Creative entrepreneurs offer insights into launching a business

Memphis is a vast, in many ways untapped market for small business owners, especially in creative fields. Recent years have seen many local artists eagerly entering the marketplace, ready to use their unique skills and brand of creativity to build a business.
On Dec. 2 High Ground News and EPIcenter presented their second speaker event, Creatives in the City, in their series of community discussions on entrepreneurship in Memphis. A diverse audience of more than 150 people turned out for the event at the Memphis College of Art to hear panelists speak about their individual experiences as creative entrepreneurs in Memphis and share their strategies for success.

"Our goal for the series is to bring Memphians together who may not otherwise intersect and to encourage conversations about the assets, opportunities and gaps we have in our great city," said Leslie Smith, President of the EPIcenter.
Josh Horton, Joel Halpern, Nicole Heckman, Joann Self Selvidge and Edward Bogard
Moderated by Josh Horton of Hieroglyph and Creative Works, the panel featured local creative professionals Joel Halpern of creative firm Loaded for Bear, Edward Bogard of nonprofit shoe design company SoGiv, Nicole Heckman of research, strategy and design firm Little Bird Innovation, and Joann Self Selvidge of production company True Story Pictures.
Why focus on creative entrepreneurs? Creative businesses are critical to our economy with 3.3 million creative workers in this country. Creative jobs have grown from ten to over 30 percent in the last ten years. More than 97 percent of employers say creativity is important regardless if their business falls in the creativity sector. Simply put, creative entrepreneurs are a economic driver.

The panel of creative professionals assembled already navigated the startup process and discussed the unique opportunity that exists locally and the challenges of a creative business.

"As creative people we are naturally better at problem solving because we like to do things differently," said Josh Horton during the conversation.

"People who come from an artistic sensibility tend to have different goals when it comes to starting businesses," added Joann Self Selvidge. "We don't take orders well from above and we can have difficulty giving orders to those below. But we work really well with others in our field, especially working towards a common goal. Art is a problem solving endeavor."
The panelists spoke on the difficulties inherent in starting a creative business, especially focusing on how difficult it can be to market an endeavor that is new and innovative, and the importance in finding the right business partners. Nicole Heckman's Little Bird Innovation is her third business endeavor, but she doesn't consider her first two ventures to be failures. "There really is something to the serial entrepreneur thing. My first businesses were huge learning experiences. Things get easier the more you do it."

Memphis has a history of creative ventures, and that was listed as one of the pros of starting a creative business here now. "Memphis people are the most creative and resourceful people on the planet. We are defined by a collision of cultures that created something new," Selvidge said, citing rock and roll, AutoZone, and the Piggly Wiggly as prime examples of the legacy of innovation.

"Memphis is at a tipping point," added Halpern. "The Memphis vs Errbody attitude is terrible and toxic. Our biggest hold back is our own attitude. We're not in a fight with anybody. The only thing pushing us into a corner is ourselves."

So what makes Memphis a great place for entrepreneurs? The panelists said organizations such as the EPIcenter, Emerge and Start Co. provide support for entrepreneurs, which can be vital. Also, particularly important to creatives and makers, locals are buying into locally made goods and are interested in supporting local business. Add to that the low cost of living and operating and the fact that Memphis' location is logistically a dream in regards to shipping products. The climate is right for new businesses to succeed.

All panelists mentioned a desire to give back to and improve the city. Volunteering their services for the Cossitt Library, Little Bird Innovation spent a week running their whole innovation process to help the library become an indispensable asset to the downtown neighborhood. "When we got there we realized the library doesn't have a children's section. The librarian was upset by this and trying to figure out ways to build a kid's section. We started thinking 'what if we did it?' We ran a prototype and put out a call to action to our networks and within 36 hours we had hundreds and hundreds of books, furniture, learning games, arts and crafts supplies. It was fantastic to make something so meaningful so fast," said Heckman.
As for advice to those considering launching their own business, the panelists observed that success doesn't happen overnight. "Stay encouraged and inspired along the way, even when you are getting hundreds of 'nos,'" urged Bogard.

Planning and dedication are key, as well as finding mentors, listening to others, focusing on execution over optimization, and a willingness to fail. "I hope that the person sitting in the audience who has been dreaming of starting their own thing, heard something that galvanized him or her to action," said Heckman at the conversation's close. "I hope that sharing our challenges reinforced that failure is not bad, even encouraged, so long as you learn quickly and don’t repeat the same mistakes. There really is no better time than now and no better place than here to pursue a passion. Just keep in mind, as said perfectly in one of my favorite quotes, 'The dream is free, the hustle is sold separately.'"
The In the City series will continue in 2016, exploring different sectors of entrepreneurship and how our city can grow these communities of innovators. For more information, please contact Amy Hoyt, Community Engagement for High Ground News.

Read more articles by Amy Hoyt.

Amy Hoyt is High Ground News' Community Engagement Specialist, which suits her love of Memphis and its inhabitants. 
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