When you think about entrepreneurs, the first people who come to mind are the visionaries and the architects. The people who know how to forecast sales, enjoy saying words like EBITDA and seem to have it all together in an organized, logical framework. They're the ones who have laurel upon laurel bestowed for hitting and exceeding targets.
But what about the free spirits, the artists and the ones who march to the beat of a different drum? Is there a place for them in this ordered, measurable, deadline-driven world?
My name is Stephanie, and I'm a creative. In the world of startups and big business, people like me usually find their place in the marketing department (if in a corporate setting at all) where creative elasticity, within boundaries of course, reigns supreme. Rarely do folks like me end up in the C-Suite, but that's my story. How did this happen, you might ask?
My husband David and I co-founded our company when I was in the midst of completing a music degree at university. We met through business. David had a recording studio and I needed to record a sample of my voice. We were both in business, but only one of us was aware of that fact. After we got married, our businesses came together and formed what is now Voices.com. David's role in all this would be that of the Technical Founder, that is, the person who architects, builds a business case and knows the language people speak in banks.
Before David and I met, I never associated myself with being an entrepreneur, albeit I had all the classic markings of one. I just didn't know it at the time. Teaching music lessons, singing at weddings, funerals and leading through music ministry in the church were all part of using my gifts to serve and minister to other people. Although I made money doing these activities, I never thought of myself as being in business, even if other people did. Perhaps it was because I had a narrow perspective of what being in business was.
For me, being in business mostly meant selling products or having something concrete to promote. For as long as I can remember, I'd been singing. The human voice is an amazing tool for communicating and expressing emotion, but it never occurred to me that it in itself was a business tool. My great-grandfather was the model I held up as what a real businessman was. He started, bought and sold companies. His offerings were coal, fuel, cars; all tangible things that you could see and touch. Others in the family sold carpeting and office furniture. What did little old me have to offer but my voice? I thought about that for a long time as I continued to subconsciously compare myself to great-grandpa, his business achievements and how through them, he was able to positively impact the lives of others.
Then it struck me: if being in business meant selling something, that something was going to be my gift of song, and with it, my knowledge and ability to draw people into a shared experience through performance.
Somewhere along the line, I became aware of what a brand was and knew that when I sang at a wedding or a funeral, I needed to be consistent regarding how many rehearsals it would take, how early I arrived at an event, how my voice sounded and the type of gown I wore. When I booked a wedding, I would often reinvest part of what I made into a new dress to sing in or a pair of shoes.
I still remember my very first business card. My mother and grandfather had them printed up. They were a decent weight on manilla-colored card stock with verbiage that pronounced me a Soloist. There was a treble clef (or was it an eighth note?) in the corner. The font was black and its lettering was smooth to the touch. The design came from a selection of templates I could choose from. I remember that the cards cost about as much then as I would have made from singing at one wedding. The cards, though pretty, were just a way for people to get a hold of me so that I could do what I loved best.
All of my work to that point had revolved around the church. As a classically trained singer, this was my niche, even if I failed to realize it then as a niche. To me, it was just an area that I excelled in and enjoyed. While I knew what the word professional meant, I didn't understand that it meant one was in business.
Isn't it amazing how you can be on the right path without knowing it? Far from structured, my version of business was do what you love and if you're really good at it, people will pay you to be part of their special day or child's music education.
I excelled in networking, performance, remembering people and in doing my best to celebrate with those who rejoiced and to weep with those who mourned. It wasn't long before I started booking work outside of my own church and was singing professionally in other churches for weddings and being hired as a soloist at funeral homes. Referrals came through and more and more people knew about me and what I could do. Word of mouth was working well as I had an army of supporters (mom included!) who pitched me at every opportunity they could get if someone needed a wedding singer.
These were all business-related ways of life but I would never have used that language back then. Language is a funny thing. Thinking back to school, I remember raising my hand to give an answer, and the answers I'd give weren't exactly what the teacher was expecting. Looking back, they were good answers but not presented in the language the teacher wanted to hear.
Come to think of it, that sums up the creative personality right there:
You have answers that others don't see that are of immense value. The way you approach something is usually different but insightful nonetheless. Your work happens when it happens and when you get on a roll, there is nothing like it.
The demands of corporate life can be taxing on the creative unless you have found a way to thrive, nay, to dance, through the gauntlet of deadlines, metrics and expectations. You have to do things for yourself first because you want to, and as a result, you'll hit your numbers or exceed quantifiable expectations.
The motivation to create and add value through artistic expression should govern your work. You obtain results because you can't help but create something of relevance and substance. So far as key performance indicators go, seeing a number go up is gravy.
That brings us back to the beginning, doesn't it? There are all kinds of ways of being smart and smart people are able to apply their gifts in unconventional ways. As the creative founder, I just have a different way of contributing to the company's success. My efforts are just as important and necessary.
Think of a business like the human body. The technical founder builds the skeleton and architects the pathways, arteries and critical functions while the creative founder shapes and connects the heart, mind and spirit of the brand. Both need to be present and properly functioning to form a living, breathing business designed to create wealth and change the world.
The next time you begin to doubt yourself or your role in business as a creative, think back to all that you've done to help shape the brand, the company's culture and how it is perceived, all the while remembering that you are equally important and equally necessary to its success.