The hottest idea in entrepreneurship education circles for the last year or two has been the “lean launch pad” or “lean canvas” for business model generation as explained in Osterwalder and Pigneur’s book of that name and as evangelized by entrepreneur and business guru Steve Blank. Blank recently wrote an article on the topic for the Harvard Business Review blog that is worth looking at. Blank’s contribution is an iterative concept of “customer development.” I heard Blank speak about this concept recently; my takeaway advice from his talk is, “get out of your room!” [Or, as Blank puts it, “get out of the building!”] Translation: you think you have a great idea, test it in the field with potential customers; listen to them; change your idea; talk to the potential customers again, then launch and then, once launched, continue to get out of your room and listen to the customers.
What can this mean for arts organizations? What can it mean for individual artists? And for teaching arts entrepreneurship? I’ll address the third question first, because I integrated this approach during the semester just ended. In my Foundations of Arts Entrepreneurship class, students, working either individually or in self-selected groups, develop a concept for a hypothetical arts-based venture. I ask them to develop a needs assessment. For the first time this semester, I required they “get out of the room,” and actually test their ideas on the people they think are their potential customers. Those students who identified an audience segment and then surveyed that segment (this is so easy to do with a tool like surveymonkey.com), developed richer, more sophisticated, ideas for their project because they were responding to actual needs and wants from their target audience. One student is launching his music criticism magazine following the surprising finding (surprising to him, that is), that people actually want to read about the music they listen to.
Individual artists can benefit from this approach as well, but in a somewhat different direction. Artists make the work they make, and may not want to alter that work for market reasons. Instead, they can use the customer development model to pivot the market for their work, rather than the work itself. For example, an artist may think their work is best suited for purchase by elderly golfers, but by getting “out of the room” and surveying – and listening to – alternative audience segments, may find a whole new audience for their work, one they may not have considered.
The analog to this for the arts organization, as I see it, is to be truly responsive to the community, to make work not solely for the company, but for the community of which it is part, however that is defined. To do so also requires getting out of the room, be it the board room or the conference room. Mission driven arts organizations should listen to the people that mission is meant to serve. Who are they? What do they need? What do they want? What do they care most about? As arts organizations struggle to discover more sustainable business models, they might look to this iterative customer development model, which is actually designed to aid in the discovery of appropriate business models.
Artists and arts organizations are sometimes reluctant to look to the world of business for advice, but if you want to have an audience, who can argue with a suggestion to “ask the audience?” Get out of your room.