Meet Memphis' creative entrepreneurs

A thriving creative class drives the culture of a city, but how do you build a supportive environment for those creatives to flourish? Here in Memphis, a few creative entrepreneurs have struck out on their own, producing head-turning work and demanding attention for their innovation, originality and business savvy.
Josh Horton makes his own clothes – or rather, he designs them. He’s wearing a red tee with “Memphis” printed across the front, a design that is available from Hieroglyph, the firm he runs from a cavernous room on the second floor of the Emerge Memphis building. Horton hopes to fill the building with other creative entrepreneurs: “designers, storytellers, filmmakers – people who want an office and want to be around other creative people.” What Horton wants to do with the space is, in a nut, what he wants to do with the entire city of Memphis.

The way Horton plans to do this is with the second annual Creative Works Conference: a three-day event running October 1-3, 2015. The conference features sixteen speakers from around the country to discuss the unique needs of creative business owners and freelancers. None of the speakers are local.  “That’s by design," says Horton. “Memphis can be very insular; we tend to pat ourselves on the back a lot.” While the Memphis native is the first to say that the city has a rich story to tell, Horton is adamant that creative businesses need to stay connected with entrepreneurs in other cities and markets, be more open to exchanging ideas, and compete – not just with the best in town – but with the best in the industry.

While there is certainly enough creative talent in the community to fill a room, the question remains whether there is enough to change the center of gravity in a city not known for fostering artistic talents. On a pleasant afternoon in front of the High Cotton Brewery on Madison, Joel Halpern, Co-Founder of the marketing firm Loaded for Bear, answered the question emphatically. “Absolutely! Because there is so much happening here locally now.” And because this wasn’t the case for so long, he sees Memphis as a vast, untapped market for small business owners, especially in creative fields.

For these entrepreneurs, Halpern says, getting started is a matter of relationships and seeing gaps in the market. In those gaps lies the future of the city.

“Hanging our hat on Elvis and barbeque is not the future. We need to discover who we are today. Great cities and creative centers aren’t worried about who they were 20 or 30 years ago,” says Halpern.

In a business that trades in intangibles, this discovery can be tricky. “You are asking clients who talk about numbers and market segments all day to talk about things like, ‘Why do you get out of bed to come to work?’ and getting that answer can be challenging.”

Ben Fant, founder of the marketing firm Farmhouse, says, “The biggest hurdle for a beginning creative entrepreneur is not to allow the client to hijack the creative or the strategy.” Instead, he says, it’s a balancing act based largely on trust. “I used to say, ‘Give me the opportunity to be fired.’ Meaning, if it falls flat, you can give me the axe.’”

Fant describes the Memphis creative market as a pressure cooker, and that his team run “hot” constantly to stay on top of current trends and practices. Fant, Halpern and his partner at Loaded For Bear, Mike Carpenter, all talk of “teaching” or “educating” clients in the creative process. Carpenter calls it guiding them “through the process of why and not what.” Both firms have garnered considerable success and a shelf full of Addys – the advertising industries version of the Oscars – against much larger, more established firms. And while the glories of awards for both creative and client are glamorous – the day-to-day life of the creative is often the same as any other business.

When asked what was the biggest challenge to the creative entrepreneur, Carpenter gave a no-nonsense answer: “The biggest challenges come from more the operational side of things vs. the creative. Doing all the day-to-day operations and balancing everything take so much time away from the actual work. Managing clients, employees, deadlines, and the pipeline all adds up and keeps you away from doing what it is that got you there in the first place.” 

And it is that place, far away from the soaring highs of a great idea that has come together beautifully, that concerns Josh Horton as he thinks about the approaching Creative Works Conference. He wants to address that enormous warp in perception that sidelines a lot of creative entrepreneurs before they really get started. He calls it the “Myth of Creativity.” In short, it is the belief that people in creative businesses sit around drinking coffee or whisky and playing Ping-Pong until a flash of genius inspiration appears. Horton, who cut his teeth in the creative hub of Seattle before returning home to Memphis, thinks it is crucial to dispel that sort of thinking. “One thing I ask speakers is that they be vulnerable. They talk about where they came from, their failures and the projects that didn’t work.”

He wants the Memphis creative community to understand that innovation is a process, not a flash. Most of that process is made up of interaction with others sharing not-quite-good-enough ideas. It is about honing your craft with the best in the industry – not just the best in your market – as well as the more pedestrian realities of any small business owner. A point best summed up in Michael Carpenter’s advice to someone looking to strike out in a creative field: “Work hard and treat every job like your last.”

Read more articles by Richard Murff.

Richard has reported from across Latin America, Iraq, Ukraine, Libya and Clarksdale, MS, to name a few places. He has been editor at the Nautilus Publishing and his work has appeared in The Bitter SouthernerThe American SpectatorDelta Magazine, Sail, The Daily News, Oxford Town, and others.
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