their time doing what they do best, which is producing art."

Shunpike's first-tier program offers grant-writing services, tax-exempt 503(c)(3) status and consultation about fundraising, finance and advisory board development for a $100 annual fee and a 7 percent cut of revenue. The second tier, called the Partner Artist program, offers all of the above, plus assistance in bookkeeping, taxes, licensing, permitting, human resources, payroll and insurance. The same $100 annual fee applies, plus 10 percent of revenue.

Even in the shadow of the Great Recession, Shunpike appears to have no shortage of potential clients. A 2010 report by Americans for the Arts said Seattle is home to 4,370 businesses in the "creative industries"--museums, symphonies, architecture, advertising--employing more than 21,000 people.

Andy Fife of Shunpike
Andy Fife of Shunpike

When Fife joined as executive director in 2007, Shunpike's annual budget was $400,000; today, it's $1.4 million. About 55 percent of these funds come through donations by government agencies, corporations, foundations and individuals, he says. The rest comes from consulting fees and percentages of Partner Artists' revenues. Shunpike, now in its 10th year, has about 115 Partner Artists on its roster.

Providing aid to nonprofits is Shunpike's specialty, but the group also doles out advice to for-profit ventures. Katrina Toft, co-founder and owner of Two Ravens Studio in Tacoma, Wash., sought marketing and financial advice from Shunpike in 2010 when she and her business partners wanted to grow their metalworking business.

"Andy created a diagram for us, explaining how to get bank loans, address environmental concerns and go through the permitting process," Toft says. "We also learned to be open to not just the standard methods of marketing. He gave us great advice on utilizing social media and venturing into Facebook."

"It's so important to learn business skills," says Teresa Thuman, producing artistic director of the nonprofit Sound Theatre Company, a Shunpike Partner Artist since 2006. "We had no real structure when we started, so Shunpike essentially became our business office. They helped out tremendously with grant-writing, licensing and fundraising."

Fife recommended that Sound Theatre eliminate overhead by renting out local theaters. He is also a champion of pooling artists into collectives and raising funds via online crowdsourcing, much the way Kickstarter works, with incremental PayPal donations.

"You might find other organizations that will help support your business, but no one else will support both your business and your artwork," Thuman says. "There's really no other organization like Shunpike."

Soon that may no longer be true. Fife says he may try to export the Shunpike model. "The strength is that it's a very local approach," he says, "but there's no reason it can't be repeated in other cities."


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