Shoestring Budget? No Problem. Just Be Creative. An arts entrepreneur shares four lessons in innovating -- in art form and business style. Marshal resources and build personal connections.
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When I started Sound ExChange in 2011, I wanted to create an orchestra that would completely redefine the relationship between performers and concertgoers. As a collective of musicians, sometimes we perform as a large ensemble (like an orchestra) and on other occasions we play in smaller groups.
Like many entrepreneurs, I had zero dollars to start with. At that time performing arts wasn't exactly a booming field, so we quickly learned how do things ourselves to sustain the business and run a lean operation.
Because our organization has never had a big budget, we have had to be extremely creative about building our image as orchestral innovators. Here are four lessons I have learned about attracting and keeping supporters.
1. Find collaborators outside your specialty. From the beginning, our mission was to bring classical music to new audiences and partner with collaborators outside our field. This has led us to reach out to people outside the performing arts community and befriend individuals in involved with technology, medicine and finance.
Through these partnerships, we've been able to design really cool concerts that involve a variety of art forms. We have performed in venues that we might have never considered otherwise. We recently collaborated, for example, with local organizations to produce a multimedia show with dance that was staged in a four-story dome planetarium.
Such collaborations have exposed Sound ExChange to our partners' audiences. So we end up building our audience base and expanding our network, which is good for business.
2. Invest early on in forming one-on-one connections. One of the cheapest things that you can do as an entrepreneur is to sit down and have coffee with someone else. For me, talking to as many people as I can -- within and outside my community -- has been extremely valuable.
I speak with people not only to gather advice for Sound ExChange but also to learn about what gets them excited. In a way, it's a form of market research. Everyone I talk to shares a different perspective and ultimately, I want to create concerts that connect people who have had diverse experiences and perspectives.
By working outside my community of musicians, I have built relationships that have led to our finding major donors and audience members. Recently, a long-time supporter suggested a grant opportunity I had never before considered. We applied for the grant and ended up winning a $100,000 award.
3. Create an experience, not a product. When Sound ExChange started out, we couldn't afford to make our concerts glamorous: We couldn't play in expensive, hip venues or hire a lighting designer. But we didn't give up on our idea of creating an immersive experience.
We were resourceful and used the assets we had. So at our first concerts we offered audience seating in the orchestra. People could choose to sit right next to a violinist or tuba player. This totally changed the audience experience and cost us nothing. Finding creative ways to use available resources early on is key.
4. Build a social media presence. This one is simple: Use social media all the time. It's free. Sign up for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Vimeo and SoundCloud. All the rumors are true including the maxim, A picture or video is worth a thousand words.
Personally, I find using social media to be completely exhausting and often annoying, but it works. For entrepreneurs who just want great "in the moment" photos, cell phones work great. In our case, we found that arranging for professional photography services gave us better results. And it has made a huge difference. The short videos we've created to promote our concerts are typically 30 seconds to 2 minutes in duration and are the most successful part of our marketing.
We have a social media plan for every event: About a month before a concert we take photos and shoot video of rehearsals and save them on Dropbox. For a week or two before the concert, we post material daily on social media to create a buzz. Ultimately, people want to feel connected -- especially with the music groups they are following. Social media is the most efficient way to bring people closer to whatever you do.